SIDEBAR
»
S
I
D
E
B
A
R
«
Uncharted 2 Review [Sony]
Jan 5th, 2010 by Dan

In my office there hangs a picture of Marilyn Monroe, a woman synonymous with beauty and sex appeal, but when you get closer to that picture the outline of Albert Einstein replaces the blonde bombshell. Uncharted 2 is a exactly like that.

It’s hilarious to me that in a world where I want people to stop comparing video games to movies, I find myself so enthralled by what is actually the best action movie of last year. I’m pretty sure that I said that about the first game too, but that’s how consistently the folks at Naughty Dog deliver top-notch, high-quality games. Nathan Drake is the Indiana Jones of the modern age, especially after George Lucas betrayed us all with that abomination of a movie in 2008. I’d even go so far as to say that the success of the series almost exclusively lies with the dude himself.

In the world of male power fantasies, I’d say there are a few ways to go. Muscle-bound ‘roid freaks who have big guns and kill everyone while being super macho men, suave ladies men who can get any girl they want, and the kind of skinny, smart-mouthed, clever scoundrel type (there are also combinations of these three for those who like to double dip their archetypes). Nathan Drake is the scoundrel type who gets to adventure in exotic locales in a partially tucked in t-shirt and jeans with a gun. As a guy who doesn’t own a gun or really go adventuring in exotic locales, but who does wear jeans frequently and plenty of t-shirts, how could I not want to be just like Nathan Drake?

Now that you’ve got this lovable scoundrel adventurer crafted, the next step is to have him hunt for a famous treasure, but put a spin on it somehow. The first game has Nathan hunting for El Dorado, but I won’t spoil what the spin is. This game has him searching for the Cintamani stone, a lesser known mythical object of wealth, but a valid one nonetheless.

Just like that, we’ve got two parts of every Indiana Jones movie already figured out. The next step is pretty obvious, you need a love interest for the hero. She can be either loyal, innocent, and a bit snobby or she can be sexy, dangerous, and possibly traitorous. We had Elena in the first as the first archetype and now we’ve got Chloe for the second. Perfect, we’re almost there.

The final touch for any Indy movie is a bad guy, preferably of foreign origin so that the Yanks can feel like they’ve triumphed against the world. Drake’s Fortune featured Gabriel Roman, an older British man, and his sidekick Atoq Navarro of unknown Hispanic origin. For U2, we get Eastern European warlord Zoran Lažarević. Just like that our pulp movie plot is complete.

It seems so simple when you put it that way that it really gives me pause. This is more than the plot to the (awesome) Indiana Jones movies, it’s also a fairly common plot that I find myself bored with 98% of the time, so why do I love it so much? What is so crunchy about the way this game is structured that I find myself unable to put the controller down when I’d normally just turn off the tv?

I give a tremendous amount of credit to Amy Hennig, who I know has creative authority over all of Naughty Dog’s products. It’s got to be her touch that gives Uncharted its extra little bit of awesome, because it’s an otherwise standard game. Plenty of folks complain about the shooting mechanic being imprecise not to mention the ease with which most puzzles can be completed. In fact, if you’re ever just a wee bit stuck on a puzzle, all you’ve got to do is look in Nathan’s notebook and the solution is right there. The only natural conclusion is that the strength of the game must come from the way that Hennig and the folks at Naughty Dog put together all these mechanics combined with the look of the game and the behavior of its characters.

A great example of how all of the game elements combine to create something great (and how Naughty Dog is a superior developer) has to do with the set pieces throughout Uncharted 2. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, a set piece takes all of the elements that you’ve been used to dealing with throughout the game and throws them at you in some ridiculously awesome form. For example, both Uncharted games have Drake hiding behind cover on land shooting at enemies. My favorite set piece in Uncharted 2 has Nathan jumping from truck bed to truck bed, shooting enemies and using the truck walls for cover. It’s a fantastic application of the mechanics I’ve already been playing all game long and, best of all, they only use it once during the entire game.

Many developers would be tempted to try and reuse the same set pieces over and over with slight modifications. Since they spent so much time on them, they may as well get use out of them, right? Think of the old arcade and SNES classic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time. They had these bonus stages where the turtles were on hoverboard-type things that they created to break up the typical sidescrolling stages. Not content to just let this happen once, they reuse the stage twice in the game, dulling the impact of how cool it was. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have something like Miyamoto’s hyper conservative use of Kuribo’s Shoe. It appears in only one level and plenty of players can just skip it with a whistle.

I applaud Uncharted 2 for taking these huge moments, the train fight, the truck part, the part where you’re escorting the cameraman, and do them only once. Then again, maybe I’m giving them too much credit, since the same background motion tech in the first two scenes I mentioned were probably first developed in the first game (that jeep escape scene comes to mind) and helicopter fights do make repeated appearances in many places, but still, it does seem like the big moments are unique.

Let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, the game is not perfect. The game may not repeat set pieces over and over again, but the firefights can start to wear on a player by the 50th time he has to do the same thing. They do a better job of pacing the cutscene, shoot, explore, shoot, cutscene, lather, rinse, repeat structure that persists in this game, but it’s still not quite perfect. There are plenty of times where I’ve just thought, “Boy, I’d much rather just keep exploring around instead of shooting fifteen guys again.”

Speaking of the shooting mechanics, Naughty Dog clearly heard everyone complain about men in t-shirts taking so many bullets to take down, so they completely adjusted the bullet counts to take down enemies. Most lightly armored enemies mercifully take only two or three bullets while the seriously armored Gatling dudes (and those stupid blue guys at the end) take clips upon clips. Aiming is also a little easier and the weapon variety is way better.

Uncharted 2 is unbelievably beautiful and, more importantly, completely brilliant at exactly the same time. There was not a better put together gaming experience all last year. It’s a must play.

Game Overview: 16-Bit All-Stars Runner-Ups Part 3 / Sony: MGS4 Launch
Jun 12th, 2008 by Dan

Here we are at the last of the 16-bit era’s all-stars that couldn’t quite crack the top three.

This game is distinctly famous for Shigeru Miyamoto claiming that this game “proves that players will put up with mediocre gameplay as long as the art is good,” which he later apologized for claiming that he was expressing some frustration at Nintendo pressuring him to make changes to Yoshi’s Island to make it look more like this game. Another, more obvious clue, is that I talked about this game in my instruction manual editorial. Our last runner-up is Donkey Kong Country.

Runner-up: Donkey Kong Country

This will be one of the few times that you hear me say this, but Shigeru Miyamoto is wrong. Donkey Kong Country was the much lauded return of Donkey Kong to the video game spotlight and what a job it did. They looked at the aesthetic of the original Donkey Kong and they absolutely brought most of that to this new game. The most obvious transition from original to SNES was the strong use of the barrel. Donkey Kong’s chief weapon in the first level makes a return as one of the most prolific items in the game. You save progress in them, fly around the world map in them, rocket through the levels in them, regain party members from them, and have a projectile attack a la the original game. The mortality of the player characters were even brought over from the arcade game with both Donkey and Diddy dying after one hit, much like Mario (Jumpman) did back in the day.

I love Donkey Kong Country because it took the conventions for how a platformer is done, pulled from Mario 3 and Mario World, and took it to brand new heights. Sure, it didn’t have the branching paths of SMW or the innovative power-up management system of SMB3, but it had pets done way better than Yoshi, tight, almost simultaneous two-player action, secrets hidden around every corner, and that trademark Rare humor (or should I say humour?) that’s long since left the company (probably left when the Stamper brothers left).

DKC was and still remains one of the coolest Christmas presents I ever got. I still have the t-shirt that came with the game as a pre-order bonus (thanks Mom!). If you’ve never played it, you should go back and try it out.

A great Sega-bashing commecial:

The kid in this commercial is wearing the t-shirt I got as a pre-order bonus:

One of my favorite video game intros:

Wow, what a journey the 16-bit era was. My most formative gaming years spanned this generation, setting up my future video game habits and tastes, most notably, my voracious love for RPGs. This era’s a real tough one to follow, I mean a good chunk of my top games of all time came out of this period. Tune in tomorrow to see which console games make my top three in the post-16, pre-current gen time period. I can tell you right now, regular readers of my blog won’t be surprised by the number one game, but can you even come close to guessing what else will be covered in the week to come? Go ahead and leave a comment with your guesses.

I hope you all remember that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots launches today! Go and buy it. If you don’t have a PS3, go get an 80GB model (backwards compatibility for the win!) and a Dual Shock 3 and then buy MGS4. What are you waiting for?

Game Overview: 8-Bit All-Stars
May 30th, 2008 by Dan

Insert another credit, because it’s time for your weekly video game news and you’ve just hit the Game Overview screen.

Due to some poor life decisions, I find myself stranded for five weeks without any video games. What’s a guy to do, right? Well, rather than just giving you some of the headlines from the week’s video game news in lieu of what I was planning to be gameplay impressions, reviews, and the like, I’m gonna start a five week “All-Stars” feature. Each week we’re going to look at a video game era and spotlight my top three games from that era. Each of these games will also receive a place setting at the prestigious “Table of Honor” feature that I’m working on. Here’s the weekly plan:

Week 1: 8-bit Console Era
Week 2: 16-bit Console Era
Week 3: Post-16-bit Console Era, Pre-Current Generation
Week 4: Pre-Current Generation PC Games
Week 5: Current Generation

Yeah, the categories are broad, particularly weeks three and four, but it’s how I want to do them, so get off my back!

The 8-bit era. According to Wikipedia, this is the third generation of video games, and what a generation it was. You see, it technically began before my lifetime. The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the US on 18 October 1985, just under four months before my actual date of birth. Wikipedia lists its official end at 1992, but the 16-bit systems debuted much sooner than that, with the Sega Genesis launching in the US in 1989 and the Super Nintendo hitting North American shores in 1991. It was a tumultuous time for video games, with the Video Game Crash of 1983 seemingly spelling the end for video games. Thankfully, Nintendo came along and decided to show everyone there was a new sheriff in town. Games couldn’t be officially published without the “Nintendo Seal of Quality,” limiting the crap that could just be shoveled onto the system, but that didn’t stop a huge flood of relatively crummy games from hitting the system anyway.

Of those games, I distinctly remember three stand-out games from the era, my personal top three:

Here’s a hint for the first of the three, it was damn near impossible to get anywhere in this game without: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, b, a. That’s right, #3 on my list is the original Contra

#3 Contra

While my family didn’t technically own Contra, I still have fond memories of visits to our friend Angel’s house where we either got our collective asses handed to us by aliens (apparently? I had to look it up) in their family room or wobbling around on Angel’s super rad water bed (DISCLAIMER: I no longer find water beds super rad). There was something about Contra that other games we’d rented or played just didn’t have. The controls were tight, we had co-op two player mode to help with the levels, the guns were wicked cool, and the levels were way varied. You started side-scrolling, but then you were in quasi-3-D and, before you knew it, you were now fighting from an almost top-down perspective. It all just clicked together so seamlessly. You want proof that this game is good? I don’t think I ever made it to the third level and I still think it’s great.

I’m not even going to comment on how long I’m sure this took this dude to do, but check out this AMAZING no-death run of Contra split into two parts. It’s sure to knock your socks off.

Man, it would sure be cool to be able to destroy that guy and then steal his video game prowess…If that wasn’t as blatant a hint as to the number two game on my list, I’ll just come out and say it: Mega Man 2

#2 Mega Man 2

Take a look at that box art in the above link. Does that make any sense at all to you? It sure as heck didn’t to me as a kid. Mega Man didn’t look like a real dude and he sure as hell didn’t hold a pistol. I guess I can understand the marketing boys not wanting to put what the actual Mega Man looks like on the box, but they did it with Mario, right? I’m sure it doesn’t help that real life Mario looks way scary

Anyway, let’s talk about the gameplay a bit. Mega Man was one of my first encounters with a non-linear game. I’m pretty sure we owned a golden Legend of Zelda cartridge, but the gameplay baffled me and I can’t remember if we had it before or after we got Mega Man 2. That’s all beside the point anyway, which is: How cool is it that you get to pick which Robot Master you fight first? My personal favorite first start was to hit up Metal Man, since he was easiest to beat (Wood Man was another popular choice of mine) without any of the other powers. After that, it was kind of a crap shoot of trial and error for the non-web-enabled gamer of the late 1980s/early 1990s to know where to head next. At some point, my brother somehow found out what order you were supposed to fight them in, possibly through a strategy guide, and we were actually able to see the final sections of the game against Dr. Wily. Those were definitely a challenge and way tough, but also lots of fun to play since you had Mega Man’s full repertoire of weapons at your disposal. Here’s another game that I don’t remember ever beating, although I do remember fighting a dragon for some odd reason or another. All in all though, a tight gaming experience with a creative mechanic to me at the time. Stealing powers and knowing that they were strong against another guy, just brilliant. I do have one thing to say though, I’ll be god damned if ever beat Quick Man. Those beams of energy were way cheap…

Below is some dude’s tribute to Mega Man 2

Man oh man, what could possibly be the best of 3 on a system like the NES. Which game could be first on my list, but 3rd at the same time? Ok, ok, enough lame hints, you probably already know I’m talking about Super Mario Bros. 3.

#1 Super Mario Bros. 3

SMB3 is, and always will be, as close as you can get to perfection embodied in 2-D platformer. Just about the only criticism I can come up with, and only after wracking my brain, is that the myriad of suits are sometimes very situational and there aren’t enough opportunities to get the cool ones like the Tanooki, Hammer Bros., or Frog Suit. Other than that, Shigeru Miyamoto proved not only that lightning can strike the same place twice, but that it can strike the same place twice more awesomely than the last two times it did. The innovative map screen was incredible, the tiny details, like sliding down hills, were intricately placed, you could fly, you could store power-ups, and you still retained some of the most vital Mario abilities, like warping from world to world.

My vivid memories of Mario 3, again at Angel’s house or rented, really just highlight how absolutely incredible the game was. I still, to this day, think of those days as a kid playing SMB3 when I see that opening red curtain. I still remember those days when I play the Mario Brothers mini-game. I still remember that time in my life when I see the opening to the first level. Having never actually owned the game and due to the lack of a battery backup system in the original cartridge, I never did beat the game way back in the day. I did, however, get a chance to come back to it with the release of the Game Boy Advance SP. The Christmas of my junior year of high school, there was a bundle available for Christmas: Buy the Game Boy Advance SP, get Super Mario Advance 4: Super Mario Bros. 3 bundled in and a rebate for headphones. I’d been wanting to pick up a GBA SP for a while at that point, since it featured a backlight, which all original GBA owners know the system DESPERATELY needed, and bundling in SMB3 made it a no-brainer. I resolved to never use a warp whistle and to play every single level available, regardless of whether or not I had to in order to reach the castle. It was beyond rewarding to finally finish it about 10 years after I started it.

This game is definitely tough, but I guarantee you that if you play through the entire thing, you will know what it is to have fun playing a video game. There’s no complicated camera, no objective set other than reach the end and basically almost no plot at all, and no maneuvers more complicated than maybe holding a direction and another button down, but in this way we see what it is to truly have fun with a game. Playing SMB3 I feel like I really do understand what Miyamoto talks about when he goes off about how games are too complicated nowadays and how we should refocus on what makes a game fun.

For more video game video fun, check out this speed clear of SMB3:

There you have it, my top three games of the 8-bit era. Many of you might be complaining about the lack of Sega Master System games (or anything outside of NES games), but, truth be told, I’ve never even touched a Sega Master System, much less played or even seen one in real life. I can’t have a favorite game I’ve never played, can I? Tune in next week to see my favorites of the 16-bit era. This time I’ll be able to include Sega games (will any make it?) and we’ll see games that are far more complex in almost every respect than their ancestors.

A few words on what will become my “Table of Honor” page. Basically, it’s a Hall of Fame page for the best examples of just about any category I talk about on this blog, including video games, music, movies, technology, and books. Once I finally debut this feature, I’ll be sure to post something about it.

»  Substance:WordPress   »  Style:Ahren Ahimsa