Friday, 7 July 2017

Edgy swords and calibured souls

Retroactive review: SoulCalibur II HD Online


Back in the early 2000's I'd heard so many good things about SoulCalibur on the Sega Dreamcast, the sequel to SoulBlade (SoulEdge in Japan). Jokingly referred to as "Tekken with weapons". It was the first game that not only got a perfect arcade port, but also had been extensively upgraded for the Dreamcast. The days of superior arcade graphics had passed, now the consoles were better.

I could hardly wait when SoulCalibur II was announced for my platform of choice that generation, the PlayStation 2. Released in 2003 for the PS2, Gamecube and Xbox, one year after the arcade, it was the fighting game I learned to love on my PS2. Finally putting my other beloved Namco produced PS2 fighter into it's DVD case for a rest; Tekken Tag Tournament. SCII felt fresh, different and more exciting, much thanks to it's 3D orientated 8-way movement and exciting weapons to battle with. But also because I had never experienced the franchise before.


Although I somehow never care to think of the 2000-years as "a long time ago", seeing the introduction video and hearing the sounds of the main menu in SoulCalibur II HD made me realise it's ages since I played it. I remember battling it out with a friend who also had the game, aggressively debating which character was the best one and comparing how far we'd reached in the main story mode. Every fight was about trying out new tricks and strategies, but perhaps even more importantly; learning how to stop them from damaging you. Wonderful memories that give me that warm nostalgic feeling, even though I never settled into the PS2 library as fondly as I did with the PS1. I guess retrogaming nostalgia is picking up for that console now too as it's such a long time ago.

Going back to the story mode I mentioned, I cannot avoid the subject of how excellent it was, called the "Weapon Master" mode. I'd always thought that fighting games were a tad shallow in their content before SCII. Discussing this topic and agreeing with my SCII rival friend; we'd love to see a fighter with some sort of grander story content than a simple arcade mode back in the early 2000's. Behold when SCII arrived then, we missed out big time on the Sega Dreamcast and the first SC with exactly the same mode here in Norway, which offered just what we'd hoped!

In Weapon Master you embark upon a story of a traveller seeking the mighty Calibur sword. Each location give you, while simply presented as text, a small back story and description of where you are and why. Fights will typically be multiple battles with one life bar, some sort of boss or scenarios where the ground is slippy or your life decreases rapidly. These mission-like tasks give the game more depth and lifespan to the singleplayer, an unusual feature for fighters back when SC1 and SC2 released. Granted the story was simple and completely alike regardless of which character you chose, but it at least felt refreshing and far more ambitious than the competition, and that meant a lot for my opinion of the game.




Let's not completely forget the arcade mode though, it's the standard affair of a series of fights, followed by one main last boss fight and then a short ending to watch. Nothing new, but it's standard affair when fighters are concerned and  a fast and fun way of collecting endings. Costumes and new weapons though, have to earned and bought through points earned in Weapon Master. Kind of forcing players that wanted stuff unlocked to play the main offering of SCII. Something everyone that plays this game really should!

There's a fairly large and varied number of fighters too. Each with unique weapons and moves. Learning the moveset and most of important of all; the range of your weapons key to becoming more skilled at SCII. That range gives you the knowledge of knowing when you can strike with a vertical or horizontal blow and knowing when you can approach and avoid the enemy's weapon. Be it nunchucks, a fighting stick, a samurai sword or a long whip you are up against or using, you need to know how far it could reach or how fast it could hit to become skilled. It still is very fun, and was a huge change for me back then from fighting with fists and legs like in most other fighters at the time.

SoulCalibur II HD Online is a faithful conversion of the old console game. Everything looks just how I remembered it, although the jaw dropping graphics look incredibly simplistic by today's standard. This time though, it's not running through the infamous horrible video output of the PS2 (even the Dreamcast which predates the PS2 with two years has much better image quality output), which hampered many games from showing their best side, but in glorious 1080p at 60fps! Smooth, sharp and still pretty nice looking in it's upgraded resolution.

It's perhaps the last graphical effort the arcades pushed before disappearing as home consoles became extremely powerful and far more advanced. In a time just before the dawn of online console gaming too. To modern eyes it may look a little sterile and empty, but it's clean and sharp presentation without tons of clutter onscreen feels kind of a refreshing change compared to modern games. Plus it also has this colourful arcade, 90's Sega-like flair to it's visuals that I can't exactly explain. Colourful and vibrant then, showing off it's high polygonrate and impressive 3D models of it's time.




The game still plays fast and responsive, it's fairly simple control scheme captivates even today. Perhaps the appeal of a simpler game is breath of fresh air as many fighting series these days take for granted you're familiar with them in advance. The variation in fighting styles are quite impressive as each character feels distinctly different. Be it long range weapons or close combat ones. As a minus though, which is not an issue for me since I was playing the game as a singleplayer one, I don't believe this game has received any of the patches the arcade version did. As such, I'm guessing there are ways to cheat with certain characters not being balanced enough. This will leave hardcore players annoyed, it was a chance to make the definitive version of the game and they still missed that mark. Sadly.

Can SCII still hold up though, besides nostalgia in a clean presented and high resolution package? Is there anything to get here that younger gamers can't receive through a far more recent fighting game? Well, I felt the SC series after this release became a little cluttered with ideas and new directions that perhaps weren't well planned out. As such I feel SCII still offers a more pure Soul Calibur experience, just before the series went a bit overboard. The Weapon Master mode still stands out as a fairly unique idea, that rarely has been touched since in a similar fashion. There's also a ton of unlockable content here, further showcasing these were the days before paid DLC cluttering any extras you would want to obtain.

All things considered though, it's probably a purchase that values itself best for nostalgic players rather than newcomers. Back in the day I'd give this five stars without blinking, these days it falls back a star compared to more modern iterations. Plus they missed the mark on making it the go-to definitive version by not including patches from the arcade version.

Rating

★★★

Summary


I've thrown hours of hours into SCII through my teenage years and I replayed the Weapon Master mode once again now. I feel it's kept it's charm well and would recommend others with fond memories of SCII check it out on either Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 or Xbox One. If the Dreamcast was your scene though, don't worry there's SC1 available too in HD (only on Xbox 360 & One mind), though it hasn't retained it's weapon master mode sadly, but it's an excellent port nonetheless.

A fighting game classic then, a ton of great memories and a fun reunion! If I were to pick one of my favourite fighters through the years alongside Tekken Tag Tournament and Dead or Alive, I'd pick SCII each time. Just like I'd pick Ivy each time to be my fighter!

Let the nostalgia battle commence!

Monday, 3 July 2017

There are zero horizons at dawn

Horizon Zero Dawn



Platform tested: PlayStation 4

Moving away from their Killzone franchise, Horizon Zero Dawn is Sony's dutch, first party developer Guerilla Games, first take on an open world game with perhaps one of the worst and non-descriptive game titles in years. Set in an overgrown post-apocalyptic fantasy landscape blended with high-tech remnants of buildings and robotic animals. You play as red headed Aloy, all the way from her childhood where she is taught by an outcast of a large tribe that rules the lands you roam. She finds a hologram remnant device which allows her to learn special abilities and connects her to the past technology of the ancients. Continuing in her adulthood, you learn to explore the world and the secrets it contains, not only about the present tribe conflicts, but the how significant the story and decisions of the ancient modern technology was.

It plays as a typical third person game with a foot in many genres; blending action, stealth and adventure combined with many role playing elements. It's a bold change of landscape for the developer, coupled with a lot of daring ideas put into the mix; being an almost stone age setting, with stealth action gameplay featuring bows against robots. It's different alright. Does it succeed though, especially at it's ambitious scale and incredible visuals shown in it's preview trailers prior to release?

The short answer yes, a technical quality game through and through, but the longer, playthrough answer perhaps dampens the experience somewhat from becoming a perfect masterpiece. HZD delivers what it promised; breathtaking visuals and scope, plus strong gameplay, but it falls into the dangerous pit that plagues a lot of open world games: outstaying it's welcome with repetitiveness in a empty shell of a vast landscape. Don't get me wrong from the start here though; it's one of the finest games this year, and a real PS4 system pusher. Let's take a closer look though.




NZD's gameplay is based on a melee and a bow shooting mechanic. Stealth is heavily emphasised by the game, taking down the pace one would think this game was about in it's open world. You are forced to scout the environments, lure enemies into one on one fights and take them down without bringing too much attention to yourself. There's a lot of extra skills to unlock with XP points and varied selection of bows for close, fast combat, sniping and bomb throwing to aid the player. There's human enemies too, however they seem more of an after-thought and work as stupid cannon fodder. The animal robots bring the much needed variation and are the stars of the show here. Each animal attacks in different ways, some are even peaceful until you engage them. Others are so huge you need to climb them to scale them, a breathtaking experience the first time you try!

There's no doubt that HZD is a visual treat for the eye; the engine beautifully renders extremely detailed characters and close up details of nature and metallic animals. Wind blowing in the trees and the dense foliage makes for the most impressive parts, epsically when the sun bounces it's reflections off various surfaces. It's an impressive scale to the world too, with lots of detail far into the distance. Clearly, most of the detail is best shown up close, but the game successfully balances the landscape depicted into the horizon too. It's one of the prettiest games on the system, especially considering the 1080p resolution, double that for PS4 Pro owners, and the sheer size of the play area. Another example that exclusives for both the PS4 and Xbox One end up looking a step above the multiplats.

I really appreciate how detailed they have made small features like Aloy 's hair and face too, it looks mind blowing detailed up close, as do all the characters that appear in cutscenes. The only visual gripe I have though, which kind of ties in with the actual enjoyment of the game, is that the world looks a little barren at times. There's a lot of repetition going on; that red sneaking grass repeats itself everywhere and there's basically desert, snow and woodland as scenery settings. The latter two blend so much into each other they basically feel like the same are at times.

Often areas just feel like barren and empty shells with a few robot dinosaurs thrown in. I guess this isn't unusual in these type of games, Far Cry 4 had some of the same issues, but it sticks out at times. Especially when there's little actual interaction with the world, you sort of just walk through it to reach places. I wouldn't have minded some more climbing and exploration like in a Tomb Raider game to ground Aloy into a more believable and interactive world, but I guess this isn't that kind of game.




NZD is quite challenging, at times it can get quite frustratingly so. If you for instance plan on simply brute forcing your way through and only sticking to main missions, you will most likely hit a wall at some point. The enemies will be at a far to high level, it's positive to see a game that at least tries to reward the player to do some grinding and side missions to level up. It luckily never feels like you need hours on end with XP grinding though.

A hard game, yes and that's fair, but the forced stealth gameplay, which although brings the pace of the game down, becomes unforgiving and repetitive when enemies become alert of your presence. It goes from a sneaky, bow shooting precision to a repetitive melee mashing chaos as you desperately try to dodge roll over and over to avoid attacks and smash the enemies with your fighting stick. I wish the enemies could've been less arrow sponges too; some require tedious amounts of shooting to take down. Amidst a chaotic dodge rolling fight, I found the traps and trip wires difficult to use. As such I had to take them down one standard arrow at a time, a painfully slow process. As I progressed the ability tree eased at least some of the frustration as I became powerful enough to survive even the chaotic brawls. The boss fights though, man I hated them, they just throw everything you learned about stealth out the window and feel incredibly unfair.

Overall I really enjoyed NZD, it's a game that pushes a lot of new ideas into a truly ambitious setting. A likeable, strong female protagonist and a blend of high tech futuristic elements set into a sort of stone age era makes for a very unique fantasy world. The storyline takes you across icy mountains, dense woodlands and rocky deserts with enough variation within the main missions to keep you interested for it's roughly 25-30 hour ride. While I did enjoy playing through the story for the most part, I found the world elsewhere to slowly become repetitive and lacking depth. As mentioned there's no real exploring or climbing around the environments to actually give the world a more engaging experience to make me stay for the long run.

The complaints however, don't outweigh the fact that Guerilla Games have truly developed a great new series here which I really enjoyed playing for hours. It's unique artstyle, setting and enemy design really intrigued me; I really couldn't tell how the game would span out. If comparisons should be made, I would still recommend Rise Of The Tomb Raider over this, ROTTR being a little more linear and tightly structured with better variation. For this year though, I doubt any exclusive for PS4 will surpass Horizon: Zero Dawn!

Rating

★★★★

    + Plus points

    • Beautiful visuals, lighting and setting. The game handles close and distant detail in a remarkable fashion.
    • Gameplay is solid, feels exciting to sneak up and kill the robotic animals.
    • Unique setting and story, with excellent quality in cutscenes.

    - Minus points

    • The open world feels barren and empty at times.
    • The huge focus on stealth makes the pace tedious for an open world game.
    • Repetitive in the long run when the campaign ends.

    Friday, 19 May 2017

    A speedy need for a reboot

    Need For Speed (2015)



    Platform tested: Xbox One

    There's no shortage of Need For Speed titles, and within this huge racing franchise. It spans all the way back to the early days of 3D racing in 1994, on the ill-fated 3DO console, there's been a lot of sub-racing genres represented throughout it. This latest instalment, from 2015, aims to reboot the entire franchise into something new. Perhaps a little close in time to the game before it, one can ask ourselves if the series could have needed a longer break, but this reboot turns out to be quite a solid racer under the bonnet.

    NFS's appearance is perhaps it's most innovative "feature" for the genre, while the rest of the structure is a fairly typical for an open world NFS fare. Situated in a huge city, you're a new member of an underground racing league. Rivalling gangs roam the streets and illegal street races are the way to make a statement and climb the ranks. It's not exactly rocket science, and the story within is represented in some cheesy, but intentionally so, movie clips with actual actors in. The cutscenes are so over the top they actually become quite funny, and bring back memories of older 90's EA titles with similar video clips. Tongue in cheek and probably intended exaggeration, they become a nice way of moving the story forward and introducing the characters in the story.




    The actual driving feels very solid this time around, there's a nice meaty sound to the cars and they control with more feeling of actually gripping realistically to the tarmac. The far more arcade approach of recent NFS games have had this floaty drifting mechanic in comparison. This time around the physics engine are somewhere between arcade and simulation but closer to the latter if that makes sense. There's a wealth of tuning and styling options too, more so than most other racers in this half sim category. Letting you dig into setting up the car both visually and mechanically just how you like it. For more casual players though, you can simply tune the car by pulling a bar from drift to grip as your preferred car handling.

    Much like how the Forza Horizon games allow you to drive the type of car of specific model, without forcing you into stuff you don't like, NFS2015 lets you hold on to your favourite car for long periods of racing too. Allowing you to tune it up to compete in faster races. Sure, you need to buy some of the faster models at one point, but it helps get you more familiar with each car. The game takes a more personal approach to owning each car, it's about tuning and styling it into your own personal racer, rather than owning 500 cars in your garage. In fact you can only store a handful of cars at a time in your garage, further emphasising that it's about making unique and personal cars. It's a refreshing approach and while the car selection is fairly slim, it's a varied enough selection across various car brands to cater for most car enthusiasts.

    In fact, this whole game shows a far more direct and clear goal as to where they want the series to go and what it offers. The NFS series has jumped around so many aspects of motor racing it's been difficult to retain a sense of direction and affiliation with the series as a whole. You simply had to try the games yoursellf to see if the style and gameplay suited you. Mostly the previous entries have focused on cops vs. illegal racers, but simply resorting too often to the overused Hot Pursuit formula. This game approaches a dark and gritty night movie scene visually, a cinematic approach to it's presentation and focuses mostly on the actual racing. It does have cops roaming the streets and chasing you, but they're far more toned down and a side show if you're out free driving the map. The main game is down to earth street racing with a raw feeling to each car, combining excellent motor sounds and top notch visuals.




    Sure, NFS2015 doesn't reinvent the wheel, pun not intended, and there's nothing fundamentally new here. There's a fairly generic main map, tons of races set up in a fairly uninteresting manner. However, the cutscenes, graphical style and presentation and more narrow focus on the danger and thrills of street racing brings the game into a far more unique package than previous entries. The fairly small roster of cars makes up for itself by offering lots of variation to cater for most motor enthusiasts and the customisation will really make it into your own personal machine should you want to put hours into it. 

    I'll recommend this racer over any of the NFS games of recent years, it's a great visual treat for those seeking to see the best nighttime cityscapes in any racer to date too. While Forza Horizon 2 and 3 are far more packed with cars and varied races, I highly recommend those games above this one, but if they're already in your collection then NFS2015 is definitely worth checking out! It's a solid racing package and a great effort at making Need for Speed relevant again.

    Rating

    ★★★★

      + Plus points

      • Stunning movie-like nighttime visuals and rain effects with a unique look.
      • Cheesy, but fun  movie cutscenes with real actors.
      • Fast and raw feeling to the racing and meaty sound effects.

      - Minus points

      • The game structure is extremely generic.
      • Day racing would have been nice to change things up.
      • Nothing fundamentally new to the genre here.

      Sunday, 14 May 2017

      Slimming the one

      So I bought a Xbox One S...


      ...while nothing major to report; I thought to give it a little write up!

      Back in early 2014 I purchased the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, within days of each other in fact, both released late in the prior year. You can read my initial impressions from back then of the consoles here. For the first year and half of owning them, my main console ended up being the PS4 for multiplatform releases. Much due to the slightly more powerful hardware, resulting often in a 900p vs 1080p resolution for multiplats. My Xbox One was at the time mostly used for the exclusives on the system. While I enjoyed the early PS4 games like Infamous Second Son and The Last Of Us Remastered, the consistent releases of quality exclusives and more interesting titles for my genre tastes on the Xbox One, turned it into the being the most used console over time.

      In addition to excellent titles like Forza Motorsport 6, Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 3, Halo 5: Guardians and Gears of War 4, to mention some of the consoles best exclusives, other factors like the backwards compatibility and the superior controller played a main role in the One turning into my most played hardware. The backwards compatibility now features lots of major titles from the Xbox 360 and even makes the games run better. When looking at the controllers I always felt the PS4 controller was an upgrade from the terrible PS3 one, however it doesn't match the Xbox One controller, or even the 360 one for that matter, in quality, functionality and comfort. As a fan of shooters and racing games, those tiny and cheap triggers alone break the PS4 controller for me. They can't match the large, ergonomic, springy triggers on the Xbox One controller with the feedback rumble built into the very tip of them. The terrible analogue stick placement that lingers on as an old and unwelcome relic from the PS1 days further dampen my enthusiasm for the PS4 controller.

      So after last years E3 reveal of the slimmed down One S and a few months back when a very reasonable price cut was given for it here in Norway, I just couldn't resist to purchase an S. Plus, it's got a UHD player built-in!



      From a design point of view the new white and sleek box is simple, yet beautifully designed. Perhaps even one of the sleekest looking consoles to date. It doesn't look like it's bulky and more anonymous father. Sure, the design is still very square, but it looks far better designed and much less bulky. I like all the small round holes covering the big round ventilation hole for the main fan on the top. The tiny holes covering the front of the console look great too. Gone is the scratchable, dust collecting and fingerprint friendly shiny plastic half of the console. The console just subtly blends into your white TV furniture, simply looking like a media or blu-ray player in size and form.

      I like how all the pressure sensitive buttons on the console have been replaced for proper mechanical ones. The console can now also be placed vertically for those that prefer it standing on a desk for instance. The main hardware functional design choice of having one large fan for cooling and thus noise reduction has been kept; bigger and slower fans make less noise than small and fast rotating ones. Although the original One probably will be slightly less noisy when working at full power, simply due to the larger box, external power supply and more space for ventilation. Though this difference is nothing I noticed; the One S i extremely quiet, nowhere near my jet engine sounding PS4 launch model in comparison.

      The one major complaint about the original Xbox One was it's rather massive size compared to the smaller PS4. This issue has luckily been fixed and not only is the box much smaller with this S model, but the huge power brick has now been fully integrated into the main box. Plus the power cord is now a generic and easily replaced figure of eight cord. If you're a Kinect owner, going from One to One S; keep the serial number for all three devices and order a special Kinect to USB cable  that Microsoft offers for free on their website. The One S no longer has a dedicated Kinect connection and thus the extra cable required will disappointingly need an extra power outlet. Though one can question how few really use the Kinect at all any longer.




      What I really appreciate other than the actual slimming of size to the Xbox One is the added hardware functionalities, quite significant ones as such. Rather than making it a cheaper model with less features, much like Sony does with it's slim models, added for the One S is a larger hard drive for the same price, going from 500GB to 1TB, though an even cheaper 500GB model is also available.

      The most significant upgrade though, is the really cool UHD disk drive, which replaces the Blu-Ray one. Letting you very cheaply have access to play UHD movies, a great bonus as standalone UHD players are still very expensive. The One S also lets you see Netflix content at 4K and adds HDR colours to not only HDR movies but games that feature it and TV's that support it. The latter craves a small hardware boost in the CPU to make it work. As such the One S will give you slightly higher framerates in unlocked framerate games, 360 BC games and probably a few frames in higher resolution in games with dynamic resolution. Nothing you'll notice significantly, but it's a nice touch. Physically there's an added IR blaster at the front of the console to easier use various remote controllers through your Xbox as a media player too.

      I did a quick size comparison with the original Xbox One and as you can see the actual console is considerable smaller. The total amount of shelf space, considering the huge power supply being integrated, makes the reduction in size significant though.





      That's really all there is to say about this new hardware purchase! If you're in the market for buying a Xbox One this model is a no-brainer as the S model will be the only one available by now in the shops. If you are in the market for a used one though you have to consider mainly two things, apart from a cheaper price for the older model: Do you want a fairly small physical size on your console, for me personally it wasn't such a major issue with the power supply, and also if 4K Netflix content and UHD movies are something you'll use. The latter choices require a 4K TV, and if you want the added HDR functionality, you'll need a newer type of 4K TV too. Decisions, decisions and all that. 

      All in all it's nice to see Microsoft making the Xbox One go from a fairly plain black box, to something sleek and cool looking with a much smaller size. It fits stylishly into most TV furniture; the S in Xbox One S is for sexy!

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