Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Keep control of your layers!

Retroactive review: Layer Section

Platform tested: Sega Saturn
Release year: 1995

Review: This time for my retroactive review I'm going back to a lovely shoot 'em up, or schmup for short, on the Sega Saturn. While there are a ton of schmups made through the years, this game features a rather neat gameplay mechanic.

Firstly though, let's get the confusion of the title out of the way. It's original arcade release title in 1994 was Rayforce in Japan and the U.S., while in Europe it's titled Gunlock. For the home conversions it's titled Layer Section in Japan, while in the U.S. and Europe it's goes under the name Galactic Attack. I guess somebody forgot to file a title trademark for each region along the way?!

Luckily the actual game isn't anywhere near as confusing as it's many titles! I'll refer to the game as Layer Section as that's the name on the cover of my Japanese Saturn version and it actually explains the game's main mechanic quite well; shooting enemies in two layers. You've probably played many games in this genre before and although the rely heavily on the same principles, sometimes they feature some cool new mechanics that set them apart from the competition. Layer Section is such a title.

Schmups typically let you command a spaceship or airplane, shooting numerous enemies scrolling down towards you on the same plane. However, in LS you have the spaceships main gun for the enemies straight ahead on your plane, while underneath you on the ground is another layer that requires you to lock onto enemies below with a laser sight and fire to hit them. It gives a neat depth to the picture and a neat variation in attack methods. There's no super weapon here, like a mega bomb or anything, so the controls are very easy to grasp and simplistic; manoeuvre the ship with the d-pad, fire two different weapons with the buttons.

In general there are three types of enemies; those who always stay on the lower layer, those who rise up from the lower to the top one and those that are only on the top layer. This gives way for some hectic gameplay moments where you try firing at stuff in both layers at the same time, luckily the bottom layer becomes something you almost do by second nature as you focus on not being hit by bullets on the top layer. The enemies that rise from the bottom to the top layer often require just one hit by laser as they rise, then when they reach the top layer they require quite a bit of bullets to take down. As such you are often rewarded to quickly, and hectic, take enemies down before they reach the top layer.

Controls are super tight and fast, your spaceship is perhaps a little large in pixel count for my taste, with it's hitbox being  a bit smaller, confusingly enough, but not uncommon in the genre. The Saturn's d-pad shows off it's strong side for this type of game; rolling your thump around it to avoid oncoming fire; making the precise movement a breeze. Let's face it; the Saturns controller features probably the best d-pad ever made and is a treat to use in 2D schmups like this.

LS is a beautiful 32-bit 2D shooter. For those that have only roamed the 16-bit conversions of shooters on the Mega Drive or SNES, they're in for some really neat and detailed sprite graphics. Backgrounds and sprite layers scroll individually and are scaled around and rotated with ease on the 2D powerhouse that is the Sega Saturn. It's neat to play these advanced 2D games as they give a glimpse of what would have been if the 3D gaming revolution never happened. It's also a showcase in how the Saturn easily handled arcade perfect ports of 2D games that actually require a lot of hardware to run. Slowdowns and small, simply sprite models from the 16-bit consoles simply can't match this type of quality. Be sure to play the arcade mode though, as the Saturn mode has some cutbacks.

The game features a varied set of seven levels, with tons of detail onscreen and the depth effects with scaled sprites really help the picture "pop". There's also a pretty sprite drawn intro and ending sequence. There are literally tons of layers of sprites and scaling going on, all in 2D. Sure the Mega Drive could handle a few layers and schmup gameplay speed, while the SNES could rotate and scale sprites, but this game is just on another level all together; sprites are thrown around at ease in the bucketload, scaled and rotated in manner that gives a almost 3D depth to the levels!

Like most schmups, LS lets you progressively upgrade the power of your weapons by requiring pickups that are dropped by enemies. These upgrades are kept for each life lost, but not when you hit a continue. It's a insanely difficult game by all means and perhaps best managed in coop mode with a friend, there's a cheat to grant you 8 credits rather than the default 4, otherwise you'll have to resort to a Action Replay cartridge if you want infinite lives or invincibility. You're seriously going to get tested on the later half of LS, as the difficulty rises considerably.

Presentation wise there's the neat Tate mode, which is the perfect arcade conversion, like a lot of the schmup ports on the Saturn and PlayStation 1. Tate turns your TV picture from 4:3 to 3:4, the format used for most scrolling schmups in the arcades. This lets you see enemies earlier on as the scroll down towards you, rather than the standard 4:3 which cuts away the top of the picture to fit the format. It's beautiful to see the game in it's proper format and it actually makes you see the whole size of bosses and help spot enemies. If tilting your CRT TV sounds scary, demagnetising it  for the earths gravitation and all, then you can easily use a LCD flatscreen vertically without issues.

I hooked up my Saturn to a newly acquired OSSC, an analogue to digital lag-free open source converter, and played it vertically on a huge 46" flatscreen TV with scanlines. Worked perfectly and looked stunning. Here's a pic of the setup at play:

All in all, Layer Section is a great looking and fun 32-but shoot 'em up with it's neat layer mechanic, hell I even liked the typical addictive early 90's midi soundtrack! It's still one of those titles that haven't raised to ridiculous prices, yet, like most games in this genre have on the Saturn. In hindsight such games often were overlooked and badly reviewed in the 3D craze that swept over the fifth generation, but look into the more obscure 2D world of that generation and you can find some great games that give a glimpse of the 32-bit 2D future Sega bet wrongly on.

Sure, I would have liked more depth to a singeplayer experience so many years later and, but this is a pure arcade conversion; it's about trying to reach as far as you can on the lives and continues you get, beating that old highscore from the last time. "Just one more go" is the motto to go by. 



    Thursday, 22 February 2018

    Second fall of Titans

    Titanfall 2

    Platform tested: Xbox One X
    Release year: 2016

    Review: Titanfall was one of the earliest titles I bought for my Xbox One back in 2014, much to my surprise it brought back a lot of love for multiplayer first person shooter matches. You can read my positive review from back then, here. Fast forward to playing  a multiplayer beta of TF2 in late 2016 and my excitement for a sequel soured. So much in fact I I ended up playing it early this year instead. Boy was I wrong about the beta impression and should have given this sequel a second chance much earlier. It's fantastic.

    There's a part of me that's glad I waited though; I got to play this in a sweet upgraded form on my Xbox One X. Going for a ridiculously low price, like most Electronic Arts sales do, I purchased TF2 and dug in to play the singleplayer only, initially. As you may recall the rather disappointing aspect of TF1 was that it had no singlepalyer part, it was a multiplayer only game. While this is fine and it never proclaimed to be anything else, the amount of time put into the game world and the design of it, kinda made it almost beg for a singleplayer. Luckily TF2 offers just this, and not just a quick and generic singleplayer. No, it's generally a incredibly entertaining one to boot!

    TF2's campaign eases you into the way Titans work and let you do a fair amount of playing on foot first. This lets the player become familiar to the super fast movement of the pilot. As a pilot you can wallrun, take huge jumps and keep yourself airborne by parkouring around the environments. The story then puts you into a Titan, a huge armoured robot, and learns you the basics of controlling it. It's a great way to get familiar with everything in an engaging and gradual manner. You visit lush jungles with dangerous wildlife, to high tech factories and abandoned cities. The locations and tasks along the way are consistently varied. Combat shifts from small enemy engagements to huge, full-on battles. It's a hectic and fantastic campaign journey with lot of new ideas and breathtaking moments. They even managed to make each main enemy pilot into a cool boss fight, I looked forward to each one along the way!

    When I'd finished the sweet singleplayer campaign, it's approximately 8 hours long, I decided to at least give the humans versus enemy AI waves multiplayer mode Frontier a go. It was a great addition to the first game and has since been made available for TF2 too. In fact I'd recommend new players to start here, it's easier getting used to things in increasingly difficult waves of AI with the company of teammates helping out. As I played the Frontier mode it dawned on me how much I missed the TF1 online days. So I decided to test out the more classic multiplayer modes too.

    I was pleasantly suprised to find that some of the annoyances from the beta had gone and the multiplayer matches were a blast, just like the first game. Gunning down either AI soldiers or real person pilots to gain sweet points towards a Titanfall is just as fun as back in 2014. Once you get your hands on a Titan and jump in to wreck havoc on other enemy Titans, the Titanfall games just go into this amazing zone of endless fun. You feel like a bad-ass Transformer just gunning huge weapons away at other robots. It's a fantastic feeling and great way to shift between traditional first person shooting and something rather different in one online match. The huge scaled maps work so well on multiple levels too; there's small and narrow spaces for pilots to roam on-foot, while there's huge open landscapes fort he Titans to battle out in.

    Visually Titanfall 2 is beautiful, I'm especially weak for the combination of stylish, minimalist buildings in white, combined with a orange sky and natural elements like trees and grassy fields. With everything running at a super high resolution and rock solid 60fps TF2 looks so smooth, fast and stunning in motion. Sure, TF2 doesn't quite reach the super detailed heights up close compared to the more graphical pushing singleplayer titles on console. However, it aims to make gameplay fluid and boasts an artstyle that works perfectly with the balance between large levels and the amount of available detail within it. You'll be blown away by great visuals all through the campaign and even in multiplayer it looks way better than lots of the competition. Thumbs up for a field of view slider too, letting me get a wider view of the game world. 

    It's hard to pick out anything specifically bad in TF2, it's basically TF1 with more of everything, prettier than before and just faster. More Titans and pilot setups to choose from too. If there's only nitpicking to be made I'd like to mention is that it perhaps could have tried even more new ideas as it sometimes feels so close to TF1 it's like just a graphically upgraded version in multiplayer. The singleplayer campaign could perhaps have been a couple of hours longer too, sweet but short in other words. 

    Titanfall 2 is for those seeking something a little different to the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises and considering the comibnation of single and multiplayer now it's the best place to start for beginners of the franchise. What to rate such a game then? It's better than the first game in every way, which I also gave a five star rating, but the existence of the first game keeps this second outing on the same rating, even though it's better. But man, is that a strong five star rating! Go play it!



    Saturday, 3 February 2018

    The Legacy of the precursor platformer duo

    Retroactive review: Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy

    Platform tested: PlayStation 4
    Release year: 2017
    Original release: PlayStation 2 (2001)

    Review: I remember that summer when the very first Jak and Daxter was showcased at the E3 expo in June 2001. I remember reading about it in a newspaper, highlighted as one of the games that grew out of the second wave of PlayStation 2 releases. Games built on more experienced software development for the PS2's complicated architecture. Finally developers began to become familiar with the hardware and left the bland launch line-up behind. From here on, the big PS2 titles just started rolling in. J&D was one of the first truly spectacular titles for the system. Developed by the people behind the successful Crash Bandicoot series on PS1, they had a legacy of platformers behind them and were finally going to give Super Mario 64 a worthy 3D platformer competitor for a new generation of consoles.

    Sure, we'd had Crash trying his best on the limited 3D power of the PS1, thus being more 2D than 3D. Spyro the Dragon had attempted even more so, Sega Dreamcast's Sonic Adventure had kickstarted it on this new generation and Rare had done their share of 3D platformers on the N64, but still Super Mario 64 managed to be the perfect blueprint. For me, it's legacy and first time playthrough amazement has never really been surpassed and truly testifies how perfect and revolutionary SM64 was, but we're not here to speak about that game now. However, it has to be mentioned as a backdrop as there have been a couple of titles outside of Nintendo's own that have given SM64 a run for it's money and J&D is one of these. Perhaps the best attempt too.

    J&D truly nails a colourful, cartoony and a Pixar-like artstyle, combined with lots of humour, to make a unique style of it's own. Artistically it works perfectly for the platformer genre and PS2 finally delivered the hardware needed to make that Pixar influence even more possible. Gone are the strict limitations of PS1 hardware for large 3D worlds and J&D utilises this to the fullest.

    The worlds and levels are huge, with an incredible draw distance for it's time. Distant enemies, platforms, machinery and puzzles can be seen for miles. The open ended structure of the game allows the player to just run towards what he or she wants to explore next. I recall walking down to the beach the very first time I played it back in the early 2000's and just seeing tons of stuff I wanted to do far into the distance. I was really impressed back then by the rich visuals and beautiful artstyle. There's obviously a linearity to the levels being connected, but there's always an option to walk back and collect more stuff you missed the first time around.

    J&D cleverly connects it's large areas by hiding loading and transitions with lifts, hoverbike rides or small paths leading from one visual styled area to the next. In fact, you can play the whole game without experiencing loading screens at all, it's an impressive feature for such and old game. I love the variety of the worlds you discover too; sandy beaches by the sea, snow covered mountains, an underwater city and a boiling, orange clad lava area. Each environment is truly memorable and bring out how diverse this game engine was. 

    Having recently gone back to the game I was also was reminded that the game has a day and night cycle! It gives every level a chance to show itself in bright light, yellow sunsets and dark moonlit nights; just a treat when it comes to incredible lighting at the time it released. Very few games did realtime lighting at all when this game launched and to think it was combined so well, it makes the game world even more immersive when playing!

    J&D plays incredibly well too, even today I had no problem controlling the game. It's fast, precise and fun. While I got frustrated at some of the grabbing mechanics, it feels unprecise and results in unfair and cheap deaths, the rest of the control system is great. It's kind of the ultimate test of time if the game holds up or not; does the game still control in a fashion that doesn't annoy or limit the player from performing the tasks needed or having fun. J&D controls just as well as modern platformers, it's joy to traverse the landscape. The balance between platforming and enemies is perfect too, unlike Ratchet &Clank overuse of enemy encounters, J&D relies much more on it's platform side. After all, that's what a platformer is about.

    While the return to this PS2 classic release was a warm and welcome one, the PS4 port has it's issues. The most obvious is bad performance occurring frequently, we're talking lots of framerate drops. Sometimes they are so severe they actually hamper the gameplay, crowded scenes with lots of effects sets the player out of pace and makes controlling Jak a pain until it settles. It's sad to not see this fixed and a missed chance for a version that could easily run at a locked 60fps on such powerful hardware. The other letdown is the low resolution bump over the PS2 game, putting this at a measly 1024*768 resolution. While it's a clear visual boost from running the game with a PS2 on a HDTV, I would have liked a stronger visual boost to such an old game. It should easily have been a 1080p@60fps game.

    J&D still stands as one of the best 3D platformers made in my opinion, between the groundbreaking and excellent Super Mario 64 and this game, nothing truly has engaged me as much in the 3D platform genre until perhaps Nintendo's own Mario games of recent years. While it may be visually dated for new and young gamers, it's still an experience I would recommend. Especially gamers from the 90's that missed it's initial launch should check this out. The gameplay and exploring is addictive and fun, it truly is one of the PS2's finest moments and should be remembered as such!