03/29/2009

Resident Evil 5 follows white supremacist, Chris Redfield, as he ventures into the African heartland to take care of the zombie problem (or the black problem, if you'd prefer), third-person shooter style. You'll meet a lot of old friends along the way, as you get further entangled in the web of lies that is Resident Evil's plot. This ought to tickle anyone's nostalgia bone, unless you're a newcomer. One old friend that you won't be meeting this time around is the survival horror aspect. Resident Evil 5 is a straight up action game; unlike the past four games, it won't even attempt to scare you. It's imperative that you understand that before giving the game a whirl, lest you be disappointed. I wasn't too bothered by this, since I'm not the sort who takes pleasure in being frightened.

Despite being restricted to Africa, there's a lot of variety in the stage designs; you'll get surrounded in town, drive a hover-boat in the marshlands, make like Indiana Jones and dodge all sorts of traps in ancient African ruins that don't really exist, discover sordid secrets in abandoned laboratories, get ambushed in oil refineries, and have a sizzling battle inside an active volcano. Yeah, some of that may sound pretty ridiculous, but it's awesome all the same. The awesomeness does go down a notch when the horrid quick-time events of the last game make a nightmarish return, though. They're still easy to pull off, but prove to be an incredible annoyance. Whose brilliant idea was it to put a random quick-time event in the middle of a really long cut-scene, anyway? What escapes me is that this is the second time they've done this, which means they thought it was a good enough idea to use it twice. I am baffled.

Controls are rather obtuse, making it hard to get into the experience initially. There are several control schemes to choose from, but it doesn't seem to matter much, as you'll be equally perplexed by each. You'll get the hang of it eventually, but there are certain things that you'll always wonder about. For instance, why does it take several degrees in rocket science to operate a machete? The button combination to utilize the machete is quite awkward, which is far from a boon, considering you'll need to utilize it often to break barrels and crates. Random destruction of wooden containers is the primary path to ammo acquisition, by the way. My biggest gripe with the controls has to be that you can't move and aim your firearm at the same time. In this generation, this is no longer a convenience; it's a necessity. The only reason the controls work at all is due to the fact that your main adversaries are slow, lumbering idiots that typically lack long-range attacks.

Desperately trying to mask their racism, the folks at Capcom decided to make your partner a black woman by the name of Sheva. She doesn't contribute much to the overall narrative, but allows for a most awesome feature: co-op. I know countless games have already achieved this before, the most prominent example being Gears of War, but this is Resident Evil we're talking about. You've got a cool plot and competent story sequences, making for a far superior single player or co-op campaign. I kind of disliked how co-op can't be played offline, however. I suppose going split-screen is really primitive at this point, but I'd rather have more options than less. In the event that you're going solo, you've got a somewhat competent Artificial Intelligence partner to back you up, provided you know how to work her. I find that it's best to give her weapons that take different ammo from your own, so that way you'll have an easy time with ammo distribution. For example, have her carry a machine gun while you wield a handgun; whenever she finds handgun ammo, she'll automatically hand it to you, and she'll keep all machine gun ammo. If you both wield handguns, then you may find yourself in a nasty situation. I also like to give her all of my healing items, so I don't have to manually heal myself in times of danger.

Weapons in Resident Evil 4 were a great treat, and they're just as fun, if not more so, in this iteration as well. You obtain a vast, varied array of firearms, all of which are upgradeable. As unrealistic as upgrading a revolver to take more than six bullets sounds, it's pretty fun. It gives the player a greater incentive to explore the environments for rare treasures, as you'll need some serious cash to perform these upgrades.

Anyone who's played Resident Evil 4 will probably find the new inventory system to be a disappointment. Granted, given the game's co-op nature, halting the game to enter a separate screen wouldn't work out too well. Each character has an unexciting nine slot inventory, to which you'll store everything; ammo, guns, grenades, healing herbs, even armor. Very few of these goods stack, so inventory management will be an unending issue. Fortunately, you can store excess junk into a safety deposit box sort of thing during the intermissions, which is also where you can do your shopping. They're nice enough to let you access this screen whenever you die, too.

Resident Evil 5 is a superb game that follows in the footsteps of its predecessor. Despite the vexing controls and apparent unoriginality, I find this game a lot more enjoyable than Gears of War. It may not win the day with multiplayer, but its single player and co-op are second to none.

03/18/2009

Today, let's discuss the intricate workings of Star Ocean: The Last Hope (also referred to as Star Ocean 4), a game developed by tri-Ace for the X-Box 360 console, part of the Star Ocean series. Infinite Undiscovery (also released for the X-Box 360) was a sort of precursor to this game, seeing as how Star Ocean 4 uses a vastly improved version of the same engine. Thankfully, Star Ocean 4 doesn't suck as much as Infinite Undiscovery did.

Star Ocean has always been fairly unique when compared to most Japanese Role-Playing Games, in that it occupies a sci-fi universe with deep space travel. Despite that wonderful backdrop, you still end up going through all the same kinds of environments you would in a typical Japanese RPG. Star Ocean has always tenaciously followed the same plot outline in each game, that is, your ship (or the ship of someone else) crash-lands onto an underdeveloped planet, where swords and sorcery rule the day in a medieval setting. Due to the "Underdeveloped Planet Preservation Pact" intergalactic law, the characters that made the crash-landing are forbidden in revealing their true nature to the natives. So now you have the equivalent of Spock wielding swords and casting spells.

Star Ocean 3 did a lot of wonderful things, like the improved battle system. But it also did a lot of terrible things, like the atrocious voice acting, and a plot twist that has earned the scorn of fans everywhere. I'm obviously not going to reveal the sordid details on that one, but suffice to say, it was a revelation that destroyed Star Ocean's universe as we knew it.

Being that it was impossible for them to continue the story after such a twist, Star Ocean 4 decides to do the unoriginal thing and be a prequel to all the other games in the series. This turned out to be a great move, because they focused on the intriguing aspect of how Earth's surface was rendered totally uninhabitable by World War III, forcing mankind to develop a warp drive capable of light-speed travel, so that they might find a more habitable planet to colonize. You have to admit, that's a pretty cool backdrop for a story.

You play as a youth whose job is to command an exploration vessel into unexplored regions of space, in an effort to discover new planets. Of course, things always aren't that simple; you'll get sidetracked by all kinds of crazy things on your way. While you do crash-land on an underdeveloped planet on your very first mission, the circumstances here are a bit different from all the past games in the series. For one, the planet you crash-land on doesn't have any people or civilization to speak of, and you actually get to leave this planet fairly early in the game. This leads to, you guessed it: exploration of multiple planets, as opposed to being confined to a single one for the majority of the game. Sounds like fun, doesn't it?

Even though this all sounds awesome, there's a series of major kinks that will prevent you from being completely engaged; the voice acting, dialogue, and story sequences in general. It's all so unbearably terrible. Almost every cut-scene begins and ends with a series of awkward silences and odd hand gestures that demonstrate how, even in this generation, Japanese game developers have yet to master the art of rendering moving fingers in their games. Here's a hint: if your character models can't move their fingers properly, then perhaps it's best to avoid scripting scenes that requires them to hold hands or explicitly show finger movement of any kind. A lot of people out there will be convinced that the game would have been a lot better had they kept the original Japanese voice acting, but I'm not so sure. The problems seem to run a lot deeper than just a case of bad dubbing.

I might have not mentioned this yet, but one other defining aspect of the Star Ocean series has been the action-based battle system. Not unlike the Tales series (Tales of Phantasia, Tales of Symphonia, etc), the fights are entirely in real-time, with attacks and combos and all that good stuff. The main thing that separates this and the Tales series is that Star Ocean's battles have always allowed for full 3D movement in all directions, sporting an over-head view, or in the case of Star Ocean 4, an annoyingly dynamic 3D camera that loves to pan all over the darn place. Since you have full control over your character's movements and attacks during battle, your allies are handled by the computer's artificial intelligence, which will always be sorely lacking. And, much like a lot of the recent Tales games, there's barely anything you can do about it; AI customization is very minimal. I'm not sure why this is starting to become a trend, even Tales of Phantasia (an SNES game) felt like it had more options in this regard.

Star Ocean 3 was a major breakthrough for the series when it came to the battle system. It was, for all intents and purposes, quite close to perfection. This latest installment pretty much uses the same one, but strips out a lot of what gave it incredible depth, instead opting for simplicity. There's only one attack button this time around, no "strong" or "light" attacks, and no guarding or guard-breaking. They did do a few cool things, such as doing away with the horrible "MP Death" thing (characters dying when their MP reaches zero), add an evade button, and "blindsiding": a cool-sounding name to describe the mundane task of evading your enemy's attack and then hitting him from behind. A short but flashy cut-scene plays whenever you execute a successful "blindside", so it can be a satisfying maneuver to perform.

Item creation makes a less-than-triumphant return here, as well. That's another major caveat of the Star Ocean games; the large and highly in-depth item creation system that allowed you to make some ridiculously powerful equipment, sometimes very early in the game if you knew your stuff. Your characters will have skills in stuff like blacksmithing, crafting, compounding, engineering, cooking, and so on, to which you can level-up their proficiencies by applying any skill points you earn. My major beef with Star Ocean 4's implementation is that there's only one location in the entire game where you can create items: your ship. Your ship's always parked in a location totally far removed from where you're going, so you'll waste a lot of time traveling between your ship and the towns if you want to create items often.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope exhibits the potential to be something truly substantial, with its intriguing backdrop and unconventional plot. Tri-Ace was never one of the big-budget game companies, however, and it seems that this was their greatest impediment in achieving Star Ocean's full potential. Still, I can see that they genuinely put a lot of effort into this latest installment, and I do find it to be better than the third Star Ocean. It's more a sign of the harsh realities of game development that Star Ocean 4 turned out to be a little on the underwhelming side. Oh, and I hated how you had to switch discs to revisit old areas. That's pretty unacceptable in this day and age. The last time I can remember doing that was with The Legend of Dragoon for PlayStation, and that game sucked.

03/08/2009

We're back in the number one spot in Google searches for "gamers tavern," baby! Having emerged victorious in this latest of tasks, I'll now focus ahead with a resounding resolve.

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