Tuesday, 17 April 2018

90's cops used to be virtual

Retroactive review: Virtua Cop & Virtua Cop 2



"Virtua"

Clever or not, Sega's early 3D games with the Virtua brand, riding the virtual reality trend of the early 90's, offered some unique games. Clearly nothing to do with VR, but boasting some incredible 3D games that broke technical boundary after boundary of their time. I'm here to talk about the Sega Saturn ports of two of the most famous light gun games ever created.

Infamous for it's badly ported launch line-ups of Sega arcade hits like Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter in '94/'95, the Saturn would save face and go on to receive faithful conversions the following year. While Sega Rally Championship and Virtua Fighter 2 are famously excellent ports of their time. Despite the huge difference between the low-end home consoles and the expensive custom arcade system boards, they built the games to take advantage of what the Saturn offered and re-code them to better optimise the hardware. There are a couple of other arcade conversions that really deserve some attention too. Namely Virtua Cop and Virtua Cop 2.


Back story


Sega's Model 2 arcade circuit board. Probably the most important arcade board ever produced. If you never played on one of these fine pieces of hardware, well then you simply didn't live the nineties like you should have!

Built by Sega in 1993, though planned as early on as 1990, in a collaboration with an  aerospace company(!), which later became a part of Lockheed Martin, head engineer and famous Sega employee; Yu Suzuki created the follow up to their first 3D powered hardware that was the Model 1. The original Model 1 arcade circuit board was only capable of making texture-less polygon environments at it's launch in 1992, however the following year Sega aimed for fully textured polygons and released the superior Model 2 arcade system board. So advanced was Model 2, it took five years for PC graphics cards to finally catch up with it in 1998. Five years.

Oh, and by 1996, Sega had further moved on their technology and released the Model 3 hardware, pushing technology boundaries even further! Making it into the early 2000's before anything released for the home market even came close. So yes, while you were still playing the low-res Tekken 2 on a PS1 in '96, you could've played Virtua Fighter 3 with PS2 level graphics on the Model 3 hardware in the arcades the same year. Think about that for moment. For those that actually did this, then yes, your mind was blown.

Going back to Model 2 though, Sega struck arcade gold with this piece of hardware and released many games from '93 right up to '98 on the platform, even though the superior Model 3 hardware emerged in '96. This made Model 2 the most produced and successful arcade hardware ever created. It amounted to a revenue of 3 billion dollars for Sega, selling over 130.000 units.

So yes, if you somehow managed to avoid playing on Model 2 hardware you must have lived under a rock, because it powered the following successful line-up of famous arcade hits in it's time, to name a few: Daytona USA, Sega Rally, Virtua Fighter 2, Desert Tank, Last Bronx, Dead or Alive, Virtua Striker, Manx TT, Fighting Vipers, Virtual-On, House Of The Dead and the games we are here to speak about:

Virtua Cop and Virtua Cop 2

Now there's a quality platform line-up you don't see very often!


My purchase


Normally I purchase older retrogames through Ebay, but recently for the first time, I used this retrogaming guy from Japan on Instagram.

I purchased a boxed Virtua Gun, commonly referred to as a "Stunner", basically the Saturn's official light gun. Also in the same package was the first Virtua Cop game, which belongs to the boxed gun, Virtua Cop 2 and the fairly bland arcade port of The House Of The Dead. The latter of which I may come back to at a later point, but for now I'm just leaving it mentioned here.



Everything was in fantastic condition, especially the boxed games looked extremely well taken care of, with the CD's looking almost new. The Virtua Gun is a large light gun, it feels meaty in your palms, but is fairly light in weight. It has a simple start button on the left side to navigate menu options with. Precision seems fine and I had no issues blasting down enemies with it. I bought a second blue gun at a later stage too. These light guns require a CRT TV, as they won't work on modern flatscreen HDTV's.


Virtua Cop




Released: 1994 (arcade), 1995 (Saturn)

The classic light gun game that started it all in 3D, with it's iconic first shipyard level with a security booth and a large fence, complete with lots of baddies in black suits wearing sunglasses. Huge aiming rectiles surround and rotate the enemies, as they slowly go from green to red and the camera zooms up close, giving the player a warning that they're about to fire at you. This zoom effect on enemies kind of defines the VC series and gives it a unique and recognisable design. It was a visual look later copied for the home market in Die Hard Trilogy. Namco's Virtua Cop copycat Time Crisis, which relies instead on a cover mechanic, owns a lot it's ideas from VC.



For the eyes of today VC1 features a very blocky polygon look, clearly showing it's an early Model 2 release. In fact, it almost looks more like Model 1 game with textures. However, the actual picture quality is extremely sharp on my CRT with and RGB cable from my Saturn. I am quite impressed how well they converted the game from the more advanced arcade hardware and made it look so alike. This is how a great conversion is done and what should have been done with Daytona USA and the first Virtua Fighter on the Saturn's release.

VC is structured into three levels, with separate scenes within each one; beginner, medium and hard. On top of that, you can actually choose difficulty settings, lives and continues in the options menu. VC can be played by yourself or two player cooperatively (or dual wielding for the laughs). Each level has a pre-programmed route through it and ends with a boss battle. Beginner takes place at a shipyard with containers and warehouses. Medium is set in a open digging site with an underground facility, while Hard takes place at the gang headquarters, sporting an office building.




Like most light gun games, VC is a painfully short experience. Each level taking 15 minutes tops to complete. It's a very set timeframe too, as the camera moves along constantly. The value for money and lifespan of a game like this is extremely cheap, but it's one of those arcade style layouts that begs for replays over and over. Making you try even harder to hit each enemy perfectly, and beat your last score. You need to see the game from the time period it released and the awkwardly short lifespan these early arcade ports had. It's not about the gameplay time of a single playthrough, it's about getting good at the game and repeating it to beat your last highscore.

For the sheer entertainment of light-gun games though, VC holds up well and still feels fun to play.


Virtua Cop 2



Released: 1995 (arcade), 1996 (Saturn)

Even though the sequel is very close to the first game in structure, it's less square looking graphically and lends itself to the more accustomed look of later Model 2 games with more environment detail thrown in. There's a more ambitious cinematic style going on too, with small intro sequences for each difficulty level and character. VC2 just has a less early 3D and blocky animated appearance all around.




The actual shooting seems a tad more precise and beefier when compared to VC1, at least when it comes to how the enemies react to bullets, giving a more weighty feel to the gun. It's nice and welcome upgrades all around.

For a better value for money, VC2 features lengthier levels and route choices during each of it's three difficulty stages. There's even an extra Saturn exclusive route in the last Hard stage not seen in the arcades. These routes make replaying each of the levels more interesting, adding much needed replay value. I like how the game more prominently features it's main characters too, personalising the game more with it's three gun swinging cops; James, Michael and Janet. I love the CGI intro and character art all around, it looks typically mid-90's arcade and gives me a nostalgic feeling.




Once again we are treated to an excellent arcade port with a sharp, clean picture and vivid colours. It's impressive how they have represented the more heavy polygon visuals of the original arcade game here. It's clearly been treated to an excellent downport as the cutbacks on polygons and have not made the visuals suffer in any way. Both Virtua Cop games on the Saturn are perhaps the cleanest looking 3D games on the system.


Summary


I've probably only played one of these games back in the 90's arcades like once or twice, as my parents generally weren't too happy about me playing shooting games in general, plus I always went for the racing ones anyhow! I did watch their demo reels a lot though and other players playing them. However my gameplay nostalgia for them isn't really a strong one and as such I played them recently with a fairly objective and clean sheet.  Even though modern games have since surpassed everything technically in these titles, I really enjoyed playing through them. I clearly realise why they became such huge arcade hits. The home ports are excellent and a great reminder that the Saturn could pull off arcade quality if it received the development time it needed to be done properly.

I had a blast playing these games, especially with a proper light gun and a old CRT that is required for them to work. Recommended for anyone owning a Saturn and wanting to take part in those glory days of Sega's arcade 3D dominance.

Friday, 23 March 2018

Assassinating a movie

Game movies: Assassin's Creed (2016)


I don't normally review movies on my blog, or mention them much, even though I love watching many of them. But I thought to give it an exception as I have recently got around to watching the Assassin's Creed movie. The one from 2016 with Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and Jeremy Irons in the lead roles. I never got around to seeing it in the theatres and finally picked it up very reasonably on Blu-ray.

Not that I feel the genre of making movies out of famous videogames is a very successful one, I really only recall the Silent Hill movie from 2006 as being the most decent one and a good conversion from gaming to silver screen. The Tomb Raider ones with Angelina Jolie weren't too bad, but suffered from fairly generic stories. After watching the trailer and seeing what seemed like a fairly high budget, I had a slight hope for Assassin's Creed to be at least quite decent. Sadly though, it falls into a mediocre and forgettable affair.



There's nothing really wrong with the production of the movie, lets get that out of the way first; It's well filmed, the fights are well choreographed, the transition from modern surroundings to ancient ones are done well. In general, the whole production value seems to be at a high level, so technically there's nothing here to point out in a bad light. The storyline and the presentation of the main character is what pulls AC down.

We alle know that the AC games have a modern storyline, which explains the need to go back into ancient times to solve puzzles and mysteries. In a strange change of events though, the focus of the movie seems to shift back to giving the modern setting far more screen time than the ancient one. Where as the game series got a lot of criticism for shifting between the modern current era to the ancient times far too often in the first release and changed this by giving the player far great game time in the ancient setting from AC2 and onwards.

This change in focus made you care more about the ancient ancestor than the current main character, but this movie focuses on Michael Fassbenders role as Cal in modern day. Don't get me wrong here though, it's done a far better job than the first game in this part and pulls your interest more into the current time period from the get go. However, this gives the viewer little incentive to care about what's happening in the 1492 setting of medieval Spain. It's just a backdrop which annoyingly interrupts the plot with fancy action and parkour skills. The fighting is well choreographed with lots of cool moves and fights, but it just feels so uninteresting and bland to watch. The ancient Spain looks grey, brown and dull, far too computer animated for my liking. There's nothing you wish to care about there and the movie certainly doesn't want you to care about it either.

With it's obvious plotline and stereotypical ending, Assassin's Creed sadly turns into a very mediocre affair from there on. The modern setting opts simply for some extremely obvious plot twists and ends up following a route that seems like a boring safe one with predictable outcomes.

The AC movie could have been so much more considering the game series leaves a lot of room for tons of ideas and settings. None of which I feel are very utilised here. It feels like the people behind this movie kinda just played the first game and then really didn't bother to study anything else. The movie will leave AC fans disappointed and for non-gamers it will just seem like a generic movie with a sort of time travel twist.

Skip this one, just doesn't add anything to the AC franchise at all.

Rating


★★

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

BioSpace?!

Prey



Platform tested: Xbox One
Released: 2017

Review: The original Prey, that came out in 2006, was a game that had been in considerable development time, it was positively reviewed but didn't quite make an impact. This new version is a re-imagining of the Prey premise, and not a sequel. it's heavily inspired by System Shock, which again Bioshock was inspired by. Although Prey is set on a space station it has a clear artistic inspiration from Bioshock and plays very much like it. Metroidvania type exploring with new areas unlocked after abilities that make it possible to backtrack and open them.

A great premise for a solid game then? Absolutely. But once again we see Prey failing to capture the interest of large sales numbers, but that only means that you can pick this up for a bargain!




Prey's beginning level sets the tone of the game and instantly throws a plot twist onto the player. It's a neat way to quickly get the premise and setting of the story out of the way, while still retaining a shocking and revealing moment. Set on a seemingly abandoned and huge space station, you quickly realise something has gone terribly wrong. The enemies are quickly introduced; shape shifting and aggressive aliens called the Typhoon. They're part of some experiment going on in the space station. This shape shifting ability gives way for some neat jump scares; suddenly a chair can change into an alien and start attacking.

Gameplay is close to Bioshock too; at first you rely on a wrench(!), then obtain guns and after a while you have the ability to scan and learn more power related attacks from the aliens. These powers work much like magic in a traditional RPG, letting you fire massive energy blows to enemies across the room etc. Combining these attacks are key and of course searching every little drawer and shelf for ammo, food and parts to build new weapons and upgrades. Although you could call out the game at being almost copycatting Bioshock, I personally didn't mind. It's a good game to be inspired by and Prey outdoes it's inspiration with more options and a far deeper gameplay system anyhow.

I loved wandering around the space station, travelling from a main hub to various areas such as laboratories, sleeping quarters, indoor forest areas and offices. There's always a main goal to complete and follow, but alongside there are lots of side stories with individual goals. The artstyle is beautiful too; with a classy retrostyle to the design, often blended over to high tech and modern areas. It's a great sight to behold and the non-gravity outside areas feel intense and lonely, further immersing the player in a beautifully designed world. I really enjoyed soaking in all the atmosphere of the specstation, simply because of the great design that's gone into it.




Prey is a tough game to finish, it's difficulty is much like Bioshocks; unforgiving at times. Prey even more so, there are some areas you encounter such hostile and numerous enemies you wonder if you ever will be able finish the game. But stick with it and you become the master of collecting the right ammunition and using the right abilities to fight through.

My main letdown of the game was perhaps the rather short and should I say "typica" end to the game. I kinda liked it, but it could definitely have been fleshed out with more substance at the end. Like Bioshock though, the story tells itself throughout the game and the more you explore, the more you are rewarded with a deeper layer of knowledge of the story and what has previously gone on at the spacestation. This type of storytelling requires the player to use their imagination and try to get a feeling of the atmosphere. Much like how the diary entries in the old Resident Evil games on PS1 worked.

All in all, a must-buy for fans of Bioshock or lonely space settings. It's a fantastic first person adventure which begs the player to sink into it's fascinating and creepy atmosphere. The difficulty is hard, but rewarding and forces the player to alternate attacks and learn new methods. Exploring is key and definitely a nice change of pace from shooters rushing from A to B.

One of last years top five titles and a warmly recommended game for those seeking a lengthy and well designed world to sink hours into. I found the progression of the story and gameplay well structured, keeping me interested until the very end. Do this commercially sleeper hit a favour and buy it!

Rating

★★★★

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Keep control of your layers!

Retroactive review: Layer Section



Platform tested: Sega Saturn
Release year: 1995

Review: This time for my retroactive review I'm going back to a lovely shoot 'em up, or schmup for short, on the Sega Saturn. While there are a ton of schmups made through the years, this game features a rather neat gameplay mechanic.

Firstly though, let's get the confusion of the title out of the way. It's original arcade release title in 1994 was Rayforce in Japan and the U.S., while in Europe it's titled Gunlock. For the home conversions it's titled Layer Section in Japan, while in the U.S. and Europe it's goes under the name Galactic Attack. I guess somebody forgot to file a title trademark for each region along the way?!

Luckily the actual game isn't anywhere near as confusing as it's many titles! I'll refer to the game as Layer Section as that's the name on the cover of my Japanese Saturn version and it actually explains the game's main mechanic quite well; shooting enemies in two layers. You've probably played many games in this genre before and although the rely heavily on the same principles, sometimes they feature some cool new mechanics that set them apart from the competition. Layer Section is such a title.

Schmups typically let you command a spaceship or airplane, shooting numerous enemies scrolling down towards you on the same plane. However, in LS you have the spaceships main gun for the enemies straight ahead on your plane, while underneath you on the ground is another layer that requires you to lock onto enemies below with a laser sight and fire to hit them. It gives a neat depth to the picture and a neat variation in attack methods. There's no super weapon here, like a mega bomb or anything, so the controls are very easy to grasp and simplistic; manoeuvre the ship with the d-pad, fire two different weapons with the buttons.

In general there are three types of enemies; those who always stay on the lower layer, those who rise up from the lower to the top one and those that are only on the top layer. This gives way for some hectic gameplay moments where you try firing at stuff in both layers at the same time, luckily the bottom layer becomes something you almost do by second nature as you focus on not being hit by bullets on the top layer. The enemies that rise from the bottom to the top layer often require just one hit by laser as they rise, then when they reach the top layer they require quite a bit of bullets to take down. As such you are often rewarded to quickly, and hectic, take enemies down before they reach the top layer.





Controls are super tight and fast, your spaceship is perhaps a little large in pixel count for my taste, with it's hitbox being  a bit smaller, confusingly enough, but not uncommon in the genre. The Saturn's d-pad shows off it's strong side for this type of game; rolling your thump around it to avoid oncoming fire; making the precise movement a breeze. Let's face it; the Saturns controller features probably the best d-pad ever made and is a treat to use in 2D schmups like this.

LS is a beautiful 32-bit 2D shooter. For those that have only roamed the 16-bit conversions of shooters on the Mega Drive or SNES, they're in for some really neat and detailed sprite graphics. Backgrounds and sprite layers scroll individually and are scaled around and rotated with ease on the 2D powerhouse that is the Sega Saturn. It's neat to play these advanced 2D games as they give a glimpse of what would have been if the 3D gaming revolution never happened. It's also a showcase in how the Saturn easily handled arcade perfect ports of 2D games that actually require a lot of hardware to run. Slowdowns and small, simply sprite models from the 16-bit consoles simply can't match this type of quality. Be sure to play the arcade mode though, as the Saturn mode has some cutbacks.

The game features a varied set of seven levels, with tons of detail onscreen and the depth effects with scaled sprites really help the picture "pop". There's also a pretty sprite drawn intro and ending sequence. There are literally tons of layers of sprites and scaling going on, all in 2D. Sure the Mega Drive could handle a few layers and schmup gameplay speed, while the SNES could rotate and scale sprites, but this game is just on another level all together; sprites are thrown around at ease in the bucketload, scaled and rotated in manner that gives a almost 3D depth to the levels!





Like most schmups, LS lets you progressively upgrade the power of your weapons by requiring pickups that are dropped by enemies. These upgrades are kept for each life lost, but not when you hit a continue. It's a insanely difficult game by all means and perhaps best managed in coop mode with a friend, there's a cheat to grant you 8 credits rather than the default 4, otherwise you'll have to resort to a Action Replay cartridge if you want infinite lives or invincibility. You're seriously going to get tested on the later half of LS, as the difficulty rises considerably.

Presentation wise there's the neat Tate mode, which is the perfect arcade conversion, like a lot of the schmup ports on the Saturn and PlayStation 1. Tate turns your TV picture from 4:3 to 3:4, the format used for most scrolling schmups in the arcades. This lets you see enemies earlier on as the scroll down towards you, rather than the standard 4:3 which cuts away the top of the picture to fit the format. It's beautiful to see the game in it's proper format and it actually makes you see the whole size of bosses and help spot enemies. If tilting your CRT TV sounds scary, demagnetising it  for the earths gravitation and all, then you can easily use a LCD flatscreen vertically without issues.

I hooked up my Saturn to a newly acquired OSSC, an analogue to digital lag-free open source converter, and played it vertically on a huge 46" flatscreen TV with scanlines. Worked perfectly and looked stunning. Here's a pic of the setup at play:




All in all, Layer Section is a great looking and fun 32-but shoot 'em up with it's neat layer mechanic, hell I even liked the typical addictive early 90's midi soundtrack! It's still one of those titles that haven't raised to ridiculous prices, yet, like most games in this genre have on the Saturn. In hindsight such games often were overlooked and badly reviewed in the 3D craze that swept over the fifth generation, but look into the more obscure 2D world of that generation and you can find some great games that give a glimpse of the 32-bit 2D future Sega bet wrongly on.

Sure, I would have liked more depth to a singeplayer experience so many years later and, but this is a pure arcade conversion; it's about trying to reach as far as you can on the lives and continues you get, beating that old highscore from the last time. "Just one more go" is the motto to go by. 

Rating

★★★★

    Thursday, 22 February 2018

    Second fall of Titans

    Titanfall 2



    Platform tested: Xbox One X
    Release year: 2016

    Review: Titanfall was one of the earliest titles I bought for my Xbox One back in 2014, much to my surprise it brought back a lot of love for multiplayer first person shooter matches. You can read my positive review from back then, here. Fast forward to playing  a multiplayer beta of TF2 in late 2016 and my excitement for a sequel soured. So much in fact I I ended up playing it early this year instead. Boy was I wrong about the beta impression and should have given this sequel a second chance much earlier. It's fantastic.

    There's a part of me that's glad I waited though; I got to play this in a sweet upgraded form on my Xbox One X. Going for a ridiculously low price, like most Electronic Arts sales do, I purchased TF2 and dug in to play the singleplayer only, initially. As you may recall the rather disappointing aspect of TF1 was that it had no singlepalyer part, it was a multiplayer only game. While this is fine and it never proclaimed to be anything else, the amount of time put into the game world and the design of it, kinda made it almost beg for a singleplayer. Luckily TF2 offers just this, and not just a quick and generic singleplayer. No, it's generally a incredibly entertaining one to boot!




    TF2's campaign eases you into the way Titans work and let you do a fair amount of playing on foot first. This lets the player become familiar to the super fast movement of the pilot. As a pilot you can wallrun, take huge jumps and keep yourself airborne by parkouring around the environments. The story then puts you into a Titan, a huge armoured robot, and learns you the basics of controlling it. It's a great way to get familiar with everything in an engaging and gradual manner. You visit lush jungles with dangerous wildlife, to high tech factories and abandoned cities. The locations and tasks along the way are consistently varied. Combat shifts from small enemy engagements to huge, full-on battles. It's a hectic and fantastic campaign journey with lot of new ideas and breathtaking moments. They even managed to make each main enemy pilot into a cool boss fight, I looked forward to each one along the way!

    When I'd finished the sweet singleplayer campaign, it's approximately 8 hours long, I decided to at least give the humans versus enemy AI waves multiplayer mode Frontier a go. It was a great addition to the first game and has since been made available for TF2 too. In fact I'd recommend new players to start here, it's easier getting used to things in increasingly difficult waves of AI with the company of teammates helping out. As I played the Frontier mode it dawned on me how much I missed the TF1 online days. So I decided to test out the more classic multiplayer modes too.

    I was pleasantly suprised to find that some of the annoyances from the beta had gone and the multiplayer matches were a blast, just like the first game. Gunning down either AI soldiers or real person pilots to gain sweet points towards a Titanfall is just as fun as back in 2014. Once you get your hands on a Titan and jump in to wreck havoc on other enemy Titans, the Titanfall games just go into this amazing zone of endless fun. You feel like a bad-ass Transformer just gunning huge weapons away at other robots. It's a fantastic feeling and great way to shift between traditional first person shooting and something rather different in one online match. The huge scaled maps work so well on multiple levels too; there's small and narrow spaces for pilots to roam on-foot, while there's huge open landscapes fort he Titans to battle out in.

    Visually Titanfall 2 is beautiful, I'm especially weak for the combination of stylish, minimalist buildings in white, combined with a orange sky and natural elements like trees and grassy fields. With everything running at a super high resolution and rock solid 60fps TF2 looks so smooth, fast and stunning in motion. Sure, TF2 doesn't quite reach the super detailed heights up close compared to the more graphical pushing singleplayer titles on console. However, it aims to make gameplay fluid and boasts an artstyle that works perfectly with the balance between large levels and the amount of available detail within it. You'll be blown away by great visuals all through the campaign and even in multiplayer it looks way better than lots of the competition. Thumbs up for a field of view slider too, letting me get a wider view of the game world. 




    It's hard to pick out anything specifically bad in TF2, it's basically TF1 with more of everything, prettier than before and just faster. More Titans and pilot setups to choose from too. If there's only nitpicking to be made I'd like to mention is that it perhaps could have tried even more new ideas as it sometimes feels so close to TF1 it's like just a graphically upgraded version in multiplayer. The singleplayer campaign could perhaps have been a couple of hours longer too, sweet but short in other words. 

    Titanfall 2 is for those seeking something a little different to the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises and considering the comibnation of single and multiplayer now it's the best place to start for beginners of the franchise. What to rate such a game then? It's better than the first game in every way, which I also gave a five star rating, but the existence of the first game keeps this second outing on the same rating, even though it's better. But man, is that a strong five star rating! Go play it!

    Rating

    ★★★★