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Less Explaining, More Engaging

For the past week, I’ve been alternately too tired or too busy to play games. Right now I’m both, since my new desktop machine is due to arrive tomorrow and I still haven’t finished backing up the old one. I’m really looking forward to setting everything up once it gets here, but it’ll also be a little while before I settle into a normal routine again. Oh, and I still have some sleep to catch up on.

After beating Steins;Gate and a trip to see family, I settled back down in front of Steam and started up Frozen Synapse. However, it was more difficult than I had expected, plus the campaign’s story is a jargon-filled stew that, at its very core, isn’t novel enough to justify its complexity. Therefore, I put it aside and booted up Half-Life.

Barney sees that Gordon is on his way to work in <i>Half-Life: Blue Shift</i>.Protagonist Gordon Freeman is, like S;G‘s Okabe, a physicist involved with fantastical research, but that’s where their similarities end. Gordon is a professional as opposed to a mere student, talks way less (as in, not at all), and, I imagine, plays lots of Quake when he’s not working. The nature of his research at Black Mesa is barely explained and, after something goes wrong with the day’s experiment and the game begins in earnest, you’re only ever given as much information as you need. The narrative flows naturally in this way and, aside from the loading screens and occasional bug, so does the game itself. Half-Life is wonderfully designed (aside from the aforementioned bugs, plus the lack of a subtitle option) and doesn’t feel as old as it is; I was afraid that the graphics would be blockier and jaggier than they actually were. It’s obvious as to why it’s held in such high esteem.

Not long after wrapping up Gordon’s adventures (for now), I dug into two expansion packs, Blue Shift and Opposing Force, which has you play as Black Mesa security guard Barney Calhoun and US Marine Corporal Adrian Shepard, respectively. Even though it was made later, I played Blue Shift first; it was short and had a limited selection of weapons, but expanded on Half-Life‘s dry and dark humor, making for a light but yummy snack of a game. Opposing Force was meatier and the most difficult of the three that I played; it had some interesting new weapons and enemies, and both added to the original game’s story and echoed it in certain ways, or at least more than Blue Shift did. By the time I had wrapped it up, I was ready to take another lengthy break from first-person shooters. I’ve been meaning to start a JRPG of some sort (either a MegaTen game or Rune Factory 4), but have run into the whole tired/busy problem.

One of the many riveting Gunpla battles in <i>Gundam Build Fighters</i>.Instead of games, I’ve been spending my leisure time reading and, along with bitprophet, finally finishing up Gundam Build Fighters, the most recent anime in one of Japan’s biggest cash cow franchises. The premise of this show is even more commercialized than usual: instead of a story of war, politics, and giant mecha, here we have a lively tale of kids battling with Gundam plastic models (Gunpla) on special playfields where they’re brought to life. This type of story is not new to anime—it most reminded me of CLAMP’s Angelic Layer, which features battles between user-customized dolls instead of robots—but it’s new(ish) to Gundam, and was pulled off rather well. Once again, the scientific stuff—in this case, the technology behind the “Gunpla Battle” game—is barely touched upon; for most of the series, pretty much all we know is that the mysterious “Plavsky particles” make it possible. Rather, the important parts of the series are the characters, Gundam models, and the international tournament in which they all come together.

The core story involves Sei Iori, a boy who loves Gunpla and is a talented builder of them, but isn’t very good when it comes to the fighting aspect. One fateful day, he meets Reiji, a strange kid who, as it turns out, is very talented at Gunpla battling. The two of them team up with the goal of making it to the Gunpla Battle World Tournament. It’s worth noting that there was an earlier OAV series with a similar Gunpla-based focus, but Gundam Build Fighters is a wholly new story.

All of the characters, as cliched as they can act at times, are fun or at least interesting, and they’re lovingly drawn, with some of the best gag expressions I’ve ever seen in an anime series. The Gunpla battles themselves have a stunning level of care put into them, and are generally a treat to watch. As for the story, it’s predictable (and is basically one big commercial for real-life Gunpla), but this is one series where the journey is just as important—or perhaps moreso—than the destination. Some previous experience with the Gundam franchise is recommended, as not only are there tons of little bits of series fanservice, but it is also nothing like the other, more serious shows. Still, it’s a quality production and a lot of fun, and I hope it doesn’t ultimately get overlooked in favor of whatever shows are super-hot at the moment. If you’re in the US or Canada and want to check it out, the entire series is legally available on YouTube, fully subtitled in English.


E3, and a Gaming Update

I wasn’t excited for E3 this year. Of the games I knew that were coming out, there wasn’t much that I absolutely needed to see more of, and my anticipation for the as-yet-unannounced was low. It turns out that I was right to skip the Microsoft and Sony press conference streams, as there was practically nothing of interest to me in the liveblogs that I read (well, there was Halo 4, but I’m doing my best to avoid spoilers for it at the moment). The following day, I caved and watched Nintendo’s presser, but found it to be sorely lacking.

After several days’ worth of coverage, only one new game piqued my interest, and that was “Project P-100”, a crowd management action title, directed by Platinum Games’ Hideki Kamiya, that seems to have gotten barely any attention from the press at all. This game is similar to his earlier Viewtiful Joe in its Super Sentai aesthetic, and the basic concept of controlling a crowd that turns into weapons to beat giant villains is pretty awesome. The one thing about this game that came as a disappointment was that it is for WiiU, a system I don’t have any interest in getting. Other than that, and a welcome reminder that the 3DS Paper Mario exists and is on its way, there wasn’t anything for me.

In the meantime, I’ve been continuing on with my main personal goal for 2012: reducing my backlog as much as possible. April is the current record-holder month with seven games beaten, including one (Soul Nomad & the World Eaters) that took me nearly 45 hours, and the two Pinky:st DS titles that I reviewed in my previous post. Some highlights these past few months include the DS remake of Dragon Quest VI, massively moe and just plain charming doujin shop sim/dungeon crawler Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, bare-bones browser-based JRPG Parameters, fantastic expansion pack Tropico 4: Modern Times, and Pokemon White Version, which I’ve written about before and was top-notch all around.

There was also Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, played co-op with my Halo-detractor husband. We had a good time, playing the game with the new graphics and old soundtrack, though I have some quibbles regarding the former. The new maps are brightly lit compared to the original versions, which, along with the whole co-op thing, made the game’s scariest moment a bit less so. Also, some of the new character models were lacking, especially Sergeant Johnson and 343 Guilty Spark. More than anything, I’m now cautiously optimistic about Halo 4.

I also played a couple of platformers, namely The Legendary Starfy on DS and Ratchet & Clank for PS2. Starfy was a decent game with a lot of character, but it was also much wordier than I expected, with more cutscenes than is average for a platformer. Ratchet is not as good as its first-party brethren Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy and Sly Cooper & the Thievius Raccoonus and also has some irritating bugs. However, the weapon/gadget system at its heart is well thought-out, and the storytelling, which is similar in tone to Jak and Sly, is enjoyable enough.

There have been a smattering of others, including the two Izuna games, mystery dungeons with an emphasis on humor and fanservice, and, on the negative side, vague endings that lack so much as a credit roll or “The End” text before dumping the player into Postgame Territory. I also beat the puzzle game RUSH and attempted to play EDGE, but the bad controls and mediocre design of the latter led me to quit. Finally, over the weekend I played through Breath of Death VII, a parody RPG that resembles an early Dragon Quest and contains jokes and references that range from the silly to the sillier; despite some design quirks, it’s well worth a play if you love the genre.

That’s it for what I’ve beaten these past few months. As for what I’m actively playing right now, I’m approaching the end of “The Journey”, aka the main game in Persona 3 FES. This RPG has been unlike most others I’ve ever played, in a good way, and I hope to write about it at length later on. I’m also playing Dance Dance Revolution again (SuperNOVA 2, specifically); after a long ordeal, a couple of new, working pads arrived yesterday.

Once I wrap up “The Journey”, I plan to put Persona 3 FES aside for awhile before taking on the bonus episode “The Answer”. Right now, I’m considering starting de Blob 2 and/or Dragon Quest Monsters: Joker 2 as my next game (or games). As usual, we’ll see.


Six Campaigns

Combat Evolved

A copy of Halo sat amongst other barely or never touched PC games—stuff like American McGee’s Alice and Half-Life—for a number of years. Early in 2010, I decided to change its status, and got around to starting it on April 17th. This decision was one that I’m still feeling the effects of.

It did so many things right: consistent world design, likable characters, unique (for a first-person shooter, anyway) music, good equipment, and great momentum. There was also the big plot twist, a moment when so much seemed to change; I believe this was also the moment when I became hooked.

It’s not like the game didn’t have any problems, as it had a streak of sameness and repetition running through its many grey corridors, but as with any flawed piece of brilliance, the magic of the rest was such that they were minor concerns.

Two

After Master Chief and Cortana’s adventure on Installation 04 came their next one, which starts in orbit above Earth. The situation had become grave, the enemies less cartoonish, and the animations a touch less snappy. Realism and gravity—in a galaxy filled with whole races of aliens that could speak perfect English, a Forerunner civilization that rivals StarCraft‘s Xel’naga in terms of crazy conundrums, and Sergeant Avery Johnson (minor spoilers in link)—was trying to worm its way into a realm that was fun and exhilarating above all else.

Although I wasn’t sure what to make of this change of tone, with it came a closer look at the Covenant and their motives, and the introduction of a new playable character, the Arbiter. This disgraced Elite was a welcome change from the UNSC’s perfect super soldier and whatever seriousness that was imbued in the story suited him quite well.

The air may have changed, but the action didn’t. In fact, the ante was upped, with dual wielding, new equippable weapons (including the truly badass Energy Swords, which were present in the first game, but not a useable option), and frantic battles. Unfortunately, the final fight, which aimed to be the pièce de résistance, fizzled instead, thanks to a shortsighted bit of level design. The ending was a cliffhanger this time, as the “trilogy” formula had now been settled upon.

Three

The action outdoes itself again, and there are crisper graphics this time around due to this being the first Xbox 360 outing for the series. Also still present is the gravitas, with extra emphasis on Chief and Cortana’s relationship, which takes a turn away from the first game’s buddy-movie-screwball-comedy antics to something a bit more tender and weirder, with a slight whiff of retcons.

As for the rest of the plot? Muddled and nothing to write home about, with a none-too-subtle throwback to the first game at the end and some non-closure closure.

Wars

Although I’d put up with it for three installments, here is where the formula really started to wear thin. Despite being an RTS, taking place two decades before Combat Evolved, and featuring a whole new cast of characters, a familiar three-act structure was in place. It would all be eyeroll-inducing were it not the most fun I’ve had with a game in this series since pre-final battle Halo 2.

I am and remain a PC person when it comes to first-person shooters (though, as I’ve said before, the Wii’s controls for first-person games are damned good). With Halo Wars though, I found a console RTS with a control scheme that suited my style of play fairly well. It was also, sadly, Ensemble Studios’ final game.

Three: ODST

The second in the Not-Master-Chief non-trilogy puts the player in the role of an Operational Drop Shock Trooper during the events of Halo 3. Its emptiness, coupled with basic character animations attached to equally basic characters, brought to mind the first game, more than any of those that had been made previously, albeit with a moody touch of noir on top. The story was modest and significantly different, in terms of structure, from the ones that had come before it. Perhaps the one thing I liked the most—and this is the only time it has happened in the series—is that the main character is not only nameless, but pretty much voiceless, a true silent protagonist whose UNSC-issue boots I can easily slide into.

ODST is a wonderful game, but aside from the rare bit where it’s obvious you needed to have played Halo 3 first, its biggest frustration is representative of something that I’d noticed about the console Halos I’d played to this point: the save system, or rather, the lack thereof. One of the great things about modern PC games is they haven’t forgotten about the value and necessity of manual saves. Autosaves and “save and quit” features are all well and good, but not if one wants to go back and try a different approach, as I did with ODST when I realized that I was unraveling the plot’s core mystery in the wrong order. Redoing the previous mission over again, I found my acquired weapons gone and my checklist cleared of any real progress. This was why I deleted my save file and started the game over again. That said, it is unfortunate that certain other progress markers, namely the Xbox Live Achievements and the in-game audio file unlocks, could not be similarly wiped clean.

Reach

Bungie’s final Halo would have it come full circle: in the beginning of their Combat Evolved, we learn that the planet Reach, which had been colonized by humans, has fallen to the Covenant, and that Master Chief is the last of the Spartan II-class soldiers. This game, then, tells a story of the doomed right from the start; I knew going in that the Spartan I would play, and the others in Noble Team, would fail to save Reach and die. The story did have a few surprises left, though, including one which was badly explained in-game, and only clarified by reading some forum threads and the facsimile diary that was included in the game’s special editions (I have the Limited one).

Interestingly enough, although the nameless protagonist “Noble Six” was not silent this time, gender was both obvious and up for grabs: Six could be male or female. Even with an already solid range of good-to-great women characters in the Halo universe, and the existence of female Spartans having been established since at least Wars, that I could make Six any gender I wanted was a welcome surprise. I went with the male option, though.

Male or female, Six is your typical Halo human protagonist: if s/he’s not already a decorated and admired soldier, s/he has an impressive track record. Only Halo 2 stands apart in its presenting the player with a flawed protagonist in need of empathy and redemption, and even then, the Arbiter is only playable for half the game. On the other hand, Master Chief (and his sidekick Cortana), Sergeant Forge, the Rookie, and Noble Six are characters who had admiration and/or respect on their sides prior to their in-game adventures, and could be considered canonical Mary Sues.

Although I have enjoyed my time with all of them, I continue to love the Arbiter the most.

Epilogue: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and Four

After a month-long binge on the not-Master-Chief non-trilogy, I am done for awhile. Anniversary, a remake of the original Halo: Combat Evolved, sits in my backlog, and there it will remain for awhile longer, mainly since there are virtual worlds I want to delve into that do not involve space marines. Halo 4 will come out later this year, but unless there’s a real must-have preorder bonus, I won’t pay full price for it. I don’t go in for the multiplayer on these games, otherwise I would certainly have my order in already, and $60 for what will surely be another eight-hour (or, heaven forbid, shorter) campaign is too much.

I do plan on buying and playing it, however. Despite whatever gripes I may have, Halo still has that special something.


The Annual Backlog Update of Doom

It’s a new year, which means the annual status report on my backlog. I would’ve had this up sooner was I not waiting on Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey to arrive from Play-Asia. This was one of seven(!) console and handheld games I ordered for myself shortly before the New Year. Then there’s Sonic Chronicles, purchased at Best Buy after Christmas, plus a not insignificant number of computer games purchased during Steam’s amazing Holiday Sale. All this plus my preexisting Pile of Shame adds up to a mountain of games to pick and choose from in 2012.

What have I gotten myself into? DX

My DS backlog has become particularly large with fourteen entries, at least half of which are RPGs. The Xbox 360 and PC piles have grown some as well, as has the Wii one, which was nonexistent this time last year. The GameCube stack is unchanged, and the PS2 one has shrunken, but only slightly. All in all, the number of console and handheld games this year comes to thirty-five; add in PC/Mac, and it’s closer to fifty, which is more than double the tally from last year.

This growth, particularly on the DS side, was largely fueled by my wanting to pick up certain out-of-print games before they became impossible to find. There’s also the matter of my not being able to beat many games last year, thanks to certain real-life factors. Therefore, my goal this year is to beat at least twenty-five games, which would be a marked improvement from last year’s seventeen.

Here are my must-play games for 2012, in no particular order:

  • Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES – Now that Rogue Galaxy has been beaten (and thoroughly enjoyed), Persona 3 is the candidate best-suited to fill its shoes as the Game I’ve Had in My Backlog Since Forever That I Really Should Play.
  • Half-Life – As was the case with Halo, I feel that I ought to play this FPS.
  • Bayonetta
  • Tales of the Abyss – I think I’m about due for another fun Tales experience.
  • Last Window: The Secret of Cape West – Yet not before replaying Hotel Dusk.
  • Soul Nomad and the World Eaters
  • Dragon Quest VI: Realms of Revelation
  • Professor Layton and the Curious Village
  • The Legendary Starfy
  • Suikoden V

Going by previous backlog posts, I’ll probably end up playing somewhere between a third and half of this list, and one or two games will make repeat appearances on next year’s. We’ll see how it goes.


The Second Act Syndrome

So I decided to play Halo 2 after all. On console. If I wanted to continue with the series, I had no choice in the matter, seeing as how the PC version requires an upgrade from Windows XP, which I refuse to do.

Although I wanted to play the game, I wasn’t looking forward to wresting with the control scheme, and wrestle I did. Though I play them infrequently, I have long been accustomed to keyboard-and-mouse controls for first-person games. The Wii offers a excellent console-based alternative thanks to the Wii Remote, but the dual analog sticks that are standard for Xbox and Xbox 360 FPSes were unappealing.

In fact, they still are. Early on in Halo 2, I spent much of the time fiddling with the settings, trying to find the sweet spot that would make up for the right stick’s (or rather, the surrogate mouse’s) lack of finesse. Finally, I found an okay compromise by turning the camera sensitivity all the way down to 1 and vertical inversion on. The irony here is that, when I played Halo: Combat Evolved on PC, I had the sensitivity set at its highest level, 10, and inversion turned off! Anyway, on with the review, and please note that as usual, this covers single-player only.

Y'all know this guy.

The Xbox game Halo 2 is, in many ways, your typical sequel. At a fundamental level it offers more of the same, but also builds upon the first game’s foundation, with some decent variety in the environments, new weapons and enemies, and a slightly more complex story. Spartan 117, aka the Master Chief, is back, as is shipboard AI-turned-sidekick Cortana, and though there are a few brief glimpses of their respective personalities at work, such moments aren’t as prominent in this outing. Military caricature Sergeant Johnson is, oddly enough, back as well; unfortunately, the circumstances behind his return are glossed over in one of the earliest scenes.

Of the new characters introduced, the most prominent one is an intelligent and honorable Covenant Elite who eventually becomes playable for a significant portion of the campaign. With the human UNSC well established in Halo: Combat Evolved, Halo 2 spends less time with them and more with the Covenant, allowing the player to get to know both them and their motives a bit better. While splitting between the points of view of Master Chief and this Elite sometimes led to haphazard storytelling, I appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the UNSC’s enemies.

The story, by the way, is still sci-fi cotton candy, even with the obvious effort to give gravitas to the Covenant’s quest. As in the first game, there are well-placed touches of humor here and there, especially early on, and the game upholds its predecessor’s tradition of general lightweightedness—one character in particular does so to a fault. On a similar note, though we get to see much more this time through a Covenant point of view, they still lack some of the depth of certain other popular sci-fi aliens. Also lacking is the emptiness that the first Halo displayed every so often, not to mention the tension which came about thanks to that game’s big plot twist. Thankfully, the environments, as before, are not at all greys and rust, and instead display varied and judicious applications of color.

Speaking of the environments, there’s a bit more diversity this time around, though those narrow corridors—which I’ve suspected are there for buffering purposes—are back in some areas. A strange bug popped up in at least two areas, one which caused semi-transparent overlays of parts of the environment to become stuck on top of my field of view; this bug was not game-breaking, but distracting and, at its worst, annoying. Vehicle sections once again appear on a regular basis, with tanks playing an especially prominent role this time around; however, as much as I like Halo 2‘s tanks, there seemed to be one too many parts devoted to driving one.

As far as other gameplay elements go, the new Covenant weapons are excellent, and it was great to be able to use the cool-looking melee-based Energy Swords this time around. For the UNSC, there wasn’t much new weapon-wise, though the submachine gun’s recoil was realistic but annoying, especially since I wasn’t fond of the controls to begin with. One of the big new features touted on the game’s back cover was dual-wielding, which could only be done with some weapons and proved cumbersome whenever I wanted to toss a grenade, but worked well in general. Two notable subtractions from the game’s features are the health meter and medipacs, but I didn’t realize they weren’t there until roughly halfway into the campaign. The battles themselves were about as balanced as they were in the first Halo (note that I played on Normal difficulty for both), and I found myself using many of the same tactics that I had before.

Speaking of battles, the worst part of the campaign was the final one. It involved taking down one particular unit and was set in an arena-style map consisting of three tiers (going from large up to small, and the middle one with holes in the floor), and a central beam of light which can shoot you upward. Combine this with a healthy amount of backup, and I found myself not only constantly lost amid the chaos, but also robbed of the satisfaction of a killing blow. The campaign concludes with a teasing cliffhanger, as if to push more insignificance onto the ending which, much like God of War 2‘s, hammers home the fact that this is the second act in a trilogy.

So where does that leave me? Ordering and waiting on a copy of Halo 3, of course! As much as Halo 2‘s final act disappointed, the game as a whole left me wanting more. Despite the fluffiness of the Halo universe as I have seen it through these two games, and despite having to put up with the clumsiness of the right analog stick, I want to spend more time with these characters and the beautiful and terrifying galaxy they live in.


PAX Pix 2011, Part Three: Halo Fest

Running concurrently (and adjacent to) PAX Prime was Halo Fest, a tenth anniversary celebration of all things Halo, and admission was free to PAX attendees. Although I had initially intended to avoid Halo Fest since I’m still new to the franchise, my curiosity got the better of me, and we found ourselves lining up by its entrance on Sunday morning. It was a longer line than I had expected, and though there were a couple of inconsiderate smokers upwind, the wait wasn’t bad. A guy in a Halo: Reach costume walked down the line shortly before the doors opened; at first, I thought he was a cosplayer, but soon realized that his presence here was official.

Acting on a tip from a PAX East exhibitor (some of the tabletop gaming companies were in the same wing of the convention center), upon entering Halo Fest, we circled around and picked up swag bags, each with a limited-edition Warthog Mega Bloks set included. From there, a quick trip to the Halo merchandise store was made for a couple of the things in the Part Zero pic. After I got all the goodies I wanted, it was now time to take in the event itself.

There were several little areas set up, each devoted to something different. Many of them were devoted to specific multiplayer modes, and there was also a small stage set up for Halo-related panels and presentations.

   

Near the entrance was a wall filled with images of fan-made tenth anniversary maps made in the map editor Forge. Some of these maps were really neat; my favorite is probably the one which contains an outline portrait of Master Chief made entirely of weapons.

   

Around the corner from the Forge screenshots were two pieces of artwork, a Van Gogh parody painted for the annual Child’s Play auction, and a wooden mashup of Mega Man and Master Chief. The same area held a glass case with recent and upcoming Halo action figures from Square Enix Products. Two of these Play Arts Kai were red and blue Halo: Reach figures originally released as San Diego Comic Con exclusives, and available for purchase at this event as well. The other two items on display were the upcoming Halo Anniversary Play Arts Kai, one of which—the silver Spartan Mark V—is slated to be a New York Comic Con exclusive. If you’d like to see these figures in more detail, I’ve posted additional pics of them on Tsuki Board (a shot of the Deus Ex: Human Revolution Play Arts that were shown, but not sold, in the Expo Hall is also in that set).

Scattered throughout the area were several sculptures and other displays: there were 1/1 scale statues of Halo: Reach characters, Mega Bloks versions of Master Chief and robotic flake 343 Guilty Spark (which, unfortunately, I had forgotten to get a picture of), a diorama of a battle scene, a photo area where you could get a picture of yourself gunning down a Covenant Elite, and a life-size, working Warthog built by Weta. It’s pretty much impossible to make out in the picture shown here, but on the front window by the driver’s side are little silhouette stickers marking units killed; in a bit of black humor, the top row included a couple of children and an old lady pushing a walker.

There isn’t much left to say about Halo Fest. Like the costumed guy outside, others milled about in Spartan gear, posing for pictures, and there was also an information booth of sorts, at which was an old Halo 2 promotional statue. Available at this booth were Halo Fest schedules, an issue of Official Xbox Magazine with articles about the series’ anniversary, and a couple of exclusive Halo-themed 360 avatar items (a Cortana Chip and an Energy Sword), among other things. Once we were done taking in all things Halo, a brief escalator ride brought us back to PAX’s Expo Hall.

In our next and final installment: remember that awesome Gordon Freeman cosplay I mentioned in Part Zero? Well, there will be that, and more!