Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Review: Patapon

SCE Japan


Categorising Patapon is a pretty difficult task – the game has shades of almost every genre that’s been proven popular on the PSP. At its heart, though, it’s a God game with shades of real-time strategy, as well as a keen rhythm / action hybrid, with RPG aspects lightly blended in. Oh, and there are a few rhythm minigames thrown into the mix as well, although they back up the RPG elements more than anything else, as your success in these games is rewarded with increasingly rare items.

At first glance, you’d think that the game was either an indirect sequel or some kind of spiritual successor to LocoRoco. Both came out of Sony Computer Entertainment Japan’s development offices – looking increasingly like an endless cave of wonders these days – but there’s only one staffer from LocoRoco who contributed to Patapon, and that’s hyperactive sound designer Kenmei Adachi. Patapon is more of a collaboration than we’ve come to expect from Sony, as it features the game design of Hiroyuki Kotani (Game Yarouze) combined ably with the aesthetic of French designer Rolito, whose 2D vector-based characters and assets just pop out of the PSP’s small screen. Add to that the energetic soundscapes Adachi is known for, and Patapon’s a remarkably successful game; for all the individual talents that have gone into it, it still comes across as an entirely coherent vision, if not one that provides a lot of information to the player.

Starting the game, you’re greeted by the small Patapon tribe as a god, which is generally a good sign of things to come. Clearly the Patapon have seen better times, and it’s up to you to lead them through attack, defense and hunting levels to increase their numbers, wealth and experience, and rediscover the spirits of their lost warriors – all of which can be used to your advantage in later battles. All up, there are just over 30 levels, which is a lot more than you’d expect in a newly released (and bargain-priced) game. There’s also plenty of replay value in the boss battles, which can be repeated many times with the strength of the boss increasing each time you defeat it.

Despite its often frenetic pace, Patapon is a pretty simple game underneath the fanciness of the rhythm genre and the shiny graphics. There are only four commands – moving your army forwards or backwards, and ordering them to attack or defend. Things get complicated, though, because the only way to action these commands is to take part in a call-and-response rhythm with your army that sees you hitting the four face buttons in time with the Pulse of the Earth (the background beats; a looping percussion track).

Build up enough of these rhythms, and your army will enter Fever mode, which sees them fight harder and move faster. In fact, they fight so much more effectively that you’ll often find yourself holding back from a fight until you reach Fever mode, and only then weighing in. This strategy is much more effective, particularly when fighting bosses or many enemies, but it adds a grinding aspect to the game that will take away some of the enjoyment – not to mention the RSI that develops after a few hours fighting vectorised dinosaurs and giant crabs.

Choosing which units to bring to battle brings another element of strategy to the game – hunting levels, in particular, are more suited to using archers and spear-wielding troops (Yumipon and Yaripon, respectively) than general sword-and-shield fighters (Tatepon). With the rediscovery of the Megapon – troops carrying trumpets – and Dekapon (massive melee fighters) later on in the game, there’s a remarkable depth of unit choice, which can be tailored even more by equipping fancy weapons to the specific troops.

It’s hard to stop comparing Patapon to LocoRoco – both have a distinctively crisp visual style, and both are perfectly optimised for handheld play on the PSP. LocoRoco, though, was marginally better at explaining what the player had to do to reach a successful end-state – simply get all the LocoRoco to the end of the level. Patapon suffers at times from holding back too much information from the player – sure, the general plot is laid out easily enough, but it’s still easy to reach stumbling blocks where the next step just isn’t laid out clearly enough to follow. One such place, for example, sees you pit your army against a fortress that simply cannot be beaten without an item you can only obtain by killing a random golden bird in a previous level. Sure, the existence of the bird is hinted at, and you’re told you need the item to bring down the fortress, but the two are never linked.

The only way the PSP console lets the side down is its speakers, as the Patapon’s chants and constant background music can sound pretty tinny, particularly in later levels. That said, the game is much easier to play with headphones, as you can keep the beat (and reach that elusive Fever mode) much more easily. Also, if anyone else is going to be in the room (or next door) while you’re playing, you may want to invest in headphones even if you’re not bothered by the speakers. Hearing constantly repeating kitschy-cute beats and screaming monsters for any longer than a few minutes won’t appeal to any of your friends or housemates.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Patapon will be making its way to the PS3, in some form or other, by the end of the year – like LocoRoco spawning its own interactive screensaver / minigame on the next-gen console in Cocoreccho, the IP is just too good for Sony to pass up.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Review: Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction



You know how Ratchet and Clank games work by now – start off hitting enemies with a spanner, collecting bolts along the way, work your way up to a range of ridiculously awesome guns and other weapons, level up said weapons, throw in a bunch of boss battles, prettied-up quicktime events, and spend hours in front of a television screen at a time, grunting incoherently at flatmates as you shoot novelty ammunition at mutant goldfish. Well, that’s how it works for me.

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction is the first outing for Insomniac’s popular PS2 franchise on the PS3, and it’s fantastic. Utterly fantastic. Newcomers to the series can pick up a controller and get straight into the game without having to be told which buttons to press (although the tutorials are helpful), the graphics pop out of the screen in brilliant colours, and the in-game action is on par with cut-scenes from as little as two years ago. What’s more, the whole thing runs at a steady 60fps throughout the game.

Plot-wise, the basic gist of things is that you’re alternating between chasing the evil emperor Tachyon, running from him when he’s too powerful, and trying to get your hands on some kind of ultimate weapon before he does. Simple stuff, really. You do get to find out a little more about the history of the Lombaxes, which was teased pretty heavily in previous games; and, if you manage to get to the end of the game in one piece, you also get to prevent the destruction of the universe. Which is nice.

The basic storyline aside, the game actually has more in common with the likes of Mass Effect than previous Insomniac titles – although the developers have thankfully scrapped the central hub that was so infuriating in the most recent Ratchet game, Up Your Arsenal. Instead, you move from planet to planet, upgrading your weapons as you collect raretanium crystals (don’t even ask), and blowing up the aforementioned mutant goldfish. Fans of the arena battles still have the chance to battle it out against a range of enemies, although these can be skipped if you’re not fond of prizefighting.

Once you get into the grind of collecting bolts, firing increasingly extraordinary (but no less amusing) weapons at an array of enemies, you won’t notice the graphics. That’s not to say you won’t appreciate them, but after the first couple of hours playing, what you’ll be most impressed with is that the graphics don’t impede your progress in the game, are clear enough that you won’t get sore eyes after hours of playing, and are, simply put, as good as you have any right to expect from a next-gen game. This is living, you might say.

Aside from the tacked-on (and best forgotten) space shooter sequences between the real levels, a little quick-and-dirty level design near the end of the game is pretty much the only thing that mars my experience of the game. Separating platforms by massive artificial gravity jumps might sound cool, and may even look pretty to someone watching over your shoulder, but when the player has no input into the direction you’re travelling, all it becomes is a gussied-up version of Resident Evil’s opening doors loading screens. Granted, the creaking doors idea was a great workaround for a static loading screen, but in Ratchet, the level shouldn’t even need time to load, and adding in some element of difficulty to moving between platforms would have gone a long way towards improving player involvement in the level.

Overall, I’m damn impressed with the game. Now, I’m disinclined to think that a ten-hour game can redeem an $800 machine, but I’ll be damned if Ratchet and Clank’s latest outing doesn’t smack the action-adventure ball right out of the park.

And here’s where Sony’s marketing machine kicks in. Ratchet is, along with Naughty Dog’s Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, being held up as some kind a shining beacon of competitiveness, or some other abstract noun, against the more established Xbox 360. Prior to the summer release schedule, there were really only a few reasons why any sane gamer (with a limited wallet) would have chosen to buy a PS3, and those reasons were largely to do with the other things the machine can do – run Linux, join Stanford’s Folding@Home project to find novel cures for obscure diseases, accommodate a non-proprietary hard drive, and simply allow a greater deal of customisation. And now they’re adding some good games to the mix, exclusive games that weren’t originally designed for another platform? It’s about time.

Sony’s been on the back foot for a few reasons, and it’s not just because they launched their console almost a full year later than Microsoft. Sony also has a rather lacklustre online store, a good few rungs down the ladder from the 360, which was able to springboard off the success of the original Xbox’s Live service. Add to that an initially clunky XMB interface, a collection of mixed messages about peripherals such as the PVR add-on to the PS3 that’s supposed to turn up sometime “early” this year, launching without a rumble-pack controller, and the seemingly requisite bare-faced lies about why they didn’t provide the DualShock 3 from the beginning (it’s coming out “soon,” though), and it’s all a bit of a mess. Thank God for upgradeable firmware, you might say – it’s the only way Sony can dig themselves out of this little (piano) black hole. Well, upgradeable firmware and stellar titles like Ratchet and Clank Future. Things might be looking up.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Review: Mass Effect


Xbox 360 (now), PC (soon...)

Let’s get this out of the way first – Bioware’s latest game was hyped up like nobody’s business. Early builds from the creators of RPG-heavy Knights of the Old Republic showed a surprisingly complex character whose responses to NPCs determined their future interactions with him or her, a solid over-the-shoulder combat shooter, as well as some pretty damn fine graphics. Luckily for everyone just waiting for another reason to buy a 360, it turns out that pretty much everything hinted at by previews and pre-release builds was on the money.

Starting the game, you’re faced with a panoply of options to define your character – male or female; black or white; or anything in between. Want clearly defined cheekbones and artificially inflated hair a la a 1972 David Bowie? Easy as that. You even get some say in your back-story, which influences how characters react to you the first time they meet you. Every reaction after that is up to you, as you use Bioware’s new little toy – the conversation wheel. It’s a simple enough mechanic, but it allows you to control conversations that flow with cinematic timing and quality. The voice acting is remarkably good, and barring the inexplicably low-res shadows that fall over the characters’ faces during close-ups, the game’s graphics are incredible, especially given your control over your character’s appearance.

That control extends to every aspect of the way you and your squad fight, as well – you can control new skills learned by yourself and other squad members, or delegate that to the console to automatically upgrade skills you use more often. You can have as much or as little control over this as you want, and if you change your mind later, it’s only a matter of heading to the menu and switching the option.

Fine-tuning your characters, and the weapons they use, is actually quite a fun part of the game, especially when you can see what a huge impact it makes on the difficulty of firefights. Having trouble against the robotic geth armies? Switch to Shredder rounds for extra damage against synthetics. Facing off against a huge Thresher maw? Polonium rounds give toxic damage against organics. Problem solved.

From the outset of the game, you have almost too many choices. Once you’ve finished up the first hour or so of gameplay, though, you get free run of the entire freaking galaxy, all at blisteringly fast FTL speeds. Important locations are clearly marked, but it’s just as fun to avoid the main plot and explore some of the numerous planetary systems, perhaps prospecting for valuable minerals, or hunting down alien data discs along the way. Some of these planets are tied into secondary assignments, so you might find yourself saving colonists or scientists from some alien threat; or, more likely, saving colonists from the scientists. Morality in science doesn’t seem to be a strong theme in the game. Didn’t they learn anything from Alien?

These side missions are great fun, don’t get me wrong – you get to drive across the planet in a six-wheeled tank-thing, shoot at enemy encampments, prospect for minerals, and recover alien probes that seem to have crashed all over the universe. The only negative comment I could possibly make about the tank-thing is that there is no way to customise its firepower – you’re stuck with a standard machine gun and some kind of explosive. Effective in a firefight, no doubt, but in a game where every single other damn thing is able to be changed by the player, being able to swap in toxic-laced shells to kill organic enemies just that little bit faster would have been a nice touch. But I’m picky that way. Switching to third-person mode is easy to do at any point, though, and you’ll find yourself in many sequences where it’s easier (and more fun) to get out of the vehicle and fight.

As much fun as it is to avoid the plot, the main story is one of the most engaging videogame narratives I’ve played since, I don’t know, the last time I spun up my KOTOR disc. You see Commander Shepard drafted as the first human Spectre, a kind of intergalactic secret agent, and chase down an agent who’s gone rogue, while finding ancient alien technology and uncovering secrets about the universe, and the cyclical nature of civilisations. If you can imagine M. John Harrison settling in to write Goldeneye after watching two or three seasons of Battlestar Galactica in a single sitting, you’re starting to get the idea.

As for the much-publicised sex scenes, yes, they are in the game, but you have to play through the entire main storyline before Shepard gets a little nookie, and you really have to put in a lot of conversational groundwork if you want the other characters to answer you with slightly more salacious responses. If you don’t want to see your character getting it on with a blue-skinned alien (or a human crew member), if that’s the way you swing, no worries – any emotional involvement with the other crew members is completely avoidable, and it all depends on how you respond to the crew using the conversation wheel. So, just like in real life, then.

Aesthetically speaking, and contrary to much of the negative publicity about the scenes (the phrase “virtual orgasmic rape” springs to mind as one example), they’re tastefully done – plenty of side-on camera shots, a little soft lighting, and some emotional music. It’s certainly been scripted to avoid full-frontal nudity, and to tie in with Shepard’s emotions towards his or her crew – as determined by fifteen or so hours of conversations controlled by the player. Overall, I’ve seen worse scenes (and better, for that matter) in PGR-rated films or primetime television.

Completionists will probably take upwards of twenty hours to finished the game – I rounded it off in about eighteen, having put about eight hours into searching every single available planet in the galaxy, although I did leave a couple of the collection quests unfinished. As it stands, Mass Effect is probably the single most compelling reason to own an Xbox 360, at least until its inevitable sequel comes out. It’s as simple as that.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Review: The Simpsons Game


Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PS2, NDS, PSP

A real, honest-to-God Simpsons game has been a long time coming. Fans of the yellow-skinned family have suffered through more than twenty versions of licensed games, including the lamentable Virtual Bart, bizarre Krusty’s Funhouse, and GTA-clone The Simpsons Hit & Run. With the possible exception of Bart Vs the Space Mutants (an awkward platformer made better only with the benefit of nostalgic hindsight), there simply hasn’t been a game that has matched the high points of the animated series. Until now, possibly.

The graphics, at least in the PS3 and 360 versions, are pretty much spot on. Wii gamers might notice a few more jaggies and slightly less graphical flair, but that’s pretty much par for the SD/ED course. If you happen to have blown your course-related costs on an HD television, you’ll enjoy this game – the cut-scenes are basically prettified HD versions of the animated series.

The in-game version of Springfield is suitably cartoony, but when you compare the in-game characters to the animated cut-scene versions, you’ll notice the difference. Luckily, it doesn’t jar too much, and it’s really noticeable for the first few minutes at the start of each level. There’s not much else that could have been done to remedy this, to be honest – perhaps a thicker black line around the in-game characters, or relying less on in-game cut-scenes to help the story along. The pay-off’s in the end-of-level animations, after all.

Featuring the talents of several writers for the animated show, The Simpsons Game attempts to bring the spotlight back onto the story, and for the most part, it succeeds. The basic plot is something like this: the Simpson family discover that they are really characters in a video game, and while trying to fend off the latest alien attack on Springfield, they must also fight off the perils of becoming obsolete as next-next-gen versions of themselves come along, meeting (and defeating) luminaries such as Matt Groening, God and Will Wright along the way. All are faced in escalating order of importance, of course.

We’re graced with appearances by so many minor and major characters from the series that it’s hard to keep up, although the cameos are skewed towards more recent seasons. Interestingly, more recent minor characters like Mr Shine have entire levels dedicated to them, and some characters are simply skipped. While Radioactive Man would have made for a decent cameo or themed sub-level, the NES sidescroller Bartman Meets Radioactive Man probably exhausted all the possibilities of the source material.

Videogame parodies abound in The Simpsons Game – there are levels based on Medal of Honour, Pokemon, Everquest and Legend of Zelda, among others, and too many cameos and references to other videogames to count. In fact, one of the best points about this game is the fact that it tirelessly parodies and satirises everything it can – other videogames, other Simpsons games, the entire animated series – there’s no stone left unturned.

While the story is great, actually playing through it can be a little tedious. Switching between characters in single-player mode is a seemingly small flaw in the game that turns into a bigger problem than it should have been. Pressing the Xbox 360’s (criminally under-responsive) d-pad to switch characters means that you have to take your thumb off the left analogue stick, sacrificing a little movement away from whatever palette-switched monster is trying to kill you, only to find that you didn’t press the d-pad hard enough to overcome its built-in wobble. Suddenly you’re dead; Nelson Munz is laughing at you; and you’re back at the start of the level. Granted, the wonky d-pad scenario will only affect 360 gamers, but the trouble doesn’t stop there.

When you change characters, the camera automatically swings around to the viewpoint of the new character. It makes sense, in a literal-world kind of way, but if we’re playing in a world where Homer can transform into a giant jelly blob, or Bart can change into Bartman with an explosive flourish of purple bats, surely it’s not a big ask that you can switch between two characters on the fly without having the camera shift? Call it magic, teleportation, blame it on radioactive waste if it has to conform to whatever canon may exist, I don’t care – as a player I’m reduced to making sense of the world that other people have created. I can deal with a gameplay gimmick that doesn’t make literal sense, as long as it doesn’t actively impede the game’s flow.

As annoying as they get, though, the game’s negatives still don’t manage to outweigh the joys of playing through what is effectively an interactive, extended episode of The Simpsons. Hopefully EA has eyes for a sequel (who am I kidding? It’s EA!), and try to keep the writing staff and voice actors – it’s the story that makes the game, and a few niggling control difficulties and repetitive gameplay can’t ruin that.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]