Videogames, politics, science, all the important things in life.

Bigredcoat Summer Gaming Blowout Volume 1: The Gameining.

Posted by nfinit on July 19, 2007

I’ve noticed that while I’ll often bitch about the gaming industry and make fun of upcoming games and generally piss and moan about any number of things that don’t really matter when taken into the larger overall picture of the eventual entropic heat-death of the universe, I rarely if ever talk about the games I play. And while its not unusual in the blogosphere for hacks to snipe about subjects they do not themselves take part in, I really do play videogames, and have a passion for them. To rectify this situation I have before me a list of the games I have played this year and will over the next few weeks select three at random to expound over in a not-really-a-review sort of way. (And when I say random, I mean random. I’m sitting here with a pair of d10s and everything. This is the sort of hard-hitting authentic journalism you’ll never find at Joystiq!) Up this week, Crackdown, Valkyrie Profile II, and Pac-Man CE.

Crackdown: I rented this, as there was no way in hell I was paying sixty dollars for a five-hour game (nevermind the whole Halo 3 beta thing), and I found myself pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t totally awful. It’s really nothing like sandbox games that have come before it (what with a lack of side missions or anything resembling an over-arching storyline), and the nearest thing I can think to compare it to would be what would happen were a person to try to create a single-player City of Heroes. The game is free-form in how you choose to go about taking out its compliment of gang bosses, each takedown offering a multitude of workable strategies for “apprehending” each gang leader (which usually works out as “send gang leader to a fiery death piled underneath a pile of cars”), and there are fewer feelings of videogame badassery than breaking up a firefight between the police and Triad thugs by kicking an armored personnel carrier at the lot of them.

However, doing such also reveals Crackdown’s biggest weakness (aside from being beaten in all of five hours, but more on that later). There are civilians and cops everywhere, and it’s nearly impossible to let loose and wreak havoc without accidentally offing a dozen or two innocent women and children in a hail of rocket fire or a hurled Russian gangster. Which wouldn’t be so bad, but you’re reprimanded for doing this by slowed skill gain and the local cops turning their puny firearms your way. In effect, the game goes out of its way to punish you for taking part in the activity that serves as its trademark, reckless carnage. A lesser complaint would be the driving portions of the game, which are not worth taking part in save for the associated Achievements. This is largely due to the fact that hopping about Hulk-like from skyscraper to skyscraper is among the most enjoyable activities ever experienced in a videogame, and is about fifty thousand times faster than driving through the maze of city streets dodging civilians and Latino gangs firing rockets at you.

Then there’s the other problem, which I mentioned before. Look, I’m bad at games. I rarely finish them, and when I do, I consider it a major accomplishment. I’ve never seen past the third level of Viewtiful Joe, it took me a week to get through the Alma fight in Ninja Gaiden, and to this day I have no idea what happens after you go into Zen in Half Life 1. Despite these and countless other emasculating gaming failures, I was able to finish the story mode of Crackdown in a single rental weekend. This for a game that is charging sixty dollars brand new. Admittedly, a large part of Crackdown’s appeal lay in both 100% completion of all its achievements (which I only scratched the surface of) and online play over Live Gold (which I do not subscribe to) but still, a five hour long main game is unacceptable, at least at the MSRP Microsoft is asking for. $40 I could stomach, but I’d still wonder if I wouldn’t be happier spending $40 on a good meaty DS game instead.

Recommendation to avoid, at least until it reaches Greatest Hits status.

Valkyrie Profile II: I picked this up last year at TRU’s annual Buy 2 Get 1 free sale, and to be honest most of its purchase was an attempt to justify the insane amount of money I spent adding Valk Profile I to my collection. Also, every once in a while I get the insane idea in my head that I may be able to enjoy JRPGs again and decide to give another title a chance. Last time was Final Fantasy 12, which lasted all of a week before I wandered off to another racing game. This didn’t fare much better, serving to fill time for a couple weeks until Odin Sphere was released.

For a game that looks like a simple action RPG platformer on the outside, this game has too goddamned many commands. I mean, the platforming itself, the way you get around levels is fine, maybe even great. It’s when you enter combat that things suddenly turn into the gaming equivalent of trying to land a wounded F-15 Strike Eagle on a flaming aircraft carrier during a hurricane while performing long division with your free hand. Upon encountering an enemy your are presented with a real-time 3d battlefield scattered with enemies, only one of which you really need to kill. Reaching that enemy in the shortest amount of time results in better rewards for your party, with enemy combat itself being a traditional turn-based affair. Now if it were a simple matter of wading through the enemies to get to the target mob, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal– but after a few hours of play the game expects you to be able to use an arcane method of splitting your party in half to get anything done on time, one party (presumably) defending from monsters while the rest goes about the task of targeting the central enemy. Usually you’ll fumble about and split your party up entirely by accident, leaving your cloth-clad magic users to die painfully against flaming armored buzzard things while your tanks charge into battle against bipedal frog with an axe as large as a Buick.

In over 20 hours of messing around I had yet to figure out exactly how VP2 expects you to split your party up correctly in the heat of battle or even exactly what the game intends for you to do once you’ve split up. Usually I just had my entire party wade in as one angry sword-toting mob, fighting one enemy at a time as the opponents politely lined up for slaughter. Adding to this milieu of confusion is a tempo-based attack system that’s supposed to up your offensive firepower if you hit the right party member attacks in sequence, but I found far more success just wildly wailing on the face buttons while coins and crystals and dark crystals and any manner of other inscrutable objects shake out of them. Then there’s the super-buster attack thing which involves a long, very impressive cutscene, an attack that I’ve yet to suss out exactly what the hell you’re supposed to accomplish to achieve its full effect. 99 times out of 100 it results in my main character pulling off a very spiffy looking special move then wailing helplessly as I fail to input the proper follow-up command.

On top of all that you have an alchemy/create-a-weapon system (something that’s become commonplace in JRPGs) that’s as least as obscure as the battle commands, something I was never able to take advantage of as it requires you to build up faction with merchants and sell them the proper items– move onto a new area and you’ve lost all that time you spent selling and buying crap from a particular vendor only to restart again in a new area of the map, wherein you must then decide which of a handful of vendors you wish to frequent. I suppose it’s there for when you feel the need to spend ten hours clearing out dungeons in one town, but even I find that superfluous, and I’ve spent much of the past two years playing WoW.

Still, a beautiful game, it’s art bested only by Odin Sphere’s intricate animations. The simple act of walking through a rain-slicked street is often breathtaking. I just wish Squeenix had let people other than diehard JRPG fans enjoy it.

Recommendation to avoid, but then I’m not the target audience anyway.

Pac-Man CE: Now this is the sort of shit that they should have been putting on Live Marketplace instead of that abomination against god that was voided upon us and called “Double Dragon”. It is easily the single greatest validation for the service since Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved, and singlehandedly brings the calcified arcade franchise into relevance for today’s audience. It was also criminally under-advertised and sold less than 70,000 copies, but hey. Namco. It’s probable that they spent more money providing PR for Ivy’s new ham-sized breasts than they did in the entire production for this game.

Take your basic Pac-Man, get rid of the board, huff a can of Krylon paint to get the visuals right and then put on some trance music. Okay, now split the board in half, with a traditional Pac-Man bonus fruit appearing on the opposite side of the ghost house whenever you clear all the dots on one side. When you eat that bonus item, reset the other side to a different maze pattern then repeat for the next ten minutes or you run out of lives. Then instead of conserving power pellets until you absolutely need them, create a system where you can chain as long a power pellet sequence as you have power pellets to keep them alive, accruing an enormous bonus multiplier for each ghost consumed during the sequence.

The only problem with any of this is the 360’s controller. It’s horrible, and even when you switch to the thumb stick from the d-pad. It’s not exactly game-breaking, but there’s all too many times where you go the wrong way simply because the controller was never meant for the task of precise 2-d inputs. Microsoft badly needs to release an all-digital pad if they’re going to keep releasing these things.

Strongest possible recommendation to buy. Why are you reading this? This is valuable time you could spent playing Pac-Man CE, or at worst traveling to Wal-Mart to buy a 360.


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