Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Sonic Colors Review

Ever since the franchise made the leap to 3D, Sonic the Hedgehog has switched from being a beloved series of games to a franchise with a heavily divided fanbase and installments frequently experimenting with different concepts and ideas.  Since the release of Sonic Adventure, the series' identity has been all over the place, with titles involving the blue hedgehog getting transported into the world of Arabian Nights, turned into a werewolf, or wearing bandages on his hands to indicate a change in character design.  Personally, I don't have much history with the games, and going into Sonic Colors, what mattered to me most was whether or not the game was good.

Sonic Colors' story sees Sonic and his friend Tails learning about a massive, interstellar theme park built by Dr. Eggman; therefore, the two head up via an elevator to investigate the place.  According to Eggman, he has built the park as a means to atone for all of the evil deeds he has done in the past, but Sonic doesn't believe him and sure enough, he's right.  The two discover that the theme park is simply a cover-up for Eggman to try and harvest the energy of alien creatures known as Wisps, and their planets are being held by galactic chains, so Sonic and Tails set out to destroy the chains, free the Wisps, and stop Dr. Eggman.

Sonic Colors' narrative is not a tale grandiose in scope; rather, the simplistic story is more in line with the original Genesis games, and for what it is, the tale told here works.  The biggest strength of the narrative lies within its characters; Sonic is an energetic fellow whose hot-headed attitude and snarky remarks make him fun to watch in cutscenes, while Dr. Eggman always believes his schemes will work, a technical mishap or the hedgehog himself always stops him.  The overall tone of the game is very reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, with humorous dialogue and jokes aplenty, though some of the humor can be too childish.

As for gameplay, the game utilizes a mixture of 2D and 3D platforming, with more of an emphasis put on the former while the latter is saved for the on-rails sections of levels.  Sonic himself controls fine, regardless of which perspective; however, minor control issues do detract from the experience at times, but more on that later.  There are a total of seven worlds, five of which are the chained-down planets, and with the exception of the last world, the other ones consist of seven to eight levels.  The primary goal of the game is to free the planets from Eggman's control, and during the last level of the current environment, there is a boss fight.

Levels themselves are quite varied; most of them put an emphasis on 2D or 3D platforming or feature a mixture of both.  Each one involves running and jumping through the level in order to reach the end goal, which is either captured Wisps or a giant, floating ring.  As stated earlier, Sonic controls well but minor issues do make both styles of platforming and issue from time to time.  In mid-air, Sonic can perform a second jump, which works fine most of the time, but on some occasions, he didn't reach the platform or ledge and instead fell down in spite of performing the double jump, which became frustrating the more this problem occurred.  Another small problem involves the sequences where he has to move left and right in order to avoid walls and other obstacles; occasionally, if the control stick is flicked too hard, Sonic may fall off or hit an obstacle that causes him to lose momentum.

Although the level design is largely well-done, some of the levels suffer from uneven pacing.  Most stages are evenly paced out, but some can end almost as soon as the player starts the level; in particular, stages which feature the floating ring as the end goal are the biggest culprit since you never know whether or not they will show up.  One level that sticks out the most involves reaching one end of the stage, pushing a button, and then going back to the halfway point to reach the exit, all within one or two minutes.

New to this game are Wisps, alien creatures that can grant Sonic different abilities depending on the creature's color.  There are eight different types of Wisps, cyan Wisps can turn Sonic into a laser, blue Wisps allow Sonic to unleash a shockwave that turns blue coins into blue blocks and vice versa, and the purple Wisps transform the hedgehog into a berserker beast that grows in size as the creature destroys more objects.  These creatures and their abilities are handled well and give the platforming variety; additionally, many of the levels feature multiple pathways that can only be accessed by a certain Wisp, which in turn, may lead to the discovery of red coins.

Hidden throughout the stages are red coins, by collecting them, the coins unlock stages in Dr. Eggman's Sonic Simulator, which feature stripped-down versions of levels found in the main game.  By collecting all of the coins and beating all of the stages, Super Sonic can be unlocked for usage in the options menu.  Another incentive to replay levels is the grading system; at the end of a stage, players are graded on how long it took to beat the level and how many rings they currently have, and earning an A or S rank can net Sonic extra lives.  On that note, Sonic Colors is not a terribly difficult game; enemies don't put up much resistance and all of the bosses go down rather easily, the real challenge comes from finding the previously mentioned coins or trying to get a high rank.

Visually, Sonic Colors just might be one of the best looking titles on the Wii with colorful and varied worlds large in size, as well as a smooth framerate.  Sound design is also solid, featuring solid performances from the likes of Roger Craig Smith, who voices Sonic, and Mike Pollock, who delivers a fun performance as Dr. Eggman.  However, the highlight of the sound is the soundtrack, which is an eclectic mixture of jazz, shredding guitar riffs, thumping techno, and grand, orchestral music, resulting in very catchy and memorable tunes.

Although the game has its issues, Sonic Colors is nevertheless a fun experience.  The mixture of 2D and 3D platforming is handled well, mostly, and the Wisps and their abilities are used creatively during the stages.  Though the game is fairly short, taking around three to four hours to beat, the multiple pathways, hidden collectibles, and grading system are a strong incentive to go back and replay levels.

Final Score: 7/10

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Revisited: Saints Row: The Third

Two years ago, I made the decision to become a writer; unfortunately, the best laid plans were messed up, largely on my fault.  Delays, cancellations, and poorly written reviews were the biggest issues I dealt with in 2014, it had gotten so bad that I stopped writing altogether because I had to rethink everything I was doing.  Afterwards, the nature of the game changed in 2015, I said no to delays or cancellations and more importantly, no to terribly-written reviews.  This is Revisited, a series in which I take a second look at games that were initially reviewed in 2014, with updated opinions and different scores.  The Revisited reviews will appear over the course of this year, but don't worry, though I may be delving into the past, it won't be something stretched out into later years because it's more important to look forward to what's ahead.  To start this series, I am revisiting one of the first games I reviewed, Saints Row: The Third.

After the events of Saints Row 2, the notorious gang known as the Third Streets Saints has moved away from their times as thieves, murderers, and crooks in order to become a success with the general public; their empire encompasses multiple merchandising successes involving clothes, toys, and even a movie based off of their endeavors.  Despite this, most of the gang members don't forget who they used to be, and relish the chances to relive the old days.  One of those chances sees the leader of the Saints robbing a bank with a few of his companions; unfortunately, the robbery doesn't go as it should have gone, and they end up in jail.  They are released from prison not by their own gang, but by a coalition of rival gangs known as the Syndicate.  On a plane, the leader of the alliance, Philip Loren, explains to them that the bank they robbed was owned by their group, and in exchange for their freedom, the Syndicate gets a large cut of the Saints' profits.  The leader of the Saints says no and a shootout breaks out, causing the members of the gang to abandon the plane and land in Steelport.  After landing, the Saints realize they can't go back to Stilwater due to the presence of the Syndicate, so they decide to take over and relinquish control of Steelport from the Syndicate.

Saints Row: The Third's narrative is one filled with memorable moments but also strewn with parts not as strong.  In particular, the first few hours of the game are the weakest since the opening act is padded out with multiple side activities disguised as story missions.  Afterwards, the story picks up and each mission ups the ante on the over the top scale, for better and for worse.  Different events such as entering a Tron-like world to take down one of the gang leaders or a mission that involves participating in a luchador wrestling match are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the zaniness of the missions.  However, there are times when the story pushes the ridiculousness too far and what we end up with is shock value for the sake of shock value.  At one point, there's a section of the story that deals with the topics of prostitution and brothels, but the way these subjects are handled comes across as stupid and tasteless.

As for the characters, they are a mixed bag; the leader of the Saints, plus the old and new allies of their group, sport fairly interesting personalities, even though most of them are people with bad pasts.  On the other hand, the villains are hit and miss; for every enjoyable bad guy such as the luchador wrestler-turned gang leader Killbane and the hacker Matt Miller, you villains such as Philip, Monica Vogel, and Kia who are bland and generic or in the case of Philip, suffer from a lack of screentime.

On the surface, Saints Row: The Third's gameplay is very similar to other games in the open-world genre; there are story missions to complete, side activities to do, and a city to blow up and make a mess out of, yet what helps this game stand apart from its ilk is the highly anarchic and comedic nature of everything to do.  After playing through the first few story missions, the city of Steelport opens up and with it comes a unique variety of activities.  Scattered around the town are minigames, most of which are fairly bizzare; many of the tasks involve but are not limited to: throwing your character out in traffic to claim fraud money, participating in a game show that's MXC meets the Running Man, and driving a tiger around, making sure it stays happy while evading animal rights activists. 

Completing these activities, as well as completing the story missions and other tasks, rewards the player with money and XP, which is called respect in this game.  Respect previously appeared in Saints Row 2; in that game, it was used as a means to progress through the story, here, once enough respect is earned you level up, unlocking a large slew of upgrades and other perks for purchase in the process.  The amount of upgrades to buy is quite staggering; most of them benefit the main character, but many also benefit the gang itself, so you'll want to check the upgrades section every time you level up to see what is available.

To help fight off the Syndicate and the gangs that encompass the group, there are guns and melee weapons, many of which can be upgraded.  Gunplay itself is fun but lacking in challenge; most of the time, enemies stand out in the open, occasionally taking cover or dodging gunfire, but they are fairly easy to defeat. However, as a means to make things difficult, but not in a good way, large groups of mindless goons are frequently put against the player to fight.  When the gang wanted level is high enough and in scripted events during the story, special enemies will join the fray, but despite taking multiple bullets to kill, they too go down rather easily.  Yet, in spite of the issues, what makes combat entertaining is the chaotic nature of everything happening, which is backed up by weapons that can be upgraded to sport ridiculous attachments including explosive bullets and grenade launchers, as well as through the leader's customizable personality.

Visually, Saints Row: The Third varies wildly in quality.  The visual effects for the guns and explosions look nice and the stylized designs of the characters provide an interesting contrast between the look of the people and the city they inhabit; unfortunately, said city is rather uninteresting in aesthetics and design.  Things improve when the city is lit up at night by all of the billboards and graphics plastered all over the skyscrapers; otherwise, Steelport is generic.  Voice acting is all-around solid and regardless of which voice you choose for your character, he/she gives a good performance.  However, the music, both the radio station songs and the composed tracks, is largely forgettable, with the exception of a few tunes on the radio stations.

Although the game features various issues across the board, Saints Row: The Third is still a solid game.  The story, despite having a weak start and humor that occasionally misses the mark, is enjoyable and frequently hilarious.  The same applies to the gameplay, which is familiar territory for a game of this genre, but the zany and anarchic nature of events make the experience fun to play.

Revisited Score: 8/10
Original Score: 9/10

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cubed3 Exclusive Review: Nitroplus Blasterz: Heroines Infinite Duel (PS4)

In this brand new, late night post; it's a review of a fighting game from a guy who should probably spend more time with the genre; anyhow, the game is Nitroplus Blasterz.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Wolfenstein: The New Order Review

First person shooters have changed significantly since Wolfenstein 3D, the game which laid the groundwork for how FPS's should work and play.  Gone are the days of having to rely on health and armor in order to survive, as is the ability to hold multiple weapons; instead, regenerating health and two-weapon limits have become characteristics of modern-day shooters.  Wolfenstein: The New Order is an attempt to merge the old with the new, utilizing the best elements of older shooters and modern shooters to create something that is both a blast from the past but also one that fits into the landscape of modern FPS's.

Wolfenstein: The New Order's story starts in 1946; series protagonist B.J. Blaskowitz is leading an effort to infiltrate a fortress occupied by the sinister Nazi general Deathshead.  Unfortunately for Blaskowitz and his allies, their efforts are futile as during the attempt, they get captured and one of their own is killed by Deathshead.  The remaining allies, including B.J., escape captivity, but an explosion from the fortress causes shrapnel to fly out and hit B.J., and he goes into a coma.  Fast forward fourteen years and Blaskowitz awakes from his coma, looking like he hasn't aged in the slightest, as Nazis are raiding the medical facility he's being held at.  After escaping, he meets up with one of the nurses from the place, and she and her family inform him that the Nazis now rule the world, and worst of all, they landed on the moon and have a base established there.  Eventually, Blaskowitz teams up with a small group of resistance fighters in an effort to try and take down one of the leaders of Nazi-controlled Earth, Deathshead.

Although the setting and concept of Wolfenstein: The New Order is quite ridiculous, the writers keep a nice balance between realism and fantasy; the concept of a Nazi-controlled world results in creative ideas such as the Third Reich-occupied moon, giant robots, and cities dominated by large skyscrapers and false propaganda.  However, we are reminded that all of society is being controlled by a race of very bad cruel people through the actions of the antagonists and by several moments of shock punctuated throughout, including a level that involves Blaskowitz infiltrating a concentration camp, posing as a prisoner in order to retrieve valuable information.  Another strong aspect of the story are the characters; with the exception of one person, every other character, both good and bad, is fairly memorable.  The resistance fighters B.J. teams up with are all likeable, and they are all fleshed out heavily through various conversations and cutscenes, most of which occur at the resistance headquarters.  On the flip side, the antagonists, including Frau Engel and Deathshead, are quite intimidating and at times, flat-out creepy.

Even though the secondary characters are interesting, the same can't be said for B.J. Blaskowitz, the main protagonist.  He may have been born to kill Nazis, but Blaskowitz is a dull and largely uninteresting character; personality-wise, he feels less like a badass and more like an everyman-type of hero.  An attempt is made to flesh out his character through internal monologues he has throughout the game, but these moments feel out of place and the overly-dramatic narration makes him seem like he is auditioning for a role in Sin City.

As I mentioned briefly in the opening paragraph, Wolfenstein: The New Order's gameplay is a strong mixture of old and modern first person shooter elements.  The game borrows from the old by having a health and armor system, a weapon wheel, and complex levels filled with various secrets and hidden passages; on the other hand, Blaskowitz moves and controls fluidly, he can dual wield weapons, and though health and armor must be collected in order to survive, B.J.'s health will regenerate briefly if it gets dangerously low or if a minor percentage is lost.  This mixture of old and new results in a game that is immensely fun to play and the mechanics are backed up by rock solid shooting, diverse and creative enemies, and a unique skill system.

Combat is furious and intense; B.J. acquires a large selection of firearms including pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and more; most of the weapons he carries in his arsenal can dual wielded for maximum carnage.  Additionally, by exploring the levels, different attachments can be found for the individual guns including silencers for the pistol, a rocket launcher attachment on the assault rifle, and special shotgun shells that can bounce off of walls. These weapons will be used against a varied selection of enemies including standard Nazi soldiers, as well as heavy armored variations, plus robots, mechanized dogs, and enemy officers.  In certain parts of the levels; the player is given the choice of either using stealth or causing a ruckus; if an enemy spots B.J., then the officers will call in reinforcements until they are killed.  Fortunately, the stealth mechanics are solid and the ability to lean in and out of cover by holding L1 on the PS4 is useful when checking your surroundings.  However, while the enemy AI is good, there were a few times during stealth where I killed a bad guys and his buddy did not seem terribly surprised by the man knifing his ally.

To complement the solid shooting, the level design is equally good; many levels feature multiple pathways that may provide an alternate way to the objective or to help Blaskowitz get the drop on enemies.  Exploring the levels will also let you find and collect collectibles and supplies.  An interesting aspect to the New Order's gameplay is the skill tree system; the four different trees: Stealth, Tactical, Assault, and Demolition, feature different skills that are unlocked through a number of different ways, including getting a certain number of kills via a particular weapon or by overcharging B.J.'s heath. This system provides an incentive to mix up your tactics in combat or stealth in order to unlock certain abilities.

On the technical side, Wolfenstein: The New Order looks quite good with solid character models and environments large in scope and size, as well as excellent cinematics.  The audio is also good, with great sound effects for the guns and well done voice performances, a nice touch is that since the characters encompass multiple ethnicities, most of them speak in their native language or with an accent, which was especially surprising with the Nazis and their near constant usage of German.  Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the music, while certain tracks, including the German covers of old songs, are interesting, the remainder of the music is fairly average.

Wolfenstein: The New Order is a solid and entertaining experience; the game takes full advantage of its premise to deliver a unique and engaging story.  Equally engaging is the gameplay, which successfully merges old with new to deliver a frenetic, action-packed experience.

Final Score: 8/10