Saturday, August 17, 2019

Bully: Scholarship Edition (Wii) Review

Rockstar Games has been around for over 20 years, and in that time, the publisher has crafted a slew of diverse and entertaining titles.  Much of their work, though, is intended for mature audiences.  This hasn't stop kids from getting their hands on the likes of Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption, which leads to outcry from parents and media outlets that these games are poisoning the minds of the youth.  Knowing the company's reputation, it's a bit surprising to learn the studio put out a T-rated, open-world adventure in 2006 called Bully, a game which follows a rebellious boy trying to survive life in high school.

Jimmy Hopkins is a rebel.  Having been kicked out of various schools, his mother has enrolled him into Bullworth Academy, a prestige school known for its strict discipline and focus on success.  After meeting the headmaster, Jimmy is introduced to Gary, a student who gives him the lowdown of all the cliques at Bullworth.  Jimmy decides he's going to take over the academy by getting each faction under his control.  After wrangling with the jocks, nerds, and greasers, Jimmy succeeds, but he's unaware Gary is working behind the scenes to turn the cliques against Jimmy, so he can assert his dominance over everyone at Bullworth.

Bully is a far cry from the gangs, criminals, and seedy underbellies that make up any Grand Theft Auto title.  Its focus on adolescence and high-school hijinks make this feel like what would happen if you took The Breakfast Club or Animal House and the people at Rockstar remake it into a game.  Despite the title, Jimmy isn't quite a bully.  He's brash and aggressive, but only because he has a lot on his shoulder.  His mother is re-marrying for the umpteenth time and is more enamored with the husband of the week than looking out for her son.  Jimmy's struggles pale in comparison to what's going on at Bullworth.

Trash cans are a delinquent's best friend.
Jimmy's misadventures double as a way to explore the deconstruction of high-school cliques, showing us that many of the students who identify with a particular group only do it to hide their insecurities.  He realizes their vulnerabilities and exposes each clique leader for who they really are.  The students are relatable, and for as much as the game focuses on growing up and discovering oneself, it still has plenty of laughs.  The adults are set up to be the bad guys, but they have just as many problems as the kids, from alcoholism to fraud to infidelities.  The real villain is Gary, a self-absorbed narcissist who manipulates people to get what he wants.

Bully is an open-world game, and though this was developed and published by Rockstar, this isn't exactly Grand Theft High School.  Over the course of the school year, Jimmy will go to class, complete missions, and explore Bullworth Academy and the surrounding town.  The game is split into chapters, and as the story progresses, more of the world becomes explorable.  There's a day/night cycle reminiscent of the one in Dead Rising, in the sense that time moves at a speedy pace, and the window of opportunity to do certain tasks becomes narrower depending on the time of day.  Also, if Jimmy stays out too late at night, he'll pass out.

Classes include English, Biology, Geography, Shop, and Gym.  Each class consists of a minigame you must beat to pass.  For example, Biology has you dissecting animals with medical equipment a'la Trauma Center, while Art is like Snake, as you have to draw in squares to fill in a painting while avoiding obstacles.  Completing classes rewards Jimmy with new skills, weapons, items, and clothing options.  You can skip class if you want to go do a mission or goof off, but hall monitors, and police patrol the campus and town.  If you're spotted playing hooky, getting into fights, or causing vandalism, the alert meter goes up, drawing any nearby authorities to your area.  Evading them can be done by getting the heck out of dodge, or by hiding in a dumpster or locker, provided they don't see you when you do this.

He's got a slingshot and he's not afraid to use it.
Taking control of each clique requires Jimmy to partake in a series of missions.  As your affiliation with one group goes up, it might lower with others.  The lower the percentage, the likelier it is you'll be attacked.  Whenever Jimmy finds himself in a scuffle, you can use fisticuffs to lay the smackdown.  Flicking the Wii remote and nunchuck to unleash punches, kicks, and grapplers works well enough.  You can also use environmental objects and a bag of tricks to keep them at bay.  The arsenal includes bags of marbles, eggs, a slingshot, and later on a fireworks launcher and potato gun.  New fighting techniques can be learned by going to gym class or finding transistor radios for a homeless war veteran who lives behind the school.

Bully is loaded with lots to do, but not to the point it seems impossible you'll see everything, as the game can take 12 to 14 hours to beat.  Besides the school, there's also the town, which has shops to purchase stuff from, challenges and oddjobs, as well as a theme park filled with rides and other attractions.  Jimmy has a skateboard on him for easy transportation, with bikes and mopeds becoming available later on.  If you're in a rush, use the bus stops to get back to school with ease.  A conversation system lets Jimmy interact with students and adults positively or negatively.  It's limited in scope, but it's fun.  Certain classes like English and Art grant Jimmy perks that increase his odds of talking his way out of a fight or getting lucky with one of the females.

Bully was re-released onto the Xbox 360 and the Nintendo Wii as Bully: Scholarship Edition.  This version features new content, enhanced visuals for the 360 version, and motion controls for the Wii port.  I played Bully on the Wii, and though the graphics are more on par with its original PS2 release, it's still a darn good game.  The only caveat is the control scheme.  The controls are both intuitive and cumbersome.  The limited number of buttons on a Wii controller leads to aa lot of actions requiring button combinations or gestures, many of which feel strange to pull off.  The flip side is that the pointer is used to great effect.  Aiming the slingshot or camera is a bit sensitive, but the likes of Biology and Music are easier to do since those involve the pointer or motion controls.  Plus, beating up folks is more satisfying with gestures than button-pressing.

Jimmy gets all the ladies.
As stated before, the Wii version of Bully doesn't look too different from its PS2 predecessor.  The models and lighting are a tad sharper, but not by much, and there's some pop-in and draw distance issues.  What it lacks in technical prowess it makes up for with how lively the world is.  You'll notice students making their way to class, talking with one another, or pulling pranks and getting into fights.  Little details like that make Bullworth Academy seem more alive and less like an empty playground.  Voice acting is impressive and the dialogue sounds like stuff kids and teens would say, and a lot of it is hilarious.  The music is interesting, as it's equal parts whimsical and funky.

Some will say any of the Grand Theft Auto games or Red Dead Redemption is their favorite Rockstar title, but for me, it's Bully.  I found myself more invested in the world of Bullworth than I did Liberty City or Vice City.  It's probably because this is a game about going to high school and figuring out your place in the world.  Jimmy Hopkins might seem like a rebel, but that's far from the case.  The gameplay adheres to the sandbox formula, but the setting leads to interesting twists on many of the genre conventions.

Completing missions and classes is entertaining, which is weird to say for a game about high school, but is the Wii version the way to go?  If you want the smoothest experience, play the 360 port.  Bully on Wii is still good, but you will have to put up with some wonky controls and iffy aiming, but it doesn't ruin the experience.  This is probably the best open-world game on the Wii, which, given the competition it has with other sandbox titles on the system, doesn't say much.  Either way, Bully rules and it's understandable why it's garnered such a devoted following since it came out.


Monday, August 5, 2019

Wolfenstein Youngblood (PS4) Review

2017's Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is a polarizing experience.  After Wolfenstein: The New Order revitalized the granddaddy of shooting games, the sequel attempted to up the ante with more action, a bigger focus on storytelling, and an aim to dive deeper into the psyche of Nazi killer B.J. Blaskowitz.  The end result was a mixed bag.  The New Colossus ends with B.J. planting an axe into Frau Engel, the fearsome Nazi general who made a life a living hell for not just him, but all of America.  Her death signaled a call to revolution, and in Wolfenstein Youngblood, the country is free from the Third Reich's grasp.  However, B.J. Blaskowitz has disappeared, and the only people who can find him are his twin daughters.

20 years have passed since the events of the previous entry.  B.J. and Anya are older, but they take solace knowing they are able to raise their children in a society free from the Nazi's influence.  They train their kids, Jessica and Sophia, to be fighters like they were.  Thing are going well for the family when B.J. unexpectedly disappears.  Anya has no idea where he went, but the sisters think something is up.  With the help of their friend Abby, the three decipher B.J's last known location, Paris, which is still controlled by the Nazis.  Jessica, Sophia, and Abby steal a VTOL aircraft and set off for France to find him.

Unlike the New Order and the New Colossus, story takes a backseat in Youngblood.  After a lengthy introduction, the focus is on gameplay and gameplay alone, and only during the final act does the story come back.  Those who were turned off by the last game's stronger focus on narrative will appreciate the scaled-back approach of the plot, though its reduction is a double-edged sword.  There's nothing to get in the way of the action, but in the back of your mind you wonder when the plot will resume, and when it does, it feels sudden.  It's also towards the end that the villain, a cliche Nazi general, shows up to serve as the final boss.  The ending is the most interesting part, as it hints at where this rebooted series will go come the next entry.

No, this isn't a shotgun that shoots ketchup.
While the story and antagonist are lacking, the Blaskowitz sisters aren't half bad.  Youngblood is considerably more lighthearted than its predecessor, and the budding personality the twins have keeps the game energetic and lively.  For example, when they enter an elevator, the game cuts to the security camera to show the two goofing off.  The emphasis on adventure and fun means Youngblood has a consistent tone, unlike the New Colossus where it flip-flopped between drama and comedy.

If you've played any of the Wolfenstein games from the New Order and onwards, the gameplay is incredibly familiar, but some tweaks have been applied to shake up the routine.  To figure out B.J.'s location, Jess and Soph team up with the French resistance to disable three towers dotted around Paris.  These towers are heavily guarded, and since the girls aren't as combat savvy as their father, they need experience.  This explanation is how the developers are able to weave in the experience system.  Killing enemies, finding collectibles, and completing missions rewards you with experience.  Earn enough, and you level up and earn a skill point.

Three skill trees allow the player to spend skill points to increase health and armor or unlock the ability to dual-wield and pick up heavy weapons.  If you're hoping Jess and Soph have their own unique traits, they don't, as they share the same loadouts and powers.  Before the game starts, you can choose to either use cloak or crush, but can still unlock the other ability you didn't choose.  Cloak renders the sisters invisible for a brief period of time, while crush lets them charge into obstacles and turn Nazis into bloody messes.  At the end of the game, you unlock a third ability that allows them to grab bullets and grenades in mid-air to throw them back at opponents.

Let me AXE you a question!!
Youngblood's RPG elements are competent, and like Borderlands, enemies are more susceptible to certain types of weapons than others.  On that note, the weapon selection is diverse, and by collecting coins, you can upgrade different components of each gun to improve their usefulness.  Instead of progressing through the campaign linearly, the twins accept missions from resistance members in the underground catacombs.  From there, they can travel to a handful of locations around Paris to accomplish whatever tasks need to be done.  The semi-open world calls to mind the 2009 Wolfenstein game, which used a similar concept.  Traveling back and forth between the lair and outside is a little tedious, but it also increases your familiarity with the layout of each area.

To be an effective Nazi killer requires teamwork, and whether you're playing solo or with a friend, the game emphasizes cooperation.  After all, giant metal doors can't open themselves.  If you choose to play by yourself, the AI controlling the other sister is fine.  It's capable of holding its own against soldiers and mechs and it saved my life on more than one occasion, but there are also plenty of times where it fails to keep up with you and will instead warp to your current location.

Other problems, like the lack of checkpoints, are more puzzling than annoying.  The game autosaves all the time, but if you die, you'll have to start at the beginning of the level.  This can be especially frustrating during the tower missions since those are long, treacherous affairs that culminate in a challenging boss fight, and dying near the end and going back to square one is not fun at all.  The catch is that the game uses a life system.  Jess and Soph share lives.  If either of them goes down, they can revive the other, or use a life.  Once, they're all gone, though, it's game over.  It's an interesting concept, but checkpoints and manual saves would have been a lot better.

In a first for the series, Youngblood features micro-transactions.  Before you raise your pitchforks in anger, let's clarify some details.  First, they only apply to gold bars, which are used to purchase costumes and a couple of boosters that increase health and ammo drops for a limited time.  As for silver coins, those are found in-game and are used to upgrade weapons and unlock special perks you can pull off during combat.  In short, the micro-transactions don't affect the gameplay itself, and never once did I bother with purchasing gold.  Is it unfortunate they're present?  Yes, but it's not like the developers are holding all the gear behind a paywall, unlike a recent remake of a popular kart racer.

It takes to two to make it right, it takes two to defeat giant robots.
Wolfenstein Youngblood is on par with the New Colossus regarding graphical quality.  Character models and locales look excellent, and the gunplay is visceral and satisfying.  Because the game is set in 1980, expect plenty of callbacks to the decade via its visual style and sound design.  In keeping with the times, collectibles include floppy discs, VHS boxes, and cassette tapes, plus the soundtrack is synth-heavy.  However, I encountered numerous technical issues.

On the opening level, the audio phased in and out, and during the second tower mission, I experienced a lot of graphical flickering, resulting in muddy textures and crazy lighting, but everything stabilized after crossing over into a different zone halfway through the stage.  Sound design is also top-notch.  Guns sound meaty and the voice acting is good.   Jess and Soph's dialogue are amusing enough, though they tend to frequently repeat a handful of one-liners in combat.

Wolfenstein Youngblood is a fun spin-off that offers more of the same Nazi-killing action people have come to expect, except this time the mayhem can be accomplished with a partner.  The story is paper-thin and doesn't do anything interesting until the finale, if only then to hint at what's to come.  On the other hand, the gameplay is satisfying, and the RPG elements put a spin on familiar mechanics.  Taking on bad guys with an assorted arsenal of weapons and powers is fun, and the sandbox nature of levels means there are a lot of paths to take to reach an objective or bypass potentially difficult firefights.  It's iterative but satisfying to play.