Thursday, 24 September 2015

Fighting in the streets!

Retroactive review: The Street Fighter Zero series

I never was into street fighting. 

It was just too brutal. 

Especially for a newbie like me to Capcom's famous fighting game series at least! To be honest I was never really struck on this genre until it went 3D with Virtua Fighter, and even then it took me until the first Dead or Alive on the PS1 to get me interested. Although I loved beat 'em ups like Streets of Rage and Final Fight, the 2D fighters never really caught my interest in any noteworthy degreee.

Back story

I remember a close friend introduced me to the genre and the series in general with Street Fighter II on the Super Nintendo. I completely sucked at it, and gave up quickly on trying to compete in versus matches against him. I did however watch him play the game to controller wrecking annoyance, desperately trying to beat the bosses on the harder difficulty settings. I even remember him getting his hands on Super Street Fighter II (if my memory serves me right), where some of the bosses now were playable characters. The rest just looked the same to me. The young me was not impressed.

Since those long gone 16-bit days I never really followed the Street Fighter franchise. I vaguely remember actually seeing an arcade cabinet of the ill-fated first SF game on a car ferry some summer holiday long ago. SF2 probably serves as one of those games where the sequel changed everything into a far better and enjoyable experience, surpassing everything the original had done badly. SF2 moulded it's genre, and would influence it in years and years to come.

So SF1 did nothing. SF2 revolutionised a genre and influenced a generation. SF Zero (confusingly called Alpha in the West) was a prequel storywise and continued to set the SF series at the top of the 2D fighter scene, with a younger looking roster of it's famous fighters. SF Ex series dabbled early in 3D. Then followed a lukewarm welcomed SFIII series, which would prove it's perfection in the competitive environments like tournaments.

A long hiatus later and the more recent cel-shaded SFIV arrived, which once again jumped to 3D, albeit still 2D gameplay, much like Ex had done years before with varied success. Nowadays we have an Unreal Engine 4 powered SFV under development. A long series of games, that is famous for the many revisions released. Today though, I'm focusing on the SF Zero/Alpha trilogy.

Why Zero?

SF Zero made me open my eyes for this series and actually enjoy it, and it didn't happen back in the mid-nineties but in 2015(!). I jumped in at the deep end and purchased the third in the series, on my PS Vita (originally a PSP game). I was pleased with the fantastic 2D art and colourful look of the game. However, it proved to be extremely hard and overwhelming. So I decided to start at the beginning; with the first Zero game, using my Sega Saturn.

Before we look at each game, why go with the Saturn versions? Well because until the much later re-releases the Saturn versions were the best arcade conversions for home use. Much thanks to the consoles large video memory and excellent 2D capabilities. As such, Zero 1 & 2 have more frames and smoother movement for character animation than their PlayStation counterparts. Zero 3's Saturn version, believe or not, even outperforms the Dreamcast version(!). A statement on how well Sega's 32-bit console performed with 2D sprites and a way to be pleased that the console ended up to be what it was, even though it commercially failed outside of Japan.

Let me not forget to mention the superior Saturn controller for 2D games, the d-pad is miles above anything the PlayStation controllers have given us through the years. Feel insulted as much as you like for that statement, but the PlayStation d-pads are simply four buttons inside it's controller shell. Making rolling inputs on the d-pad way more cumbersome than on the Saturn pad.

Any how, that was the why. Now let us look at my thoughts on each Zero game. Thoughts from a true newbie and a terrible Fighter on the Street.

Street Fighter Zero

From the first fight, it's clear the Zero games have a visually different appearance than the Street Fighter II series. The characters are larger, more detailed and have lots of tiny animations like clothes moving etc. The colour palette is just more colourful and diverse, but the overall contrast in them are more subtle than the harsher colours of SFII. I'ts got a distinct soft toned colour scheme going on, for lack of better words. For console-only players the upgrade from the 16-bit versions of SFII on the SNES and Mega Drive are obvious, finally the series gets a home version running on the benefits of 32-bit hardware. It's closer to it's arcade brother, than the home versions of SFII were. 

Zero has a fairly small roster of characters, and when comparing to some of the later alterations of SFII, it feels a little lacking and disappointing. Sure, there are new characters, as well as old favourites like Ryu, Ken and Chun-Li, but there's a feeling there should have been more. I do understand though, the close race in releasing games for the arcade and at home at the time. Understandably, Capcom thought it could release sequels down the line in the same series. Perhaps a rather devious plan to sell lots of versions of basically the same game, but keep in mind this is way before anything could be updated with online patches. Fighting games need fine tuning and balancing.

Although it's not exactly full of content, I felt the move from going straight onto Zero 3 and then moving down to this version, helped me understand the series more. I actually could beat the game on easy, and get a feeling on how the max bar works. Basically it's a bar that fills when performing moves, taking damage or defending yourself, thus allowing you to pull off some powerful super moves.

Compared to Zero 3, Zero 1 felt a little slower, less overwhelming amount of options, characters and fighting styles, thus letting me really enjoy what the Zero games are really about.

Street Fighter Zero 2

Zero 2 is probably my favourite in the series. Where the first lacked in new characters, options and animation details, Zero 2 delivers more of everything in a more finished package. In a way it's what the first game should have been at release.

Even better is if you buy the Street Fighter Collection on the Saturn, basically it's a 2CD compilation of SF games. CD1 has arcade perfect conversions of two SFII variants (forget the slow animated SNES games) for those who never played the "proper" arcade versions. CD2 has SF Zero 2 Gold, confused? Well Gold fixes a few balancing issues, and adds Cammy as a training character. It's really just for the very interested, and yes the ordinary Zero 2 is just fine to play!

Of all the SF games I've tried recently, this game just stood out and "clicked" for me. It balances detailed, beautiful 2D visuals, with a clean and simple design and easy to grasp gameplay to dig yourself into. For anyone looking to test out the Zero series, this is the place to be. 

I love the smooth and nice paced fighting, complete with the varied and really cool looking characters. The backgrounds all look fantastic and truly show how pretty the 2D art of it's time used to be. It's probably one of the most fun fighting games I've played and truly enjoyed!

Street Fighter Zero 3

At times I feel Zero 3 maybe went a bit overboard on new characters, the amount of added stuff from Zero 2 is jarring. For newcomers it feels slightly overwhelming, and I felt it wasn't the best version to use as a entry to the Zero games. The X,Y and V-ism bars open up countless ways to combat with super moves, but they seem unexplained and more hardcore for newcomers like me. The game's default setup is with the power bar maxed up for each fight and the game running in Turbo 2 speed, which kind says enough. It's about speed, action and kind of going over the top.

Technically Zero 3 is probably one of the best looking 2D games made and a true statement on how much more the 32-bit consoles could deliver than the 16-bit consoles even for sprite based graphics. Something the arcades proved again and again. The backgrounds look incredible, and the animations for each character never seizes to amaze when you consider it all being hand drawn.

So while I do like some of the character additions; like bad-ass Cody in his black and white striped jail outfit, hand cuffed in each fight from Final Fight fame or double ponytailed bubbly-blonde wrestler R. Mika, of recent Street Fighter V reveal fame, I found it very overwhelming playing with all these characters. It's like it's blending out the uniqueness of each character by having so many. So play at least Zero 2 before dabbling in this game, and even then it might not suit you. It feels more like a standalone SF entry.

Other versions

Are there any other ways to play the Zero/Alpha games today? Without investing in a whole Sega Saturn, especially considering the Japan-only Zero 3 is insanely expensive? 

Luckily there's a arcade perfect port of Zero 3 on the PSP/Vita! Titled with a Max at the end. This version retains all the frames and animation from the arcade version and has much improved loading times. It also includes a World Tour mode, which actually is quite good. You can dig yourself into levelling and fighting through a long tournament with increasing difficulty, small challenges along the way and options to choose which fights you will join.

Another fairly easy option to play the series is the PlayStation 2 game, SF Alpha Anthology. It's cheap and wildly available on ebay, even factory sealed. It contains all the arcade games, each version, in perfect conversion. The only thing missing really is the singleplayer World Tour mode from Zero 3 Max on the PSP/Vita.  Anthology is a perfect collection if you just want the arcade modes of each game though.

The only problem I have with versions outside the Saturn, unless you have a arcade stick, is the six button and d-pad superiority on the Saturn pad. SF games have six buttons and using SNES/PlayStation/Vita etc. pads always feels wonky as you have to have two of the fighting buttons on the shoulder buttons. It feels off, and doesn't give the same precision of the six buttons layout on the Saturn pad. The Saturn d-pad is also much easier to do rolling moves with, which are often needed to perform special moves like a Hadouken for Ryu, Ken and Sakura.

Fight Over

Well that's an insight into Street Fighter's sub-series; Alpha/Zero from a SF beginner like myself. Although this old series is strong even today with new iterations, I highly recommend you to check out at least SF Alpha/Zero 2. It really is an amazing 2D fighter almost 20 years after release!

They don't make 'em like this anymore!

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Solving crimes and driving cars

Project CARS

Platform tested: PlayStation 4

Apart from the more arcade based racing games, on consoles,  the Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo series have divided their "simulator" experiences on two dominating hardware brands in the industry between them. Xbox and PlayStation consecutively. On the PC market however, there's a far more diverse and larger market for racing simulators. Project CARS feels like it's born out of such a market and offers this experience on consoles. However, it dares to go up against the Forza and GT giants offering very much an alike experience, though on a multi-platform level. The potential to fail is risky, but the reward of catching two large markets of customers over two consoles is large and tempting.

Luckily Project CARS hits the mark in a very good way, and offers console owners a breath of fresh air and and an equally quality-filled package that Forza and GT have exclusively offered. Does it deliver on all aspects and as such is the new king of the racing sub-genre it delves into though? Read on and lets take a look!

PCars offers a large and detailed career mode, that is luckily "casualized" by a female announcer explaining the types of races, goals etc. available to the player. You set up your alter ego, a profile that follows you as a racer through your career. I found the options of what type of racer your are, which again reflects as to which type of cars you begin your game with to be a bit confusing. I began in tier 5 racing cars, but in hindsight I should have began at tier 1, Go-karts. Building my career from the more small and simple races.

Right from the get go I felt the racing AI was set a little to high for my comfort zone and I felt the practice and qualifying races to be overwhelming and  a bit tedious. This of course depends on how hardcore you wish to play, luckily you can skip to the actual races in your season calender. This calender shows which races you have signed up for in that season, mainly the career races but also smaller racing events and championships.

Progressing through seasons puts you slowly behind more and more powerful and thus faster cars. Although giving you slower starting races, I felt the controls to be very sensitive and the racing felt extremely realistic. In other words it took some getting used to the driving, don't get me wrong though, it took getting used to in a good way. There are lots of aids to help you drive easier, including the option to make the AI drive slower if you feel the game is too difficult. With a few races under your belt you will learn to drive more carefully than you are used to from more semi-arcade racing based games and you'll be winning in no time!

This is the key to PCars in my opinion; it feels and should be driven with a more simulator approach than you are familiar with on consoles. Respecting this, you will get much more enjoyment out of PCars. The career mode could do with a straight up easy mode though, removing warm up laps, qualifying races and making the menues more simplified. The slick presentation of the Forza games come to mind as a great example to follow.

Diversity in racing disciplines seems to have been the goal for the developers behind PCars, there's a large amount of types of cars. From small Go-karts, muscle cars, small FWD cars and all the way to Formula racers and GT cars. I really like the fact that PCars throws up to 40 cars on track in certain races. Seeing them all in front of you not only looks impressive, but also gives you a challenge to drive carefully to pass them all. Fans of certain types of cars can stick to racing them in many seasons, or if you are like me; I really enjoyed signing up for new types of cars each season for the challenge and experience.

Technically PCars rivals the top of the crop when it comes to graphics in this generation, the cars and tracks all look stunningly detailed. The amount of on screen cars is breathtaking and the varied weather and daycycle effects really add a visual flair to the whole package. It helps vary races on the tracks, with a sunny race suddenly turning into a nightmarish fight to keep on track in pouring rain.

There is, however, a cost: PCars doesn't remain it's silky smooth 60 frames per second consistently. It falls down in the 40-50's at times, but I never felt it fell so much it hampered my driving. I have to mention that the helmet camera which turns your head into turns and blurring the dashboard when you speed builds up to be fantastic. It's nod to the similar camera style to Need for Speed Shift 2 Unleashed. These camera options bring me to one of the things I love about PCars, perhaps it strongest side.

The huge amount of options is where the game shines. Everything from camera angle field of view, seat placing, HUD elements, manual engine start button, windscreen wipers etc. You can tailor everything towards the exact race and onscreen visibility you wish to have. The controller can also be tailored to have the buttons exactly where you want them to be. Another nod towards the PC simulator games; why dumb down a players choices simply because it's on a console?!

I've enjoyed myself on the track with PCars, at times it may seem a little sterile and repetitive when you are overwhelmed with tons of races each season. You can of course skip these and focus on the main races. Nevertheless it's a great package for the more simulator fans of the genre.

For PlayStation 4 owners it's totally a must-buy as the GT series is a no-show to this date on the console. For Xbox One owners, whom have the fantastic Forza Motorsport games to delve into, there's still a lot of fun to be found here even though. Although Forza 6 is just around the corner with weather and night racing, PCars is available right now and it does such effects on all tracks.

So if you are in the mood for a technical racing package, with a ton of options and races to dig yourself down in, PCars really is warmly recommended. Though perhaps isn't something I'd off the bat recommend to more casual racing fans.



    + Plus points

    • Top end graphics at (mostly) 60 fps.
    • Varied range of racing disciplines.
    • Weather effects really help mix races up and thus less predictable.

    - Minus points

    • Not a huge amount of car models.
    • Steep learning curve and perhaps too hardcore for casual racers.
    • Career mode could use a more simplified easy mode to cater for everyone.

    Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments

    Platform tested: PlayStation 4

    This game kind of took me by surprise. It was on sale, and my wife actually pointed it out as something she would like to play. Initially I was a little sceptical, as a lot of these type of games come over as being fairly low-budget games. My wife played through the game and then warmly recommended it, so I gave it a chance. Luckily I did, because I ended up really enjoying the experience!

    C&P is divided into six cases to solve, each one taking around 1-2 hours to complete. The main part of the game is exploring various locations that are connected to the case and finding clues and evidence to use to solve it. Interviewing suspects and witnesses will allow you build a though of brain map of the whole case, choosing certain clues will then lead to a conclusion. The game has a lot of different conclusions per case, so you can easily arrest the wrong person. Replaying the cases is highly recommend to get each ending.

    There is also a lot of mini games such as studying evidence and dramatic scenes like fights and shootings. Though these dramatic scenes feel a little misplaced, they are luckily very few and short. It wouldn't be Sherlock Holmes without a little drama in a case!

    The presentation in the game is very good, while it doesn't look cutting edge graphically, it really has some great looking locations with a superb Victorian atmosphere. There's a great variety in places you visit in each case throughout. I liked that you return to certain locations in all cases, like Sherlock's home or the police station at Scotland Yard. It's cool to roam these old streets of London and the buildings from another era!

    I also found the menues to be very smartly designed, making browsing through evidence, previous dialogues and clues a breeze. Essential in a game about solving crimes. You can even look at this evidence while travelling by horse and carriage between locations, in other words while loading! The way you set up a brain map to solve the case is easy to navigate and use. At any time you can change your conclusions and the game even lets you replay the conclusion if you convicted the wrong person without replaying the entire case. In other words there aren't any of the typical annoyances like having to replay the entire game because you did one wrong decision.

    I thoroughly enjoyed my playthrough of C&P, finding it a relaxing game to just sit back in the couch and play. It doesn't really require any fast paced movement and can be played at you own pace. The story and exciting cases pulled me in and kept me interested from start to finish. The atmosphere, dialogue and unpredictable cases really help this game build it's own little world, making you feel like you are playing a Arthur Conan Doyle novel.

    I would recommend this game for those seeking a game that they can relax playing and really enjoy a murder mystery! I'm looking forward to the developers making another game in a similar fashion!



      + Plus points

      • Atmospheric Victorian locations.
      • Excellent evidence and conclusion system.
      • Complex cases with unexpected outcomes.

      - Minus points

      • Fairly short.
      • May seem slow and repetitive to some.
      • Some of the mini games suck.