Tuesday, March 30, 2010

God of War 3 review (PS3)

God of War 3 is a graphical showcase and a decent action game. Even if you dislike judging games based on graphics, GoW3 has an epic cinematic scale that is worth experiencing at least once. As good as the game is as an interactive movie, the combat system is very similar to the first two God of War titles, with the same control scheme and only a few new items to play around with.

Even after two previous titles, the combat still lacks the polish, fluidity, and responsiveness of other current gen action/fighters like Ninja Gaiden II or Bayonetta. The controls are too stiff for fluid switching between offense and defense. It's like comparing the stiff no-strafing controls of an old Resident Evil title to a modern shooter. One reason for this is the fact that dodge is tied to the right analog stick. There no way around the clunkiness of this control - either you take your left thumb off the left stick, or your right thumb off the front buttons. There are also some attacks that are impossible to dodge cancel out of (any of the L1+button moves), adding to the combat stiffness. Both dodging and blocking have a start up and recovery delay so you need to anticipate when to go on the defensive ahead of time. It's amusing how they give you a L1+X shortcut for weapon switching instead of using the D-pad, but don't give you a dodge shortcut that would dodge in the direction Kratos is currently facing.

You can set the difficulty to Chaos where getting hit with a strong attack more than 1-2 times equals death, but that usually just means you have to spend more time on defense waiting for an opening, since the controls are too stiff for fluid switching between offense and defense. Since there's no score system, you can spend as long as you like on most encounters. Equipping a certain handicap item that constantly drains Kratos health can make the game even more difficult. The 2-3 hit deaths do exasperate camera and control issues that can be shrugged off on the lower difficulties. The games poor auto-aiming will cause Kratos to attack a target that neither he nor your analog stick is facing towards, just because it happens to be closer to him - this becomes a bigger issue on higher difficulties when it's important to keep dangerous enemies locked down or juggled.

The game usually feels playable and fair because enemies are balanced around the control systems limitations, but it's often a matter of trial and error finding which enemy attacks are blockable/dodgeable or not. The enemies are impressive with different attacks and behaviors that must be learned, and there's plenty of enemy variety. Unlike other action/fighters the accessories and weapons don't make much of a difference in playstyle, although the speed boots provide some fun juggling options. Some of the extra challenges are fun although I was annoyed that they made some of them exclusive to the collectors version of the game with no DLC available. The GoW staples, quicktime events, are still here. I don't mind the simon says button pressing, but sometimes I feel like I'm missing out on the well done executions because I'm too focused on hitting the prompts.

You can go into jump glide mode in a single jump, even though there is never a need to single jump or single jump into a glide during the entirety of the game. Thus its only purpose is a control pitfall that will annoy players who accidentally hold down the jump button too long when they meant to do a double jump. This is a very basic design principle - if there's no need for a control, don't implement it.

The developers decided to take away player camera control to provide a more cinematic experience - while this usually works well, it does cause issues. Some pits along the game are bottomless, and some are shallow and hold treasure. The only way to find out is to jump down, since the camera never lets you see what's down there. This discovery by death is yet another example of basic design failure (or a crass way to get you to buy the official guide, I'm not sure). The uncontrollable camera gets in the way of adequate combat control when the camera shifts and inverts the players controls unexpectedly.

Even the most demanding graphics zealot will be satisfied by the games visuals. While there are a few blocky shadows and some occasionally stiff animation it's easily the best looking current generation console game. The programmers were able to offload much of the graphics work to the Cell SPUs, providing incredibly impressive post processing effects. Most of the areas, models, and animations in the game are absolutely amazing and lifelike. The gore is very realistic and the camera doesn't shy from Kratos' acts of extreme brutality. The music is good and fitting, although it sometimes gets too ambient. The Greek-themed cinematic movies are very cinematic and well done. There's some needless immersion breaking whenever you pick up items that state "beat the game to use this item". For all the effort the developers put into an believable, epic cinematic experience, they sully it by constantly reminding players that they're playing a video game that's meant to be beaten.

Voice acting is decent but spotty. You would think with the millions spent on graphics and cinematic presentation, they could spring for some decent voice actors, but a good half of the voices made me feel like I was watching a corny B movie. Even Kratos himself hams up a couple of lines, and his accent is not Greek, to say the least.

There's no recap of the first two games plots, which will probably confuse people who haven't played the earlier titles. The plot for GoW3 is a Greek tragedy, known for its one dimensional entities that are caricatures of human traits and behaviors. Like all tragedies, the ending is refreshingly not the usual video game sunshine and rainbows. Don't expect much in the way of plot and character development, even by the hamfisted ending. At least there are no cheesy Hollywood style one liners - Kratos is all business and prefers killing to talking.

The game has some glitches and bugs. If you get a little too curious exploring the terrain you may get stuck and have to reload, or encounter graphical issues. I've had the game freeze once while the music continued to play, requiring a power off, and I've also unintentionally gotten Kratos stuck under the floor. There's also a glitch that lets players play through the game with maxed weapons and invincibility on any difficulty. Hopefully a new patch will fix these issues.

GoWs weak point has always been its combat, and that isn't any different here. The epic experience this game has to offer is definitely worth the 5-8 hour playtime, and maybe more if you want to tackle the extra challenges and Chaos difficulty. I wouldn't recommend this game over Bayonetta or Ninja Gaiden II for combat system, but it still holds its own considering how cinema-focused and epic the game is.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Resonance of Fate review (X360/PS3)

Resonance of Fate is a traditional RPG with a unique combat system. The combat is mostly turn based, with a few real time elements mixed in. Being a traditional RPG, there's exploration, tedious travel times and elevator riding, boring side quests, optional grinding, and random encounters. You'll have to really love RPGs and/or the combat system to get into this game, as it is not afraid to lay on the RPG tedium, repetition, and time wasting.

While the combat system is creative and unique, the developers are often unable for whatever reason to take advantage of it, opting to go for huge amounts of monotonous, boring combat (60-80 hours if you do all the side quests). The game would have been much better with less content of a higher quality and more main story content. Most of the side quests involve fetch quests, repeating previously explored dungeons, or fighting the exact same set of enemies 3-4 times in a row. The dungeons are very simple and mostly linear. Even the main story quests will send you on repeated runs to the same areas. You may think that side quest means optional, but if you avoid the side quests you will end up under leveled and poorly geared/funded for the main story, so they really aren't all that optional, especially on the higher difficulties.

There is an arena but you can't skip any of its 150 fights, even if you far out-level your opponents, which means you have to either visit the arena often during the game or spend an hour or more killing weak low level enemies to get to the high rankings. The highlights of the game (aside from a few bosses/quest enemies) are the optional Danger Zones that show up each Chapter. These encounters are usually fun and challenging with unique enemies and strategies to figure out.

Traveling around the map takes way too long. The developers force the player to run into and out of the Core Lifts for no particular reason, which just ups the tedium when passing through the same elevator for the umpteenth time. If you open access to every hex of a level you can teleport back to your base from that level, which is a great idea, except the game is extremely stingy with handing out hexes. The game doesn't transport your party out of most completed dungeons, either. If you didn't bring someone who can use Escape Hexes, be ready to run all the way back out.

There are 10 levels of difficulty, going up to 5x enemy hit points and 5x damage. 10 levels is too many, especially since you have to unlock them in sequential order. I had trouble justifying one play through with all the tedious travel times and side quests, let alone 10. Furthermore, at a certain stat/gear level the games mechanics can be broken so it doesn't matter what the enemy stats are. Like all traditional RPGs, every bit of difficulty the game throws at you can be mitigated by grinding or hitting retry until you trigger an instant kill or full scratch ability.

Despite what you may have read by poorly skilled gamers, you do not need to grind at all to complete the game on the default difficulty. With that said, the game can be unforgiving if you don't have a decent understanding of the combat system and gun customization. If you're not used to learning and following sets of complex, arbitrary game rules, you may find yourself in over your head.

The post-game is your typical Tri-Ace dungeon of palette-swapped enemy repeats, all with bigger numbers of course. A level 80-90 party with good gear that can walk all over the main story final boss will still find themselves one shot by the big numbers in this dungeon. There are a few unique bosses but they are nothing special because once you've got the stats and gear to reach them, they will be trivial to defeat. Like most post-game RPG dungeons, it's more about making your numbers bigger and/or breaking game mechanics than any increased strategy or complexity.

The weapon customization is fun to figure out, although there isn't much variety once you realize that Charge Acceleration is the best stat. Piecing together a Frankensteinian monster of a gun with 7+ barrels and scopes hanging off the ammo clip can be entertaining. The customization interface could use a lot of improvement, though. There should be a customization preview feature that lets you experiment with as many parts as you want - this would be good for learning how the parts go together and for optimizing your desired setup.

As creative as the combat system is, it's clearly rough around the edges. This is a common problem with RPGs and developers who keep inventing new systems with new unpolished and untested gimmicks instead of improving on a previous formula. Handguns feel useless for anything besides cashing in on scratch damage and gauge breaking/stunning. I would have liked to see a better balance between direct damage and scratch damage, so it isn't just 'scratch and cash in with one hit'. There is often unnecessary delay after enemies have finished attacking, up to 1-2 seconds with the game sitting there and nothing happening. Enemy AI is incredibly dumb around any kind of elevation and will frequently fire into walls and ramps, and completely miss many of its attacks.

Switching targets during a Hero Action is clunky and hard to control. After killing a target during a HA, the computer likes to select the farthest target from your character instead of the closest, which is poor design. The developers should have added the ability to set 4 target markers on enemies that you could switch between with the 4 shoulder buttons during a Hero Action.

Collision detection is flaky and makes the combat feel clunky and uncertain. Some large enemies (Goliaths) have hit boxes far larger than their actual model size, resulting in frequent bumping into thin air near them. It's also possible to bump into small elevation snags like ramps, or bump into thin air near terrain corners, even when jumping. To add insult to injury, bumping into an obstacle (fairly or unfairly) will result in your action being ruined and time will pass while your character stands back up, giving enemies plenty of time to charge up attacks.

There are some real time elements in the combat system that give it a slightly higher skill cap. The Target Airborne bonus ring requires good timing to constantly hit. Sometimes you can outrun enemy attacks or hit them while they are recovering from an attack or knockdown, which requires coordination and speed. Few players will be able to claim that they've completely mastered the combat system and know every little trick in the game, or how to best deal with every enemy type.

The graphics are adequate if bland, although the enemy design is good. The music intensifies with extra instruments once you start a Hero or Tri-Action, which lends some intensity to the combat. Most of the music is good and there is a lot of variety, you won't be stuck listening to the same music very often. If you like playing with barbies, there are lots of clothing options for your characters.

For 90-95% of the game your own characters are stuck toiling over petty issues or doing mercenary work for eccentric nobles. Even after you learn all of your characters back stories, they continue doing pointless mercenary work. Cut scenes each chapter slowly fill in the back story and plot involving Basel and Zenith. It's kind of sad when the most compelling part of the story is acted out almost entirely by NPCs. Not that the main plot is much more than cryptic techno-babble and the ever popular 'mysterious secret experiments' plot device. Your main characters only get involved in the main story in Chapter 15 out of 16, which is the last 5-10% of the game. And then there's the Christmas quest. Good lord, what were they thinking? You can't lose and it's an annoying waste of time.

As much as I really wanted to love this game for its fun, slightly unpolished combat system, the game continued to disappoint me with its tedium and lots of poor repetitive content instead of a smaller amount of quality content. Hopefully a sequel will rectify the wasted potential this game had.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Final Fantasy XIII review (PS3)

FFXIII is a conflicted RPG. It's different enough from traditional RPGs to piss off some of its established fanbase, yet it doesn't provide a good enough linear action experience either. On one hand it wants to be a linear action game with stat caps, fast retries, a scoring system and limited character customization. On the other hand it wants to keep RPG staples like optional grinding, overpowered/easily exploitable items, farming rare item drops, and a typical angst-ridden plot. Those two factors never find balance and the result is often sub par.

The scoring system is a good idea and encourages more efficient play, but it can be undermined by grinding and pre-battle buff usage. Getting 5 stars on most battles is meaningless due to the overpowered Fortisol and Aegisol shrouds, and the ability to grind for uber gear. Even if you go for a player defined challenge (no grinding, no fortisol/aegisol, no autobattle, blah blah, etc.) the game is still fairly easy. There's no display of your accumulated points, nor is there a display of your average star rating. Since enemies can be killed endlessly for more points there's no reason to show the numerical score in the first place.

It doesn't seem like the game is even balanced around getting 5 stars on every fight. For example, sometimes you will encounter two enemies fighting eachother, and they have half health when you engage them in combat. This means the time requirement to get 5 stars is tighter because the game calculates the enemies as having lower health, despite the fact that they are still just as difficult to stagger.

The combat system unfolds at a glacial pace and the developers never use it to its full potential. You're unable to change party members and there's almost no character customization until 75% through the main game. This might be understandable if the combat was deep, challenging, or strategic, but instead it's an easy bore for anyone with action game experience and/or skill. Most of the game involves hitting auto-battle over and over while switching paradigms, using the same simple buff and stagger strategy. For example, even though you are given a tank-like role, it's almost never necessary because almost no enemies do attacks powerful enough to require a tank to absorb it - just spam buffs and your entire party is tank-like.

If the game is mainly about switching paradigms while the AI handles the individual commands through auto-battle, why didn't the developers make the most out of the class roles and paradigm switching? They could have at least made auto-battle less effective for your leader, so you might have to think a little more about inputting commands. If much of the success of a battle relies on the correct pre-battle setup, why reduce the level of party customization to almost zero? The crystarium stat/ability growth system is completely linear and may as well have filled itself in automatically.

The developers seemed afraid to go beyond 'switch paradigms and auto-battle', and even then it takes over half the game to reach that level of combat. I agree with the Wired review that stated "For the first half of the game, using the roles that you’ve been given to obliterate anything that comes your way requires less strategy than beating a toddler at Connect Four."

If you think this is a 'deep' battle system you are sheltered in with little experience of SRPGs/turn based tactics games, puzzle games, or other skill based genres. If you had to spend hours trying to kill a boss, had to grind for hours, or saw a non-eidolon boss cast Doom on you, it's because your video game skills are lacking and you are probably used to traditional RPGs that are even easier than this one.

I did like the Paradigm shift ATB bonus, which makes the combat a little more fast paced. Switching to any Paradigm config after charging a full bar in another Paradigm config results in a free fully charged ATB bar in your newly switched Paradigm. The developers added this to encourage frequent Paradigm switching, and you will need to take advantage of this to get 5 stars on most fights. The fact that this extremely important feature remains undocumented in the game may explain why some people find the game incredibly difficult.

The uncontrollable AI has its foibles as well. You can't make an allied commando focus fire on one target if there are multiple enemies. You can't order an allied medic to revive instead of heal or dispel or set buff/debuff orders or any number of customizations that would make the AI easier to deal with. Anyone wanting greater control of their allies will be left out in the cold.

Throughout the main story your party members are constantly being reassigned which resets your Paradigm deck. It's a hassle to have to remake it every time, considering it happens multiple times per chapter. Not only that but it throws you into battles with reassigned party members without letting you set or even look at your new pre-assigned paradigms. And would it have hurt for the game to remember your party member arrangements last paradigm deck, or let you save different decks, instead of forcing you to remake it every time you swap someone out? It's not like next gen games are hurting for save data space.

Once you reach Chapter 11, the game starts to resemble a more traditional RPG or FF experience. There's exploration, a lax stat cap, side quests, and plenty of opportunities for farming/grinding. At this point any pretense of the scoring system meaning anything goes out the window, because you can obtain gear that makes the rest of the game a cinch to 5 star. It seems like this chapter was thrown in as more of a concession to traditional FF fans than anything that fits with the other 90% of the game. After spending several minutes doing nothing but holding up on the analog stick to traverse the huge zone, you may end up wishing for the linear dungeons instead. In any case, the difficulty ramps up slightly if you choose not to grind, because the game expects you to have spent time grinding in Chapter 11s large exploratory area.

I did enjoy Chapters 11-13 more than the previous 80% of the game. The game finally throws enemies at you that don't blow away in a slight breeze, assuming you didn't spend hours grinding in the Chapter 11 area. Boss fights start to take 7-8 mins instead of 2-3. There may even be a few rare (yet avoidable) fights where you have to do more than buff, heal, and DPS. But for the most part, it's the same simple routine except with bigger numbers.

The post game is mainly about completing missions, a few lame side quests, and farming for CP and weapon upgrades. Instead of increasing in strategy or complexity, the only things going up are the big numbers, which is typical of RPGs with uncreative and lazy developers. While this might appeal to MMO players, anyone hoping for strategic action oriented combat will be disappointed. Not to mention the soul crushing boredom involved in running around the Chapter 11 area. Why do I have to run around doing missions to get a mount that's only slightly faster than running speed? If I wanted to grind for a mount I'd play an MMO.

As for the plot, it's your typical JRPG yarn about angsty tampon filled oppressed kids/man-children railing against an unjust world. Don't be afraid to press start-select the moment things start to get annoying, contrived, implausible, and/or overdramatic, as they very often do. Take a swig of hard liquor every time someone starts crying, shouting like a child, makes a hammy self-affirmative speech, or falls to their knees in despair and you'll be tanked in about an hour. The game does look pretty and it sounds very good.

I did enjoy some fights here and there, but overall the game is disappointing. It will disappoint anyone into action games and anyone interested in a legit challenge, who will dislike the glacial pace of the game, simplistic combat, flawed scoring system, and wasted potential. It may also disappoint RPG fans who may have wanted more grinding and exploration. S-E made a good attempt with this game, but the results leave much to be desired.