Thursday, January 27, 2011

Virtua Fighter 2 on the iPhone: Virtually a Good Idea

Maybe, just maybe, not every old console title needs to be ported to the iPhone, especially when far superior arcade versions of the title exist.  Sega has now released Virtua Fighter 2 for iOS, but not the Virtua Fighter 2 that was in the arcades, the Virtua Fighter 2 that was released for the Genesis.  This would be the Virtua Fighter 2 that went with the dumbed-down 2D graphics as opposed to the arcade's 3D ones.

The reason for playing Virtua Fighter 2 in the arcades was that it looked awesome.  The characters were these excellent 3D models, and while the 3D models did make it to some home systems, they didn't make it to the Genesis.  No, the Genesis got 2D ones instead.

Depending on how you see the world, that may not have been a bad choice – if the Genesis couldn't handle the full graphics, why not simplify them somewhat so that the game could play on it?  Not having been in the room when the project was discussed, we can't state that there was an entirely cynical discussion about simply making money even if the game had to abandon the look and feel of the arcade title (though we're sure that there are those out there who won't be so shy about venturing an opinion).  What we can say is that on the iPhone, the Genesis port of Virtua Fighter 2 looks bad and is tough to control.

The straightforward fighter can be played both fullscreen with the controls over the picture or with the visuals in a smaller window with the controls below them.  The latter method makes the images somewhat sharper and more pleasant to look at, but we'd still be hard-pressed to call them anything approaching "good."

The sound too is distinctly unimpressive.  The voices are the same sort of harsh, indistinct, computerized ones that appear in Altered Beast and while the effects (punches, kicks, etc.) are better, they quickly grow old.

Perhaps the worst sin of the title aren't the graphics or the sound, but rather the controls.  Utilizing the Genesis' D-pad and three buttons to create a multitude of moves is less than easy.  The game is sluggish to respond and executing some of the more complicated attacks is exceptionally difficult.  The computer, not being hampered by the controls, has no such difficulty performing moves and when you get to the higher levels you're going to need the moves in order to win.  At least you can continue once you lose and be able to start off at the same level rather than having to start from the beginning again.  We humbly suggest that even if you can beat the first few levels without any attacks beyond simple kicks and punches you use those levels to practice the more difficult moves.

The game does have the ability to go multiplayer with other local iPhones/iPods which adds some replay value to it, but if only the multiplayer is really enjoyable (and it's only semi-enjoyable) does that make the title worth buying?  Probably not.  There are better fighters available on the iPhone and your memories of this straightforward fighter are certainly better than anything that the port has to offer.

Virtua Fighter 2 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Violence. This game can also be found on: PC, PS3, and Wii.

Article first published as iPhone Game Review: Virtua Fighter 2 on Blogcritics.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Kingdom Hearts: Re:coded - It's a tad Wonky

To be up front about it, I am a huge fan of the idea behind the Kingdom Hearts series – mashing up Disney Characters with Final Fantasy ones to tell a new story is odd and yet the first title manages to fit the two groups together so perfectly that you can't help but think they were always intended to be that way. As the franchise has expanded, they have had some ups and downs, and unfortunately the latest title is a little more down than up.

Although the story may be minimal, Kingdom Hearts Re:coded, starts off in fairly confusing and in-depth fashion for those who haven't played a Kingdom Hearts title before. The game, sort of, takes place after Kingdom Hearts II, and you're still playing as Sora (the main character), sort of. You see, the chronicler of Sora's tales, Jiminy Cricket discovers at the opening of the game that his journals about Sora's adventures have been erased and brings the books to King Mickey to look at. When new, cryptic, entries appear in the book—entries not written by Jiminy—Mickey sends the Sora from inside the journal to figure out what's happening. So, you're playing as Sora, but you're playing as a digital Sora who has no knowledge of what the real Sora's been through.

After that little bit of an intro, the story doesn't really bother you all that much during gameplay. As Sora, you go to various Kingdom Hearts' worlds, destroying the different bugs in the system that have caused this digitized version of the story to become… I believe the technical term is "wonky." You revisit some of your favorite places from past Kingdom Hearts' games, but the worlds here all feel very small, and most of the time, where you have to go and what you have to do is laid out before you and you're given little choice about venturing off on your own to explore.

The worlds do manage to seem slightly larger at first than they truly are and we have a horrible camera to thank for that. Although it can be repositioned, the camera nearly always manages to find the world possible point of view, making it difficult to see where you're heading and where any enemies may be lurking. The bottom of the two DS screens is a map, and sadly it is often far easier to use it to navigate than the top screen which shows Sora moving through the worlds.

Re:coded almost makes up for its camera and story faults by bringing great mechanics and an excellent level-up system to the table. It is still truly fun to hack and slash with the keyblade, Sora wields it beautifully and takes out Heartless (the bad guys) like nobody's business. Rather than just being an RPG-actioner, the game also flips to other genres (like a side-scrolling platformer) from time to time just to throw you for a loop. Within the world of the game, this sort of genre switch is explained as being possible due to the fact that the world is digitized and the code is full of bugs. That's a semi-ludicrous notion, but the entire story told in the game is semi-ludicrous from the start.

Going back to the levels themselves for a minute, there are also these things called System Sectors in the various worlds, which are hidden places where the code for the worlds reside. You're required to "debug" these areas which really just consists of your killing the bad guys that lie within. System Sectors are kind of an unfortunate addition to the game as they completely remove you from the world you're in, and what makes Kingdom Hearts great is playing through the worlds, not being outside of them.

As you progress in the game, you pick up computer chips which can be deposited in the Stat Matrix. These chips give you added strength, defense, magic, and can increase your overall level. Then, within the Stat Matrix there are other unlockables which open up as you connect your chips to one another and the CPU which processes the whole thing. These unlockables give you new support abilities, more command slots during a fight, and even cheats to help get you through the game. There is also a Command Matrix which lets you set certain abilities/items (potions and magic) and those too level up as you fight more battles. The different leveling systems are really incredibly in-depth, clever, rewarding, and brilliantly thought out. They are, by far, the highlight of the game.

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is very much an up and down game. It has moments of sheer brilliance (like the matrices), great combat, and the characters you want to see in a Kingdom Hearts title. It also has hugely frustrating aspects, like the camera and the feeling that you're simply being pushed through small worlds accomplishing small tasks. It doesn't always give off that sense, but it does all too often.

With a story that drops you into the middle (sort of) of events that have already unfolded and minimal exposition, this is clearly not a title for those who haven't played a Kingdom Hearts game yet. However, Re:coded offers fans of the franchise a small expansion on the universe and an opportunity to revisit the characters they've grown to love. It certainly isn't the best Square Enix and Disney have offered up to us, but it has its moments.

Kingdom Hearts Re:coded is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Fantasy Violence.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: Kingdom Hearts Re:coded on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Reliving the Glory Days - Samurai Shodown

Stop me if I've told you this story of my youth before…

Growing up I spent a number of Friday night's at the local pizza place. Although it was officially known as "King Pizza," everyone in my town referred to it as "Uncle Larry's" because Larry owned it and Larry was an incredibly nice man (plus, he made a mean pizza). The place was divided in two, with a restaurant in the back and a pizza parlor up front. While my friends and I occasionally ate in the back, more often than not, we'd grab a couple of slices and sit in one of the booths up front. It was easier, faster, and less expensive that way. Plus, you could chat with Uncle Larry and you could sink a virtually endless number of quarters into the NeoGeo arcade cabinet he had there.

Uncle Larry had the four game arcade cabinet, and quite honestly I couldn't tell you what any of the titles in it were save for Samurai Shodown. While waiting for a slice (or two) of pepperoni, a friend and I would put quarter after quarter after quarter into the machine, each trying to get the best of the other. While I would like to tell you that more often than not I came out on top, I think we were actually quite evenly matched (probably because we were equally good—or bad—at button-mashing).

The original Samurai Shodown has gone on to spur an entire franchise, and now the original is available on your PS3 via the PlayStation Network in the newly launched "NeoGeo Station." As you may have suspected, "NeoGeo Station" is what SNK Playmore is calling the NeoGeo group of titles on the PSN (although who wouldn't love a new NeoGeo system?). The titles are also getting a release on the PSP via the PlayStation Store.

Samurai Shodown is nothing more or less than a two-person, two dimensional fighter. It operates in the exact same manner as a Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, or Tekken title. Stop, wait, just relax for a second – yes, I understand that all those titles have differences from one another and feature their own particular quirks, but the point of them all is to bash the other guy enough times so that they can't get up again. In Shodown, you have got a life bar running at the top of the screen, there's a timer counting down to the end of the round, and you have to beat the guy twice in order to take on someone new.

The game seems to be completely intact from the old arcade version, with 12 fighters, great music, and the ability to knock away your opponent's weapon (something it was well-known for at the time). There are even some breakable items on the various levels, though nowhere near as much as what you see today in a fighter. The graphics haven't been tweaked either, and show 4:3 with a background picture extending past the edges on a 16:9 television. The game's instructions are also original, so it may take some time for you to figure out (or remember once you do initially learn) exactly what button as described in the game translates to what button on your controller.

Perhaps one of the greatest things about Shodown as a fighter is the POW meter (or "rage gauge") down at the bottom of the screen. The meter fills as you take damage in a battle, and once full gives you a little extra burst of angry to help you hurt opponents. If you're an expert at the game taking on a newbie you probably won't like it all that much as it really helps level the playing field, but if you're a button-masher it's a nice little bonus for when you're near death.

At the time I first played Samurai Shodown in Uncle Larry's, I found the speed of the title rather remarkable – the warriors were fast and battles unfolded very quickly. In today's day and age, while the speed of the game hasn't slowed, other titles do seem to have caught up with it, because it no longer feels all that quick. It isn't slow, it's just not fast.

What Samurai Shodown still is, though, is fun. There are combos, but fewer than in a modern fighter. There are breakable things and weird little features, but compared to many of today's fighters, it's all very straightforward and simple. The game does come with the ability to play others on the PSN remotely, but we were unable to find anyone online to test our skills against (which, if we're being honest, probably saved us a whole lot of embarrassment). What really breaks my heart about it though is the fact that Uncle Larry shuttered his doors a number of years back and to this day when I play Samurai Shodown I find myself with a hankering for one of his Sicilian slices.

Samurai Shodown is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Animated Blood, Crude Humor, Violence. This game can also be found on: Wii and PSP.

Article first published as PlayStation Network Review: Samurai Shodown on Blogcritics.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Secretariat - Not the Winner You Want it to be

Having a great story to tell doesn't necessarily mean that one is going to end up with a great movie. Is story an important component in putting together a film? Unquestionably, but it isn't the only thing and while it can help minimize other issues, it doesn't always completely make up for them. Watching 2010's Secretariat it is abundantly clear that the tale of the 1973 Triple Crown winner may be a good one, but that the movie fails to convey it in a satisfying way.

Directed by Randall Wallace and starring Diane Lane as Penny Chenery Tweedy, the horse's owner, Secretariat features some trulyPhoto Credit:  John Bramley/Disney Enterprises, Inc. outstanding camera and editing work during the race sequences but never captures the audience's imagination at any other point. Although the film's name might indicate that it is about the horse, the vast majority of it is actually about Penny herself. However, her character is never developed in an interesting fashion. In fact, no character in the film is ever truly developed at all.

The story begins simply enough, with Penny deciding to split time between her family out west and her father's horse stables in Virginia. It's a decision that her husband, Jack Tweedy (Dylan Walsh) doesn't approve of, nor does her brother, Hollis Chenery (Dylan Baker). Penny, out of loyalty to her ailing father (Scott Glenn), ignores their wishes and does it anyway. While at one point in time the stables may have been successful, Penny finds that those days are long past and works at fixing the situation. Through no fault of her own, Penny ends up with a horse that she thinks has the right lineage to be a great race horse and sets about proving her intuition correct.

As some of the bonus materials included on the Blu-ray release acknowledge, the story of Secretariat isn't the story of an underdog who comes from behind to beat the odds. The horse wasn't an underdog and the film does not state that he was, but it does fail to provide any other real dramatic hook to the piece. Yes, Penny is an unlikely owner. Yes, she does hire an oddball trainer, Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). And yes, she does occasionally struggle with her husband and brother about the right way to proceed. However, none of those things ever really threaten to derail her, she just keeps moving forward despite the small obstacles in her path.

There is a moment when she needs to raise funds to be able to pay off the inheritance tax due upon her father's death, and while that may be the most dramatic of the occurrences, it is quickly dealt with. That probably is actually a smart move on the filmmakers' part rather than an oversight as Penny's pseudo-underdog status is seriously challenged by the notion that she might owe millions in an inheritance tax (because the estate she got had to be worth millions to owe that money).

The script by Mike Rich (based on a book by William Nack) does, occasionally, try to play up the issues Penny has living so far away from her family, but not  Photo Credit:  John Bramley/Disney Enterprises, Inc.terribly successfully. Again here, a main problem is a lack of character development — the film only bothers to try to establish one of her four kids as a real individual and even that attempt is half-hearted. Then, as Penny's family issues are only given the briefest nod, one has a hard time discerning why they're included to begin with.

In the end, without characters to really root for, without massive obstacles for them to overcome, and without true dramatic reversals, what the audience is left with is a straightforward tale about the best horse of its time (some might say the best horse ever) managing to win a whole bunch of races. On the upside, those races are actually filmed in fine fashion, with the cameras truly getting the viewers into the middle of the action. While 2003's Seabiscuit may have made for a better movie overall, the filming of Toby Maguire (as the jockey) during the race sequences left a whole lot to be desired, and that's a mistake that Wallace and company don't make here. Every shot during a race looks beautiful, breathtaking, and utterly real. Of course, good camerawork during those sequences doesn't make up for a film which is, in almost every other way, distinctly lacking.

Those good racing scenes look that much better with this Blu-ray release. Disney, yet again, does quite a good job with the high definition transfer. The colors are rich and the detail level high. When the dirt flies up off the Photo Credit: Disney Enterprises, Inc.track in a race it look spectacular, and when Lucien is wearing one of his horrible outfits it looks just as atrocious as the characters say it does. There does appear to be an issue with the blacks during some sequences where it becomes difficult to tell where one black ends and another begins, but it isn't a hugely distracting problem. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack excels during the races, with thundering crowds, thundering hooves, and a completely immersive audio experience. The sound also works in quieter moments and is well mixed so you won't have to play with the volume repeatedly as the film switches between those quiet and loud sequences.

In terms of bonus features, the film comes with the exact sort of items you would expect. There is a director's commentary track, a talk with Wallace and the real Penny Chenery, deleted scenes, and a music video. There is also a piece on the horse Secretariat, and another where commentators discuss Secretariat's Preakness victory. This featurette has the viewer watch a computer simulation of the race from multiple angles as a jockey, reporter, spectator, and others discuss the race from their point of view. Lastly, also included is a featurette on how the spectacular race sequences were filmed. It doesn't go into quite as much depth as one might like, but it does provide a good idea of how the production team got their results. A DVD of the film is also included.

Watching Secretariat, one can't help but get the impression that there is a good film underneath it all just begging to be released but which never makes its way out. Characters are never made three dimensional, obstacles never seem all that difficult, and the film just plods along from one moment to the next, never really living up to its potential. Unlike the career of the horse the film is focused on, Secretariat ends up feeling like one big missed opportunity.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Secretariat on Blogcritics.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Season Four of Battlestar Galactica Hits Blu-ray - Was it Worth the Wait?

It would be difficult to imagine exactly who would go out at this moment and purchase Battlestar Galactica Season Four on Blu-ray not having seen the first three seasons, but this new release does mark the first time that the entire fourth season has been made available on Blu-ray (without having to buy the complete series release).  What this season shows us once and for all is that the reimagined BSG run by Ronald D. Moore and David Eick really is a testament to the power of modern day science fiction.  It is a reminder to all of us that great shows still can and do air on television (or at least they did until this series completed its run a couple of years ago).

Season four is BSG's last season, the one in which the wide-ranging story is finally—for better or worse—wrapped up.    We get to see the culmination of the colony fleet's trip to find Earth and to witness the reveal of the final Cylon. 

The season picks up immediately on the heels of the season three finale, with the triumphant and distinctly odd and unnerving return of the supposedly dead Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Kate Sackhoff).  Starbuck reports that she has been to Earth and that she can guide the fleet there.

Taking a step back, the series as a whole follow the last ragtag remnants of humanity on their quest to escape and/or defeat the evil robotic Cylons, a creation of mankind's that turned on their maker.  At the outset of the series, the Cylons destroy the 12 planets on which humanity lives (Earth, forgotten many years ago except in legend, not being one of them).  The Colonial Fleet is led by President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) on the civilian side of things, and Admiral William Adama (Edward James Olmos) on the military side.

That distinction, the military vs. the civilian is one that plays an important role throughout the series, as there is often great tension between what Adama and Roslin are willing to risk and do in order to provide for the safety of humanity.  That discussion is lessened somewhat in the final season as Roslin and Adama have grown close over the course of the series (they actually have a romantic relationship), but the tension is still often there.

The series has always found its best moments in its reflection of our present day society, something that season four does less of, but does not completely forego.  And, the overarching questions of it all—how far do you have to go to save your species and at what point has pursuit of safety compromised your very principles and made that survival nearly irrelevant—remain very much intact.

In answering these questions, the series often portrays things in a very brutal, sometimes hard to watch, fashion.  This is particularly true this season as four key members of the fleet—Saul Tigh (Michael Hogan), Galen Tyrol (Aaron Douglas), Samuel Anders (Michael Trucco), and Tory Foster (Rekha Sharma)—have to come to accept that they are Cylons (this was revealed at the end of the third season).  Perhaps it is the show's willingness to be harsh, to be dark, and to still ask and answer questions about the very nature of what it is to be human that make it a great series. 

As we see in the final season, even the Cylons, have moments of doubt, moments of questioning, and moments where they are simply not sure about right and wrong.  That too is one of the things that really makes the show excel.  Watching the various models of Cylons sit down and discuss the universe and their plans for it is incredibly engaging (and why, once the series ended, they made a two-hour movie called The Plan, which focused heavily on the Cylons).

Throughout its four seasons, Battlestar Galactica creates a large universe and deep mythology, even if there are very few people left to populate that universe.  The characters are rich and varied, and virtually without exception their storylines take interesting turns.  The two best examples of this in season four are the character of Gaius Baltar (James Callis) and Lee "Apollo" Adama (Jamie Bamber).   With every season of the show, Baltar's character changes dramatically, and season four finds him accepted as a prophet and religious icon.  As for Adama, he continues his move away from the military, this time out entering the political arena where he is forced to find his footing relatively quickly.

Of course, one of the more controversial moments for viewers this season is the series finale, which beautifully closes our window into their world.  There are those out there who find the end less than satisfying, and while I will not delve into it too deeply here (and thereby spoil any surprise the season may have in store for those who have not yet seen it), I would argue that it's a conclusion that stays true to everything that has come before it and perfectly fits the show as a whole.

This new Blu-ray set marks the first time that the entirety of season four has been included in a single set, including the two hour movie which preceded the official opening of the season, Razor, is also included in this set.  What this set doesn't seem to have is anything new – it is simply the entirety of season four and Razor put into a single box.  We've already gotten releases of Season 4.5 (the back end of season four) in a Blu-ray set, a complete series set, and Razor on Blu-ray.  This does mark, however, the first time that the front end of season four has been made available outside of the complete series box.   This new set also contains numerous excellent bonus features, most noticeably Ronald D. Moore's podcasts.  Each podcast can be played as audio commentary for the episode which it accompanies and they are all truly fascinating insights into the production of the series.  The video blogs made by David Eick are quite satisfying as he goes out and discusses the show on set with the cast and crew.  There are also a plethora of behind the scenes featurettes (including a retrospective on the series), deleted scenes, and minisodes. 

This set succeeds far more than simply in the storytelling and bonus features – it also looks and sounds truly outstanding.  There will certainly be folks out there who dislike Razor as the visuals are more grainy and the camera techniques and cutting more up front, but that falls under the are of directorial intent and do not mark an issue with the transfer.  One will certainly have no trouble recognize the difference here between a CGI and non-CGI scene, but the season as a whole does look exceedingly good, with dark blacks and great definition.  The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is quite nice to hear, particularly the far-ranging space battles and the brilliant music by Bear McCreary which is operatic and engrossing. 

If you are one of the people who began to purchase the individual Blu-ray seasons of Battlestar Galactica, season four is obviously a must-have to complete your set.  If you bought the single box-full series there is no need whatsoever to double-dip.  And, if you simply want to get in on one of the best television series in recent memory, you probably already know that this isn't the place to start.  What this release does do is confirm the brilliance of the overall vision for the show, the dedication of the cast and crew, and the execution of said vision by everyone involved.  The reimagined Battlestar Galactica isn't always the easiest show to watch (and there are episodes you're going to like more than others), but it is always a show worth watching.

Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Battlestar Galactica - Season Four on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Revving up SBK X: Superbike World Championships

Videogames make lots of things possible in a virtual world that would in no way ever be possible in reality. Even simulation games, no matter how real they may seem, are never quite able to approximate the real world. For instance, while I may be outstanding as a superbike cyclist in SBK X: Superbike World Championship, were I to actually get on a superbike in the real world, I would end up with numerous broken bones and an utterly destroyed sense of pride.

Truth be told, I got said destroyed sense of pride the first time I played SBK X in its simulation mode, where I not only wound up dead last, but did so in embarrassing fashion. That was the first thing I attempted in the title and it convinced me instantly that I needed to step back and go to the game's arcade section where not only is the driving more forgiving, but you're given a handy dandy racing line as well.

SBK X packs a whole lot of different items into the single title, there are the aforementioned simulation and arcade modes, and a multiplayer section (up to 16 people can compete online at once in several different race types) as well. Simulation allows you to create a career in which you'll have eight seasons to work your way up the ladder. You create a rider, choose a team, and compete in race after race after race. There are smaller objectives as well and, of course, the ability to tweak your bike setup to best accommodate you. It's a relatively full career mode, provides hours of enjoyment, and the fact that the game doesn't solely hinge on it certainly helps the overall title as well.

Arcade mode lacks the ability to play through a career, instead opting for a story track. Here, rather than going through grueling practice sessions and qualifiers, you are given a short mission goal (pass another driver, move up "x" places, etc.) and thrown into the middle of a race. You can earn bronze, silver, or gold cups for each mission and thereby unlock more races and move up from the most junior level, Superstock 1000; to Supersport; and eventually Superbike classes.

The arcade mode, as you would expect, is far more forgiving than Simulation (which, to be fair, has three "levels of realism"), and it is a lot easier to get up to speed in Arcade. But, if it's realism you're after, the simulation mode does allow plenty of different tweaks to the bike and a whole lot of control over your ride. Of course, if you're like me, "a whole lot of control over your ride" is going to mean that until you get up to speed you're going to be a disaster. Whether that speaks well or ill of the game is up to you to decide, but know that you're not going to pick the title up, jump into simulation mode (even on a low difficulty setting), and blow your opponents out of the water. If you opt to play on the most realistic setting with a full length race (you can run races at a percent length of the real-world length), you're going to be in for a true challenge. The story mode eliminates a lot of the choices given to you in Simulation's career section, but makes it significantly more easy to feel good about yourself without just handing you a bunch of wins.

SBK X is a licensed title, the only licensed Superbike World Championships title in fact, and features a number of racers and also their riding styles (which you can use in creating your own character). I wish I could speak to its actual realism in terms of the on-bike experience, but the great potential for broken bones has always stopped me from getting on any sort of honest to goodness motorbike, and to get on a racing bike and compete in any sort of actual race seems absurdly foolish. What I can tell you with some certainty is that if you spend hours and hours playing SBK X, not only will you be thoroughly engrossed and honestly consider hopping on an actual bike, you'll also become ever more certain of the fact that doing so would cause you grave bodily harm.

This is a fully engrossing racing title with elements to satisfy both those out for a pleasure race and those who truly want to get down to the nitty-gritty of the sport. The graphics are good, but certainly not knock-your-socks-off outstanding. Honestly though, when you're racing a bike at full speed in the complete simulation mode, you're not going to have to watch anything but the road ahead of you. If you're looking for a challenge here and a wealth of depth to the various modes, you're going to find it.

Now if only that in-game experience could possibly translate to real life…

SBK X: Superbike World Championship is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Lyrics, Mild Suggestive Themes. This game can also be found on: PC and Xbox 360.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: SBK X: Superbike World Championship on Blogcritics.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Back to the Future: The Game - It's About Time

At this point in time, Telltale Games' style is well established.  They have become very successful in recent years putting out "seasons" of a game made up of several different "episodes."  The games' style harkens back to the classic LucasArts games of more than a decade ago – Full Throttle, Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, and various Monkey Island games (both the Sam & Max and Monkey Island franchises have even been reborn at Telltale) 

In these games, the player goes around talking to everyone and performing small activities to solve puzzles and progress the story.  These aren't games that will get your adrenaline flowing, but they will make your brain work and provide a great sense of satisfaction every time you figure something out.   The end of December marked the launch of Telltale's latest game season and this time out the have opted to do a Back to the Future game.

As we all know, games based on movies tend to be less than stellar products and all too often come off felling like little more than an inexpensive way to cash-in on a blockbuster film.  Telltale's Back to the Future certainly breaks away from that stereotype.  It is a title executed in the exact same style as Telltale's other games and retains all the fun and frustration of those games.  And, while the new game does take place within the Back to the Future universe and while you do get to play as Marty McFly, you're not going to simply be mimicking his steps from the film trilogy.

Initially, however, that doesn't appear to be the case.  The game begins with Marty showing up at the Twin Pines mall at Doc Brown's behest, and Einstein does get to be the first living being to try out the DeLorean.  Things quickly take a turn from the film script though when the dog doesn't reappear a minute after he hits 88mph.  In fact, the game's first episode, entitled "It's About Time," and the only one currently available, takes you to the Hill Valley of the Great Depression, something we never got to see in any of the three movies.

Despite the story being different, the first episode does manage to stay true to Back to the Future-style plot devices.  Not only does Marty run into his ancestors as well as those of Biff Tannen and James Strickland, but he even meets a young Doc Brown.  In fact, there is even a chase around the town square that ends exactly as a chase around Hill Valley's town square should end.

As indicated above, the game is not without frustrations either.  Should you get stuck at any point (and not want to use the hints or the online walkthrough, which, let's face it, is cheating), you will find yourself repeating conversations over and over and over again.  The way the game operates during a conversation is by offering you a set of possible responses, and while these sometimes provide clues about what you're supposed to do, they can also stymie your own thought processes by not allowing you to head in the direction you'd like to take.   Are you kept on the right track?  Yes, but it sometimes feels like the answer could have been reached in another – perhaps better – way.

Telltale has done a good job recruiting voice actors for the game, and while they don't always sound exactly like the characters from the films, they are sometimes eerily similar.   Well, that's not quite always true, the 1985 Doc Brown does sound exactly like the one from the film, which is pretty impressive considering that Christopher Lloyd, who plays both, is now 25 years older than he was then.  Although he does not provide a voice, Bob Gale, who co-created and co-wrote the films also collaborated on the project.

In the end, one gets the sense with this first episode in Telltale's Back to the Future game that a whole lot of love, care, and thought has gone into it.  There are tons of references back to the movies and those who made them, there are moments in the plot which feel like the same sort of thing that would have appeared on film had the film gone to 1931, and a general feel that this  game has been made to honor the franchise as much as it has been made to expand it.

If you're a fan of the movie and/or remotely enjoy puzzle games in the Telltale style, you're going to love their take on Back to the Future and should definitely consider getting the download.

Back to the Future - The Game: Episode 1 - "It's About Time" is not rated by the ESRB. It is/will be also available on iPhone and PlayStation 3.

Article first published as Mac/PC Game Review: Back to the Future - The Game: Episode 1 - "It's About Time" on Blogcritics.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Soap Opera Dash - Because DinerTown Games are Fun

Do not let anyone tell you that making a soap opera isn't hard work.   Soap opera stars put in incredibly long hours day after day after day, and when you consider the fact that they're often making on the order of five hours of television a week (as opposed to a primetime drama series' 22-24 hours a year) you can begin to understand just why the hours are so long.  Of course, if math isn't your strong suit, you can also just download and play the latest entry in the DinerTown universe, Soap Opera Dash, and see all the craziness that takes place in the title.

Okay, that's probably a little unfair, Soap Opera Dash's craziness has minimal resemblance with the craziness on an actual soap opera set.  However, Soap Opera Dash, like many a soap opera, has people doing the same actions over and over and over again.

In the game, you play as Rosie, a woman who has previously appeared as a customer in other Dash games.  Rosie has decided to produce her own soap opera and that means that you get to help her cater to the whims of actors, that notoriously fickle and frustrating group of individuals.

The game, essentially, progresses as all games in the DinerTown universe – you have to accomplish specific tasks to keep the people you're working with/for happy.  In this case, the actors have to be given scripts; moved to hair, wardrobe, and makeup; and Rosie actually takes charge of doing the hair, outfits, and makeup as well.  As the game progresses, more and more elements are introduced, with new things repeatedly added in, like the stars requesting burgers and iced tea.

You are scored on how well you cater to the whims of those whom you serve, including making sure that you correctly color code the actors with the various stations they go to (red actors to red hair chairs, blue ones to blue, and green to green).  The more colors you can string together correctly, the more points you earn.  The points not only allow you to progress in the levels, but also allow you to buy upgrades between levels so that you can move more quickly and keep the stars happier for a longer period.

The game is organized into "seasons," with 10 levels comprising a single season and five seasons to be played.  The difficulty level notches up significantly between seasons and the studio also changes between them as Rosie's little soap opera becomes bigger and bigger.

Soap Opera Dash, as with all the Dash titles, is a title that starts off at quite a basic level, but quickly progresses to a far greater degree of difficulty.  The tutorial, which pops up repeatedly during the game, although somewhat helpful, also can prove something of a hindrance as it forces you to do things in the order that it wants, and that isn't always the way you want to proceed.  It can become quite frustrating trying to pick up and move a prop that simply refuses to move for apparently no reason only to realize that there's a small tutorial window that has appeared and which is preventing you from moving the prop.

The most unfortunate aspect of the game is something that readers of this column will know I dislike – the unfortunately added-in story.  Told between levels in comic book-style narration, the story seems like an unneeded addition to the game.  All that is really required is a small bit of story up front to set out the premise.  It is frustrating to play a game with a story and yet to have little to no impact upon said story as is the case here. 

Truly, Soap Opera Dash needs no story, it is incredibly fun to play, and although each individual episode takes no more than a few minutes, you will find yourself sitting down for far longer stretches to play multiple episodes at once.

Soap Opera Dash is not a game where they've greatly reinvented the formula, but it's still a great deal of fun.  With tons of stuff to upgrade, lots to do, and various bonuses available for purchase, it's a lot of game for a small price.  Additionally, if you go back and replay levels, they will be slightly different, which is also a nice feature.  If you're a fan of DinerTown titles or just curious to see what the fuss is about, Soap Opera Dash will provide hours of enjoyment.

Soap Opera Dash is not rated by the ESRB.

Article first published as Mac/PC Game Review: Soap Opera Dash on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

How I Met Your Mother and the Countdown to the Big Moment

Normally watching an episode of How I Met Your Mother takes me roughly 23 minutes – episodes of the sitcom run for 30 minutes, but subtracting time for commercials due to watching via TiVo, I'm able to shave a few minutes off.  Watching last night's episode, however, took me the full 30 minutes (and maybe a little more) despite the fact that it was on TiVo.  That's because I had to keep rewinding to find the numbers.

As soon as the episode began, I couldn't help but notice a pamphlet at Lily & Marshall's doctor's office which said "50" on it in bright red digits.  The next scene featured one that said "49."  One scene later we got the number 48 and it was clear that the producers were working towards something. 

That's when the first rewind came – my viewing partner hadn't noticed the numbers and I had to rewind to show her.  The rest of the rewinding came whenever one of us missed a number (I'll admit to missing a few on the first go through, most notably 15Photo Credit:  Monty Brinton/CBS. which was in the lower right corner of the screen).

So, it was clear early on that How I Met Your Mother was counting down, but to what and why.  Through the years, the series has done a great job of bringing back old moments – things said in passing in one episode regularly appear down the line in another.  Had Ted mentioned at any point that some sort of event was preceded by a countdown?  Had the show made it clear at any time what a countdown would indicate?  There was a hint that whatever the countdown was heading towards wouldn't be a happy and joyous moment as the episode was titled "Bad News," but had the show ever told us what sort of bad news came with a countdown.

Not that I could recall.  

It's a little hard with How I Met Your Mother to remember every minor thing Ted has ever told his children – even knowing that some will come back – and I certainly didn't remember any mention of a countdown (save for the slap bet, but that clearly wasn't where we were headed).  A quick google search (one that wouldn't endanger my spoiling the ending of the episode) didn't provide any answers on what a countdown on HIMYM would mean, so I decided to just roll with the punches, keep trying to spot the numbers, and wait for number one.

Eventually, of course, number one arrived and with it, the episode's bad news.  I don't want to spoil anything for those of you out there who may not have seen it (but come on, why didn't you watch last night?), so I won't delve in to exactly what took place, but I think it was a great dramatic moment on the show and I think the actors involved handled it really well.  It may be a more serious moment than any the show has had in the past, but How I Met Your Mother has managed to have many a serious moment over the years and throughout the laughs.

As they continue in their run, many sitcoms take a noticeable turn towards the dramatic, but I don't think that's what's going to happen with HIMYM, at least not at this stage.   The show is off-beat and quirky, with a great set of characters and while not every season has been as funny as the show's first two, it doesn't feel like the producers have run out of funny.  Instead, I think it was another good dramatic moment in the comedy, one which will almost certainly affect where the show heads for at least the next few episodes if not longer, but not one which signals an overall tonal shift.

Personally, I like when the show goes dramatic for spurts – as funny as HIMYM may be, they're telling a pretty serious tale and dramatic moments are warranted in a serious tale.   The countdown was a good way to prepare us for the big moment last night, allowing the show to be funny throughout while still letting us know that something was going to happen.  It's not a device the producers can use regularly (or perhaps ever again), but it worked this time and I'm already looking forward to the next episode.

Article first published as The How I Met Your Mother Countdown on Blogcritics.