perjantai 29. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Lost Odyssey | Xbox 360 | 2007

RELEASED: December 6, 2007
DEVELOPER(S): Mistwalker, feelplus
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

The last RPG Time! fell more than a little short of my ambition; I wanted to do at least one more game, and the Xbox 360 cult favourite Lost Odyssey's pretty much the perfect game for the spotlight. First of all, here we have a strict exclusive for the Xbox 360 - how many times have I scoffed at the term "Xbox 360 exclusive"? Browsing through my backlog indicates that Lost Odyssey is the only Xbox 360 exclusive I've ever taken on to review besides Gears of War 2. Secondly, it is about as traditional as a J-RPG could've been back at the time of its release - it was generally a bad time for traditional J-RPG, since the more open-ended Western RPG's had just recently made their way to consoles. Which is exactly why Lost Odyssey didn't fare that well and is more of a cult favourite than a genre milestone. However, thirdly - and this is why I consider it a must-play - it's Final Fantasy creator and Mistwalker founder Hironobu Sakaguchi's third post-Final Fantasy and post-Square project, and the music's written by Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu (all by) himself. Not only has Lost Odyssey all the potential to be my favourite Xbox 360 game, it was also the closest to real Final Fantasy you had seen in six years leading up to its release. It has potential, lots of it - and it certainly is a lot like a good old Final Fantasy game. But is Lost Odyssey my favourite Xbox 360 game? Not nearly.

A kind of magic

Keith Ferguson : Kaim Argonar
Tara Strong : Seth Balmore
Salli Saffioti : Ming Numara
Michael McGaharn : Jansen Friedh
Jesse Corti : Gongora
Kath Soucie : Cooke
Nika Futterman : Mack
Chad Brandon : Tolten
Kim Mai Guest : Sarah Sisulart
Michael Bell : Sed

The first scene of the game. Not a bad start.
After a meteor strike nearly wipes out not one, but two powerful military nations, an immortal soldier named Kaim is sent from the kingdom of Uhra to investigate the cause and consequences of the disaster, along with a fellow immortal, former pirate named Seth, and a wise-cracking mage named Jansen. As suppressed memories of his past begin to re-emerge, Kaim finds a far more serious threat than the chance of another meteor strike, originating from surprisingly and devastatingly close to home.

I can tell you right now that even though playing Lost Odyssey can be painful at times, at its best it feels like the perfect sequel to Final Fantasy X that Final Fantasy X-2 never was. It lives on its production values; even though it could almost be categorized as an indie game, you can see almost immediately that it couldn't have been a cheap game to make. It's so different from Mistwalker's previous major platform endeavor Blue Dragon, it is much more cinematic and life-like. And when it comes to cinematics, and realistically measured human characters, one immediately thinks of Final Fantasy X and those slow, horribly acted localized scenes nowadays trashed on the YouTube. Well, a slow and sometimes awkward tempo is just the Japanese way to go and it's quite present in Lost Odyssey as well, but it has very few awkward or horribly acted scenes. The voice cast features a few bad apples, and sometimes it feels like they're showering us with cutscenes, taking us away from a smooth _gaming_ experience - but as you go on, I think you'll notice how cinematic storytelling truly is the game's forte, and how great the characters and voice actors are. Combined with how the game plays out most of the time, it's the next step from Final Fantasy X. It's just a step in the wrong direction and a few years late, for starters. To delve deeper into the ocean of ugly, from time to time it seems that Sakaguchi and his henchmen were so hell bent on writing a great story they forgot they were making a game.

Our heroes, for the most parts of Discs 1 and 2.
(The kids too.)
At first, both lead immortals might hit you like a pair of cold bricks - competent fighters, yet senseless and emotionless characters, and when Jansen comes along, he's like the epitome of awesome. He has a semi-ad-libbed crack for every possible situation and he always sees things just the way we players would, like if a tyrannosaur's head suddenly crashed through my living room window and I'd come to realize the whole town's overrun by dinosaurs, the next thing to come out of my mouth would probably be something Jansen would say under similar conditions. Yep, that was a little surreal... I had a rough night... anyway, Jansen's arrival is a blessing in many ways. Not only does he make the game better all by himself, he makes the other characters stronger. It's absolutely hilarious to watch how his relationships with the characters develop, especially with Seth who won't stand for his unique antics at all, and his romantic pursuit of yet another immortal who comes along a bit later. Lead character Kaim also has his share of Jansen's golden touch, but he isn't dependent on it. He develops from a stiff one-word-answer kind of guy into a very interesting, enchanting personality all by himself, as his 1000-year backstory unfolds, through twists in the story as well as through his dreams, one of Lost Odyssey's unique gimmicks; every self-respecting Sakaguchi game has at least one.

The very first thing you'll gawk at when you simply unwrap this game is that it comes on four discs. Your reaction will probably be at least something along the lines of mine: "FOUR DISCS? How many Xbox 360 games come on more than two? Man, this has got to be epic!" I find myself returning to the time when I first got Star Ocean: Till the End of Time for the PS2, which came on two discs, the first two-disc game I had seen on the PS2, and it had good reasons for that, audiovisual achievements which totally justified the second disc's existence. Dynamic camera and map systems, full-3D combat, top-of-the-bill graphics, full voice track and a relatively large world. If they made an HD version of Star Ocean: Till the End of Time, you probably wouldn't know the difference between the HD remaster and a standard PS3 game released about the same time as Lost Odyssey. Lost Odyssey on the other hand has text-based commands for traditionally linear combat with a 95% fixed camera, general graphics are probably not as good as you'd expect despite very good cinematic design, the voice track is far from "full", the world is small and extremely limited, and when it comes to any sort of dynamics, the game lags back for years. One disc contains about ten levels, and it's a constant back-and-forth run between similar layouts. It's not the size, it's not the graphics, it's not the sound, so what's left? Why are there four discs? I have no idea. I'll try to figure it out as I go - right now I'm smack on the starting line of Disc 3. I'll return to this by the end of the review, hoping to find a decent answer... but seriously doubting it judging by what I've seen so far.

What's good news is that the characters' facial expressions look great and the English lip sync is marvellous. When it comes to voiceover work, Lost Odyssey is far ahead its spiritual predecessor. Like I said, there are a few bad apples, but not bad enough to spoil the whole tree. Besides, there are some genuinely funny moments to be witnessed in this game, as particularly attractive to the Japanese sense of humour they are, and they're only made funnier by the spot-on voiceover work, especially that of Tara Strong (Seth) and Michael McGaharn (Jansen), and especially those two combined. Even the two kids of the squad manage not to annoy me at all (except for Mack in his most emotional fits from time to time), perhaps mainly because both are voiced by adults, and not just any adults, but voiceover veterans Kath Soucie and Nika Futterman.

There's no major Hironobu Sakaguchi project without Nobuo Uematsu, and the maestro crunches out one hell of a soundtrack which only gets better towards the end. You might not have seen this game's title on the top of Uematsu's resume, but personally I think Lost Odyssey is one of his best collections since the ultimate rise of the Final Fantasy series, and definitely a hundred times better than anything his successors involved with the Final Fantasy franchise have ever brewed up.

And here's our villain, Gongora; just like a
buzzcut version of Seymour from Final Fantasy X.
Lost Odyssey begins from a battle, so let's start with the combat system. Its basic setup brings us back to the time before Active Time Battle; you and your party (which you don't have at this point) get a turn, then it's the enemy group's turn. After both parties have set up a string of commands, each individual involved in the battle is placed in order determined by his/her speed. However, casting spells and using special skills takes casting time, which keeps these characters passive for several turns at worst - depending on their casting attributes. You can call off these time-consuming skills and spells at any passive turn, if need arises. You can even cancel them after giving 'em the green light to continue, as long as you haven't finished setting up commands for the entire party. It's all really, really strategic, and this old-school, pre-ATB system will surely please a lot of fans of really, really old Final Fantasy.

So here's the good news and the bad news. The good news is the very system itself. Unlike many critics who'd deem text-based commands and a fixed "battle cam" old and dated on first sight, I find 'em safe, familiar, and most of all in these times, cool. In other words, accessible and easy to adapt to. It's been recently proven that Lost Odyssey is the type of game you can stop playing for a whole year and never lose your touch along the way until you decide to play it again. Kind of a relief in this particular genre - it's more than kind of disheartening to have to start from scratch after 50 hours of playing time just because you don't get the game anymore. It's a problem with many Western RPG's and modern J-RPG's which have been influenced by Western games, including Final Fantasy XII. Even XIII, even if it is a semi-automatic mess of a game that can be successfully beaten while piss drunk and missing a right hand. It still demands a certain type of touch, I guess.

The bad news is that one battle in this game takes minutes. Any battle, for several reasons. First of all, you always have to set up commands for the whole party due to the absence of ATB. You have to use a lot of magic, because with just two physically adept people in your group for the longest time, you can't do shit in terms of crowd control. There are a few area-of-effect type of physical attacks, but the damage they do to one opponent in a row is but a fragment of your standard physical attack against a single opponent. Using a lot of magic consumes a lot of things, including casting time, and through that, eventually, your patience. Throughout the game, you are damn near forced to abuse your non-active party members to heal your party between each battle, 'cause as you will surely see, healing during battles takes a lot of precious time away from doing damage to the enemy. Especially in the beginning of the game, the battles feel like they take forever, but that's just because the game was specifically designed to be played with a party of five - doesn't mean having the whole party along makes 'em that much faster, though, as there are a lot of surplus enemies whose only intention is to slow the battle down and buff their much more useful and efficient companions. Usually these kinds of enemies have the tendency to flee at the brink of death to your further dismay; like it's not bad enough having to fight them, not gaining any EXP from showing these puny assholes what's what is something else. To return to the good news, the intervals between battles are moderately long as well; personally, I'm fine with even the most tedious battles as long as I've taken care of everything else in a dungeon first, if I'm in any mood for some grinding and if that particular dungeon doesn't have a whole set of purely annoying pricks to fight. Sadly there are just a few different groups of enemies to fight at each location.

When it comes to progress on the world map, the game is extremely similar to Final Fantasy X. You "move" on an invisible track through the world map, on a journey that's linear as an arrow up 'til a certain point and contains clear-cut levels instead of any type of open map exploration or free transition from one location to another. An hour or two into Disc 2, you get your first "boat", and as the game claims, you are now able to explore the wide open sea. Well, wide open sea is right, there's almost nothing besides it. There are only two places at that point you can travel to in addition to the one you're supposed to travel to: the place you just left, and a secret island that's filled with monsters you have absolutely no chance to beat at that point of the game. And when you go where you're supposed to, you lose your boat. Meh.

Exploring towns. Always my favourite part
about these games. What was the most
outstanding flaw in Final Fantasy XIII, again?
It's kinda funny that the masterpiece Final Fantasy X originally felt like somewhat of a letdown for me, for many reasons, and one of those reasons was the lack of a real world map. When you got the airship, the world map was revealed, but it was merely a list of locations; you just picked the destination and whoosh, you were there. The moment you realized there were secret destination coordinates to find on that map, that's where it got exciting and you realized how big the world actually was. Lost Odyssey doesn't have any substitute for that kind of excitement in store. Of course it has secret locations, they've been a Sakaguchi trademark since, well, Final Fantasy V, at least (which ironically was the last Final Fantasy game Sakaguchi actually directed), but you have to wait until the end of the game to even be able to travel to these locations. Besides those non-violent sidequests which take place within the limits of a city or village - most of which are ultra-boring, I might add - practically no sidestepping is allowed before you reach the very final disc.

The dreams, written by award-winning short story writer Kioyoshi Shigematsu, are some of Lost Odyssey's most praised features... but whether they're actually that praised anywhere else than Japan is questionable. The dreams, in other words the immortals' suppressed memories, are usually triggered by cutscene events or talking to certain NPC's, and they're presented to the player in the form of very well written, and scored visual novels. Actually reading through them sheds some extra light on the immortals' 1000-year past, but I can tell you that it's very hard. If they were actually cutscenes instead of just long-ass text on a fancy-looking background, then I would be more excited, and then I would probably also accept the need for a total of four discs. Every time you spend the night at an inn, you can pick a dream from a list of unlocked ones. You can also view these dreams from the menu, as well as the main menu instead of starting the game. If this sounds exciting to you, well then, good for you. If I wanted to read, I'd pick up a book instead of trying to play a game.

Back to the good news again with the acquisition of equipment. This game made shopping exciting again. One of my favourite things about old RPG's is getting to a new town, getting to know it inside out, its people and most of all its stores' variety of weapons. It's one of my favourite things about Lost Odyssey as well, as the towns can be quite interesting on the first visit, and the weapon shops have new stuff in stock almost each time, essential stuff. Many damn fine weapons are found from secure locations on the field as well, often accompanied by a ring or accessory of the same set.

About the rings... while the separately categorized accessories give you traditional defense perks such as an immunity to poison, the rings usually enhance your offense. The rings you get from stores ain't that good, as most of them have just one small perk that is of nearly no use to you. For example, anything that buffs a mage's physical offense in any way, whether it's a damage up or a status inflict; you just don't use these guys to attack, you don't have time for that. It doesn't pay either, not at all. The mages are not there to fight, they're there to help you fight. That's why it's amazing how many of them there are. One white mage, one black mage, perhaps one red mage, that's all we needed back in the day - and even that was too much. Here we have a white mage, a black mage, a "composite" mage (able to use area spells from the start), and finally, a black-white mage, which is this game's substitute for a red mage, someone who's specialized in both sides of magic. Unlike a traditional red mage however, even the black-white mage sucks dick when it comes to physical attacks. Anyway, there's an Aim Ring for each character's physical attack; holding the RT and releasing it at the exact right time results in a "critical hit". Damage does not increase by natural means, but the ring enhancement of that character is more likely to activate. For example, if you attack a robot with a character equipped with a ring that has the Machine Killer perk, you're bound to do a truckload of more damage on him than you usually do when you nail a critical hit.

So here's the most important thing about the rings. You can make 'em yourself - by scavenging all sorts of junk. You can only make basic rings with basic junk you find from plain sight, but explore a little and you'll find better junk, which results in a bigger chance to make a better ring. It's that simple, really. You can use excess rings to make better versions of them with some incentive junk, and when their usefulness runs its course, it's still advisable to keep them 'cause there's a ring maker in nearly every settlement who can use those rings (and a lil' bit of ultimate junk) to make you some AWESOME, complex rings, which grant you several perks instead of just one. Maybe, just maybe, your boatload of mages will become a bit more useful in terms of physical collision at some point along the way thanks to their finger wear.

The enemy design has Tetsuya Nomura written
all over it. He didn't design 'em, though.
Different spells from different spell categories are unlocked for each mage as you go, and even for your non-mage immortals. The immortals' development works very differently than the development of the other characters. You see, all the other characters' skills and perks are dependent on their current equipment and natural development. Let's take Jansen up for an example (I'll tell you again, that guy is magnificent!). Let's say Jansen has a ring that grants him total immunity to Seal, an accessory that allows him to use composite magic, and a natural knack for all sorts of black magic. Take the ring away, poof, his immunity to Seal is gone. Take the accessory away, no more composite spells from Jansen. But, you can't take away any of his skills that he's learned via leveling up, and you can't teach him any new, permanent skills outside of the game's plan. The immortals are the total opposite. Via a feature called Skill Link, they can learn any skill from any mortal character. Think Final Fantasy IX, and how each battle granted you AP, and through that AP, you permanently learned skills from different weapons, armour and accessories. This is basically the same thing, and you can actually teach the immortals skills with equipment as well. Once a skill is learned via any channel, it goes to the immortals' list of skills you can abuse in any way you want, even change the whole set at each save point to find what kind of setup suits you best. The warriors of the group are lousy mages, the way I see it, so I tend to invest in their offensive aptitude, vitality, and safety from all sorts of status ailments. The skill slots for each immortal are very limited in numbers, but you can get more slots via certain skills and a rare item called Slot Seed. You can't get more slots via leveling up like you could in Final Fantasy IX.

The immortals are also different in battle as they break just about every rule. Having such a wide array of skills at their disposal, they're automatically faster, stronger and better than any of their companions in everything they do. The most distinctive thing about 'em is that if they fall in battle, and you manage to survive a few turns, the immortals just might get back up. I almost shit my pants the first time this happened.

I promised early on I'd return to this subject by the end of the review - and the end of the game - and I must say... no. I didn't find a well-justified cause for four discs. Mistwalker says the game couldn't fit one disc. No, probably not, but even at its most advanced it wouldn't take more than two, I reckon, not with these qualities. I'm willing to bet it's just Sakaguchi's own personal "thing" to have as many or more discs as the most popular Final Fantasy games, to make the game look more epic on the outside than it actually is. What's funny, though, is that each disc could be reviewed separately, with greatly varying results. Discs one and two lay down the basics, disc three kinda tests you with extremely long cutscenes, set pieces and less members in your group almost throughout the disc, and disc four is the reward for all your time and patience, the true climax and closest to what you expected this whole game to be. It's funny 'cause usually J-RPG's have completely different progression in my opinion. Let's bring Final Fantasy IX up again as an example. Discs one and two were awesome, disc three took the awesomeness just one tiny step further, and disc four was a letdown (relatively speaking). These games tend to lose their attraction towards the end. Lost Odyssey is just the other way around, as it gets better towards the end... and then it just, well, ends. Just when you're finally getting into it.

Yep, it all looks extremely familiar. Just doesn't
play out as good.
Lost Odyssey is just as hard in the usual sense as any J-RPG; not very, but it has its difficulties, the most outstanding of which is the constantly inconvenient lack of save points. I usually play after work, which means I usually have just a couple of hours to spare before my inner clock shuts off and I fall asleep. There are many lengthy and puzzling dungeons - coupled with the long battles - that I have just quit halfway through, because I haven't found a save point and I just haven't been able to resist going to sleep anymore, and after that has happened in the same dungeon on many successive nights, it's a problem. There's a checkpoint system; a first for a J-RPG, and it shows. I beat one hard boss, and returned to the dungeon 'cause I knew there was a secret boss there; I wanted to try him. I just assumed that going to the world map and going back would raise the checkpoint to the start of my second trip to the dungeon, but no. I lost to the secret one and had to beat the previous boss to get to him again. These kind of difficulties are very common in this game, not much else if you're a veteran. The game was not made for Achievement hunters, either - it's extremely stingy with them. The most reckless and fastest players may even finish this game with under ten Achievements out of a total of 36.

Lost Odyssey is definitely not a failure, but despite having been built on some fantastic grounds, it's probably not the game you wanted it to be. Sakaguchi's brilliant, and surprisingly comprehensible story, and Uematsu's diverse, refreshing and awesome soundtrack are what make Lost Odyssey stand out - and as it happens, these guys' involvement is why you probably want to play this game in the first place. It's a collector's novelty for anyone who was ever into just one Final Fantasy game up 'til X or X-2, and I'll gladly tip you off that pre-owned copies easily go for under a ten. The overall score might not be that high, but I'd recommend this game for people within the margin.

+ Hironobu Sakaguchi's brilliant story and cinematic advisory
+ Nobuo Uematsu's energetic and diverse soundtrack with a couple of true classics (try the track "Escape!" or the Backyard theme, and feast on that guitar solo on the world map!)
+ Great characters; Jansen is one of the best J-RPG characters ever
+ Having immortals with completely different character development than their travel companions is neat, and plays out even more nicely
+ Ring Assembly can be a lot of fun, especially in the later parts of the game
+ Old-school shoppers and treasure hunters may rejoice, this game actually has decent stores and hidden treasures

- Nice in-game graphics to go with the amazing cinematics, but not nice enough to justify four discs; it's disappointing to see how poorly the epic capacity is ultimately utilized
- Small and constantly limited world
- A safe and familiar combat system, but the battles themselves can be very slow and tedious for many reasons, on top of all most of the playable cast comprising of mages who require a lot of precious casting time for the truly useful spells
- Streamlined and boring minigames
- Only a few different enemy groups to fight per location
- Lengthy periods of cutscene after cutscene
- Dreaming's a nice gimmick, but I don't know if the visual novel presentation was such a good idea
- One of the suckiest checkpoint systems ever seen

< 7.1 >

keskiviikko 13. marraskuuta 2013

2013 - The Nutshell Edition

I've clashed through the last. Rhyme time. I'm a poet and you know it.

The PlayStation 4 is coming out in North America in two days. The international (excluding the Japanese) release of Xbox One is nine days away. A total of 45 launch titles on the way, then, and a couple of other semi-interesting games for other platforms on the way before it's back to square one with the annual calendar for the 2015th time, but on my personal account, 2013 is a wrap. While I'm zapping through the remaining list of releases for 2013, a total of two games for existing platforms catch my attention: Super Mario 3D World and Gran Turismo 6. They catch my attention, but nothing more. A new Mario game that's not part of the Galaxy series always sounds interesting, but I don't have Wii U and I don't plan on getting it anytime EVER, so that's it. Gran Turismo 6 on the other hand is a racing game, and I'm not personally interested in it, then, it just comes out at a great niche to be considered as a Christmas gift to someone else. When it comes to the PS4 and XBO launch titles, I'm glad I decided to push my personal transition to the next console generation - with the PS4 - far along next year. Might even be getting Watch_Dogs and both parts of Metal Gear Solid V for the PS3 instead of the hi-fi freak's natural choice.

But, here's the subject I really wanted to talk about before trying to catch up to my annual quota. I realized one more thing while I was browsing through that list of releases. If PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are truly "leaving", they have sure as hell done it with style throughout the whole year. First, I thought, how about I make that Top 20 I was talking about earlier, and dish out my favourite video games from this whole generation? Well, this generation clearly ain't dead yet, and besides, I just did the favourite franchises schtick, it would be what I criticize many games for: needless repetition. I'm not doing any type of list, then. Instead I'll just flap my virtual gums for an extended while and simply recap what's been going on this year, ever since January. What's funny is that every single year, people tend to forget what came out in the early months of the year, because all the most anticipated (and usually multi-platform) releases are scheduled for the later months. That's why I think it's interesting and vital to remind everyone that not every great game came out on September 17th.

I haven't even played all of these games, and all of these games are not necessarily "great", not even to my personal liking, but games that were either highly anticipated, how that anticipation translated to perhaps the greatest media overkills in video game history, or otherwise notable titles, for example indie games that didn't have the bucks, but sure had the bang, or at least one exciting return to a stellar franchise that went horribly wrong... and stands as perhaps the otherwise magnificent year's biggest disappointment, by far. That's saved for later, let's go back to January... January 15th, to be precise.

The emo-hobo Dante you so hated.
Perhaps overshadowed by the other big action reboot of the early year, but surely important to a lot of folk (in better or worse) and a lot of newbies who appreciated PS3's less-heralded cult games Heavenly Sword and Enslaved, Hideki Kamiya's PS2 hack 'n' slash classic Devil May Cry made a return... as the British developer Ninja Theory's DmC. Initial media and fan response to taking the familiar basics and fitting them into a whole different story, with a whole different Western style, was overwhelmingly negative, but Ninja Theory stood their ground to the end, unleashed the game and enjoyed great response from just about everyone, from the media to even people who were involved with the original series. Especially Japanese fans of the series still weren't too excited, and the game somewhat failed to catch the attention of an essential amount of new fans. I never really liked the original Devil May Cry's style, and I never fully appreciated the series either, but I saw a lot of potential in the first game - I think that DmC might strike a better nerve, and that's why it's pretty close to the top of my current-gen wishlist. A week after DmC, came Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, a true throwback to the golden era of Japanese role-playing games, decorated with beautiful hand-drawn graphics, and a beautiful soundtrack performed by a symphonic orchestra conducted by anime stalwart Joe Hisaishi. One more shining star to the long list of great PlayStation 3-exclusives; however, to be precise, this game was released in Japan as far back as 2011, and it's based on a Japanese Nintendo DS game released further back in 2010. Investigation to the issue revealed that problems with translating the game and its collector's paraphernalia caused the delay. However, unlike many long-delayed games, especially in this particular genre, Ni no Kuni came out not having aged a day, and totally rocked the world of J-RPG fans... yours truly included, and it even made me more receptive towards anime. Or if not receptive, at least more accepting.

February saw the sudden and odd Steam release of Tim Schafer's cult heavy metal adventure Brütal Legend, and the much-anticipated "Enhanced" re-release of BioWare's critically praised 1998 debut Baldur's Gate, with the add-on Tales of the Sword Coast slipstreamed into the game. Oh yes, and there was the case of two "huge" multi-platform games as well, a sequel and a spin-off, neither one of which no one in my immediate vicinity really wanted to see. First was Dead Space 3, that by its mainframe alone screamed out modern co-op-oriented Resident Evil meets Lost Planet, and not only was that exactly what it was, but it was once again a failure in an already degrading, initially super-promising and super-refreshing survival horror franchise. So, that one I've certainly played and I certainly have it on my shelf (as decoration...), because of a promise I made back when I finished Dead Space 2. With the second big game, I never promised anything except to think about it once it came out: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. To this day, every word about that game rings of uninterest. Yeah, sure, I'm a Metal Gear fan - I probably won't need to explain why I am so reluctant to play this game. Without stooping to the level of bashing Raiden, and confessing my love for Solid Snake (had to say that...), I'll just say what is a damn fact. Metal Gear Rising has NOTHING to do with Metal Gear. I'll buy the game once it's cheap enough, and I promise to try it out; liking it might take a little more trying, with the toughest part being forgetting the name.

Star of the bigger reboot of the year, this one
didn't sell as expected, either, though.
March: two reboots, a 3DS Castlevania game which has since been remastered for Sony and Microsoft's online services, a new Walking Dead game which "kinda" fell short of its "predecessor's" success, the final (?) add-on for the age-old MMO Final Fantasy XI, the latest and surprisingly poorly received Gears of War and God of War installments, and finally, the gamer's choice, and a formidable runner for game of the year (not on my personal account, though): BioShock Infinite. So, Castlevania came out first, and leaving my final opinion on the game's HD version hanging for now, I must say I at least somewhat pity those Lords of Shadow fans who went out and bought a Nintendo 3DS for the sake of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate. Just as the add-ons to the original Lords of Shadow taught us, we should've just waited for Lords of Shadow 2 to see how the Belmont clan's story takes form after one of the cliffhangers of the century. The two reboots were released on the exact same day, the 5th: SimCity, which was almost the first PC game I ever bought, let alone pre-ordered, but luckily I didn't do that since critical reception to the game was overwhelmingly, not to mention, unbelievably, bad. How could they possibly fuck up a brilliant, simple idea like SimCity? It's beyond me, and as time has passed and the reception gotten even worse, I don't plan to find out. Tomb Raider, on the other hand, got a fantastic makeover. As a fan of the original series, you can say what you will, but personally, I hated the emphasis on Lara Croft's sexual being, and as the reverse-progressive critical and commercial success of the series goes to prove, that concept got old in time. This game introduced a far more sensitive girl from next door, who really had to work on her crazy moves, and she was scared as shit while trying to pull them off. Yeah, I know you'd like me to note her smaller cups, too - when it comes down to something like that, I think she was more attractive and charismatic than her earlier incarnation, too. A great action-adventure, one of the best shooters in its recent history, and definitely my favourite Square Enix-produced game since Final Fantasy XII, at least. (Still working on my take on the latest Deus Ex, in case you're wondering.)

We're still in early March - the 12th day delivered my first pre-ordered SteelBook Special Edition of the year. Now as I just talked about DmC, it's a fine time to say that my friend Pekka is a huge fan of that franchise, and we've had many arguments where he has defended Devil May Cry, and I've tried to oppose him with something I love as dearly, which was admittedly influenced by Devil May Cry, and which he on the other hand at least dislikes very much: God of War. God of War: Ascension was... NOT a disappointment. I knew exactly what I was heading into, a God of War game that wouldn't be as good as the previous games, but would still be a God of War game and at least this far, I've been happy with that much. It was indeed an entertaining game, and I think the time is getting ripe to take it for another spin; now that I don't have to worry about reviewing the game, might even be that I'll enjoy it more than the last time around. Gears of War: Judgment came out less than a week later to a very disappointed audience; I was kinda expecting when people would finally recognize the series' faults and not just blindly rate every game to high heaven. For the record, I haven't tried the game and I haven't even finished Gears of War 3 yet. As much as I have enjoyed games 2 and 3, I will never count 'em among the Xbox's best offerings, unlike everyone else on this planet. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was an FPS, riding on the wind of Telltale Games' great success with their point 'n' click masterpiece, and even though it featured high-profile voice actors including series stars Norman Reedus and Michael Rooker, and had great production values, the game failed miserably. On the 26th, Final Fantasy XI (presumably) got its final chapter in Seekers of Adoulin, but no one really noticed, as Irrational Games' BioShock spin-off BioShock Infinite came to collect the fruit of each commercially failed game of the year released that far. I've got to admit that with its great success, BioShock Infinite has stirred some guilt in me for being an FPS-hater. Then again, I have played BioShock 2, which is often mentioned as one of the greatest games of the generation, and it didn't impress me beyond its art style.

April was a quiet month, save for the Wii U-"exclusive" re-release of Ninja Gaiden 3, subtitled Razor's Edge, arriving to the PS3 and Xbox 360 to wipe the floor with the original version. Also, NetherRealm Studios unleashed their spiritual successor to Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, entitled Injustice: Gods Among Us, which fared quite well, with another surreal plot revolving around alternate dimensions and the end of the world, and simple rivalries fast evolving into an all-out fight to the death. May was an equally quiet month. FPS fans once again got their long-anticipated share with Metro: Last Light, and the 3DS game Resident Evil: Revelations was brought to the big boys - outshining its major predecessor (originally successor) Resident Evil 6 in every possible way, and definitely marking the return of some of that old atmosphere, but still being very far from what Resident Evil once was.

"Drugs. I sell hardcore drugs, dad." "Well, good. You can
start helping with the mortgage then." The moment I knew
I was going to like The Last of Us. Just ten minutes later,
I knew I was going to love it.
June disappointed more mature PC players with the strength of a (nominal) reboot and a remake of one of the most classic graphic adventures of all time. The MMO RPG Neverwinter actually had very little to do with BioWare's classic Neverwinter Nights, as well as the old DOS game of the same name, but when you put the words "dungeons", "dragons", and "Neverwinter" together, you'll be expected a standard, the ever-strong presence of World of Warcraft creates another standard, and apparently, Cryptic Studios failed to reach those standards. Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded is on my "to get" list, just because of every single one of those million times I've clashed through the original Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, and every enhanced version of it thus far in the last 19 years (24 minutes is my current record, with the original DOS version). Marvel fans finally got the game they expected for years... and didn't. As much as Deadpool deserved his namesake game, as well presented as it was, with Nolan North once again providing the voice of the merc with a mouth, the gameplay values were utterly panned. Nolan North... Nathan Drake... Uncharted... Naughty Dog... did I forget something? June 14th marked the arrival of The Last of Us, one of the greatest and most emotional stories ever told within the confines of one single action game - and one single game is all we'll probably going to have, since it really wasn't of the sequel material. But then again, it's quite enough. The Last of Us was expected to be the last true masterpiece of the generation (ahem...), and serve as a standard for the whole of the next one. If that's the case, The Last of Us truly restored my faith in modern third-person shooters, which will probably be the flagships of the next generation as well. But we'll see how it turns out.

July really didn't have anything I'd find worth mentioning in store, but August came with two critically acclaimed Japanese RPG's, new Saints Row and Splinter Cell games, three remakes and one "reboot". Disney's answer to collectible toys interspersed with video gaming, such as Pokémon and Skylanders came in the form of the highly acclaimed Disney Infinity, probably your best choice for a Christmas gift to your demanding child. A new J-RPG IP named Dragon's Crown and Namco's latest in their long series of "Tales", Tales of Xillia, came out to great response. However, Tales of Xillia got a few slashes from the axe, and it's completely understandable even if I still haven't tried the game, it's there on my shelf but I haven't had the time for it - like, it was delayed for years like Ni no Kuni but unlike that game, it had aged quite a bit (both games were published by Namco Bandai, interestingly, just developed by different groups). Also, it's a bit weird how each Tales game is released exclusively for a different system, making it impossible to collect the whole neat set for one single system - even if you have both of them. Nitpickers? Yep, and we love ourselves the way we are. I haven't much to say about Saints Row IV, except that when the game came out, I stumbled on a copy of the first game, sold at under 4 euros. Had to buy that one for curiosity's sake. Also, the only thing I've got to say about Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Blacklist, is that I'm still very interested in the franchise after initially giving it the boot at the time of Pandora Tomorrow, and that I think Tom Clancy was a great man. R.I.P.. Remakes: the first one was a remake of none other than one of the greatest 8-bit platformers ever made. DuckTales Remastered was a good platformer, but quite the disappointment for an old fan - of both the game and the show.

Now here's the funny thing, and I promise you I'm not shitting you in the slightest! On the morning of August 21st, I was sipping down a cup of coffee, searching my shelf for untouched games that I would finally like to try out, all proper-like, and one of the games that caught my eye was Prince of Persia, the 2008 reboot. Well, right now I'm playing The Sands of Time, for the first time in my life, and I'm kinda liking it, but just a few months ago, my knowledge of and experience with Prince of Persia was limited to the very original game, that fucking enfuriating, yet strangely addictive cinematic platformer. Not the console versions either, but the very original computer version. Then I started thinking of other similar games that were released on the SNES in the early 90's, and which eventually led to the creation of Oddworld for the PlayStation. Blackthorne was my favourite out of those games, but I never played it that much since it was so hard to find - I lived in a small town and the local video store extended their 8- and 16-bit stock by just a couple of games per year. Where is this long story going, you wonder? Well, the SNES versions of Out of This World (known as Another World around here) and Flashback were the games that were the most familiar to me from this genre. My brother had OoTW and my best friend had Flashback - and while these two games were so similar, I kinda liked Out of This World, and absolutely HATED Flashback. However, I had some sort of affection to the game, and even an obsession with its sequel Fade to Black back at the time (just because it was named "Fade to Black", like the Metallica song). I started thinking about Flashback (having flashbacks of Flashback) and thought that it was kinda weird there never was a third Flashback game, or that Flashback had never been taken up for a remake. Then, I logged on to Xbox LIVE, went to see the new stuff on Arcade, and what did I find? Flashback - the remake. ...And just to put a cap on this long story, it apparently sucks ass and I have no intention to get it. The end.

The biggest remake of the year is Square Enix's quest for salvation - once again I'd like to grab 'em by the throats and tell 'em what their true salvation would be, yet I digress - A Realm Reborn - Final Fantasy XIV, a project created from scratch with just the most important basics intact after the complete critical and commercial failure of the original Final Fantasy XIV MMO. I'm not a fan of MMO's, but as the most reckless and stubborn Final Fantasy collector in the world, I am going to get a copy at some point, just as I went to great lengths to finally secure TWO copies of Final Fantasy XI for the PC; actually playing them is not on my agenda. Besides, I've heard really good things about the game, things that please me as a fan - I'm happy that fans more open to massively multiplayer are finding it great, I'm still waiting for the next single-player experience, not to mention the next number... and I'm hoping the best, I truly am.

What happened to this fun-loving lot?
Last on the August list is the disappointment of the year. It's not Dead Space 3, it sure as hell ain't DuckTales Remastered, and it ain't even SimCity either. When I was in the 1st grade, I lived and breathed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I drove people crazy with my badly pronounced surf lingo, I really did. Now here's the thing: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II - The Arcade Game was, and still is, one of my all-time favourite NES games. No, the original arcade game released on Xbox LIVE some years ago did not change that, not one bit - actually, it just proved how great and superior the NES port was back in the day. It was kinda endearing, not disappointing. I heard from a friend on Facebook that this game called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows was coming out on Steam and Xbox LIVE, and he had been granted the privilege of testing the game. He said that if anyone ever loved the original comic books or even the very original cartoon, and the old games, he might add, they'd got to try out this game. OK, so I scooped up a couple of screenshots, and heard someone else comparing the combat system to that of the Arkham series. Hell, remember how excited I told you I was back when it was very loosely rumoured that Rocksteady was working on a TMNT game? Now there was an image in my head: this game would rock the shit out of every one of those stupid reboots of the franchise and return to the old-school glory of TMNT, and have destructively awesome gameplay. It was later I found out that it is actually based on the latest reboot, but that didn't matter - if the gameplay was as great as I imagined and the style was as good as I imagined, hell, maybe I would even find the new take on the franchise quite good. Well, again to put a short cap to a long story, the game sucks ass. I regret spending my well-earned money on it, even choosing it over a nice evening with my girl, and if I was just a little more agitated by the crappy gameplay and the sucky art, I'd fucking sue Activision for all things human. I at least hoped for a game that would finally spark my interest to do a TMNT marathon, but once again, it's put on indefinite hold.

And the Game of the Year undoubtedly goes to...
That shitstorm I just brewed up calls upon an even more epic turn of this year's events than it already is. September first brought us Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, a high-definition remake - and I do mean a total remake - of one of my favourite games on the Sega Genesis, one that's even better than the original article. On the same day, somewhat of a cultural mass took place as Diablo III finally made its way to consoles. Outlast was released on the PC to renew many gamers' faith in survival horror, Kingdom Hearts got its long-anticipated HD treatment, and of course, many sports fans of all ages got their game of the year in NHL 14. September 17th saw the release of MechWarrior Online... but no one cared, as Grand Theft Auto V was finally released, to overwhelming critical response and praises from even those fans who gave up on the series after Vice City (there are plenty). I've said quite enough about the game, and I think the game's achievements on this blog speak for themselves - not only did it wipe my franchise favourite San Andreas out of its way, it made all the way to the #1 spot on the Top 60. In October, its online servers were opened for some more Los Santos-sized mayhem - not without flaws, but apparently, GTA Online is up and running just fine at the moment. October was also the time for the three 2013 games I had true interest in. Beyond: Two Souls came out first, and as a Heavy Rain fan, I was intrigued, but after reading the average reviews, I decided that I should postpone the purchase. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag came to save a franchise that wasn't exactly dying, but tiring out, and Batman: Arkham Origins, despite being a good game, apparently came to do the complete opposite.

So, it's been an on/off year, but when it's been on, it has truly been on; two masterpieces, several good games, a few disappointments, but only a couple of games that aren't worth half of the benefit of the doubt and should be dumped in the trash on sight. When I think of this year as a whole, the one common thesis which comes to mind is that my faith in the future of video games is restored, in franchises, as well as whole genres. So, I'm expecting a good show from the next generation of consoles. Welcome to the world.

maanantai 11. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Batman: Arkham Origins | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: October 25, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Warner Bros. Games Montréal, Splash Damage
PUBLISHER(S): Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment

In the summer of 2012, Warner Bros. hinted at another Batman game in the fabled Arkham series, this time a Silver Age prequel which would feature several members of the Justice League, and among its stories to tell would be Batman's first confrontation with his arch nemesis, the Joker. As more and more people dropped out of this project early on, including voice actors Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, writer Paul Dini, and finally, series creators Rocksteady Studios themselves, and as the game's title was unveiled to be something as typical as Batman: Arkham Origins, people's disbelief in the game kept on growing with each step until Warner Bros. had trailers to prove that they'd apparently adapted Rocksteady's methods quite faithfully, and that the new voice actors knew how to get the job done. Written by Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Assassin's Creed fame, the game might even finally have a solid story to it even if it was not what was originally promised, or even the supercavalcade of rogues the previous games were. In a nutshell, Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game - but there's no denying that with these couple of years in between, it could be much more.

I am the (rough) night!

Roger Craig Smith : Bruce Wayne / Batman
Troy Baker : The Joker
Martin Jarvis : Alfred Pennyworth
Brian Bloom : Roman Sionis / Black Mask
JB Blanc : Bane
Michael Gough : GCPD Captain James Gordon
Nolan North : Oswald Cobblepot / The Penguin
Mark Rolston : Slade Wilson / Deathstroke
Steve Blum : Lester Buchinsky / Electrocutioner / Loose Lips
Wally Wingert : Edward Nashton / Enigma

Batman is in an early stage of his crimefighting career. The highly corrupt police force of Gotham City considers the Dark Knight a threat to both of their businesses, and his name is a terrible urban legend on the streets - no-one outside the Blackgate prison walls really believes in Batman's existence. Drug lord Black Mask finally has his fill of Batman and places a $50 million bounty on his head on Christmas Eve, drawing the attention of eight of the deadliest assassins in the world - Deadshot, Deathstroke, Copperhead, Firefly, Electrocutioner, Killer Croc, Shiva, and finally, the mental and physical powerhouse known only as Bane. In the thick of it all, Batman has to deal with the sudden appearance of a mysterious psychopath calling himself "The Joker", as well as a seriously self-absorbed hacker who is hell bent on collapsing the political climate of Gotham City, and a few more loose cannons. It's going to be a Christmas to remember.

Playing around with the Remote Claw. A bit
tacky, yet fun.
Late 1988 - the 60's Batman show premieres on Finnish TV. I never miss an episode - Batman's my new hero... and perhaps Batgirl and Catwoman teach me an important lesson or two about women. About the same season in 1989, the movie by Tim Burton comes out. I'm too young to go see it at the theater, but I have all the related merchandise you can muster up at that time. My mom buys me books to tide me over until the video release, including The Killing Joke and the whole of Ten Nights of the Beast serial - yeah, stuff you really shouldn't buy to a kid who has a certain goofy image of Batman and especially the Joker, it can be really scary... or REALLY COOL. Early 1991, me and my best friend curse at each other for not being able to defeat the Joker in Batman - The Video Game for the NES. We keep trying until we are both found passed out on the living room floor... both woken up by the sound of someone powering down the NES. "NOOOOOO!!!" 1992, Batman Returns. Some time after that, the animated series. Still going strong. Then, 1995... Batman Forever. Initially, I like the movie, but hey, at that age I like everything with Jim Carrey in it... and it has Tommy Lee Jones, too. It's not that I liked the movie which makes me think what mind-numbing drug I was on at that age, but the fact I liked the SNES game as well. Well, in 1997 Batman & Robin comes out, and that movie single-handedly destroys all my interest in Batman. I don't know if "single-handedly" is the correct term - I hold everyone involved with that movie responsible. Yes, even Schwarzenegger. Many years pass. Then, 2005; Batman Begins. My interest in the franchise is totally renewed, especially upon the arrival of the 2008 sequel The Dark Knight, but it seems that in the years I've missed, no-one has created the perfect Batman game. In 2009, British rookies Rocksteady Studios step up with an all-star Batman game starring 17-year veterans Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker, Paul Dini works as the lead writer, and appearances from the Top 10 craziest bastards in the DC Universe, set within the walls of Arkham Asylum, now run by inmates. How could it go wrong? It doesn't - it's a magnificent game with shades of Metroid at its absolute best (note that I avoided the use of the word "prime"), an honest love letter to Batman fans. Next up, Batman: Arkham City in 2011... the same thing, but fitted into a city-wide sandbox, with double, if not triple, the amount of villains. 2012, The Dark Knight Rises ends the Christopher Nolan film trilogy with pure power.

This was my journey as a Bat-fan from the very beginning to this day. Judging by all this, you'd think that Batman: Arkham Origins was right up there with my most anticipated games of the year, but it really wasn't. Although I always knew it was going to be a good game - I mean, how could it go wrong with all the most important bases covered? - the truth is that Rocksteady's already done it all. Be it a sequel, interquel, prequel, whatever-quel, they can't possibly give us nothing as grand and especially as definitive as what we've already seen. That much has to be understood from the start. Instead of delivering with a non-stop thrill ride conducted by another fantastic collective of exciting rogue designs, the "new" developers (they made the Wii U version of Arkham City) focus a bit more on the integrity of the story, here, and although Batman: Arkham Origins is not really a cohesive origin story (Batman's origins are actually exploited less than in the previous games), it does explain many things, how things came to be as they are in the Arkham universe. It does that for quite some while and it's exciting to watch... right up until it stops explaining. As solid as the story is, it ultimately hits yet another brick wall, leaving many loose ends wide open, perhaps to pave way for another prequel. I hope for DLC instead of another full-length game, because I firmly believe the line can't be stretched any further than it already has been.

This Christmas, Gotham gets a dose of Anarky.
Another game, another set of influences - what I noted immediately about one of the trailers was how much the character of Bane is actually influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of the character in the movie The Dark Knight Rises, which felt odd since in the previous games, he was more influenced by his comic book counterpart. Thanks to some really good writing - at least I think so - the subject of Bane should no longer be questionable by the end of the game. One more important thing that causes concern for the integrity of the characters of Batman: Arkham Origins, is of course the set of major changes in the voiceover cast. Roger Craig Smith and Troy Baker take over for Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, respectively - as much as I've appreciated both actors' previous works such as Smith's long tenure as both Chris Redfield in Resident Evil and Ezio Auditore in Assassin's Creed, and Baker's voiceover presentation of the year as Joel in The Last of Us, I've got to admit I was a bit worried they wouldn't really know what they had gotten themselves into, here. Well, Smith sounds the same as always and he does a fine job at it, and Baker steals the show just like any good Joker, perhaps repeating Hamill's formula, but ain't that pretty much the idea? After all, this is supposed to be a prequel, not a reboot.

Of course you can be the mean critic and say it looks like a prequel, too - something dug up from the drawer from somewhere between Arkham Asylum and Arkham City. As blunt as it is: Arkham Origins is not a step forward in any sense, except maybe for once again slightly enhanced combat mechanics. Luckily it's not much of a step back, either - if you loved Arkham City, you're going to like Arkham Origins. Whether you treat it as a new game or a gigantic add-on to its predecessor is up to you - after all, it does look exactly the same and half of Gotham City does comprise of what "became known" as Arkham City. That's the most boring part, I think, re-gliding through an already fine-sized map you've had plenty of time to scout through and through dozens of times. Also, I find it more than a bit illogical that "Arkham City" is actually the same size as the rest of Gotham - in other words, the world map is almost exactly twice the size of the one in the last game. So what, the government spent all those resources on splitting the greatest metropolis in the world in an exact half and giving one half of it to criminals? Doubtful. The level design is OK for the most part, but I'm really annoyed that almost all of the story levels consist of climbing upwards and maze-like corridors, points which make a post-story hunt for the last remaining collectibles really tedious, and perhaps the greatest disappointment of all was the mandatory hallucination segment - should come as no spoiler - which was, yes, predictable by all accounts, and not too fun to play either. I miss Scarecrow's nightmare segments. (Where did the guy disappear to, anyway?)

The soundtrack is composed by Christopher Drake, who's worked on several animated films based on DC characters, including last year's film adaptation of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and also the video game Injustice: Gods Among Us. Amazing work, once again, by a different composer - although once again you can play the part of the mean critic and say how it doesn't take a musical genius to figure out what sort of compositions Batman fans like. Yeah, it's traditional Batman fare - mixed with a little bit of the darker side of Christmas carols. So, again, amazing.

Showstealer No. 1: Deathstroke, making his
major platform debut in the series.
When you finally get over how kinda old-fashioned the game feels, you'll start to enjoy the story, and see how much strength lies in its greatest weakness. Let's start with the few things that are new in Batman: Arkham Origins. You finally get to visit the Batcave, the real one - and yes, Alfred is there, monitoring your progress every step of the way. Remember how I pointed out that Bane's character is very influenced by Tom Hardy's interpretation of him on film? Well, check out Alfred and correct me for a false statement if there's not a hint of Michael Caine's interpretation in him - not necessarily the emotional wreck he was in The Dark Knight Rises, but the doubtful, yet loyal servant he was in the first Nolan film. You still can't fool around with the Batcomputer any more than the story allows you to, which was a slight letdown, but you can change your suit to one that pleases you - if you have Adam West's 60's suit via DLC, you can even use that one (lol) - and take on increasingly tough combat challenges in the training "lounge", unlocked on the go, to gain hefty amounts of EXP. The Freeflow and Predator challenges are still in categories of their own; you can take these on as well from here, or from the main menu. You can use the Batwing to get around - it seems that the Batmobile is still under construction. No, you can't fly the thing - there's just a Batwing drop point in each major district of Gotham for you to unlock for fast travel; as a matter of fact, it seems the game can hardly manage the fast travel animation (read: poorly disguised loading screen).

Most gadgets are unlocked from the beginning, but you can't use them for all of their several purposes before unlocking upgrades to 'em by making progress in the main story, and taking care of some particular side missions. Almost all of them are either exactly the same as your Bat-gadgets in previous games, or modified versions of them, but there are two completely new ones. The Remote Claw allows you to, not just somewhat illogically, secure a tight rope between two anchor points you don't have to be in any direct contact with. Via a few upgrades, you can also shoot it at an enemy to hang 'em upside down from afar or smash a projectile into 'em, and do takedowns while balancing on the rope. Illogical... yet quite neat. What's even more neat is the pair of Shock Gloves, which you can use to manipulate electrical equipment, and even gain a huge advantage in overwhelming combat situations; not only does high voltage deal a lot of damage to even armored enemies without any special attacks, each freeflow hit counts as two, allowing more takedowns for starters. Could be quite useful, since there are a lot of annoying bastards in this game. And a lot of fights, at that.

Showstealer No. 2: Bane, looking more "hardy"
than ever.
You can't go anywhere in this game without running into someone itchy for a nosebleed or cracked ribs. Combat, as strong as it has always been in this series of games, can get quite tiring when there's a gang of enemies in every damn street corner while you're hunting for collectibles, and a gang of enemies in each damn room when you're simply trying to get on with the story. The side missions are no different; just beat up a group of guys and you've won, nothing more to it besides a semi-scripted sequence in which you catch the bad guy. Even some boss fights are enforced by a group of standard enemies who pose the actual threat instead of the boss character him- or herself. The boss fights are of the quite standard fare here, no Mr. Freeze or Ra's al Ghul, or any of the like to be fought - a couple of nice surprises, Deathstroke seems to be a common favourite, but ultimately, I'm disappointed with how most of these depend on skill of mashing one single button, the one which signals for attack, and even sheer luck at times.

The Predator rooms haven't changed one bit, despite the Remote Claw's presence. The enemies are just as stupid as they ever were, speak as stupid as they ever did, and fall for the same stupid stunts as they ever did. The rooms are maybe a little tougher to completely scout out and navigate especially while under fire, but I don't think they'll pose much of a challenge to someone who has already survived the worst places and the worst stipulations in the past.

Stipulations remind me of the challenge tracker, tied to your Freeflow and Predator skills, as well as your knack for finding secrets. This tracker would make the game much more entertaining... but what's totally wrong about it is that you have to do its challenges in a specific order. For example, if you manage to survive a Predator room without switching the ever-so-useful Detective Vision on once during the whole sequence... good for you. It won't make a stinking difference until you've cleared the previous challenge on the list. And no, it doesn't clear out automatically if you've done it long before - you'll have to pull the same stunt off AGAIN to nail the challenge. The best thing for you to do here is stop trying early on. Ironically, you'll clear much more challenges that way.

The last thing on the list is the puzzles - where do they fit in? Are there any? Sure there are, but not those question mark challenges and spotting challenges we so loved, although there are tags hidden around the city which poorly reflect on those. The actual puzzles are of the exact same variety as they were in Arkham City, nothing more and nothing less... and nothing as clever, but a nice change of pace anyway. Some tricky gliding challenges between two or more particular spots, heavy use of the Remote Batarang and Cryptographic Sequencer, exploring the full potential of all your gadgetry basically... nothing to really twist your brain in a cramp, except maybe finding the right source of an obvious map marker every once in a while. This game is too vertical for its own good.

Showstealer No. 3 needs no introductions.
The story is short, but it's filled with sweet spots. It's not until the very end that you'll realize how many points it missed out on, and how anti-climactic it was in certain ways... and again, the worst part is that it feels like it might serve as the first part of a two-part story; perhaps the cow wasn't milked quite as dry in Arkham City as I thought, but after this game, Batman needs a fresh start. The side missions, puzzles and challenges will keep you occupied for at least a few extra hours, and there's not one, but two harder game modes. And oh yeah, the challenge maps - no Arkham fan ever said no to those. And a multiplayer mode too. There's content here, alright, if you're fan enough to take it.

Batman: Arkham Origins is a good game, but while other huge video game franchises of the stealth action and/or sandbox genres keep developing - mostly referring to the nice surprise the other big October release delivered, and the game of the year which was released in September - time has stood still for Batsy. You'll play it. You'll like it. But after that, I wouldn't be surprised if you went back to the old ones for even better time. Actually, this might be a good place for newbies to start dissecting the Arkham series - if you haven't played the previous games, you just might look upon Arkham Origins as a masterpiece, and unlike many prequels, it won't spoil anything for you.

+ A solid story with delicious twists - total integrity is lost towards the end, though
+ Awesome cast of characters; The Joker, Bane and Deathstroke steal the show
+ Fantastic music
+ Actually being able to visit the Batcave and meet Alfred adds to the experience
+ About half of the boss fights
+ Challenge maps from both sides of the coin are always fun
+ Combat mechanics are once again upgraded...

- ...That's pretty much it; time has stood still
- A little too much of that initially fun combat, found in every story and side mission
- Half of the map is literally Arkham City all over again
- About the other half of the boss fights
- Dumb challenge tracker
- A patch suggestion rather than a down: a deadly audiovisual lag and other buzz killing glitches in the PS3 version, especially after the story is completed

< 7.9 >

sunnuntai 10. marraskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag | Xbox 360 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: October 29, 2013
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Montréal, Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Bucharest, Ubisoft Kiev, Ubisoft Montpellier, Ubisoft Quebec, Ubisoft Singapore, Ubisoft Sofia

Four years later, the great success of Assassin's Creed II continues to define the series. The ambitious Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - the altogether tenth game in the franchise - is out to change that... just as its few predecessors were, but they took the easy and risky path of repeating the AC II formula. Last year's Assassin's Creed III at least tested out a new modified engine, but as many saw it, the game was just that, a mere test platform - an immensely boring one, with a main character that was, and I quote an anonymous source, "as lively as a brick". As much as I personally appreciated Ubisoft's effort to get back on track with Assassin's Creed III, I admit that the game had many flaws with just some of the most major splinters being Connor's stoic and largely unlikeable personality, and the simplicity and constant, not to mention needless step-by-step guidance of the very basic user interface ("AC for dummies"), contrasted by confusing micromanagement. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is supposed to take to these issues as well - it introduces a new ancestor in Connor's much, much more charismatic grandfather Edward, and is set in an extremely large, wide open world, which you're free to explore just as you please without having to wait for the game's permission to do it, where "nothing is true and everything is permitted", and micromanagement is once again one of the game's main draws and not the pointless drivel it's been since Revelations. Ubisoft guarantees at least 40-50 hours of the best Assassin's Creed schtick you've ever witnessed. You've heard their sales pitches before - you can't trust 'em. That's where people like me come in - and I am proud to announce that despite my personal expectations of the complete contrary, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag IS the best Assassin's Creed game I've seen.............. since Assassin's Creed II. Gotcha.

Weigh-hey, up she rises!

Matt Ryan : Edward Kenway
Sarah Greene : Anne Bonny
Oliver Milburn : Bartholomew Roberts
Mark Bonnar : Edward Thatch, a.k.a. Blackbeard
Ed Stoppard : Benjamin Hornigold
O.T. Fagbenle : John Rackham, a.k.a. Calico Jack
Danny Wallace : Shaun Hastings
Eliza Schneider : Rebecca Crane
Nolan North : Desmond Miles
Nadia Verrucci : Juno

The present day - you literally are the protagonist.
11 months ago, Desmond Miles' ultimate sacrifice did save the world from solar destruction - but as a new threat originating as far back as the First Civilization emerged, the war between the Assassins and the Templars kept raging on. Now presumably in possession of the Pieces of Eden, Abstergo Industries sets its sights on something called the "Observatory". To fund their research and to cover their true motives, Abstergo branches to show business, claiming to use the Animus only to record accurate data for a series of historical adventure films. A blood sample taken from Desmond allows his Animus research to continue through the eyes of none other than... you. You play the part of an eager, new Abstergo Entertainment employee, who initially has no idea about the real story behind the production of Devils of the Caribbean, a pirate film set in the Golden Age of Piracy. This era saw the rise and fall of several fearsome pirate captains, but perhaps the most fearsome of them all - yet one that time forgot - was Edward Kenway. He bowed to no one and followed no code, the only thing he had interest in was wealth - but as most of his former allies were seduced by the Templars one by one, and the greatest treasure of them all slowly became his one true obsession in life, he ultimately found himself aligned with the Assassins.

When I say Assassin's Creed II still defines this franchise, I mean it - and in numerous ways. Although I might sound like a broken record since I've started each AC review in similar words, I'll say that first and foremost, it was such a huge upgrade from the lackluster first installment. The first game was kind of like a prototype of the then-new Anvil engine. Assassin's Creed II was the climax; Brotherhood was still very good, since it had a great story and it improved on II's few shortcomings, but Revelations was like a bundle of leftover material with very little fresh substance. The story had so much potential, but it went to waste, as the once magnificent Ezio had used up nearly all his charisma in previous games. The present day story just stood still - ironically it was the first game's quite unlikeable protagonist Altaïr who stole the show with just a few minutes of screen time. Then, came Assassin's Creed III, a game Ubisoft at least claimed they had been working on for exactly three years. New engine, new ancestor, finally some progress in the story, finally a fresh feel to Assassin's Creed. Yeah, well, all that happened, for sure - but the majority who loved Ezio's exploits hated the game. Just a few weeks after the release of Assassin's Creed III, we found out that there was another new Assassin's Creed coming. Many former fans of the series knocked these "exciting" and "surprising" news out cold, but I dunno, I was kinda torn - I liked Assassin's Creed III. I was able to turn a blind eye to its many shortcomings, just because it was such a fresh take on a formula that was all used up, and the story evolved so drastically at the end - although I kinda expected it - that to say I was intrigued of how they would be able to keep the present day story interesting from that point forward would be an understatement. Secondly, maybe this would be the huge step up, the final product, the climax of AnvilNext, just as Assassin's Creed II was years back. Thirdly, I fucking love pirates. Yarrrrr!!!

Yo-ho, yo-ho. Edward and his wheel.
You don't need more than a minute with Edward Kenway to realize that this is the Assassin's Creed protagonist/deuteragonist you've been waiting for. By his personality and motivation, this man is like a polar opposite of Ezio Auditore, as he is short on both temper and sense of morality, but he is absolutely none less charismatic. If you're like me, you probably liked his son Haytham in Assassin's Creed III more than his grandson Connor, even though he was one of the main antagonists - but I assure you, Haytham's high charisma had nothing on daddy's. Unlike every other Assassin's Creed "hero", Edward isn't on anyone's side, initially. He isn't remotely aware about the war between Assassins and Templars, he just gets dragged into it by complete chance, due to both his curiosity and greed. He spends most of the game hunting down filthy backstabbers, who just happen to be Templars - and listening to the advice of a good friend, he also feels he owes at least something to the Assassins anyway, but doesn't consider himself a part of their holy order. There's only one order Edward belongs to, and that is the order of his beloved pirate government, his little community living under the black flag.

The game is more focused on the historical side of the story than any other Assassin's Creed game. Meaning, there are far less jumps back into the present day scenario, and you don't have to do anything else during these sequences, except for the small task you're given each time, to be allowed to return to Edward. In fact, I see these sequences as follows - and yes, this should be in the tutorial of the game, I think: if you have NOT played every game in the series, you should just do what you're told and get on with Edward's story, but if you HAVE played every game in the series thus far, I strongly suggest you take your time and explore the Abstergo offices thoroughly for computers to hack and conversations to eavesdrop. The hacking puzzles are a refreshing return to the spirit of those Subject 16 puzzles we oh, so loved in Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood. They're not worth much as actual puzzles, but the content of the numerous types of data packs found from the computers are like numerous types of love letters to long-time fans. They have that haunting atmosphere present in those true puzzles from yesteryear, and they're also there to explain a few things that have been bugging us for years, as well as explain what exactly happened to Desmond, and how we got this far: why is Abstergo suddenly ruling the world, basically, even though Assassins seemed to get the upper hand last time around? What became of the surviving Assassins? What is Juno's masterplan for world domination? Most importantly, what in the hell does "nothing is true, everything is permitted" mean? Which questions are answered, which not, you'll have to see for yourself, and I can tell you, you'll do it gladly. Not without some rain, I'm afraid, but I can almost guarantee you haven't found yourself this enthusiastic about Assassin's Creed in four years - at the very least three.

That manowar's gonna get it.
Being the first Assassin's Creed of the new generation of consoles, you can pretty much rest assured that it looks incredible - although I am sure that many future PS4 and X1 owners will criticize the game for not looking quite as incredible as it could. Its secret for being so much ahead of the already amazing Assassin's Creed III, however, is copy-paste; the level design is quite dull as most smaller categorized locations such as plantations, islands and caves are laid out almost exactly the same. As are the side missions that take place in them, I'm afraid - that's an issue for a later, more extensive look. Although the game lacks a memorable theme song unlike its numbered predecessors, Brian Tyler's soundtrack is easily the best in the series, drawing obvious influence from Pirates of the Caribbean - particularly traceable in the more heated naval battles. The best part of the soundtrack, however, is the one you can control - you can collect several sea shanties for your crew to sing while you're sailing the seven seas. Every tune you can imagine is most likely there: "Leave Her Johnny", "Coast of High Barbary", "Bully in the Alley", "Derby Ram", "Spanish Ladies", and finally, my all-time favourite, "What Will We Do with a Drunken Sailor". Yarrr!!!

The present day script starts quite silly and that leaves an early mark on the voiceover work, but it gets better. The voiceovers for the historical storyline are just amazing. Matt Ryan's Edward Kenway is truly out to outwit Roger Craig Smith's Ezio Auditore, and he succeeds for the most part, leaving players a bit confused who they should root for in the race for their favourite ancestor. (The fact we don't know Edward until he's an adult might have an ill effect on his appeal, though. Just sayin'.) If given a bit more screen time in his "Blackbeard" persona, Mark Bonnar's Edward Thatch would also be one to look out for in the race for best character of the year.

Copy-pasted or not, this is not Dragon Age II, and there are over 70 locations filled with booty, collectibles and secrets... even uncharted ones. The map is one huge platform for the biggest pirate adventure ever played, and it's the most honest open-world adventure in the series. There are still some annoying cries of "you can't access this area during the current memory sequence", but not as much as before. Most of the more difficult areas are chocked full of ships you have no chance against, instead - I think it's better to lay down an impossible challenge than just bluntly tell the player "you can't go there, keep trying and we'll desynchronize you" and still promote the game as an open-world experience.

Blackbeard, Edward's closest ally and best
friend. One hell of a temper, a knack for
theatrics. A great man.
"Impossible challenge" doesn't sound very fun, I guess. Let me rephrase that: impossible, in your current condition. Just starting with your ship - the Jackdaw - there's a whole bulk of stuff you can waste your money on in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, and for the first time since Brotherhood, it's stuff that truly makes a difference. This game will leave you penniless several times, no matter how much of a swashbuckler you are. In addition to money to cover the labour for the Jackdaw, you also need materials: wood, metal and fabric. Just sailing around and picking up floating crates containing these materials will get you nowhere - you can't buy these materials, so your only option is to go on a plundering trip, and not plunder just any ship that floats by, but a large ship - schooner at least - which carries the materials you need. You can just try your luck with any ship, but if it's a shitload of metal you're after for example, you can check these ships' cargo from afar with your trusted spyglass without having to engage in a tough battle you're not completely sure you can win. And here we get to the naval battles, which are a huge part of the gameplay experience and not just some fun little side errand like in Assassin's Creed III. General controls are better, for starters, and there are several speed settings besides just half and full sail. Also, you have four different weapons at your disposal, activated by just turning the camera to each side of the ship. Might take some getting used to, but it works better than the menu toggling between ammo types in AC III. You won't just automatically board incapacitated ships, either. Depending on the ship type, you need to kill off a set amount of its crew and officers, destroy its flag, or dispose of their assets of gunpowder, or conquer all of these objectives at once. The ship types are still pretty much the same - gunship, schooner, frigate, brig, and manowar - but if you've got enough balls, you can take on the royal fleets and legendary warships clearly marked on the map for some challenge if you muster enough upgrades to destroy and/or board a manowar in mere seconds. After successfully boarding any ship, you can decide whether to use what's left of it to repair the Jackdaw, free its remaining crew to lower your wanted level, or send it to your own fleet which you'll gain access to in time.

Your own fleet is almost the exact same thing as the global assassination missions that have been present since Brotherhood. The main difference is, that this fleet won't help you on missions. There's no one at your back to deliver a deadly Arrow Storm if you find yourself in a pinch too hot to handle - and this is a good thing, I think. No, your fleet has even less to do with Assassins than Edward himself. Don't worry, you'll still get those side missions where you work with another Assassin, but these are not trainees, they're full-fledged Assassins that you just owe a favour or two, and who are having difficulties with particular members of the Templar order... and of course, there's a treasure at the end of the rainbow, which is the final motivation Ed needs. Going back to the fleet missions... no longer will you be able to go to a pigeon booth every ten minutes and send your henchmen on another mission for money and other assets; these missions can take as long as 24 hours in real time. Sounds heavy, I know, but usually there's a LOT of income involved with missions that long, and they don't take away anything from a comfortable gaming experience, since this is your fleet's one and only purpose, and as the global missions get tougher and more lucrative, you'll be thankful for their existence even if it's a little tedious to set up these trips, since you have to secure the routes for the ships before sending them on missions each time in a quite dumb rock-paper-scissors type of naval battle simulation.

In addition to the Jackdaw's efficiency, you can also upgrade its looks, but this is something completely extra for your leisure, and shouldn't be taken too seriously whenever there's money involved (I used free DLC that came with the Buccaneer Edition). You're going to need it for far more important things than cosmetics. Same goes for your hideout - there are shades of AC III's homestead, but there are no missions involved, just properties acquiring which grants you different, minor perks; like if you buy a whorehouse, you can hire prostitutes to blend with and to distract guards for free. You also have your own mansion, which you can upgrade with shitloads of money and different works of art which you can either buy, or get as souvenirs from the fleet missions. Crafting items receives a welcome downgrade; gone is the long, confusing list of AC III which you had to navigate for several minutes to find just _something_ useful to craft, or deploying and defending the tedious convoys to make just a little sum of money. No, these are all useful upgrades and outfits, crafted from particular animal skins and those only. Of course, some animals are hard to find, and most of the prey used for the better upgrades inhabits the more difficult areas of the game. Unfortunately, you cannot craft main weapons - knives, swords or pistols. Those you have to buy, but somewhat luckily, the best sets are unlocked quite early on, so you don't have to waste your money on countless expensive sets that are essential for perhaps just a couple of in-game hours. As tradition goes, the number 4 shows up everywhere, including your maximum amount of pistols. Edward looks quite epic with those four pistols strapped to his chest and abdomen, and the most epic thing about it is the 4x reflex shot which you can use for crowd control - one shot from each pistol, to each side. Achievement on the horizon, too. Epic.

Yep, two cutlasses. A pirate with just one is
not a pirate at all.
The missions initially feel like a refreshing throwback to the Ezio trilogy - the better two parts of it, too, but there's a hitch. About halfway through Edward's storyline, you'll start to notice that the copy-paste isn't just the scourge of level design, but of the missions as well. The cinematics keep the story fresh and going, and there are some random single missions, each of which differ from every other mission in the game, but at quite long intervals. Most of the time, both the story missions and side missions are either simple assassination missions very much like in the first game (ehh...), naval showdowns of the exact same pattern, or those fucking repetitive and lengthy tailing missions I hated in Revelations. Not as bad, but with the worst checkpoints I've seen in a long, long time - controls, which have always been an issue with this series, might pave your downfall at the end of a ten-minute tail, and send you back to the very beginning of the mission. The same dialogues and the same cinematic halts, over and over again, even if there wasn't any true challenge involved until the final key moments. For some odd reason, some particular cutscenes cannot be skipped either. If there's a concrete problem to be found within the cavalcade of enemies, it's the fucking snipers. They're everywhere, and they can spot you from the weirdest distances and positions, no matter how capable you consider yourself in stealth gameplay. They're particularly annoying when it comes to these tailing missions I already dislike. Well, luckily there's one "new" (read: a new version of an old) secondary weapon which is essential against these bastards. Ultimately, every time this game starts to bore me out of my socks with its lack of mission variety, I find myself reminiscing on how boring this series has been at its worst. Even with repetitive optional objectives ("sabotage the bells", how surprising!) and repetitive missions, Black Flag is way more exciting and surprising than either one of the first game or Revelations. I guess Grand Theft Auto V's ever-changing gameplay cast a shadow on this here sandbox, too.

There are several underwater areas, a first for Assassin's Creed although swimming's been possible since AC II. No, it's not a whole underwater map like in Grand Theft Auto V, these are limited locations, and that's fortunate, 'cause there are quite enough uncharted collectibles as it is. Underwater controls are something no one has ever really excelled at, and seeing how imperfect on-foot controls are, you can probably imagine underwater controls are more than a bit of an issue. Once you get used to the scheme, though, these are quite fun - especially those which mix together swimming for treasure and avoiding underwater dangers such as sharks, and infiltrating enemy hideouts via the surrounding waters, with realistically minimal equipment.

Finally - when it comes to Edward - hunting for animals on land is much simpler than before, and not mandatory at all beyond the skins that are needed for upgrades. The thrill of the hunt is taken to the sea in a whaling minigame. Not only are the skins of whales and sharks essential for the best upgrades in the game, but you can sell these for some ridiculous prices, and the minigame really is quite fun - assuming you're not a PETA member or just some random activist. Sorry, but if you can't take it to the cortex that this is a realistic take on pirate history, not a clean (yet great) Disney presentation, I have no sympathy or understanding for you. I have nothing against principles which I don't follow, everyone's got to have 'em, but some people have a shitty sense for relativity. Sorry for sidestepping, just needed to get that out of my system.

Straight to the cap!
Finally - when it comes to the whole game - I need to properly express my love for the present day scenario, as silly as it first seems. For the first time in... uh, actually, EVER, I found myself speeding through Edward's storyline just to get to make a proper jump to the present day after you can actually do something there, and not just walk around and listen to stupid people talk. The magic of the present day lies in the hidden secrets of the Abstergo Entertainment HQ. There are nearly 40 computers and security systems to hack in three different "puzzle" minigames, which aren't very hard, but a welcome change in pace every once in a while, and what makes them exciting is thinking what sort of a data pack awaits beyond the solution to the puzzle. It can be absolutely anything: miscellaneous types of information gathered from the Temple and Desmond after the end of the previous game, illustrated biographies of several key characters of the whole franchise, movie trailers, recordings from before the events of the whole franchise which explain Abstergo's motivations, even teasers of which historical era the franchise might go to next, and much more. In a slight addition, there are hidden notes scattered all around the office building, written by an initially unknown someone who's like Subject 16 on drugs - Twisted with a capital T. I love these sequences, and while I'm writing this, I'm still a bit shy of the final conclusions to both storylines, nailed to the seat to say the least.

How far you're willing to go for 100% synchronization determines the difficulty of the game - the legendary warships are HARD, even with the Jackdaw fully upgraded, and not only are some of the optional objectives equally hard, their repetition makes them hard to bear. Besides, the game offers you so many easy ways out of missions that look hard, the clumsy enemy A.I. included - just like the first game - that with this much repetition, you'll have to be one patient player not to take one every once in a while.

Repetition is the key flaw of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but after all, it truly is a fresh, new beginning for the series, an ultimately engaging open-world experience that promises great things, solid proof that Ubisoft truly can get out of the slump they've been in since Brotherhood, and that they still have surprises left when it comes to the storyline. Now if they'd only wait a couple of years before unleashing the next installment, I think it's got all the potential to be something quite awesome.

+ Beautiful graphics and highly atmospheric music
+ Greatest pirate story told in a video game since Guybrush Threepwood's early career
+ Edward's charisma equals that of Ezio's, and both characters are still completely different from each other
+ The updated naval warfare is a solid, fun part of the game
+ The present day hacking minigames offer great prizes for long-time fans
+ A whole array of welcome upgrades and downgrades to several key elements from yesteryear
+ A huge map filled with collectibles

- Cramped, often distracting HUD
- Spotty controls
- Questionable enemy A.I. - "Some guy just jumped out of the bush and killed my best friend two meters straight ahead... I'm probably seeing things. Carrying on."
- Repetitive level design and mission objectives
- On/off checkpoints, turned "off" at the worst possible times (ie. the tailing missions)

< 8.8 >