Thursday, July 28, 2011

The 3DS Price Drop - Is This a Good or Bad Thing?

The Nintendo 3DS represents a mixed bag of emotions for me. On one hand, I've been a Nintendo fan for well over 20 years and have seemingly bought every generation of every console they ever released. The Wii was a slam dunk for Nintendo because of it's then-innovative motion control scheme and it seemed that they were onto another winner with the 3DS. As the launch drew near and more details emerged, the palpable excitement from fans and the innovations from Nintendo nearly pushed me to getting one. What held me back? The lackluster launch titles. The games we were tantalized with prior to launch such as Kid Icarus, Starfox, Super Mario 3D, and of course, an enhanced port of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were not ready at launch and we were instead left with a few decent but more than a few mediocre titles At $249.99, the price was too much to pay for a system that held few interesting games. 

Some have written the 3DS off as a failure despite the fact that it has sold well, albeit below projections, but the news that greeted me today is something that is likely to put the 3DS in a very positive or very negative depending on which way the winds of consumer confidence blow. The price will be reduced from $249.99 to $169.99, a cut almost unheard this early in a systems life. On the positive side, those who were jilted by the high price of the system at launch will have fewer reasons to hold out, plus let's not forget the fact that the 3D technology and the system itself is still good. The 3D effect is not used to it's full potential yet, however it's still early and we often don't see the truly ground-breaking games come out until well into a system's life cycle. Simply put, this will shift more units, as it historically has with all gaming platforms that have experienced price cuts. Additionally, the recent E3 announcements have shown that Nintendo is putting their full support behind the console and finally releasing the games that Nintendo fans have been craving. The Nintendo haters who were hoping the 3DS would be another repeat of the follies of the Virtual Boy are likely to be disappointed. The other positive side is the likelihood that Nintendo is feeling the pressure from the upcoming Sony Vita which will also retail for $249.99 and boast a substantial number of features that gamers will likely flock to. The price drop represents a move by Nintendo to secure as much of the handheld market while they are the only kids in town. Historically, Nintendo has dominated the handheld market despite a strong play by Sony with the PSP, however times have changed and Nintendo knows it.

The downside of this price reduction exists for people who bought the 3DS at full price and who are, understandably, hurt to see it go down in price that quickly. Every new technology always has the early adopters and this is one of the pitfalls they face, especially when we all know that the prices will eventually drop and the technology will improve. Purchasing a console at launch means you're getting the most expensive, least feature-packed and sometimes the buggiest iteration of the system. Subsequent generations usually iron out these issues and offer greater value, so there are benefits to waiting. However, I also understand wanting to be first out of the gate and the excitement that comes with that. So yes, a price drop this early is a bad thing for some people, however Nintendo has softened the blow by offering 3DS owners 20 downloadable games from the eShop if they own the system prior to August 12, 2011, so all is not lost for the early adopters. The other potential downside comes from consumer confidence in a product that has seen a dramatic price cut after only a few months on the market. In most cases, and this is at least partially true for Nintendo, this is a sign that the system is not selling well and the company is verging on selling their stock at a loss. This is something that is not sustainable and could, in the eyes of some, be a sign of the 3DS being a sinking ship. If Nintendo is not hitting their target profits, who should they continue to support it? This perception might hurt 3DS sales somewhat, but it remains to be seen.

So will I be purchasing a 3DS with the newly reduced price. In short, not now but possibly later. I have never purchased a system during the first run and this is a move that has always paid off. I bought the DS Lite, a big improvement over the clunky original, and I have an Xbox 360 that is far less likely than the launch models to get the dreaded Red Ring of Death. I'm content to wait and my hope is that the second generation of the 3DS will see improvements in how DS games look, the placement of the stylus pen and the battery life, which is the biggest bone of contention for many 3DS owners and it's a problem that almost always improves with newer generations. Added to which, by that time, better games will be out and I'll have a vast library of quality titles to choose from. $169.99 is a good price, but I want to wait to see if these improvements will come.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Alice: Madness Returns (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

American McGee’s Alice was a personal favorite of mine back in 2000, presenting us with a visually stunning and wonderfully twisted interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland. Following over a decade after the original game’s release, Alice: Madness Returns captures the same demented vision of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole and brings it into the current console generation, the original having only been available on PC and Mac. Does it succeed at doing justice to the source material, or is this a franchise that should have been left to languish in the depths? Read on to find out.

Alice, the titular character from the original game, returns to us over a decade after the original game ended with her being released from an insane asylum. We quickly discover that the years since have not been kind to her or her fragile psyche, having endued the death of her family in a house fire and being rendered an orphan in Victorian London with her troubled past still haunting her. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that her past is not so easy to purge and Alice slips from the bleak reality she lives in back into the once-fantastical world of Wonderland, only to find it in shambles from the last time she visited. In order to save herself, her sanity and the wonderland of her own creation, she must traverse the nightmarish landscapes in an effort to purge the monsters that inhabit it. The cast of characters that anyone familiar with Lewis Carroll’s story will know and love returns, albeit as twisted caricatures in a demented pantomime that provides some of the most amusing and also the creepiest imagery in the game. The Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter are unsettle to say the least, but they also provide some of the best dialogue in the game. Throughout the lengthy single player-only experience, Alice slips back and forth between the bleak, Dickensian reality of her life in London and her imagination in Wonderland, and while the story strays from the original source material, it still remains true to the style and spirit of the previous game. 

At it’s core, Alice: Madness Returns is a simple third person platformer that is elevated above the ordinary by its creepy sense of style. The fantastical wastelands of Wonderland give way to some immersive platforming in which you traverse industrial ruins, frozen tundra, underwater shipwrecks and a floating world made of playing cards. Alice herself is equipped with the ability to double-jump and float, which is key to getting across the wide chasms that litter the landscape. The controls are smooth and intuitive, and despite some control and camera hiccups that will sometimes have you falling to your death, the platforming is not overly challenging and you will easily find you next objective without effort. The combat is easily one of the main strengths of Alice: Madness Returns and it is a welcome relief from the typical button-mashing that usually accompanies games like this. The enemies are a wonderfully macabre mix of goo-dripping ghouls, demonic teapots, flying bolts and demented fish that spew ice, among many others. Throughout the game, various weapons befitting the Wonderland setting are made available to you, including the classic butcher knife, a teapot, detonating bombs, a pepper grinder that is the games equivalent to a gun and a “hobby horse” which acts as a sledgehammer of sorts. All of these weapons are upgraded by cashing in teeth from your slain enemies, which functions as the game’s currency. Since different weapons achieve different results, figuring out which weapon to use on which enemy is part of the thrill of combat and it keeps the tedium of button-mashing at bay. Since several different enemies can surround you in a single fight, you will often use a combination of weapons and doing so is essential to surviving the sometimes chaotic battles.

Despite the attention paid to making the environments as outlandish as possible, Alice: Madness Returns is a very linear game that allows for a limited but satisfying amount of exploration in which you can uncover hidden rooms that house various collectables, including memory items, bottles, and hidden rooms where you undertake challenges in order to obtain vials of red paint that your life meter. Your weapons can be used to blow down rubble and Alice also has the ability to shrink herself to fit through small keyholes that lead to hidden rooms. Shrinking yourself also turns the environment purple and exposes hidden writing that will direct you to secrets and collectables. As an added surrealist touch, the levels are also littered with flying pig snouts that you must blast with your pepper grinder in order to expose other hidden areas in the environment. Each level has a determined number of hidden items and pig snouts and collecting them all fleshes out the story and also contributes to getting achievements and trophies, so there is plenty of incentive to replay completed levels to find all of the secrets. Despite the collectables and hidden areas, it is impossible to stray far from the beaten path and there is very little guess work in figuring out where to go next, so those hoping for a more challenging open world experience might be disappointed. However, Alice is a game that requires linearity in order to keep the story moving, so this is very forgivable.

From a graphical standpoint, Alice: Madness Returns is a stylish game that makes great use of the story elements to give you a unique and twisted gameplay experience. The environments are characters unto themselves and you will find yourself quickly immersed and sometimes entranced by your surroundings. Aside from the creative environments, the game lacks polish in other areas such as the cutscenes in which Alice looks like a lifeless doll, and in the numerous graphical bugs and camera issues I encountered. Less concerning are things like screen tearing and draw distance issues, which happen too often to go unnoticed but are ultimately forgivable. However, there are a number of game-ending bugs, including the game not registering that I completed a level objective, teleporting enemies, disappearing platforms, and a few occasions where glitches caused Alice to get stuck in or below the level geometry and thus causing the player to restart from the previous checkpoint. The other issue is the camera, which can be your worst enemy during hectic fights and tight platforming sections. There were occasions where the camera zoomed away from the enemies that were attacking, leading to some cheap hits, and other times where the camera went spastic and caused a missed jump and ultimately death. These instances happened a little too often and will definitely prove annoying and frustrating, so let’s hope that subsequent patches will fix these issues. 

Since American McGee’s Alice never saw a console release, the powers that be at EA have included the original game as part of the Online Pass feature, so those purchasing this title new will be given a code to download it for free on Xbox Live and the Playstaton Network. For those purchasing Alice: Madness Returns used, you do have the option to download the game from the online store for a fairly reasonable price and this is highly recommended. Even by today’s standards, the original game holds up very well despite having rather fidgety controls and not being remastered. The game will look and feel dated, but those who played it back in the early 2000’s, or those who loved Alice: Madness Returns and want to see where it all started, will definitely want to check this out. For achievement/trophy hunters, note that this game is required if you want to achieve 100% completion as there are specific achievements and trophies designated for it.

Alice: Madness Returns is a game that the developers clearly had a great time making and it shows in the wildly inventive environments, the twisted humor and blood-drenched battles. In short, this is definitely not the story as Lewis Carrol intended but it gives mature gamers an interesting twist on an old tale, so both fans of the story and those new to it will have a lot of fun. Take away the style and you have a standard platformer that provides no innovation on an old formula, and the plethora of glitches and camera issues did prove problematic on a regular basis. Despite these issues, Alice: Madness Returns does more right than wrong and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that lasts for a solid ten hours. Those who take the plunge down the rabbit hole are unlikely to be disappointed.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Review: F.E.A.R. 3 (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)


The F.E.A.R. games have always represented an anomaly in the first-person shooter genre; combining elements of shooters and survival horror, they are not as cinematic or polished as the bigger name titles but they stand out despite their shortcomings. For me personally, the second F.E.A.R. game really hit the right note, creating a wonderfully creepy story-driven experience and improving on the deficiencies of the first game. It is one of my favorite FPS titles of this generation and my expectations of the third installment were what you might call “cautiously high” - I loved the previous installment and was hoping to be blown away, but I was also aware that high expectations breed disappointment. The results of the finished product are a mixed bag, but F.E.A.R. 3 as a whole is a solid shooter that delivers in most areas and predictably stumbles in others. Is it worth you time and money? Read further to help guide your decision.

The plot in F.E.A.R. 3 is pushed forward partly by linear game design and partly by atmosphere. Picking up after the events of the second game, you assume the role of Point Man, the protagonist of the first F.E.A.R. title, as you take on the responsibility of stopping Alma, the ghostly female antagonist from the two previous titles, from having a baby conceived (forcefully) by the main character in the second game. Along for the ride is Point Man’s demented brother Paxton Fettel, another returning character from the original F.E.A.R. and one that fans had assumed was dead. As convoluted as the plot sounds, the objective of the game is fairly simple - blast your way through eight levels and ultimately put an end to Alma’s pregnancy before her offspring is born and even more hell breaks loose. The story also represents a full circle for the two protagonists, Point Man and Fettel, as they both confront their troubled pasts and form an alliance to achieve a common goal. On the whole, the story is effective in making you feel like you’re accomplishing something bigger than just blasting through waves of enemies, though don’t expect any big surprises or revelations that you won’t see coming a mile away. 

During your first playthrough, you are limited to playing as Point Man and he controls exactly like a gun-toting protagonist in an FPS game should. Throughout the levels, several different weapons are made available to you, ranging from the usual pistols, shotguns, machine guns and sniper rifles, to more creative weapons of destruction like the Penetrator, which nails enemies to the wall, and a beam gun that cooks your enemies where they stand. Also returning is Point Man’s ability to slow down time and use this to line up shots that would otherwise be difficult to make, which is a life saver in the more hectic battles. The gunplay controls are intuitive, responsive and easy for any genre veteran to pick up in a heartbeat. As each level in the game is unlocked, you are given the ability to play through it again as Fettel and he represents the more interesting addition to the series. He is unable to use guns or weapons of any description, however he has spectral powers that allow him to suspend and shock enemies, shot bolts of electricity and take possession of enemy bodies and send them after the others. In addition to the gunplay prowess of Point Man and the demonic powers of Fettel, there are a few instances where you are given the opportunity to take control of a Mech Suit and mow down waves of enemies with relative ease. The levels and the story play out the same regardless of who you play as, but the addition of Fettel and his unique abilities does provide more depth and replay value that would otherwise be found here.

As a single player experience, F.E.A.R. 3 is a linear corridor shooter that provides about seven hours of gameplay, possibly more if you take the time to search for collectables. The game does a good job of guiding you down a narrow path, with doors closing behind you and previously visited areas being rendered inaccessible as you are pushed from one checkpoint to the next. The downside to this is that the game feels shorter and more rushed than its predecessor, leaving you with less time to soak up the atmosphere and really get immersed. Another aspect to the game that feels overly familiar is the “duck and cover” gunplay that will have you spending most of the game hiding behind cover and popping out to short your enemies, though some of the cover is destructible and you will be left scrambling to find another place to hide before you die in a hail of bullets. As strong as the story ideas are, they ultimately get lost due to the overly quick pacing that the story is told in. F.E.A.R. 2 was a slow cooker and you really got into it, however I didn’t get that same feeling with the third installment. This is not to say that it’s bad, but the pacing makes this feel more like a standard military shooter than a proper story-driven experience.

The Multiplayer is divided into co-op and competitive game modes. On the competitive side, you are given four different options that are a combination of familiar team-based deathmatch and survival matches, however there are some unique twists here. The Soul King mode is a deathmatch between soldiers and cultists, and Contractions acts as a “king of the hill” mode of sorts, with you and your team holding a position and fighting off waves of enemies for as long as you can. The two unique additions are Fucking Run, which requires you to escape an enveloping cloud of fog while fighting off hordes of enemies, and Soul Survivor requires one player to possess the bodies of three other players. The latter two are a refreshing twist on the tired multiplayer we have come to expect from FPS titles and will hopefully be enough to keep fans playing. On the co-op front, you are given the option to play through the entire game with a friend, one person playing Point Man and the other playing Fettel. This is the best way to experience F.E.A.R. 3 since combining the abilities of both characters makes for some wickedly fun and immersive gameplay. Whether you are playing solo, co-op or competitive multiplayer, F.E.A.R. 3’s overarching point system and ranking levels will apply seamlessly. Throughout the game, you are awarded points for completing challenges ranging from menial, such as picking up ammunition or using cover for specified periods of time, to more complex like achieving a certain number of headshots or using certain types of weapons. As you accumulate points, you rank up and your level applies across all gameplay modes. The point system is derivative of most online multiplayer shooters, but it’s nice to see it benefit players in other game modes as well.

The graphics in F.E.A.R. 3 may lack the polish and realism of other FPS titles this generation, however the cornerstone of the F.E.A.R. series has always been an emphasis on atmosphere and you can expect to be treated to some wonderfully creepy ambience here. The corridors are drenched with dripping blood, littered with dead bodies and filled with dark corners that will keep you in a constant state of unease. The enemies range from garden variety soldiers to fast-running “cultist” zombies and demonic creatures that will appear out of nowhere. The design and animation in both the levels and the enemies may be dated and unimpressive, but the game’s atmosphere and creepiness more than makes up for this. As in the two previous installments, you encounter some random hallucinations and apparitions of Alma, both of which are punctuated by loud shrieks and unsettling changes in the music score which provide many of the “shock” moments in the game.

In the end, F.E.A.R. 3 is a solid FPS experience that combines the creepy, blood-drenched atmosphere of Silent Hill with the solid FPS mechanics of Half-Life. The rushed story, point system and emphasis on large gun battles do leave the impression of this being more of a military shooter with supernatural elements, however to write it off completely on that basis would be doing it a disservice. The look and feel of the game may be dated, but there is still plenty of fun to be had here.The brief but fun single player experience, the wonderfully robust co-op and unique twists on conventional multiplayer modes really make this game worth checking out for any FPS fan.

Rating: 8 out of 10