Monday, October 24, 2011

Retro Review: Super Castlevania IV (Super Nintendo)

The original Castlevania series has long been regarded as one of the strongest franchises in Nintendo's cannon and deservedly so; beautifully designed platforming action, a gothic horror setting and perhaps the best balance of challenge and reward ever seen in a video game series. The Castlevania games have since strayed from their platforming roots and settled into an RPG format that fans have grown to love, however the games from the 8-Bit and 16-Bit Nintendo era still reign supreme in my mind. From the time I played the first game in 1988 to that pivotal moment when Castlevania III: Dracula's Curse won my heart in 1989, these games were the benchmark of my gaming youth and the arrival of a fourth installment on the new 16-Bit Super Nintendo was something I eagerly anticipated. Needless to say, I was not disappointed and Super Castlevania IV remains not only one of the best games on the SNES, but one of the best platforming games of all time.

Super Castlevania IV landed under my Christmas tree, along with the console itself, back in 1992 and I remember the feeling of euphoria when I unwrapped this beast and saw the screenshots on the back of the box. Keep in mind that this was an era before the internet, so there were no gameplay videos we could turn to and we had to rely on small pictures of the gameplay on the box and in video game magazines. Playing a game sight-unseen was part of the risk and reward that we had to contend with, but I was confident that I would love Castlevania IV without having even laid eyes on the gameplay. When everything was hooked up and I started the game, I was immediately blown away by the graphics and the music...and this was just on the title screen. For me, this was the moment of revelation when I saw how the 8-bit era transitioned to 16-bit and just what the new technology was capable of. Given that I was such a fan of the first and third Castlevania games on the NES, being able to play a new installment with enhanced graphics and sound completely blew my 12 year old mind.

The plot essentially follows the same thread as the first game on the NES, with Simon Belmont on a quest to kill Dracula, though the world in which you play has expanded somewhat. Whereas the original game took place entirely in Dracula's castle, part IV incorporates additional stages that take place outside the castle and add some much needed variety. Unlike Castlevania III, which allowed you to play as four alternate characters and choose branching paths, part IV is a return to the linear levels and single character experience of the first title. This is not a bad thing since, like any platformer, the gameplay ultimately determines the experience and this is where Super Castlevania IV really excels. The same platforming elements of the NES titles is still intact, however many welcome refinements have been made to allow for better controls and a more even difficulty level. This incarnation of Simon Belmont is easily the most agile with his whip and is able to shoot in eight different directions, allowing you to whip diagonally to take out enemies that would have previously killed you. Every aspect of Super Castlevania IV feels like a refinement over the previous entries in the series.

This precision in the controls also extends to the jumping and platforming, allowing you to move mid-air and adjust your jumps to prevent the cheap deaths and instant kills that were the bane of my existence in previous Castlevania games. The difficulty has also been tempered to the point where it offers a challenge without feeling punishing or cheap, though you will still die often but due more to your own error than faulty design. The additional buttons on the SNES controller are also put to good use, with an intuitive button layout and the additional weapon being mapped to the right shoulder button. Anyone who has played the game knows how comfortable the controls feel and the game is still easy to pick up and remember, even if it's been years since the last time you've played. I own both versions of this game, the original SNES cartridge and the downloadable ROM on the Wii Virtual Console, and both look and play identical, though the Wii Classic Controller is a requirement if you want to play the latter version.

Discussing graphics and sound in a game that is 20 may seem pointless given how far gaming technology has come since, however it cannot be overstated how great this game looked at the time of release. Super Castlevania IV was not a launch title for the SNES, however it was released early in the system's life-cycle and it was one of the games that really showed what it was capable of. The enhanced graphics showcased a leap forward in character animation and environmental design, with lush detail and beautifully rendered scenery proving a treat for the eyes. The stereo-quality sound was also a highlight and it gave a boost to every aspect of the game, from the sound that your character and the enemies make to the beautiful music that plays throughout the levels. The music itself is a mix of new tunes and re-imagined classics from the first three Castlevania titles, making this the perfect fan-service game for those who love the old school entries in the series. As a 12 year old who was weaned on the Atari 2600, Colecovision and the NES, the impact this game had on me cannot be overstated. It was a great feeling of revelation and giddy excitement that has rarely happened since.

The Castlevania series has taken on a new life since leaving the 16-bit era, including the very good (but somewhat overrated) Symphony of the Night on the Sony Playstation and the downright abysmal 3D games on the Nintendo 64. Subsequent releases on more current generation consoles have pushed the series away from the standard "A to B" platforming of the early games, to the point where only remnants in the music and the occasional character cameo remain. For me, the original NES and SNES Castlevania games are what the series is all about and part IV is where it hit the apex, making one of the most enduring and memorable games of that era. I have fond memories of playing through it several times over and I still have fun whenever I go back to it. If you have never played this game, consider it a high recommendation from an old school gamer. The cartridge is easily obtainable and the downloadable version on the Wii Virtual Console is well worth the small investment, so there is really no reason not to give this a try. A great time for anyone with even a passing interest in the genre or retro games is guaranteed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Games In The Pipeline - My Fall and Winter 2011 Video Game Buying Guide

For most gamers, the fall is an exciting time for new releases, one in which we see new titles coupled with returning favorites. As was the problem in previous years, deciding which games to get and which ones to pass on is rather difficult, especially in a year like 2011 in which so many A-list tiles are coming out in a relatively short period of time. Since I lack the funds and the time to play all of the games available, I have had to make a list that separates the "need to haves" from the "nice to haves". This is not meant to be an extensive list of all the new releases come out between now and the end of the year, but rather a list of the ones I am anticipating getting on release and which ones I am likely to hold off on getting until the price drops. As with any list of this kind, priority given to certain titles or titles completely omitted might offend your gamer sensibilities. Keep in mind that this is based solely on my opinion and personal taste. Anyway, here goes... 

The "Definitely Must-Buy" Titles

Below is a list of games that I definitely plan on picking up, either on release day or very shortly thereafter. Some of the titles listed have already been released and they are on my radar, while others will hit the shelves before the end of the year. To say that it's going to be a busy fall gaming-wise is perhaps an understatement.

Gears of War 3

I was not previously a fan of the Gears of War series, however my recent experiences with playing cooperatively have succeeded in winning me over. Mindless bloody action and frantic cooperative and competitive gameplay is what makes the Gears series so appealing to people, and the third installment offers a richer story that has so far been leaving fans very satisfied. My main motivation in getting this game is the numerous people online who I have to play with, since this is currently the game everyone is playing. I am also hearing that it's the best game in the series, so it's perfect for a recently-converted fan lie me to delve into.

Space Marine

I admittedly know nothing about the Warhammer 40,000 universe,  however the gameplay footage I have seen and the positive reviews have really elevated my interest in getting this game. It looks like your typical third-person action game that utilizes both melee attacks and gunplay, and the gameplay style is very similar to Gears of War minus a cover system. However, I love the futuristic style and the enemies look amazing, so this is one I'll definitely pick up once the price drops a little.

The Ico & Shadow of the Collosus HD Collection

I played Ico extensively back when it first came out on the Playstation 2 and I loved the mix of puzzles and platforming, however I never really got into Shadow of the Colossus for some reason. Most gamers nowadays would flame to back to the stone age for making such an admission of gaming guilt, but it's true. Long-delayed and eagerly-anticipated, this collection is the perfect way for veteran players and newcomers alike to discover these unique titles, especially with copies of Ico on the PS2 being rather rare and expensive. Like all of Sony's HD collections, this one comes with enhanced visuals, extras and trophy support for both games.

Forza Motorsport 4

I have never been a fan of racing simulator games, since fine-tuning my cars and building a garage full of them takes away from the enjoyment of racing on the tracks, hence why I passed on Gran Turismo 5. The Forza series, on the other hand, has struck the right balance between simulation realism and arcade-style racing and I especially enjoyed part 3 for it's excellent controls and varied tracks. The forth installment promises more variety in the tracks and the car selection while still keeping the game accessible for casual racing fans, so it's almost guaranteed that I'll love it. There is also support for the Kinect, however I cannot imagine playing a racing game without a controller. How good that feature works remains to be seen.


I have been intrigued by this game since it was announced and the comparisons to Borderlands have further piqued my interest. Rage is a first-person shooter with an equally divided emphasis on gunplay and vehicle combat, with simplified RPG elements thrown in for good measure. The post-apocalyptic wasteland setting has been overused and games like Fallout 3 have probably used it to greater effect, but this looks like my kind of game and I look forward to picking it up soon.

Batman: Arkham City

When Arkham Asylum was released in 2009, it not only exceeded everyones expectations - it blew them completely out of the water. Engrossing story, fluid and engaging combat and a host of secrets and goodies to collect, it stands as the quintessential superhero game of this generation. By all accounts, the follow-up Arkham City looks every bit as promising. Expanding from the relatively closed quarters of the asylum into a whole city is a big leap forward and one that offers a host of new possibilities, Including the ability to play as other characters including Catwoman. The abundance of side-missions available also serve to flesh out the story and extent the game's length, so this seems like an overall bigger and better package than Arkhamd Asylum offered.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Ubisoft has pulled a "Call of Duty" by releasing three Assassin's Creed games one year apart from each other and many are starting to feel that the series is beginning to recycle itself. Being a big fan of Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Revelations, I don't see this as a bad thing and I am looking forward to seeing how the third game ties together all three of the main characters from the series; Altair, Ezio and Desomd. New additions will include a new hookblade that acts as a zip-line and the ability to craft bombs, and the multiplayer mode returns with new enhancements that should keep social gamers happy. All of this amounts to a new coat of paint being slapped over an old idea, but this is hardly a downside for fans of the series like myself.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception

The Uncharted series has kept me engaged and enthralled since the first installment, and the second game was a masterpiece by any standard. Given that this is the flagship series for the Playstation 3, it's fair to expect great things from the third installment and this is a definite day-one purchase for me.

Battlefield 3

Although the first-person shooter market is crowded with games that essentially do the same thing, I have been especially fond the the recent Battlefield games. Bad Company and Bad Company 2 offered extensive single-player campaigns and the latter offered an immersive online multiplayer component that focused more on teamwork as opposed the free-for-all that most FPS titles have. I definitely can't wait to see what Battlefield 3 has to offer.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Yes, it's another Call of Duty game. Yes, it will probably be the same as the last one (or three). Yes, buying it mainly for the single-player campaign because I suck at the multiplayer is not a good value. And yes, I don't care. For all the reasons people dislike the Call of Duty franchise, you are still assured a thrilling and cinematic gaming experience, which is why we play games in the first place. I have never regretted purchasing a CoD game and I don't think I will with this one either.

Need For Speed: The Run

There is no racing series that comes to mind that is more prolific that Need for Speed, now eighteen games strong with the inclusion of their newest title, The Run. With the release of 2010's Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, I felt that they finally got it right, and The Run promises the same style of gameplay but with a story to bind it all together. Admittedly, the stories that are incorporated into racing games are usually paper-thin and little more than a diversion to be enjoyed between races, however The Run puts some effort into making it interesting. We'll see how this pans out.

Metal Gear Solid: The HD Collection

The Metal Gear Solid series is another fan-favorite that I am glad to see returning in an HD collection, though the selection of games is a little strange. You have enhanced versions of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, both highly regarded PS2 games, and the formerly PSP-exclusive Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The first game in the series is absent, most likely due to the fact that it's available as a $10 download from the Playstation Network. No matter, this is a perfect opportunity to get re-acquainted with the earlier games in the series. It's been years since I've played the second game and I can't wait to see how the HD transfer turns out.

The "Maybe I'll Get Them" Titles

Let's face it, unless you are independently wealthy or willing to go into debt, there is no way that you can purchase all of the games that are coming out. This requires one to be selective in their purchases and unfortunately some games must fall by the wayside. This is not to say that they are bad games, however with current titles going for $60 each, some sacrifices need to be made. The games below are, at least in the short term, ones that I am less likely to get at launch unless exceptional circumstances compel me to do so. Having said that, I will very likely get them when the price drops or if they go on sale after launch. You never know.  

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

Whenever I tell people that I didn't enjoy Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, their reactions range from being puzzled to being downright hostile. How dare I not like such an amazing RPG, but the truth is that I have tried several times to get into Oblivion and it has yet to click with me. Say what you will, it's just not the game for me. However, Skyrim boasts a new gameplay engine and refinements that might make it more enjoyable for me, and the gameplay footage I have seen looks fantastic. It's still going to be a massive open-world game that you can sink hours, days and even weeks at a time into. I will give this game a chance to see if it wins me over, however it's unlikely to be a full-price purchase.

Driver: San Francisco

After playing the demo and being very unimpressed, I wrote off Driver: San Francisco and didn't give it a second thought. However, a few trusted game critics have been praising the game extensively and, upon viewing more footage, my opinion has softened a little. The game has smooth driving controls and an interesting system where you can telepathically take over other drivers, so I might end up loving this game after giving it more of a chance. Definitely not a full-price pick-up, but one I'll get when the inevitable price drop comes along.

Dark Souls

Demon's Souls was a game that tormented me in ways that no video game should. Acclaimed for it's innovation and eerie gothic horror setting, this was off-set by absolutely punishing difficulty that completely turned me off. I don't mind a challenge, but Demon's Souls pushed the difficulty to the point where it became inaccessible for some and grinding for hours with almost no progress became a serious frustration. Dark Souls is, by all accounts, harder and more unforgiving, so I am passing on this for now despite how great the game looks and how glowing the reviews have been.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

The console release of a brand new Zelda game is always a big event for Nintendo fans, however I am not as hyped for this game as I initially thought I would be. Chalk it up to the fact that the game relies heavily on motion control, which I'm not a fan of, or the fact that I lost interest in modern Zelda games after Wind Waker on the Gamecube. However, it's a Zelda game and I know I will end up buying it eventually. The game looks fantastic and I'm sure I'll get used to the motion controls, though support for the classic controller would have been nice.

Goldeneye 007: Reloaded

I may be in the minority, but I actually enjoyed the release of Goldeneye on the Wii and I felt that it was a quality first-person shooter that the Wii badly needed. People expected too much and were hoping that it would either be a revelation in FPS gaming as the original N64 was, or a nostalgic trip that brings the original game into the new generation of gaming. Neither happened and people, very unfairly in my opinion, wrote this off as a failure. The "Reloaded" edition is an HD remake of the Wii game and I'll most likely buy it, but not on release. Too many other games take priority over this.

Saints Row: The Third

There have been many series that I didn't get into until a sequel came along that sparked my interest and I have the feeling that the third installment in the Saint's Row franchise might be one of them. I have yet to play the first and second games in the series, mainly due to my being tired of Grand Theft Auto-style sandbox action games, however everyone I know speaks highly of them and I have been meaning to delve more deeply into Saint's Row universe. From the coverage I have read and the footage I have seen, the third installment looks insanely fun and incredibly perverse...early previews indicate that you can use a dildo as a murder weapon, for example. With a new game on the horizon, I have at least been enticed to go back and try to first two games, if not start with the third and work backwards. Given that even non-GTA fans consider this to be a great series, I feel like I'm missing out on something.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Review: Dead Island (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

For video games and anything else involving zombies, the well of creativity and originality has long since run dry. These undead monstrosities have been shoehorned into countless games and movies to the point where they feel almost stock, therefore you couldn't be blamed for not being particularly excited when Dead Island finally hit shelves. While the story ultimately feels inconsequential and technical issues abound, Dead Island is a lively, intense and additively enjoyable zombie-killing experience that benefits from an open-world design and a strong emphasis on cooperative gameplay.

While most first-person zombie-killing games take place in dark corridors and urban environments, Dead Island opts for a lush tropical island of Banoi, a fictional resort island off the coast of Papua New Guinea. It's beautiful beaches, turquoise waters and lush tropical jungles would make it an idea vacation destination, however there is a small matter of a zombie epidemic to contend with. You play as one of four survivors who wake up on the resort after a night of partying to find the resort in shambles and hordes of the undead roaming about feasting on the bodies of dead vacationers. After a brief respite to gather your bearings, you learn that you are among the small number of people immune to whatever caused the outbreak and you must spend the game finding both other survivors and a way off the island. Each of the four characters has a backstory that is fleetingly interesting, however their personalities are never fleshed out enough to make you care what ultimately happens to them. Your objective in the game is to find survivors, do quests and advance to other parts of the island and ultimately find a way out. In doing so, you must fend off a seemingly endless parade of the walking dead that get progressively harder to kill as you level up. The enemies are also varied, with the standard slow-moving and fast-running zombies being complemented with more difficult enemies that require better weapons and more tactical skill. With the fun that you can have killing them en masse, the story seems like an afterthought that barely binds the game together. It picks up steam in the latter parts of the game, however it never feels particularly interesting or dramatic.

At first glance, Dead Island might strike you as a first-person shooter in the vein of Left 4 Dead, however melee combat is the order of the day here. Firearms and ammunition are rare and expensive, so the majority of your kills will be dealt by blunt or edged instruments, with incendiary and explosive weapons occasionally coming into play. You begin the game using stocks, boat oars and pipes to fell the undead, however hammers, knives, machetes and other instruments will come in your possession and these can be upgraded and augmented as you progress in the game. The combat controls are intuitive and responsive, and the weapons are very satisfying the weird. In combat, skill must be employed to ensure you don't take critical damage, which can happen very quickly in the more difficult missions. Targeting the limbs with a blunt instrument can cause them to break, while using an edged weapon can sever them completely with a satisfying geyser of blood. Doing this is especially important when faced with a tough opponent like a "thug" or a group that swarms you all at once. Similar to Borderlands, dying carries a monetary penalty where you lose 10% of your available money, however you re-spawn close to where you died and any damage your inflicted upon enemies will still be intact. If all else fails, you can run past the zombies or get in a car and run them over, so you have plenty of options on how you want to tackle your objectives.

The gameplay consists of travelling to various parts of the island, finding survivors and completing various quests. The main objectives keep the story moving, however there are numerous side-missions that you are given by various people you meet in the island, people who seemingly lack any ability to do things for themselves. Most of these missions boil down to simple fetch-quests that can get very repetitive, however you'll want to do as many of these as possible in order to gain experience points and money, which are essential to surviving in the latter parts of the game. Despite the apocalypse, cash is still king on Banoi Island and everything you do costs money. Since your weapons take damage with each blow delivered, ultimately rendering them useless, you will need to constantly pay to repair and upgrade them if you plan on keeping them. As your loot and collect items, weapon upgrades such as weight damage, electricity charge and even explosive augments will become available for certain weapon types. Money can be obtained by looting houses, scattered luggage and even the corpses of the zombies you kill, however you will earn the bulk of your money and experience points by completing missions. Some NPC allies will also give you better weapons and weapon upgrades for completing quests, so taking some time to complete these before advancing in the main story is well worth it.

Dead Island can be played solo and it provides a fun and engrossing experience, however the game really comes alive with the online four-player cooperative mode. Three friends can join your game and play through the missions cooperatively and the enemy difficulty will scale depending on the number of players. If you don't have friends available to play with you, Dead Island integrates an interesting system in which you can drop in and out of another players game while others can do the same in yours. Whenever a player near your level is present in the same general area, you are alerted to this and given a chance to enter their game and assist them. You can opt-out of this feature if you do not wish to come into contact with random players, however this can be very useful in the more difficult missions since other players can trade weapons with you and assist in battles. Additionally, if you have the online settings on "Cooperative", other players will be unable to hurt you or steal your loot. Similar to the aforementioned Borderlands, playing cooperatively helps to increase the sense of fun and reward that the game has to offer.

In the audio-visual department, Dead Island has many strengths and more than a few wrinkles that are common in sandbox-style games. The island of Banoi looks fantastic and a lot of work has been put into selling it as a tropic paradise gone wrong. The gorgeous beaches are tainted with dead bodies, looted luggage and garbage everywhere, while the empty streets give you a sense of foreboding as you anticipate the next wave of zombies coming towards you. The character animation is plagued with doll-like facial expressions and poorly-synced voice acting, the environments have constant draw-in and screen-tearing, and the character animation of the zombies is jerky and glitchy. These happen too often to go unnoticed and they will prove distracting at times, however they are not a severe hindrance to the overall experience. Anyone who is used to playing large, open-world games knows by now to expect graphical hiccups and these are definitely present here. The best part of the game, visually speaking, is the gruesome and inventive ways you can dispatch the zombies. Bones snap out of place, limbs fly and blood flows in seemingly limitless quantities, and you'll spend hours eviscerating the undead with a big smile on your face.

Outside of the aforementioned visual bugs in the environment, the game features various glitches that can range from amusing quirks to quest-ending annoyances. Even a moderate amount of time spent on Dead Island will reveal enemies and even their body parts dangling in mid-air, loot disappearing and even instances where your character gets stuck in or even falling below the level geometry. The two biggest issues noted on my end were problems with the in-game map and with the driving controls. The mini-map is meant to act as an on-screen prompt that shows you both what's of note in your immediate area and to point you towards your next objective. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work. There were several instances where it did not register that an objective had been completed and I was left wandering aimlessly, and other times when it gave wrong directions and pointed me towards an objective in an inaccessible area. The issue with the driving in the game is a mix of stiff controls and environmental shortcomings. The narrow roads on Banoi make maneuvering your vehicle difficult and turning around almost impossible at times, while severe annoyances such as your car getting stuck in the environment and being unable to move are commonplace. The vehicles are mainly there to lessen travel time and to quickly dispatch enemies, but the controls are so haphazard that travelling on foot will often be preferred.

Whether or not Dead Island is a game worth playing depends on the type of game you are looking for. If you want a streamlined corridor shooter with defined parameters and levels that emphasize survival over story, then the free-roaming gameplay and RPG elements such as leveling and fetch-questing will likely be a turnoff. If you are able to look beyond the flaws and enjoy zombie-killing, looting and progressing through a thin story to ties it all together, then Dead Island might just be the game for you. However, the game is best enjoyed with three friends tagging along for the ride, so a rental is recommended before purchase if you plan on going solo.

Rating: 7.5 out of 10