Friday, 15 January 2016

An episodic nightmare of evil (pro)portions!

Resident Evil: Revelations 2

Platform tested: Xbox One

The Resident Evil franchise spans over so many titles it's confusing, and as such, I'll only focus on the spin-off series, Revelations, here. The previous Revelations, which launched on the Nintendo 3DS in 2012, received an upgraded version for the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in 2013. I played the latter to bits on my 360, and it's still a game I warmly recommend and love. 

Why I enjoyed Rev1 so much was mostly due to the more atmospheric and creepy focus, much like the original RE games were on the PS1, only with modern third person shooter controls. A stark contrast to the action games RE4 to 6 have become. Strangely enough Capcom decided to make a revelations sequel and I was initially excited. However, the end result seemed somewhat low-budget and the reviews were mixed.

Luckily though, I caved later into the year, and purchased the complete box set of Rev2. This complete version contains all the four episodes, plus two extra and all the DLC that was released in episodic form digitally. While I'm not a huge fan of episodic releases, this particular box set works just like a full game, so it doesn't affect my view. All episodes have since been bundled and retail at a low price digital, so going this route probably your best and cheapest option. There's a lot of value for money here.

Rev2 kicks off in a familiar cheesy RE fashion showing a TV advertisement for the anti-bioterrorism organisation Terrasave, which the two main protagonists are connected to. Namily Claire Redfield and Barry Burton of RE fame. Although this laughable intro is actually intended to be overdone and sarcastic, it's joke falls flat. Not only is the following cutscene full of classic RE dialogue awkwardness, but all the prejudices for bad storytelling throughout the RE series overshadow the developers intention. Let it be noted though, the dialogue is slightly better than previous instalments throughout. Conversations sound more casual and believable.

The actual game starts when you wake up in a prison cell as Claire, together with Barry's daughter Moira. Here the game introduces you to it's mechanics and character swapping feature. Be it with another person or on your own, the RE games seem to have been pushing for you to play with two characters since RE5 (well actually since the mediocre RE Zero, but that's another story). Unlike previous attempts though, in Rev2 it works surprisingly well. 

How this "play two characters at once" feature somehow works so well for Rev2 is much to do with the them having different natures in their skills and abilities. Claire is the offensive player with weapons to kill zombies, while Moira is the defensive one with a torch that can find hidden items and slow enemies down. I found this shift in gameplay style refreshing. I also appreciated that you could, and must, swap between them to progress. Items and ammo that you pick up are easy to manage and swap between each other.

One could argue that playing the second character, which basically only has defensive abilities, while the other player has all the guns, could be boring in coop. Understandably both the players would like to actually shoot the enemies, but for those looking for a coop adventure with something a different, perhaps where one of you doesn't feel comfortable with third person shooting, then this is a perfect solution. In essence it's what makes Rev2 truly unique and memorable.

I ended up really enjoying my playthrough together with my wife in coop play. She always preferred to be the defensive character and left the shooting to me. Knowing this divide in gameplay before purchase is essential for those with coop play in mind. Local coop has a neat feature too; simply drop in or drop out of the session and it switches on the fly between fullscreen and splitscreen. Great for those wanting to just test out the coop and then continue on their own. Coop is also of course available, and perhaps is the best way to play, online. Single player works fine too though; you simply switch on the fly between the two characters with the press of a button.

Technically Rev2 does it's job fine, there's no bells and whistles. The graphics, while I appreciate the 60fps, look a little low-budget and it could be mistaken for a last generation title on the 360/PS3. I don't want to think what this game looks like on last-gen with the high framerate and resolution missing. Luckily I'm playing the Xbox One version, which apparently has the best performance on current gen consoles.

The visuals do their job though, and in the more organic and open areas of the game, shine though as looking quite pretty. Sadly there's a lot of repetitiveness in the indoor locations in the first two chapters and little actual interaction with the environments. There are crates you can smash and boxes that can be moved to reach places higher up, but they stick out like a sore thumb screaming "look, here's something you can interact with". The rest of the environments look stale and often have this feeling of emptiness to them.

Just like the previous Revelations, Rev2 has great gameplay. It's even better in Rev2 thanks to the inclusion of an upgrade system, that lets you beef up your character even further with new skills and stats. There's just a smooth and well controlled feeling to the shooting that is criminally overlooked by Capcom themselves in their inferior controlled mainline RE series. It's a shame to see that the laughably bad RE6 simply ignored the first Revelations and had this terrible control system of it's own. Rev2 is simply just fun to play, and it's even more so in coop with someone. Especially as each and every episode feels distinctly different and throw a lot of new ideas in for each chapter.  

I went from a "this should be okay for a cheap price" to truly enjoying the game with my wife. Granted, we thought the story was stupid at times, however the ending and especially the tense build-up towards it was actually quite good and exciting. We appreciated the diversity in each episode and the introduction to new enemies and puzzles keeping us at our toes through it's lengthy 10-12 hour lifespan. There's almost no filler here to tire your attention out.

We also enjoyed the location setting, which I won't reveal as it's a spoiler and the many creepy areas. Artistically it reminded me a lot of the Silent Hill games, with dark, worn-down and abandoned buildings. It's perhaps the RE game that strays the most away from previous games in it's environments, but in a good way. Thinking more about it, the scary atmosphere and messed up looking enemies, the comparison to Silent Hill is actually quite spot-on. Just don't expect the more unnatural and psychological side of SH to make an appearance, this is a RE game after all.

It must be mentioned that I loved the small references for RE fans in the dialogue too, like the comment to Barry and Jill's legendary bad lockpick and sandwich conversations from RE1. I even ended up being hooked to the Raid mode again, much like in Rev1, with it's addictive levelling and weapons upgrade system. Raid mode pits you against a certain number of enemies in increasingly difficult missions. The take place on smaller locations, some even from RE6 and Rev1, where the goal is to traverse through them and simply survive. It's fun addition, that I would have loved to try out in coop.

All in all a surprise title that really should be played for RE fans and coop players alike. While it lacks substance in it's story and technically needs more polish, it proves that great gameplay is what makes a game last in the long run. Warmly recommended as a coop game and one of 2015's finest moments in my pleasantly surprised opinion.



    + Plus points

    • 60fps framerate combined with smooth shooting mechanics, even in splitscreen.
    • Interesting setting and varied tasks in each episode.
    • Two distinctly different gameplay styles for each coop player.

    - Minus points

    • Graphics work fine but look unpolished.
    • Fairly repetitive environments and a lot of re-use in each episode.
    • Storyline starts off bland and dialogue is cheesy at times.

    Tuesday, 12 January 2016

    64 is the new sequel

    Retroactive review: Ridge Racer 64 & WipEout 64

    In much the same manner that the word Super was inserted into established franchise titles on the Nintendo SNES, 64 became the number to end Nintendo 64 titles with. Among these titles are two games I've always wanted to check out, mostly because I love their PlayStation counterparts, but also because they seem like solid titles on their platform. The young me in the 90's always joked around with what would happen when a series actually reached the 64th version and these existed, sadly for the two their franchises seem to have halted for many years. I'm talking about Ridge Racer 64 and WipEout 64

    These two racing series were for the most part associated with the PS1, although the first two WipEouts were available for the Sega Saturn and PC. Being a huge PS1 player back in the 90's I kind of sceptically overlooked these entries for the N64. I guess that I made this predetermined opinion about them feeling they were merely spin-offs, designed to fit the N64 platform. Partially I was right, but mostly wrong and digging into them reveals new ideas with different takes on established franchises.

    Here we are, many years later and I've gone back to take a closer look. I must mention that my screenshots beneath are all from high resolution emulated versions, as I have no capture card for my consoles, making them look far sharper than running on an actual N64. With that info out of the way, let's dive in and see what the 64-bit versions deliver for each title.

    WipEout 64

    To better understand where W64 stands in the WipEout timeline, compared to the PS1 games from the same generation, W64 lies somewhere between WipEout 2097 and WipEout 3. Indeed it was released in-between these two entries too, although over two years after 2097 and closeer to the third game. It's clearly heavily based on 2097 and could be mistaken for a version of that game. Menues and graphics resemble it closely.

    Whether or not it's a true sequel, or merely a spin-off between 2097 and W3 can be discussed. I feel it's more of the latter, though the game bridges some of the gap between the games; a female race announcer, an elimination mode and a debute for a splitscreen mode are introduced prior to W3.

    Many of the track layouts in W64 are mirrored versions of ones from W1 and 2097, although with different locations and trackside detail. While I appreciate the smoothed out textures and insanely short loading times of the N64, it's hardware simply pushes too few polygons around. Resulting in a bad draw distance, almost worse than W1, making memorizing of track layouts a key to master the faster racing classes. If you want to avoid suddenly being confronted by a corner popping up that is!

    Graphically W64 falls somewhat behind 2097 in my opinion. I had to boot up 2097 to confirm. While I appreciate the lack of polygon warping the PS1 suffers from, thanks to the N64's Z correction, it just doesn't look as good because of the lack of environment detail and the short draw distance. The reuse of track layouts and the rather random design artstyle of them take away some of the uniqueness the PS1 trilogy offered through it's connections with The Designers Republic. This design team was dedicated to the PS1 games art, track design and colour use, resulting in a very modern look in the 90's.

    There's a nice selection of music on offer, that fits the WipEout style in electronic music. However, the shortcomings of a cartridge based console versus a CD based one, result in short loops and small collection of  tracks. It quickly gets repetitive and apparent that the licensed music are simply remixed and short loops of the original songs. A large downgrade from the other WipEout games that feature mostly fully licensed tracks. Overall though, the music does it's job and suits the series well.

    Moving away from the technical side, W64 is at it's core a good WipEout game. The physics and steering are based off the excellent 2097 model and as such offer a far more tuned and smooth steering compared to the first game. Midway Games have done a great job in making the analogue steering work well too, going from d-pads to the N64 stick. They have clearly had full access to 2097 code from the original WipEout developers, Psygnosis.

    The weapon selection is well balanced and the addition of a challenge mode adds variety and replay value. The difficulty is hard as nails though, be warned, but that's exactly like the first two games anyway. All in all, a classic WipEout package as such.

    My impression of WipEout 64 is a mildly positive one, while it does justice to the franchise with it's great gameplay feel, music and futuristic artstyle, it's technical shortcomings hinder the game from becoming a must-have title. It just doesn't seem worth it compared to the wildly available PS1 trilogy. Compared to them, it falls short.

    In no way is it a bad game, like the flawed WipEout Fusion on PS2 for instance and if you only swear by playing the N64 in this era, then  it's a good option to get a WipEout fix. However, you'll be better off picking up either one of the three on PS1 or the two first games on the Saturn at a cheaper price.



      Ridge Racer 64

      Placing RR64 into Namco's PS1 RR timeline is a more complicated affair than placing WipEout 64. Developed by Nintendo themselves in the US and released in 2000 a year after Ridge Racer Type 4. It utilizes some of R4's artwork, cars and visual style, yet is obviously based on the original Ridge Racer and Ridge Racer Revolution formula. Confusing indeed.

      Racing mascot girl Reiko Nagase priding the cover and start screen aside, this game sets itself in an alternate timeline where RR1 and RRR received a sequel that continued it's style, influenced by RR4's graphics. Yes, I did say it's a confusing release. But strangely enough it works out as a solid title.

      The main mode in RR64 bases itself on completing three races, placing first in all of them unlocks a new batch of three tracks and so on. Of the three, one track is from RR1, one is from RRR and the third, which I found the most interesting, is a unique location for RR64. These exclusive tracks of RR64 are far away from the tropical urban setting of the first two games, more canyon and desert based, but with the more subtle colour palette and softer tone taken from RR4. They end up being the most interesting and best feature of the game.

      I especially liked the night races at this track location. The red rear lights from the cars and light sources along the dark moonlit road, really make the game shine in it's own graphical style. Visually the game does nicely, though it is apparent that the lower polygon count of the N64 make the track details simpler. Playing this game in 2000, after the visually impressive R4 must have felt like a downgrade. Once again though, the N64's strengths in loading times and polygon correction in the distance help make it on par with the first two games on the PS1.

      To my surprise, the option screen lets you choose RR, RRR or RR64 type drift handling separately and even collision physics can be either traditional RR or RR64. While I suppose some RR purists enjoy these options I personally get the feeling of  a game having difficulty finding it's own personality. I left both choices default on the RR64 styles, as this game should be what it is, and not another RR which I can play on the PS1 anyhow. Bonus points for the option to turn off all HUD and racing without any screen information covering the picture!

      While it in no way dethrones Rage Racer and Ridge Racer Type 4 as my favourite RR games, I actually enjoyed RR64. It's a nice progress of the more original RR style from RR1 and RRR. The new exclusive tracks for RR64 are well designed and take benefit of the engine they run on. It's a far chunkier game, with a lot more lifespan than the crudely sparse first games on the PS1, the whole main game has a far better design.

      Although it expands the original RR universe perhaps a little further into it's own style than comfortable for some, RR64 ends up being a strong arcade racer in my opinion. It's absolutely a racing game that N64 owners should have and still should own. Rage and R4 are way ahead though!




        Let me first mention that both games feature up to four player splitscreen! An incredible addition and just proves to me that the N64 always was the greatest home for local multiplayer games in it's generation, long before online became a reality on consoles. Straight from it's unique choice of having four controller ports, this console just has a ton of local multiplayer experiences on offer!

        So two N64 racers then, both are strongly presented previously on PS1, are they worth your time? I really do think so, but perhaps mostly for fans. If you're devoted to each series like me, then it's absolutely recommended, though you've highly likely checked them out earlier! Maybe even in retrospect, if you only owned a PS1 back in the day.

        Of the two games, I would mostly recommend RR64. It feels like a stronger and more unique alternative to it's origins. W64 falls short of doing anything special that it's cheaper and far more available PS1 counterparts do. Justifying it's purchase is kind of tricky, just don't get me wrong, it's a good game on it's own.

        Are there alternative ways to play these games today? The short answer is no, apart from emulation, they are both only available exclusively to the N64. As mentioned before, they both support local four player and can be used with the rumble pak. W64 sadly bases itself on memory pak saving, so you'll have to get one of those to save your game progression. RR64 just saves on the cartridge with up to three different save slots. I must be mentioned that Ridge Racer DS on the original Nintendo DS is based off RR64 and is very similar. Albeit with slightly downgraded graphics, so it might be a suitable alternative to check out, though I have never played this version.

        Well, that's my thoughts on RR64 and W64. It's been fun playing them, even so many years later. Be sure to check them out if you are really into the N64 and racing games from this generation!