Friday, 26 February 2016

Watching fires in the sunset


Platform tested: PlayStation 4

Small review here. I played through Firewatch recently with my wife. It's a new indie title developed by Campo Santo and published by Panic. It's both companies first venture into videogames. The game has a rather original setting and artistic visual style that has brought it a lot of attention since it was announced. Finally it's here and playable on both PS4 and PC!

Firewatch is set in Wyoming in 1989, and you take the role of Henry whom takes a summer job as a firewatch out in the bush. Remote and alone he has to watch out for fires or people braking the laws against open flames in the woods. Let's just say that strange things begin to happen out there. More than just checking for fires.

The game focuses around radioing and communicating with another watchtower, speaking to a female firewatch called Delilah. This interaction back and forth, talking about things you observe or just life in general, is a lot of what the game is about. Building a relationship with Delilah through walkie talkie conversations. The dialogue between them is really engaging and extremely well voice acted. One could say it's one of those "indie walking games again, and partially you'd be right. Though there is a little more substance here than simply traversing a landscape. There are set tasks you must complete and figure out how to solve them.

The game is played through a first person view and features some fairly simplistic controls, however the game isn't about tons of items, fancy moves and collecting. With this minimalistic style you must observe and explore the very pretty remote landscape, visualized with a celshading type of artstyle. The sunsets, nighttime and landscapes look beautiful and capture the feeling of remoteness out in the mountains perfectly. The colour of orange is heavily used, and gives the player an impression of a dramatic sunset and summer heat. It looks very unique and begs to have it's atmosphere soaked up.

There are some issues with Firewatch which I wish to address. The PS4 port is a somewhat sloppy one, while it looks pretty, it has some very obvious technical issues. There are hickups in the framerate quite frequently. In fact the whole screen freezes completely up a few seconds ever so often, and while this isn't a high paced game that requires perfect framerate, the freezing is jarring and spoil the impression overall. If you're easily bothered by such issues there's always the PC version to play as an option. It's also a fairly short lifespan on the game, it took us about four to five hours to complete, but it's a game that doesn't really require it to be longer either.

We ended up really liking our playthrough of Firewatch though, it's a fantastic game to just watch and follow too. It ends very differently from what we though during playthrough, for good or worse. My only tip would be just to remember to jump in on dialogue options as many of them are optional with a timer throughout the game. Other than that simply sit back and enjoy the atmosphere, story and feeling of being in a tower a whole summer!



    + Plus points

    • Unique setting and beautiful landscapes.
    • Original gameplay style.
    • Extremely engaging storyline and great dialogue.

    - Minus points

    • Screen freezes consistently throughout.
    • Fairly short game with little replay value.
    • The ending; love it or hate it.

    Saturday, 13 February 2016

    Rage on the streets

    Retroactive review: The Streets Of Rage series

    There's nothing quite like the dark and neon-lit mega cities of the late 80's and early 90's movies and video games alike. Complete with tons of bad guys and extreme violence, most likely featuring well-built heroes that have to fight the crime, one villain at the time, vigilante style. Sega's classic Streets Of Rage beat 'em up series fits this description perfectly. 

    Previously I've recalled my fond memories of classics through my "Looking Back" posts and this post could just as well have been one of these. Recently though, I decided I may as well review some of these titles I replay, as a nice variation from modern game reviews, if not simply to see if they hold up outside my rose painted nostalgic memories. My "Retroactive" reviews will also feature old retro games I never got around to playing back in their glory days too.

    This brings me to the legendary Streets of Rage trilogy, which I have recently played through. The last time I played so much SOR was infront of a TV on an actual Sega Mega Drive in the 90's. You know, back when TV's were huge boxes and videogames arrived on cartridges. I found upon replaying them that they're not only some of the best picks from Sega's huge library and 16-bit era, but some of the best 2D games ever made in general.

    I decided to replay these classics in the Sega Vintage Collection: Streets Of Rage on the Xbox 360, and more recently on the Xbox One through the power of the new backwards compatibility. A fantastic package for any 360 or One owner. Within it is a lovely option screen featuring three virtual Mega Drive consoles, with each SOR game inserted into them. Every game and version, be it the Japanese, North American or European release, can be chosen here. Though why anybody would play the slower PAL versions when given a choice is beyond me!

    Not only are all the games and their versions present, but there's also a jukebox where you can listen to all the amazing soundtracks! Plus, you have the option to add some nice screen effects, like scanlines to help the games look more authentic and prettier on HDTV's. Just stay clear of the awful smoothing option though.

    Back story

    For those unaware; the SOR games are side-scrolling beat 'em ups originally released on the Mega Drive/Genesis in '91, '92 and '94 respectively. Interestingly they are titled Bare Knuckle in Japan and are obviously influenced by the classic Capcom arcade hit Final Fight from '89. However, the Sega developed SOR games not only out-knuckled their influence, but went even an extra length to deliver some of the best titles in the genre. If not the best. While Final Fight struggled to find an identity as a series in it's transition from the arcade to the living room, the SOR games were built from the ground up for home consoles and feature a more consistent quality and direction.

    Uniquely enough, the SOR games not only pushed the Mega Drive's graphical abilities, but thanks to music composer Yuzo Koshiro, perhaps delivered the best music of all time for the fourth generation of consoles. Chip tune music at it's finest, a music form that sadly disappeared through the following fifth generation, much due to the introduction of full CD music tracks.

    Koshiro cleverly utilised not only the MD's sound chip, but also threw things like the bass line over on the built-in Master System hardware (the reason why MD is backwards compatible with the 8-bit MS games) and as such could utilize more sound channels simultaneously. Ancient technology tricks today, but impressive and clever for it's time. Especially SOR2 really showcases the MD's Yamaha sound chip at it's most impressive with it's electronic dance influenced beats and frequent use of multiple sound channels. The sound chip didn't rely on sound loops, but was a synthesiser that generated the sounds on the fly. It required skill to produce quality music, leaving a lot of MD games with badly sounding music largely because of using the synthesiser badly.

    Without further delay though, lets dive in and take a look at each game separately in this incredible trilogy and review them individually.

    Streets Of Rage (1991)

    I vividly remember the first time I played this. I personally owned the 8-bit Master System, but my cousin owned the superior 16-bit Mega Drive and she had this title on a collection cartridge with two other games Sega classics, namely Golden Axe and Revenge Of Shinobi. Perhaps cooperative games were more common back then, but I loved them and SOR1 filled the bill nicely. Introduced to a shady metropolis gone bad, we would try endless times to progress a little further by beating our way through the criminal underworld roaming the streets.

    Like I mentioned in the introduction, the game's clearly 80's movie inspired with it's dark and neon-lit streets and edgy electronic music. I recall we would love to play this game over most of the other Mega Drive titles, with the exception of Sonic The Hedgehog 2 of course. Typically though, as we were children, when we accidentally hit each other in the midst of a huge brawl, we would insist to hit each other back. Just to be square. Often resulting in fighting each other in an empty street until the timer ran out!

    Years later, I have luckily outgrown my childish revenge strategy and learned that avoiding each other and defending either the lower or the upper part of the street is key in coop. This strategy works in general for classic scrolling beat 'em ups really. Accidental hits will happen, but we move on, and focus on trying to keep us both alive. Sharing hilarious health power-ups like apples and turkeys fairly between us, even gold bars and money bags for equal points. Coop at it's finest and most gentleman like!

    All the way from title screen with the 90's style piano beat accompanying a scrolling cityscape, SOR1 delivers a truly memorable soundtrack. Each level has a distinct music track and visual look. Through the game we traverse neon-lit streets, beaches and riversides of a huge metropolitan. SOR1 followed Sonic 1 in it's year of release and continued to showcase what the MD could do visually. Even today it looks pretty with a distinct and memorable style. I love the small details of the city backdrops, like red airplane warning lights flashing and night-lit office windows.

    Replaying it makes me realize that the sequels offer a faster and more flowing  feel to the gameplay. This first game is slightly slower paced running at 30fps and the controls feel a little stiffer as a result. They're in no way bad though, and you quickly get used to it's dynamics. It's a great way to be introduced to the series.

    All in all the game that sets the standard high for a brand new series in a crowded genre of it's time. I dig the way the characters hold melee weapons high up behind their heads, ready to strike and the super weapon button that's a futuristic cop car which drives in from the right and shoots a ring of fire around the enemies. Gameplay moments that just make you smile, they're laughably cheesy at times, but they suit the way games used to be so well!



    Streets Of Rage 2 (1992)

    Right off the bat it's clear that SOR2 has received a large graphical upgrade to it's predecessor; the characters are much larger and more detailed sprite figures, the on-screen detail is vastly improved and the whole game runs at a smooth 60fps. The jump in quality is really apparent when you have gone straight over from the first game. SOR1 feels sluggish and like an older 2D title in comparison.

    I heard that it was in fact Sega of America that convinced it's Japanse HQ branch to go ahead and make this sequel, and I'm so pleased they did. Nothing shouts out a quality sequel better than improving absolutely everything.

    SOR2 has far larger levels, and really varied ones as such. I like how the first level reminds us a lot of SOR1's first level, a neon-lit street. However in SOR2 they have just thrown in far more detail; a scrolling fence in front of the camera, showcasing new transparent effects and a really impressive (for it's time) downward scrolling of the street. Making it not only a horizontal beat 'em up, but vertical too! The way the level progresses too is just on a whole other level than SOR1. After roaming the street you arrive at a dodgy bar entrance, fight through it and end up in a dark back alley, where you need to beat the bar tender boss in the pouring rain! Just exampling how amazing variety there is in one single level!

    Progressing through the game lets players travel to a fairground that delivers tons diversity too. We have a pirate ship themed part and an Alien inspired one, complete with psychedelic music and creepy atmosphere. These among many other locations like a jungle, a baseball court, a large bridge crossing and a factory with moving floors just illustrate the amount of ideas and variation SOR2 contains.

    So clearly well deserved, SOR2 is typically recognised as the best game in the series and in the genre as a whole. It's one of these perfect titles in my opinion; top level gameplay, graphics and music all blend into an amazing package. This is one of my absolute favourite video game titles ever. The controls are precise, tight and fast. You seldom find a title that does everything this perfectly.

    There's just an endless amount of fun playing it, especially with a friend, beating the crap out of hundreds of bad guys while having the awesome soundtrack blaring out of the speakers and your TV rolling in a spectacle of glorious colours and sprites. I can't stress how amazing this soundtrack is, with so many memorable tunes.

    If there's one beat 'em up you need to play in it's entirety at least once in your lifetime, it's this. One of the best video games ever made, regardless of modern age graphics and it's age.



    Streets Of Rage 3 (1994)

    Following in the path of a game like SOR2 is a tough nut, one could go down a safe path, simply adding more levels. For good or worse Sega decided to mix things up a bit in it's third SOR entry. The move list is expanded and there's a nice running ability added to make fights quicker and more varied. The graphics have kept their large and detailed sprites, but have undergone some modernisation as this is a late Mega Drive game.

    While I do appreciate the redesign of style and enemies; I do prefer the look of SOR2 better. The strange decision to redesign the colour scheme of classic characters like Blaze and Axel, plus adding an insanely difficulty to the North American and European versions leaves a bitter taste. Luckily, in this compilation that I played, you can switch it to the more traditional and less infuriating Japanese version.

    The music takes a hit too sadly, which is perhaps the most disappointing. While still composed by Koshiro, it takes this weird and experimental route that leaves a lot to be desired. Fairly ahead of his time Koshiro made a program that random generated parts of the music. Technology-wise it's impressive and something that trance music would begin using a few years later. I feel the result is that SOR3 lacks the catchy and original sound from SOR 1&2, and thus leaving the soundtrack to a forgettable mash. It still keeps it dance music style bassline and beats to a certain degree though and some people like it's more trance like composition.

    The detailed backdrops and fast paced responsive controls still make this an excellent game, and beats the original in that respect. The extra moves and new fun ideas thrown in are welcome additions. Scenes like avoiding trains on a subway level, trying to find a military general in multiple rooms before a bomb detonates or holding back a bulldozer while smashing walls add novelty and fun gameplay variety. The late generation 2D effects, with a hint of Donkey Kong Country-ish 3D models is a nice touch and upgrade too. Though I personally prefer the more traditional sprite look of SOR2, it's nice to see the series accomplish effects that were popular very late in the fourth generation.

    While I tried to go in loving this game and living in hope that it was even better than SOR2, I still find myself thinking it's the least best of the three. Though comparing three great games is at a nitpicking level, don't get me wrong here; they are all three amazing titles.

    I think of SOR1 as the one with the weaker gameplay and graphics, but excellent music. SOR2 as perfecting all three key elements of gameplay, music and visuals. SOR3 as having gameplay and graphics nailed, but falls short of the music. This should give a great indication of how I see the trilogy.




    What continuously impresses me time again through the years I've played them, is how astonishingly well these games hold up. Their entertainment value simply never ceases and can be replayed all the time. They've aged wonderfully and have proven that they stand the test of time. 

    The Streets Of Rage games are perfect examples of what I love about classic Sega games, with they're apparent arcade roots; it's all about the gameplay. Developing something that's easy to get into and be played by anyone, yet with their rather short playthroughs tempt players to  try numerous attempts to replay them and become increasingly better. Beating your highscores and trying your best at completing them faster and with less lives lost than your previous attempts. They're a goldmine for hilarious and entertaining coop moments too, in fact I'd wager to say that they are even better in coop than on your own!

    There are no fancy stories, Hollywood-edited cutscenes, bloated CGI and tons of effects here. It's just pure and fun gameplay in short and neat packages, meant to be replayed forever because of they're additive and entertaining nature. It's about gaming in it's purest form, where the gameplay surfaces as the most important feature and is further heightened by excellent music and artstyle. It's Sega being Sega, but in the good old 80's and 90's way we fans love them for.

    The Streets Of Rage trilogy is one of gamings best trilogies and Sega's finest hours, with SOR2 leading the way as the king of the pack. Make no mistake; put at least the second game on your "must play" list without hesitation! It's one those games you need to play before you die.