Sunday, 29 September 2013

Legends of blacklisted ray men and splintered cells!

This time around I'll be reviewing two rather different Ubisoft games I've been playing lately. I bought both on a "buy two Ubisoft titles and get a discount" type of sale. I had to order them before the critic reviews arrived, luckily they are both fantastic games!

Rayman Legends

History seems to repeat itself with 2D platformers. I grew up on them in the late eighties and early nineties. Ranging from the original Super Mario Bros. on the 8-bit NES, through the "awesomeness" era that was the early 90's kids favourite blue 16-bit icon; Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive and then for the introduction of pre-rendered 3D for Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. Now in the last seven years, since the reintroduction of New Super Mario Bros. in 2006 on the Nintendo DS handheld system, the genre is all the rage again. Mostly because of young and new gamers which never followed the development from 2D to 3D games back in the day. It's a genre that there still is a lot of life in.

A couple of years ago Rayman Origins (2011) breathed life back into the old style 2D Rayman (much like Nintendo did with the Mario games), which had been lying stale since the early PlayStation 1 days. As stunning and entertaining as Origins was, the sequel had to be and indeed has, proved to do what it's predecessor did brilliantly, even better. Here we are at Rayman Legends after a few delays and platform changes!

I really recommend playing this game co-operatively! 
Boss battles have a huge scale!
Right from the start you cannot be anything but impressed by how beautiful the game looks. With it's colourful palette, funny and cute characters and enemies; Legends looks amazing, and it actually surpasses Origins graphically. It is the most incredible looking 2D game to date, and cheerful too! If Origins looked like a great hand drawing, well then Legends looks like a beautiful oil painting. I just love the art style with it's imaginative and quirky worlds. There's a great assortment design in each world with lots of variation spanning between the levels contained in each one. The distinct look of and attention to small detail in each level make everyone of them unique and atmospheric.

"Legends looks like a beautiful oil painting."

To make every level even more varied, the hidden levels, containing a queen or king Teensie (the small blue guys you need to find ten of in each level), have even better puzzles and challenges than before. Every boss battle feels distinctly different and have just the right amount of difficulty. I find the game more fair and balanced when it comes to how challenging it becomes. There are more checkpoints than in Origins, but it still requires that you play your best and progress in your skills. However, some of the extra levels that appear later on in the game, called Invaded, will be making you pull out your hair in frustration. They are hard, extremely hard!

Speaking about levels, I can't let the music levels go without a mention! These show up as an end-level for each world. They feature a famous song each, covered with the typical quirky and funny Rayman music. You need to jump and hit things in time with the tune playing. A sort of Guitar Hero made into a platforming level! They are so fun and put a smile to the face of anybody playing them! There are also daily and weekly online challenges to compete with highscores from players around the world. The game even has a funny 2D football game too! It truly is packed with content!

Every level has a huge number of details!
Run for your life!
Rayman Legends was originally intended to be a Nintendo Wii U exclusive, it shows with the inclusion of almost the whole of Rayman Origins in the game. It was most likely added to the game because Wii U-only users never received Origins for their system. For the 360 users though, I felt it little unnecessary to be playing all the Origins levels once again (they aren't part of the main game). They could have made another world or two instead, stuffed with new levels for the main story. I can't complain for extra content though and it was fun to replay levels from the fantastic Origins.

The original console intention idea also shows when the character Murphy turns up. He's a little helper that can open doors, activate levers and cut ropes to make it possible for your main character to progress through levels. It's kind of obvious his moves were meant for a touch screen. In the 360/PS3 version he's simply mapped to a single button. It adds some new variation in the gameplay though, and some of the levels containing him are very fun, especially if you play cooperatively with a friend! 

My first encounter with Rayman (and the platinum range) was on the PS1!
The amount of content and value for money in Rayman Legends is incredible, and be in no doubt that this game is a solid contender for one of the games of the year! It truly is one of the best and most beautiful 2D platformers I have ever played and should be picked up immediately. I found it, just like Origins, to be a fantastic game to play together with someone. There's just so much fun co-operating though every level and helping each other out! If you loved Origins; buy this game. If you love Nintendo 2D platformers; buy this game. Heck, if you love pure, classic gaming; just buy this game! Legends clearly shows that this genre still has so much more to offer!

One of 2013's most beautiful, cheerful and addictive games!



Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Next to the Metal Gear Solid series and it's famous Solid Snake character, Splinter Cell has a followed a more realistic and believable stealth approach to it's storyline. Inspired by Tom Clancy's popular books. The main hero, Sam Fischer, is back; voiced and motion captured by a new actor. Will the series bring back the glory to it's most famous games back in the Xbox 1 and PC era?

Splinter Cell seemed to stir up a bit of mixed feelings from fans and critics alike with the showing of Blacklist at last years Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). It tried to return to a more espionage style of game, but seemed to be a continuation of Splinter Cell Conviction's more action orientated gameplay style. Conviction was a game I really enjoyed, even though the stealth was put partially to side for a faster pace and action packed gameplay style. The final build of Blacklist however, seems to take the best of both worlds. The result is a very enjoyable game. Perhaps one of the best secret agent/stealth games in years.

You can't take much damage before dying.
There are numerous ways to take out enemies.
Blacklist sees Sam Fischer chasing across the globe after a terrorist group called "The Engineers", their motive being to get the US out of foreign countries and attacking them through smaller sleeper cells following what they call a "Blacklist" (hence the game title). The game puts you in control of the newly established counter-terrorism unit named "Fourth Echelon", which are based in a cargo airplane called "Paladin".

The Paladin airplane works as a main hub for the missions in the game, the idea lends itself somewhat from Mass Effect's Normandie spaceship, and I found it to be an excellent idea. On board the Paladin you can talk to crew members, change weapons and clothing to suit each mission and upgrade the airplane itself. On a centralised control table onboard, with a world map, you have full overview of the main story missions alongside side missions. 

"The Paladin airplane works as a main hub for the missions......I found it to be an excellent idea."

These side missions can be played in coop (both through the internet and locally) and there are even multiplayer competitive events. I really like how they have seamlessly integrated the coop this time, rather than separating it into two games the way they did in SC: Conviction. Successfully completing missions and taking down enemies in varied ways earns you money. The money again can be used to buy new accessories, weapons with multiple upgrades and gear. It works as a sort of levelling system and makes Sam more powerful over time. Replaying missions gets easier with upgraded equipment.

The dialogue and story is really good.
Playing Blacklist using mostly stealth options is the most fun imo.

The gameplay lends itself a lot to SC: Conviction, but brings back more of the stealth elements of the older SC games. Gone is the terrible black and white filter that shows you are hidden and in it's replacement a small light on your suit that lights up indicating how visible you are to enemy soldiers. The execution move is still present and takes a perfect enemy take down to fill and use. The take down can be a well executed stealth kill or a perfect headshot. Using the execution move is easy, simply mark three enemies and press fire when they are close enough. To shake things up a bit though, Blacklist introduces enemies with helmets that can take a headshot. This helps to make the execution moves a little less powerful than in Conviction.

There's a huge variation in the places you visit throughout the game, both graphically and location wise. They do a great job in being detailed with lots of entry points. They cater for gamers wanting to go guns blazing into each level and for those who wish to play the game sneaking around in the shadows completely undetected. This really helps the game appeal to a wide audience and can be played by both action and stealth fans. It adds a ton of replay value too. It's a nice change to see a game where both you and enemies go down with single bullets, rather than being almost invincible bullet sponges.

There are some disappointments though. The main story isn't very long to complete, that is however, if you simply don't do any side-missions. Something I wouldn't encourage anybody to do. The side-missions have some really cool locations and are equally as good as the ones in the main story. The technical side of SC is slightly two-sided; on one side the sheer variation in places you visit s and the design of them is impressive, on the other hand the Unreal 3 engine is showing it's age. The textures and especially the facial detail and animations are bland. It's a nice looking game, but nothing that stands out.

"I won't ask again; where is the cookie jar?!"
All in all I felt Splinter Cell Blacklist was what I wanted from the sequel to Conviction. The game feels deeper with more options and variation. It returns with great ideas from the previous game, yet manages to return closer to it's more stealth oriented roots. I really just enjoyed playing each mission and being put in very varied situations around the globe. One of the best stealth games in a long time.



Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Looking back: Destruction Derby 2

"Total destructionnnnnnn!" the cheesy announcer screams out as I smash an opponents car to a wreck against a concrete wall. All while I'm grinning at the screen, tapping away at the d-pad to turn the wrong way again and make another spectacular crash.

Enter the mayhem that was Destruction Derby 2, all the way back to 1996. It is, without doubt, one of my absolute favourite racing games ever.

"It is, without doubt, one of my absolute favourite racing games ever."
I remember it so clearly. I was a young teenager on work week with my middle school. Together with a friend we had got a job at an electronics store. We were told we could play on their Sony PlayStation system during breaks, the very week Destruction Derby 2 was released. Being the age we were, both the PlayStation and this game appealed so perfectly to us.

We were hooked. I can't really recall what completely pulled us in. The graphics, the destruction or the amazing tracks. Probably a combination of it all, making up the total carnage that was racing in DD2. I think our obvious enthusiasm for this game probably sold more than a few copies to customers passing by! At first we were simply trying out the physics in the game, remember that in the mid-nineties racing games with so much destruction was a rarity. It stood out from other racers like Ridge Racer and it was a sort of Daytona USA on steroids for the PlayStation, with focus on smashing and wrecking cars.

Standing in front of the shops PlayStation stand, we rammed into walls, barrel rolled off jumps, drove consistently the wrong way and tried every imaginable angle for the car to crash. "Hey, what if we crash like this?!" "Or how about driving the wrong way!", "What if we jump off the edge at an angle?!" and so forth. Our imaginations fuelled the fun we had!
"I think our obvious enthusiasm for this game probably sold more than a few copies to customers passing by!"
Eventually we progressed from the initial amazement of the crashes and graphics. We wanted to get new tracks and tried winning races. I remember we had real difficulties achieving this. Approximately a year later when I finally purchased the game under the Platinum brand (I didn't get a PS1 before the following year) I understood why; the game was unforgiving and really hard! Not simply because the opponents were ruthless, but because the game was based on physics and gave way for endless possibilities; the races became very unpredictable.

A simple jump could send the car bouncing in the wrong direction as it impacted with the ground after flight because of the damper physics. A serious crash could have you losing a wheel or a simple touch of a wall could affect your turn and make you spin off the track. The worst case scenario; the car took so much damage that it totalled. Which meant game over. No restart race. No new car. Just a DNF (Did Not Finish) in your season statistics.

Luckily you could pit stop during races, and hammer away on the X button to repair various areas of your car. The most important being the front, where the engine was. Other areas affected the wheels. Loosing or damaging these usually resulted in a lost race. This interactive pit stop is actually something I'd like to see again in a arcade racer!

The unpredictable pattern of each race made replaying race after race was an enjoyment and a new scenario. It also meant each race victory made you feel like you had really achieved and fought to get that first place! I realised then with this game, and for a lot of games right up to this very day, that; good physics in racing games really pay off to make each race unique. It was hardly realistic, but it felt right and made each and every race different. 

That feeling was something the English developer from Newcastle, Reflections, really perfected in it's next game: Driver. The weight of the cars in DD2 feel heavy and drift styled, making way for some really exaggerated, yet amazing moments. A first you would drive the safe beginner car with incredible grip, then you moved on to the slightly looser feeling of the medium difficulty car and at the end you drove the Pro car. Mastering the pro car gave way for some really cool and neat driving.

I think I learned every dirty trick in racing games through DD2. I ended up being really good at getting opponents overturned, spun-out or simply smashed towards concrete walls. Skills I have often used since, especially when playing for fun against friends in various racers since. Multiplayer brings out the worst in people, and DD2 taught me all that!

I must mention the destruction bowls. One cannot avoid to mention them in a write-up about a Destruction Derby game! They put the 20 car facing each other in a arena shaped concrete bowl with one goal: Survive and smash all the other opponents  The moment you got the green light, the insane carnage began. Smashing 20 cars into each other, combined with the fact that the cars no longer were glued to the ground like in the original DD1, meant you were airborne quickly. Seeing a huge car flying into the sky and smashing down was so amusing. Although the racers were far better in DD2, the actual destruction bowl was better in DD1. There, it was far more tactical and felt less random.

Destruction Derby 2 is truly one of my favourite racing games ever. A real eye opener to why I love this genre so much. I can still hear that over-the-top commentator voice in the game screaming; "wow, mind the paintwork!" or "total destruction!" or some other cheesy line. The combination of DD2's fantastic races, and DD1's tactical and addicting destruction derby bowls are still rivalled to this very day in my opinion.

A great memory among racing games for me!

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Remembering how to drive in a grid

Remember Me

Finally Capcom decides to put it's money into a new IP, it's about time to see something new and refreshing from them. Remember Me stirred up a bit of attention at E3 last year and has been on my watchlist until release. Has it delivered what the ambitious gameplay videos showed us? Yes it does, actually you can play the very segment just like the E3 video in the game, but like I foresaw with the video it is more restricted and guided than I'd hoped for.

Nilin, Remember Me's main female protagonist.
The game is very cinematic and has a nice transition between cutscenes and gameplay.
Walking though city areas calmly, could have been even better if the game was more sandbox approached.

The game borrows a lot of ideas from both movies and games. It plays somewhat like a Tomb Raider game with climbing, jumping and almost parkour-like traversing of high buildings. The artstyle and main character gives me vibes from Mirror's Edge. It looks so beautifully modern, stylish and with a strong sense of minimalism. The melee fighting combined with the sneaking and climbing and with the story of an dictator-like corporation reminds me of Beyond Good & Evil, in a good way. Maybe it's because it also is made in France?!

The gameplay takes a simpler approach to the climbing than a typical Tomb Raider game though. There usually is only one way to go, and this linearity kind of hampers the game from becoming a true adventure game. It consistently shows the way to the next ledge to jump to throughout the game, it feels like a training campaign that has outstayed it's welcome. This visual help is fine in more dramatic scenes, were you need to rush along and keep the game cinematic, but it could have let you explore far more freely. At least further into the game. There are hidden areas and items to collect, but they never fare far from the main route.

The fighting looks really incredible, finishing off the enemies gives you a spectacular move.
From dark, claustrophobic underground areas.... modern, bright and stylish ones.

Although the enemies are very generic looking the actual fighting takes a rather original approach. It plays like an old beat 'em up scroller, but lets you compile your own combos from various abilities. I kind of liked the approach, but it too could have had more depth. The fighting ended a bit like in the Batman Arkham games, repetitive,  after repeatedly beating the shit out of enemies with the same attack and weapon layouts. It is, however, refreshing to see a game free of guns and shooting in these days! It makes me think of how cleverly Mirror's Edge implemented the same, non-shooting apporach!

Remember Me covers more ground than just climbing and fighting though, it also has puzzles to solve and perhaps the games most original part: memory remixesNilin, the main heroine of the game, can connect to peoples memories and alter them. This introduces you to a sort of flashback movie of a previous event that happened to the character you have connected too. After seeing the movie you can rewind it and change the outcome and how the ending unfolds. Sounds confusing? Well it surely is a little tricky, but it really is one of the best parts of the game. A scene for instance shows a wife walking out on her husband and him becoming bitter, instead you change the scene so that he kills his wife and remembers the incident as a sad incident. The kicker though; it didn't really happen, it's just the memory that you have changed!

A typical memory remix scene, changing small things results in dramatic changes though the course of the scene.
To say Mirror's Edge's design didn't influence RE, would be a lie!
The game looks fantastic and varies a lot in the environments.
This brings me to the apparent fact that RM also takes ideas from movies. The story reminds me lot about the new Total Recall movie, and the memory remixing parts reminds me about Inception. Both are great sources of inspiration. The story in RE has a a nice build and requires you to keep focused to understand it. The heavy Inception influenced memory remixes enter a whole new level when you need to remix a memory, within a memory!

I would have liked some improvements in RM. The controls feel a little stiff compared to for instance Tomb Raider (2013), the fighting to be more varied and I would have enjoyed more memory remixes. These are in my opinion the most original and best part of the game and they only occur a handful of times throughout the game. A larger, more free roaming game, with a less linear playthrough, and much more adventure exploring would have made this game go from good to excellent.

The game is set in a future Paris.
Get ready for some Tomb Raider style climbing about!
The fights get quite hectic at times!
Remember Me is an original title that does a lot of it's ideas right, and takes influences from a vast amount of movies and games. The design and artwork of it's world and characters are fantastic, it also is a graphically pretty game. Perhaps though, takes on a little too much inspiration at once; needing more polishing and focus on each of them. However, it really is a game you should be playing this year, for there isn't anything like it and feels like a nice breath of fresh air in today's gaming market. I really, really hope Capcom continues the franchise and makes an incredible sequel.



Grid 2

Codemasters have really done a great job on racing games this generation. From the spectacular Colin McRae: Dirt, which first introduced us to the Neon game engine to the first Racedriver: Grid and right up to Grid 2. I've mostly been a fan of the Dirt series, and while I enjoyed the first Grid to a certain extent, it was far from a perfect game. I felt like the Dirt series nailed the controls and steering better. After three Dirt games in between it's original and now, Grid 2 finally gets it's spotlight again. This time it plays like it should have with the original!

Grid 2 has a lot of colour and looks fantastic for it.
Night races look great too!
The cars feel heavy and drifty, just they way they should be in a game like this.

Just from a glance Grid 2 looks much improved. Gone are the gritty, over-contrasted and yellow filtered colours of the first game and in it's place a colourful racing game with a large variation in scenery. Whether you are racing underneath a shadowy rail road, or speeding through a misty mountain past or enjoying the green countryside, Grid 2 looks great. You have a varied set of locations too (although not many track variations on each); like Barcelona, Paris and Chicago. Just like Project Gotham Racing, it's city racing done right. The night races underneath a full moon light really look pretty! The cars too look amazing and can be damaged in detailed crashes.

There's just something this developer nails in it's racing games that makes Grid 2 just as entertaining; it's the blend between looking and feeling fairly realistic and being arcadey, letting you constantly race on the edge between being in control and taking chances. It's an action movie for racing games. I love how the game puts all the cars in drift and grip categories, reminding me almost of the fantastic Ridge Racer Type 4 way back on PS1, and actually lets you race fast in both. Drifting isn't exactly the fastest way to go around corners, but in Grid 2 they simply encourage you to drift around corners in these cars.

It feels fantastic to zip underneath rail-roads in Chicago, slamming your car into the corners at high speed and burning through them, barely missing with the rear bumper on the roadside walls. All while making a huge cloud of smoke behind you. Realistic? Somewhat, but fun? Yes, so fun and intense when combined with the aggressive AI that can screw up things and make accidents just like a real racing driver. There are too many racing games that have AI opponents that just drive in a perfect line, never hardly overtaking or doing faults. Grid 2 feels much more alive with it's AI drivers. It makes each race unique and more unpredictable.

The overtaking events are actually very good.
Rage Racer?! Nah....Paris!
Get ready for some aggressive racing with lots of bumping into opponents!

There are some downsides to the rather action packed driving though; later in the career progress the game gives you races with very fast cars with equally fast opponents. These races end up forcing you to drive like a complete careless nut-case even to have a slight chance at winning. This reminds me of what I found the original game to suffer from and annoy me. The first game reached this level much sooner, but Grid 2 also ends up in this territory. It feels wrong to drive so recklessly and taking corners so dangerously simply because if you don't you have no chance to win a race. There seems to be an inconsistency of how fast the AI races, especially one-on-one races seem to be almost rubber-banded as the AI will never leave your tail. It resulted to that I had to lower the difficulty level for the later seasons, making some races far to easy and others only barely winning them. I still had tons of fun though.

The drift events are quite disappointing compared to the first game. Don't get me wrong, the drifting itself feels fantastic in the game, but they no longer have the open more free-roam drifting events. The original game had a location at the dock sides of Tokyo, sadly Grid 2 offers nothing in the same vein, only tracks. I really enjoyed these events in Grid 1 and it seems strange not to see something similar to the Gymkhana free racing events from the Dirt (which uses the same engine as the Grid games) franchise. This type of open racing space would have suited the drift racing very well.

Landmarks are everywhere on the international tracks!
Drifting is so much fun!
The track detail is detailed and feels large.

Grid 2 is a solid racing game, it does what it should do well. It looks, sounds and plays fantastic. It lives in the semi-realistic genre, much the same as Project Gotham Racing and Need For Speed ProStreet, and consistently keeps the racing action at a high level. You'll definitely be at your toes and loving each race, but miss the game taking any changes or delivering new ideas. But then again few racing games do. You will enjoy it more than the first game, at least I did, but I would have liked a less linear campaign and more variation in tracks and event types.



Me doing a long drift in Grid 2(!):