Saturday, February 28, 2015

Back in the Saddle....?

Hello there, Blogosphere. It's been a while. You taking care of yourself? Good, good.



Yeah, it really has been a while. Admittedly, I've been quite focused on my job, family and gaming (when I can) of late so the blog has had quite a hiatus. But, here's hoping I can actually start something and stick with it!

While coming back to the blog, I've found that a lot of my old picture and link references have disappeared off the face of the Internet. Looks like I was doing it wrong, probably. So, I apologize for any of that and I'll try to be a better about it.

Anyways...what have I been up to?

- My older daughter started Kindergarten last August.
- My younger daughter is about to turn 3 and is on the cusp of using the potty.
- I'm still gainfully employed, as is my wife.
- I now have 4 cats and a dog. They are all furry goobers.
- I now have a Wii U in addition to my Xbox One. 2 down, 1 to go.
- My older daughter has started gaming a bit. More about this below.
- My younger daughter wants to game, but still very much lacks the know-how and manual dexterity.
- Been really hitting the MOBAs as best I can. More on that another time.
- I started watching One Piece and I recently finished of the Water 7/Enies Lobby arc. It's a really fun show.

Speaking of my girls wanting to game more now, it's something that really has me thinking sometimes. There are a lot of factors to consider. For example, which system should they play on? What games are good for them? How can I best manage their game time?

So far, my older daughter has tried Lego Marvel on XB1. The controller is obviously too big for her. She's old enough to know the letters on the buttons so she can follow a QTE as long as it is slow enough. But, the bulk of the controller makes it hard for her to easily move her right thumb from the analog stick to the face buttons. Likewise she can't use the triggers very easily. However, my 2 year old loves to pick up my controller while Destiny is on, make my guardian twirl like an idiot and look me in the face to say, "play your game."

I have found that the Wii U is much better suited to their tiny hands. In fact, the Wii U has so many control schemes for so many of its games that there is usually some way to modify so that it's easier for them to play. My 6 year old can easily hold the gamepad in her hands and use all of the required buttons for Mario Kart 8. My 2 year old can still hold it and push buttons, but she has no idea what she's doing.

Alternately, they can still use the wiimote (with or without nunchuck) or the classic controller. So, it seems that the Wii U is the winner in this area.

Most of the games I have for the Xbox One and 360 are rated T or M, as evidenced by some of the reviews I've done in the past. I'm not about to set my kids free on Borderlands, or Shadow of Mordor. Things like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are probably waaay too complex still, too. I have a few options, like Lego Marvel on XB1 or ilo milo on the 360, but the controller is still an issue. Suffice it to say, this was actually a major driving force for wanting to get a Wii U. Between Mario Kart 8, Rayman Legends, Super Mario 3D World, Captain Toad, the upcoming Yoshi's Wooly World and a lot of others, there are bound to be plenty of things for the girls to play and use to hone their gaming dexterity. Not to mention, they're just a blast to play with the girls or by myself.

Let me pause here to note that it has a been a joy seeing my older daughter's Mario Kart skills improve. Even at 6, she is getting 1st place on 50cc when playing by herself. (I seem to be bad luck for her, since I tend to gum up the track with extra shells and banana peels.) However, she sometimes gets too focused on collecting boxes and neglects the race entirely.

As for limiting game time, both the XB1 and Wii U have excellent parental controls. I can set up an allotment of time that their profiles can use up each day. I haven't set this up just yet, but I likely will be in the near future. The hard part is trying to figure out what configuration of controls I want. Obviously, I'm going to gate things by rating (when possible), and I will likely create some sort of time limit. We'll see and I'll post my findings here.

Well, that's it for this quick update. Toodles!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Psuedo Preview: Heroes of the Storm

I’ve been a Blizzard fan for a long time, dating back to about 1998 or so. Much to my surprise, I recently got invited to the Heroes of the Storm technical alpha. I nearly squealed audibly when I got the email, and I couldn’t wait to get into my first game. Now that I’ve been playing for a couple of months, I thought I’d share some observations about the state of the game as it is now, and where I hope it will go in the future.

First of all, for those who do not know, Heroes of the Storm is an interesting entity. A few years ago, Blizzard announced that they were working on a MOBA game, which is interesting because the MOBA genre pretty much began as a mod to Warcraft 3’s multiplayer. Blizzard took no action to capitalize on it, so it seemed to a lot of gamers that Blizzard was simply jumping on a bandwagon with Heroes. While that may possibly be true, they have blazed forward and have created the
technical alpha we have now. But, just what sets it apart from other MOBAs exactly?

I am not a fanatic MOBA player. I never reached level cap on LoL and only played a couple of games on Dota 2. I’ve never touched Heroes of Newerth or Smite. So, please, take anything I say about MOBAs in general with a huge grain of salt.

As of this writing, I am level 12 and I suppose I have played upwards of 40 games. But, I can already feel quite a distinction from other MOBA games. There are several ways in which Heroes differs from “standard” MOBA conventions, and they are readily apparent from the moment your first game starts.

Match Progression

In a typical MOBA game, two teams made of 5 players each attempt to destroy their enemies’ base. Along the way, each player gains XP and money by killing other players, creeps, and NPCs. XP translates to a character leveling up which makes their character stronger. Money is often used to buy items to customize certain stats of a character on the fly. It’s a tried and true system that many games in the genre use with some slight variations.

Heroes of the storm uses the same framework, but tweaks it more than I’ve seen done elsewhere. Unlike most other MOBAs, characters do not level up individually. All XP is shared across a player’s team. This helps prevent less experienced players from falling behind and dragging their team down as much. It also helps keep them involved in the action and moving the game forward.

Money and item shops are gone, as well. In their place, Heroes takes the leveling up mechanic used by other games -- wherein skill points are given and players choose which abilities to strengthen each time -- and mashes it together with the idea of an item system. Thus, the Talent system was born. As characters level up, they are given a number of character talents to choose from. For example, the witch doctor Nazeebo (Diablo 3) gets the choice to have his plague frogs get bigger and do more damage, or explode into corpse spiders. Tychus (Starcraft 2) gets the option of gaining an extra “Stoneskin” skill, or getting to move faster while firing. These talents help players tailor their hero to their play style, while providing some room to change up strategies between games. The Talent system also provides (almost) every Hero to take one of two ultimate abilities.

Meta Progression

I can best put this in terms that are used in League of Legends. In that game, the player is referred to as a “summoner” who summons and controls a champion during any given match. The “summoner” gains XP at the end of each game based on their overall performance, which helps them gain levels in a persistent system between matches. In LoL, summoners can access talent trees and a rune system that apply bonuses to any champion they play (and can have multiple saved templates to switch between).

Heroes of the Storm is not this flushed out at this time. Players do gain XP toward a leveling system which unlocks more hero talents and more game modes early on. However, the main way Heroes is setting itself apart so far is in Quests. After gaining certain ranks as a player, sets of Daily and Hero quests are unlocked. Daily quests will be immediately familiar to any WoW or Hearthstone player. These quests task the player with playing with certain types of characters for bonus XP and gold (gold is used to buy new heroes in the shop). Hero quests act more in the way an achievement would in WoW or on Xbox. The more games you play with a given hero, you begin to earn bonus XP, gold, and skins. Put together, quests help encourage players to branch out from their norm and reward them with tangible benefits.

Maps and Layout

Most maps in MOBAs are broken into 3 lanes with a sort of stream bisecting the map. Each lane has two towers per team, and the three lanes converge at the team’s base. Between lanes are NPCs that players can fight for extra money, XP and/or buffs. On this map layout, the focus of the game moves from defeating creeps to team fights later on. Aside from this, there is not much else going on.

Maps in Heroes of the Storm happen to be one of my favorite innovations of the game. As of now, there are 5 different maps that vary between 2-3 lanes each. However, the lanes are not always evenly spaced, and there is rarely a stream bisecting the map. Each map is quite a bit smaller than your typical MOBA map, too, which keeps players much closer together and encourages team fights more regularly. Instead of two towers protecting each lane, there are two small bases complete with three towers, walls, a gate, a barracks, and a healing well. Most buildings can attach heroes and minions, but they also have limited ammo. This adds a very intriguing layer of strategy to pushing lanes.

NPCs still exist, but rather than being killed and providing money (which Heroes does not have at the moment), they will join the creeps in the nearest lane on the side of the team which defeated them. I have seem many games in which securing these “mercenaries” has turned the tide of a losing battle.

Each map also has a unique mechanic. On one map, players can enter a mine to defeat undead NPCs before the opposing team does. Once all undead are beaten, a golem spawns for each team with strength and hit points relative to how many undead that team defeated. Another map tasks teams with gathering 3 tributes for a Raven Lord. Once a team has 3 tributes, the Raven Lord curses the other team’s minions with 1 total hp for a period of time. Yet another map places a skeleton pirate and his boat in the middle of the map. Players gather coins from chests and by defeating other players, then pay them to the pirate to launch a dozen cannonballs at the opposing team’s buildings.

Map mechanics are very important, but not the only path to victory.

Character Selection

This was one of the main reasons I wanted to play Heroes in the first place. As a long time Blizzard fan, the idea of characters from franchises I’ve been playing for 15 years or more battling each other made me giddy. It’s really a great bit of fan service from Blizzard. As of now, there around 25 different heroes to choose from. There are archetypes such as warrior, assassin, support and specialist but each Hero is very unique and contains a lot of personality. Plus, there is a ton of room for Blizzard to add more heroes to the mix. I already have a list of heroes I want to see, and Blizzard is welcoming hero suggestions. Who knows, maybe we’ll even see The Lost Vikings make an appearance in some way.

Final Verdict

Overall, I’ve had a blast with Heroes of the Storm. While Dota 2 and LoL may still hold onto the lion’s share of MOBA players, especially the hardened veterans, HotS seems like it will have something new for all players. Blizzard has removed a lot of the minutae that may daunt newcomers that try Dota or League for the first time, and crafted a game heavily dependent upon skill and teamwork. There are still a lot of pieces that Blizzard needs to add to the puzzle, though. An in-game voice chat option would be helpful, as well as a spectator mode (this is already planned) and match replays. Though a lot of streamlining has been done, It would be helpful for Blizzard to include some more in depth stat tracking of matches and with each Hero.

I can definitely see Heroes becoming a new contender in the esports realm. It will be facing some stiff competition, but there is enough to set it apart that I think we’ll see Heroes gather quite a following once Blizzard opens the gates to an open beta.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

E3 Is Over

I guess I’ll write an E3 post soon. In the meanwhile, enjoy this fun parody trailer from the folks at The Warp Zone!

While you’re at it, check out their YouTube channel here. I particularly like their Drinking Games For Gamers series.

Friday, March 14, 2014

An Alternative Look at Dark Souls

As you likely know, Dark Souls II just released this week and it has already garnered quite a bit of buzz.

I only recently got into Dark Souls at all. I had spent a chunk of time with Demon's Souls previously, so I already had a taste of the grim challenges that From Software is capable of. I originally became interested in playing these games because I had heard all the hype about how hard but rewarding these games are. So, I got a copy of Dark Souls, and I've loved it ever since.

When an acquaintance of mine recently shared this article with me, I was rather intrigued:

Why Dark Souls is the friendliest, most benevolent game of its generation

This article does a great job of explaining why I've fallen in love with this game.

What I've noticed while playing Dark Souls is that time has flown by. For the first time in a long while, I have put about 60 hours into it with very little interruption. I have started dozens of games which I played for about 10-20 hours, then gotten sidetracked by other games only to return weeks or months later with no recollection of what I had done before. But, not Dark Souls. Sure, I put a few hours into Bastion at one point, but I returned to Dark Souls. Why? The article above explains it perfectly. Dark Souls is an experience unlike any I've had in recent memory.

In my mind, I find that From Software was able to tap into some old school game design and successfully marry it with a 3D environment. The way I explain it is this: Dark Souls has the navigation and exploration of early Metroid games, but with the difficulty of NES Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden games, but as a 3D RPG. As someone who grew up on those games and watched 3D engines evolve from their earliest stages, I'm fascinated with what Dark Souls has accomplished. Demon's Souls tried, but Dark Souls just did it better.

On top of this old school design, the atmosphere of Dark Souls is also very enticing. Take a gothic setting, and remove nearly all inhabitants from it. You only come across another non-hostile character every few hours, and they are always very cryptic. It lends a mystique to the world. The enemy design is fantastic, too.

The moment when you realize those aren't the eyes...

Though I'll likely generate some chiding from my fellow SunBros by saying this, I don't think Dark Souls is a perfect game. I don't think such a thing exists. The game does have some downfalls. 
  • The story, because it's so sparse, tends to be obtuse and it takes real digging to piece everything together. (Though, that does have a certain charm in and of itself.) 
  • The controls are not necessarily the most intuitive, and the game has a habit of queuing up button presses. If you button mash, you're likely to not be taking the actions you want to. 
  • There's a good amount of backtracking, which can get tedious. And the list can go on.
Dark Souls, now that I've put a good amount of time into it, has become one of the most rewarding gaming experiences I've had in quite some time. And it's not masochism; I legitmately like being challenged, and I haven't felt a challenge like this in a long time. I salute Bandai Namco for giving From Software the breathing room to create something like this. Most publishers wouldn't have the guts to release such a game in this day and age. 

Praise the sun!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Framerate and Resolution on Consoles: Just How Much Does it Matter?

Not too long ago, I posted about my growing irritation with the gaming community as a whole in regards to the the so-called "Console War." If you'll recall, I expressed my ever increasing frustration with how divisive a new generation of consoles becomes within the gaming community.

Someone posted this article in a Facebook group I frequent. What ensued was another divisive, albeit mostly civil discussion that I found rather fascinating. It made me reflect on this subject of graphical fidelity in the new consoles pretty heavily. I decided that I wanted to share my thoughts on the subject here for all the Internet to see.


Higher frame rates result in smoother looking movement. However, the question always arises: how high is too high? At what point does an increased frame rate result in an imperceptible difference to the human eye? According to my scouring of the net, this question is not easily answered and there does not appear to be a clear answer. All I can do is use my personal experience to make up my own mind.

I spent nearly a decade playing World of Warcraft. I would consistently see the public chat discuss how the game was running for different players. I heard people talk about running at 90 fps or higher, and others complaining about only getting 30-40 fps. When I checked my fps, I was lucky to break 20. And you know what? It didn't matter to me. My character at least looked like it was moving somewhat naturally. Sure, when the fps increased, it looked even better. But, was it detracting from my experience knowing that it could have been X times better? Not at all. To me, it met a minimum requirement, and that was good enough for me.


We live in a day and age where most people who decide to buy a PS4 or an XB1 probably own (or have access to purchase) an HDTV. Many, if not most, of these HDTVs are capable of some form of 1080 resolution. Now, it is a truth that the XB1 does not natively output full 1080p video, whereas the PS4 does. And you know what? The majority of people buying consoles will probably never tell without really scrutinizing the picture. Here's an example of PS4 - XB1 graphics differences at 1080p (taken from the GamingBolt article linked above):

To me, the differences are very slight. The PS4 image seems to have somewhat softer edges in general. But...step away from your screen by a couple of extra feet and you'll probably not be able to tell a difference anymore. Now, here's another example (again, from GamingBolt):

I can see a bit more of a difference in the water in this pic, but little else. I actually like the reflections coming off the car more in the XB1 (left) picture, personally.

But, do you see my point? The differences are very minute. To the Average Consumer, these differences will be so slight that they will probably not make as much of a difference when it comes to purchasing decisions than game selection and brand loyalty.

Next-Gen Increases Are Getting Smaller

When the first gameplay footage of a game running on PS4 and XB1 was shown, I heard a major outcry from the gaming community at large: "That doesn't look better than they do now!" And I kind of agreed. But then I thought about it. The difference between PS1 and PS2 was huge. Case in point:

Final Fantasy VII on PS1
Final Fantasy X on PS2
Then, if we add in PS3 to this mix:

Final Fantasy XIII on PS3
Another noticeable increase, but not quite as drastic. While I wish there was more legacy to dig through to show the diminishing returns on immediate graphic distinction between consoles, I think these three iterations show pretty clearly how the immediate "prettiness" of a new generation is becoming more subtle. Time for a bit of speculation:

Final Fantasy XV (unreleased) on PS4
While there is definitely a difference, again the distinction between the PS4 and PS3 screenshots are not as striking as the ones that have come before. What the newer consoles are doing (and what I suspect future consoles, if they continue to exist as we know them) is increasing the computational power and "oomph" behind those graphics. This is allowing for more complex shading and much higher particle counts. It's the nuances that are increasing in the new generation more than anything. I think this is why so much attention is being paid to things like frame rate and resolution.

Consoles Are Moving Away from Being Just About Games

Both the PS4 and XB1 are pushing social features such as game recording and/or streaming. Sharing your game experience with friends is a major push so far with the new generation of consoles. As long as social media continues to dominate our Internet-fueled society, I imagine this will only become more and more integrated into the console experience. I would dare to predict that Gamertags and PSN IDs will eventually become a sort of gamer manifesto that people will become greatly attached to. When asked which new console I will default to for cross-platform games, I stated I would pick XB1. I made this decision because I'm more invested in my gamertag and achievements than I am with my PSN ID and trophy collection. If these keep carrying over from console generation to console generation, brand loyalty will likely increase greatly and become more and more of a deciding factor for consumers.

In the case of the XB1, Microsoft decided to include an HDMI pass-through with the main intention of allowing users to connect a cable box to their Xbox so they can watch television on their console. Time will tell how much consumers use this function or if other uses are found and how much effort Microsoft and other hardware manufacturers decide to invest in it in the future.

Regardless of the specific functions, extra features are being designed around the gaming experience that is ultimately as the core of a console experience. We will likely see this grow and expand as time goes by.

Who is Buying Consoles, and Why?
Since November when the PS4 and XB1 launched, millions of each console have been purchased by consumers. Despite lackluster lineups from each console, it's been a fantastic beginning to a new generation so far. But, let's think about the different types of people who are buying consoles:

Professionals: These are games journalists and eSports players. True, some of these consumers may receive their hardware directly from the manufacturers, but they still count.

Gifters: These consumers do not use the consoles themselves, but usually choose to buy them as a gift for a loved one, usually their children. These consumers may simply be buying what they were told to get and may or may not be very well informed on the differences between consoles.

Casuals: These are the consumers/gamers who play games from time to time, but do not necessary dig too deep. They buy a few new games per year and spend most of their time on those.

Hardcore: These are the gamers who will buy as many new games on a console that they can afford. They will play through a new game in a matter of days, and replay it multiple times. These are consumers who will prestige on COD many times over, max out each class on Borderlands, make Let's Play videos and write walkthroughs.

We can probably come up with more categories than just these four, but this is a pretty simplistic cross section of the console market. Of these four, which group is most likely to notice the subtle nuances between consoles? The hardcore, that's right. These are the gamers who will be spending the most time with their hardware and will want to make sure they are having the pinnacle in available hardware. You could even call them gaming aficionados, not unlike how a sommalier is a wine aficionado. When you spend that much time with something, you being to understand, recognize and criticize it. So, when someone tells me that the majority of gamers will notice the differences in frame rate and resolution shown in the pictures from above, I have a hard time believing that. If a consumer buys one console for reasons of their own and never even looks into the other, how will they know what they are missing?

Games Tend To Evolve During Each Generation

Ever since game consoles have existed, there has been a distinction between how games look when they are are developed and released at the beginning of the console's lifespan, and the ones that are developed and released at the end of the console's lifespan. This happened with Atari 2600:

Combat (1977)

Rampage (1989)
And with the NES:

Super Mario Bros. (1985)
Alien 3 (1993)

Sega Genesis:

Sonic The Hedgehog (1991)

Sonic 3D Blast (1996)

These are just a few examples of how games have increased in detail and style within the lifespan of a single console. In the case of the 16-bit era, developers even found new ways to use already existing hardware, such as implementing parallax scrolling, mode-7, and even took systems generally used for 2D side-scrolling and found ways to create 3D visuals. These intragenerational advances continue to happen today. For example, here are some Xbox 360 comparisons:

Call of Duty 2 (2005)
Call of Duty Black Ops 2 (2012)
So, when I hear someone using Battlefield 4 or Assassin's Creed 4 as a benchmark for the graphical limitations of the PS4 or the XB1, I tune out. It's way too early to know what the full limits of each system are.

This is further complicated by the fact that there have not yet been any games developed for and released solely on both of the new generation consoles. Battlefield 4 and Assassin's Creed 4 were cross-generational so they needed to be scalable. Those games simply will not push either console to it's limits as we understand them so far. The engines they were built on needed to be accessible to both generations. Even Destiny and Watch Dogs are going to be cross-generational and still won't be good benchmarks to compare the two new consoles. You can try to compare console exclusives, but again, you run into the trouble that these games, such as Dead Rising 3 or Ryze (XB1) and Killzone Shadow Fall or Knack (PS4) are using engines incompatible with their competing console. Until a game is developed for and released on PS4 and XB1 only (and probably PC), we will not have a good comparison of how well each console looks compared to the other.

I, for one, look forward to a day where we can fairly compare the PS4 and XB1 together on equal footing. By then, I hope to have a PS4 in addition to by XB1. Both consoles have aspects I like and dislike, as well as exclusive games that appeal to me. A console no longer needs to be judged solely on it's capability to deliver ultra photo-realistic graphics at the smoothest frame rate and highest resolution possible. Resurgence of retro gaming and appreciation of simplistic graphical styles indicates that the new consoles don't even NEED all the power they have reserved for gaming all the time. Ultimately, the decision about which console is best comes down to personal preference and what is important to any given consumer. While one or the other may be objectively more powerful, what matters is the overall enjoyment a consumer derives from his or her time with it. That enjoyment may come from the graphical quality, or it may not. Just figure out what you want, and go with it.

The flame war between the consoles and their minute graphical differences needs to stop.

Gnome out.

Note: None of the images in this article/post belong to me. I found everything but the GamingBolt pictures from random Google Images search results. Rights for each picture belong to their respective owners.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds Review - Link Restores Balance Yet Again

In 2013, Nintendo surprised the video game community by announcing a return to the Hyrule of A Link to the Past. Often remembered as the setting of one of the best Legend of Zelda games of all time, many gamers have very fond memories of that version of Hyrule. So, needless to say, many of us were very excited to be given a chance to play a new game in a familiar setting. Personally, I wasn't wowed at first by the trailers. But, I began to warm up to it over time. Now that I've played it, I can honestly say it is not only one of my favorite games on the 3DS, but one of the most polished Legend of Zelda games ever.

As you may expect, ALBW follows a very familiar pattern for Zelda games: Zelda is kidnapped by a villain and Link must rescue her. He goes through a series of dungeons and fights bosses. As expected, the first 3 dungeons are smallish and lead up to a major story point, at which point several more "major" dungeons are introduced. It's a familiar formula, and should be very much recognized by fans of Legend of Zelda. However, ALBW separates itself in a very significant way.

In most Zelda games, each of the "major" dungeons is punctuated by finding a new item, such as the hookshot, boomarang, bow, etc. ALBW introduces a system in which Link can rent any item he needs, and eventually buy them to keep. I was apprehensive of this system at first, as I've always reveled in finding that new item deep in the heart of a dungeon. I was worried that it would diminish my enjoyment of each dungeon by not getting these items in there. Indeed, that was the case to a degree, but not nearly to the extent I thought it would. The dungeons are still a blast to figure out, and there is definitely a feeling of freedom and power by not being restricted by finding the new item. They were also careful to include some sort of upgrade in each dungeon that would provide a general upgrade to Link himself. The rental system also allows the player to visit any of the "major" dungeons in any order, whereas they are normally delegated to a specific order. And, I have to say, Nintendo did a fantastic job of keeping the dungeons balanced so that they really can be done in any order. This leads to a healthy amount of replayability for anyone interested in trying dungeons again in a new order with items at varying levels of power.

Speaking of which, the upgrade system in ALBW was actually one of my favorite changes. While previous games did have some upgrade options available for various items, they could have been easily missed. ALBW introduces the maiamais which look very much like this jerk...

...but cuter!

Mother Maiamai tasks you with finding her wayward offspring who can be found scattered around both Hyrule and Lorule. The map in each kingdom is divided to show you how many lie in each portion. I had a blast figuring out how to get each one. And, I'm glad I took the time to do so. For each 10 maiamais you find, Mother Maiamai will upgrade any item you own (not renting). Each upgrade is significant, and very well worth the effort.

On the whole, the first play through the game was not difficult. I suffered only a handful of deaths during the game. Few of the puzzles left me thinking very hard. Even the final encounter was surmounted without much difficulty (though, to be fair, the final boss fight in most Zelda games tend to be similar). However, those craving a more hardcore Zelda experience will be glad to know that there is a New Game+ mode called "Hero Mode." The only difference is that enemies hit harder. For example: in the first minor dungeon, you have 3 hears. A single hit takes away 2 hearts. This provides a good spike in difficulty without making the game unplayable.

One of the ways that the game did challenge me in an unexpected way was the new "merge" mechanic. This is an ability Link gains in the second minor dungeon which allows him to become a moving painting on a wall. This allows him to move left or right in a straight line and reach areas that would not have otherwise been reachable. He can also get around some obstacles and fit through tight spaces that would have blocked his way. It added an interesting wrinkle to the normal puzzles found in a Zelda game.

One of the elements of the game that surprised me the most was the story. I was not expecting this game to have much of a story, for some reason. However, the ending was one of the most touching I've seen in any Zelda game. There was also a twist that I didn't see coming, though the signs were all there from the beginning.

All in all, A Link Between Worlds is a fantastic game and a must-buy for the 3DS. It is one of the few games where I played with the 3D on max as much as possible. It didn't necessarily add to my experience, but it was just well done and added a nice aesthetic depth to the game (which is weird for a game in which you spend a good portion as a painting on a wall). I don't think people will look back as fondly on this game as they will LttP, but its still a rather entertaining and engaging return to Hyrule that is well worth your time. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Batman Arkham City Review - The Dark Crusader Delivers A Second Roundhouse Kick Of Awesome To Your Head

(Edit: To be fair, I started writing this review several months ago; long before Arkham Origins was released.)

Disclaimer: To be completely honest, as is the case with a lot of games I play anymore, I got sidetracked after I had spent several wonderful hours in the game. I returned to it after quite some time, and had to get reacquainted. So, feel free to temper any of my comments on the game with that in mind.

I remember not caring much about Batman: Arkham Asylum when it was development. Then, I played the game, and realized that my interests were grossly misplaced. So, when Arkham City was announced, I was immediately hooked in.

I didn't get around to playing it immediately after I got it, because I'm still overloaded with a massive backlog of games. When I did get around to playing it, my expectations were well set. In a large sense, Arkham Asylum felt like a Batman starring in Metroid Prime, whereas Arkham City felt much more like Batman starring in Assassin's Creed. That is in no way a bad thing, but the two games feel like different flavors of the same awesome brand of [insert favorite candy here].

In case it wasn't already so, I want to make it painfully clear just how great this game really is. Arkham Asylum was thought of as the greatest Batman game to date, and I'd agree with that. Arkham City takes that already wonderful formula, removes it from the relatively confined spaces of the Asylum and lets Batman free into the night of the city. He iss more in his element, and it shows. From dive-bombing thugs to traversing the whole map without touching the ground, you really do feel like a badass crime-fighter.

Combat is super-smooth and the variety of animations Batman (and Catwoman) have are fantastic. There is also plenty of depth for the folks who want to maximize combos and come up with creative ways to dispatch foes. You can get by pretty easily without the extra flourishes available to unlock with a little skill, but some of them can be pretty handy in a pinch. Personally, I love the awkward ways that thugs will fall when they get knocked out sometimes (e.g. falling to the left when hit from the left, or ragdoll physics fun). It all adds to the charm, really. This is a game that is almost just as fun to watch as it is to play.

Arkham City itself is a wonder to navigate. The amount of content crammed into each square meter of the place is nothing short of amazing (sure, you can say GTA V still has more...but that's a huge area compared to a relatively small one). Riddler Challenges and side missions abound. If you have the Catwoman "DLC" there is an epilogue you can play through after the main story concludes.

Yeah, her combat kinda feels like that.
This brings me to my least favorite aspect of this game: the story. As epic as the gameplay feels, the story falls flat. There are twists and turns, sure, but they just don't measure up to the environment. Then, there is the fact that it's a slow burn. I took a hiatus from the game around the time I met up with Talia for the first time. I felt like I was about 50% in the story. When I came back after some time and reacquainted myself with the controls, the rest of the story just flew by and left me in shock. Where did the time go? There were even one or two twists that came up and resolved themselves just as quickly, though I was begging for them to get stretched out. Also...


Enough with the Venom already, okay?


All told, Batman: Arkham City is a solid game that gives a lot of love to Batman fans. Sure, some characters got some minor tweaks, but there were others that were oddly absent from Arkham Asylum that show up here and almost steal the show. There may be some ground retread, but that's not such a bad thing. With a great combat system that seems to be getting adapted into other games pretty readily today, you really do feel like Batman. The Catwoman sequences are great and make me wish for a Catwoman spin-off (hold the Halle Barry). The voice acting is top-notch (complete with a supposedly retired Mark Hamill and a Nolan North that doesn't sound like Nathan Drake); let's hope this marks the beginning of more game work from Stana Katic, too.

If you like Batman, play this game.
If you like being a badass one-man army, play this game.
If you like puzzles, play this game.
If you're human, play this game.

It's a great game, and one of the best of the PS3/360 generation. (It's still hard to consider it "last-gen" at this point...)

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