sunnuntai 29. syyskuuta 2013


The reason the game made No. 1.
The baseball bat.
So, that's it. The new alpha game of VGMania has been crowned, and as you can imagine, I'm at a total loss of words here - after all, I had my suspicions about this game. Grand Theft Auto has been one of my favourite franchises ever since I finally snapped the cork on Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas back in the day. I was like the gamers who still haven't tried out Grand Theft Auto in these times; they don't really know what it's about and think it's all hype. I was in the military when San Andreas came out; we had a PS2 at the barracks and this one guy constantly interrupted my SmackDown! vs. Raw sessions 'cause he had just bought San Andreas while on leave, and he wanted to play that game. I had no choice but to give in since the PS2 was his, just a few of the games were mine. I just secretly cursed at him for costing me my virtual wrestling sessions because of an overrated "racing game". Yeah, well, words can't describe how ignorant I was at the time when it comes to games in general. I knew a lot about 8- and 16-bit games, but hot titles of the time were a mystery to me. I only bought games that really stood out for me, personally. Like Final Fantasy, Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Kingdom Hearts, Metal Gear Solid, etc. Basically, games spawned or spun off from franchises I had known for a long time. Of course I knew Grand Theft Auto - the first game, that is. Not long after my brother bought me San Andreas, I myself bought Vice City (my brother can't stand mafia-related plots), and a bit later, Grand Theft Auto III - the exact opposite order of things. I still have never finished Grand Theft Auto III, now that I think of it.

That was a short recap of my early history with Grand Theft Auto. During this soon-passing console generation, Grand Theft Auto IV was one of the two reasons I bought the PlayStation 3 in the first place, the other and the even more determining factor (due to its PS3-exclusivity) being Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even that was over five years ago - where has the time gone?! Well, now it's time to send the PS3 on its way to Valhalla with a game from the very same tree. I have one more new game for the PS3 coming up next month, but I think that will be the last new game I'll buy that is not slated for daylight on next-gen consoles as well. And, honestly, I do not believe Grand Theft Auto V will be outdone by any game, not this year and not during what remains of this generation. I somehow have to find it in myself to cut the next few brand new games a slack - not everyone's a Rockstar.

To get to the point, GTA Online launches tomorrow and that will keep me busy for a while. However, it's going to be less than a month before the next new game comes along, and to keep in touch with realism, I'm not going to play GTA Online 24 hours a day. Be the game as good as it is, multiplayer is still not wholly my thing, and I don't know what's going on with my friends, who were really excited of joining my new crew and taking part in different crew activities, but only one of them has responded to my request to join. So, this isn't working out entirely as planned, and that's a blessing in disguise, 'cause it leaves me good time to revamp this lot and deliver a few reviews. I'm thinking doing a few totally random reviews for starters, of random games, but from specific systems - I think this is a great time to break in the three new systems, starting from the oldest. So stay tuned - there is life after (or actually, during) Grand Theft Auto V.

perjantai 27. syyskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Grand Theft Auto V | PS3 | 2013

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: September 17, 2013
DEVELOPER(S): Rockstar North, Rockstar NYC, Rockstar San Diego, Rockstar Leeds, Rockstar Toronto, Rockstar New England, Rockstar London, Rockstar Lincoln
PUBLISHER(S): Rockstar Games

Ever since Grand Theft Auto III dropped critics to their knees in late 2001, a new major title in the series has always grabbed the world by absolute storm - but none as strong as Grand Theft Auto V. During the last month, the game is virtually all any gamer has talked about. To call it the most anticipated game of the year is an understatement, since I don't remember any game in history being released to this much hype. The quality of each title released after the universally praised Grand Theft Auto: Vice City has been a subject of debate. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas was criticized for its marginal main theme and unnecessary complexity, while Grand Theft Auto IV for its monotony. After unleashing a couple of expansion packs they hoped to break this alleged monotony, Rockstar took a break from Grand Theft Auto. First, they developed a little, humble cowboy story named Red Dead Redemption - which earned the title of Rockstar's finest game to date from a few of those critics who were disappointed with Grand Theft Auto IV. Then, they produced L.A. Noire, a game which they ultimately bought all rights to from the original developers - a compelling detective story which had some traces of the Rockstar signature, sported otherworldly audiovisuals and dramatic presentation, but it was a very linear game. Finally, they took over the development of the Max Payne franchise from Remedy Entertainment and put out Max Payne 3; a somewhat typical shooter, a bit too typical for Rockstar, but it had great gameplay mechanics, and a thick atmosphere. One could assume that Grand Theft Auto V turns out a typical, linear shooter, judged by couple of their previous endeavors and simply, the sign of the times. The thing is that Rockstar North is an extremely intelligent group of developers - they wouldn't do that to themselves, the game, or us. They do the right thing here: they take everything, every criticism they've ever endured in the case of any game, whether they developed it themselves or worked in the capacity of a producer, and work on it to create the perfect game. In this golden age of repetition, Grand Theft Auto V restores the faith in innovation and constant attraction - it's Rockstar's last hoorah of this console generation, and they go all in and beyond. Grand Theft Auto V is not only the greatest game of the year, it's the greatest Grand Theft Auto game ever made, and thus, one of the most beautiful gaming experiences I've ever had in my life. Welcome to the master zone.

This grandeur is no delusion

Ned Luke : Michael De Santa
Steven Ogg : Trevor Philips
Shawn Fonteno : Franklin Clinton
Vicki van Tassel : Amanda De Santa
Danny Tamberelli : Jimmy De Santa
Michal Sinnott : Tracey De Santa
Slink Johnson : Lamar Davis
Jai Kleitz : Lester Crest
Robert Bogue : Steve Haines
Alfredo Huereca : Martin Madrazo

Los Santos, 2013. Superficially, Michael De Santa's got everything the common man could ever wish for; a big fancy house in Vinewood, a beautiful wife, two kids and a swimming pool. However, the truth is something completely different. Michael is a retired bank robber presumed dead, and his high-end life is just a cover for witness protection. His wife's cheating on him, and his two kids are absolutely useless as one spends his time smoking weed and playing video games, and one tries to get famous in absolutely any way she can. Michael's on the edge of a nervous breakdown, until he finds a way to get back in the game when he meets someone who reminds him what it was like - Franklin Clinton. Franklin runs with the Chamberlain Gangsta Families, but is tired of his life as a two-bit thug and the whole gang culture, which he finds old-fashioned; he wants more, and he sees Michael's expertise and sense for big money as the perfect tools for a breakthrough in his criminal career. The two men form a father-son relationship and begin planning epic heists across the city. Lurking in the shadows is Michael's former best friend and partner in crime, the psychotic redneck Trevor Philips, who quickly catches on to Michael's sudden "resurrection", forces his way back into his life and demands to be a part of his big plans, unknowing of the whole variety of secrets Michael's keeping from him regarding their past.

Our three "heroes".
The world, 2013. All franchises go to shit - that's a little harsh, 'cause very often the games are great as they are, but don't tell me you weren't disappointed with basically good or even great games like Assassin's Creed III or Mass Effect 3. Above all, NEVER come to me with the proclamation that Final Fantasy XIII might not have been the best Final Fantasy game ever, but it was quite OK. Or that Dead Space has had a good run, when that run actually came to a complete halt halfway through the second main game. Survival horror games no longer have horror in them, role-playing games rarely have actual role-playing in them, and most games that come out could be labelled "third-person shooter/stabber" since you don't do much more than take cover and shoot a lot of assholes, maybe equipped with some special ability that separates the game from the rest of its kind, or usually useless micromanagement options. Earlier this year, Naughty Dog finally unleashed The Last of Us - basically a third-person shooter, yes, but weighed down with intricate storytelling you can't experience anywhere else. I, for one, was pretty sure The Last of Us would effortlessly turn out the greatest game of the year. I did not believe in Grand Theft Auto V all that much - I recently replayed Grand Theft Auto IV for the fourth time, and finally I realized what people hated about it. These were not things I found uncomfortable or boring, I still love that game, but I admit it: it's all about killing, and the game was altogether a very careful step by Rockstar. It didn't include a whole lot of special features that had been one of the calling cards of the series in the previous generation - even the side missions were mostly about killing folks. Red Dead Redemption was different, it was a simulation of life in the post-Wild West. Yeah, you killed a lot of folk, but you herded a lot of horses and cows as well. And, it had a brilliant, carefully written and well-developed story, something Grand Theft Auto never really had. It had always essentially been about the very same thing in a different environment and under different conditions. What I expected from Grand Theft Auto V was a turn into a genuinely typical - not boring, just typical - shooter with linear progression through the same old story, lack of special features, and perhaps I even expected some censorship to the foul sights and sounds we've grown accustomed to in the last nine years, since the game has become so commercial and popular that its spread to younger audiences can't realistically be avoided.

I was dead wrong.

Not only the most vulgar, insane and fatally hilarious game I've ever seen, Grand Theft Auto V is the most diverse sandbox game I've ever seen, and the greatest GTA story Rockstar has told. It's a giant leap forward from anything Rockstar has ever done, and at its very best, it makes both Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption look bad - seriously. It has kind of a slow start, but you'll soon realize that it's so different from all of Rockstar's past titles (yet so familiar), and so big, that you'll need time to get on level with it. You'll know when it hits you, and I could even name the spot when it finally hits you, but I choose not to spoil it for you. It's not a shooter, it's everything but; after 25 main storyline missions, you won't have experienced two identical ones. Each mission is different, they even vary in lengths, as greatly as from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, and even to 60 minutes. At first, it might seem like 69 missions is not that much, but it is - the lengths and the size of San Andreas make that number much bigger than it looks like. And, I might add that after my first five days with the game, I had passed a total of 35 missions - spent most of that time just driving around, looking for things to do. And, you won't have to look far - there's things to do in almost every corner (all of which doesn't even count for 100% completion). If there's not, switch to another character - he might find something to do.

Blastin' fools in the style of San Andreas. Back
in 1992, they didn't have customized weapons
I'm in for a challenge here, as I'm devoted to lay down as much details as I can on a lot of subjects without spoiling anything crucial, 'cause this is one game you'll have to experience for yourselves. Let's start with the three main characters; I think the main point of having three playable characters was to give a favourite character to every preference, so let's base these introductions on that assumption. Michael De Santa represents Vice City; he's a retired, once prolific criminal struggling with a severe midlife crisis and imagining life as an 80's movie star. He drives around listening to classic 80's rock, violently venting his frustrations whenever he gets the slightest excuse to do it. He's not a big fan of killing people - he likes to steal and break private properties, beat wrongdoers up, and generally fuck with the system in any way he can without getting too exposed. And he feels so guilty about everything he does, even his mere desire for chaos, that he pays big bucks to a greedy, hypocritical asshole of a psychiatrist to (try to) sort him out once a week.

Franklin Clinton obviously represents San Andreas, since he's almost like a remake of CJ. He's an active gangbanger from the Chamberlain hood who doesn't honestly believe in anything he does anymore; as much as he enjoys a life of crime, he feels he's stuck in an early 90's time warp, and isn't afraid to criticize his fellow gang members for not having any sense of reality, and lacking the ability to move on to bigger things. Franklin sees the potential in forming an alliance with Michael, as reluctant as the latter initially is to get back in the circuit, and it's a thrill to watch how the relationship between these two characters develops through the story.

It's a whole different thrill to watch Trevor in action. Trevor is, for all intents and purposes, a criminally insane waste of human life, a ticking time bomb. Trevor doesn't have any motives - he's just simply a batshit crazy, seriously perverted and sexually "adventureous", homicidal, alcoholic, drug-dealing kleptomaniac addicted to chaos. He doesn't care if he's opposed by a man or a whole gang, he isn't afraid to take 'em on and he'll do it all by himself if he has to, in the most violent way possible - hard to say what that is, since he's literally coming up with that stuff on the go. He finds death exciting, and amusing. He represents the vintage, casual GTA gamer, who just goes out there and does crazy and violent things just to amuse himself and his friends - no wonder most of my friends who have GTA V have named Trevor their favourite character. Since I'm a sucker for the storytelling, I'll personally have to go with Michael, he's my choice for a "role" in this game - but I won't deny that Trevor offers up some of the best moments in GTA history around every third corner.

In GTA Online, you can choose an NPC from a
whole host of 'em or create your own character.
Customize any of 'em, too. Can't wait.
Before I go any further, let's talk about the graphics and sound. Rockstar have always strived to push the hardware they're working games for to the absolute limits, but with such huge proportions comes necessary evil; to create a completely open world, something has to be compromised right from the start. Here, those compromises are minimal. Grand Theft Auto V is a perfectly animated game. The only compromise here is the level of graphical detail, and that pretty much only surfaces in the backgrounds used in the cutscenes; there are things that just look wrong, but you won't notice them right away. Character animation is simply superb, right up there with Red Dead Redemption (right up there with L.A. Noire would be a little too much to handle in these times), but keep in mind that this game is much bigger than Red Dead, in every way - and it's still capable of running on the Xbox 360. Amazing. Once again, we have a bunch of near-complete unknowns to do the voiceover work, but them being unknown don't mean crap - the voiceover work is incredible, and Rockstar once again delivers a serious dose of authenticity by having some gang members voiced by actual gang members! Lazlow Jones returns - of course he does - as not only a radio personality, but a TV personality and even an NPC in the flesh, and this is by far his most hilarious appearance ever. Look out for it. That Lazlow, what will he do next?!

The radio... well, I'm glad I didn't write this based on first impressions alone. First off, let's get the good news out of the way. This game has an original soundtrack composed by Woody Jackson of Red Dead Redemption fame, together with rap producer The Alchemist, rapper Oh No and the legendary German pioneers of electronic music, Tangerine Dream. During missions, the soundtrack often automatically plays during driving - you can switch to the radio if you want - and always when you reach a breakpoint on foot. And it's awesome - it draws obvious influence from a whole lot of crime and suspense movies. The radio is just something you must learn to accept. I know there are a lot of people out there who expected "the greatest soundtrack in gaming history" to slap Vice City's near-perfect soundtrack off the radar, give something to everyone at an even division, at least be better than Grand Theft Auto IV's get-up. At first, it's the complete opposite of what I just said. There's no metal here - depends on what you categorize The Cult and Def Leppard as, though - but there's shitloads of rap, reggae, pop (both classic and modern), electronica and country music, and BAD hardcore punk here. As surprisingly great as some of the songs on "Classic Rock Radio" are ("The Breakup Song" by Greg Kihn is fatally catchy), at first I was very disappointed with the soundtrack. It's starting to grow on me, though, and not just the rock radio, but the classic rap station and country station as well - I like to listen classic rock with Michael, rap with Franklin and country or even the bad hardcore punk with Trevor, it just feels right even if it might not always please my ears. This is far from the greatest licensed soundtrack ever, but in the end, a bulk of it serves its purpose, I guess, especially since the original soundtrack is out to lend a helping hand. And, you'll always have the commercials. And talk radio. Two things that haven't ceased to entertaining the fuck outta ya. One thing I learned from this game: when you mix sense and nonsense, you get bullshit. Might be a good slogan for this blog.

Whoever said the countryside is boring?
Storywise, Grand Theft Auto V is a sequel to Grand Theft Auto IV, but to commute with all you IV haters out there, I'll put myself in "hate mode" myself and come straight out with it: in every other way, Grand Theft Auto V is the sequel to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas that game never had. It pushes these two consoles to their absolute limits whereas Grand Theft Auto IV was a careful, monotonic step towards this console generation (ouch, that really hurt a lot more than I expected...). It includes the best of San Andreas' special features left untouched in IV, and I can't emphasize the word "best" enough - the best parts of the character development system for starters. No gyms, no necessary lunch breaks, nothing like that, but customizing your character, clothing, cars, and even weapons, is a big part of the experience. Skills are brought back, but having a low driving skill, for example, won't prevent you from entering certain races - and there's no individual skill tree for every type of vehicle, one's enough to cover for each. Bicycles, and planes, complete with a flying school, are brought back, and submarines are introduced into the mix. The redesigned San Andreas state is greatly influenced by the original, so greatly that some memorable locations such as Grove Street, Vinewood and Mount Chiliad are relatively the same. The shape of the map is completely different, though, and this version of the San Andreas state is composed of only two parts: Los Santos and Blaine County. They're perfectly enough, though, as you can see for yourself. To put it simply, you don't need Las Venturas to feed your hunger for minigames. If you still claim to not find anything to do in this game, maybe you should take a crack at real life and just stop playing video games - there has never been a game this huge and filled with positive distractions.

What's even more positive about these distractions is that they are not force fed to you EVEN if you're going for 100% completion. First of all, a lot of the stuff simply doesn't matter - you can find out what does at Rockstar's website, spoiler-free. You don't have to win every single race in the game, you just have to make it to the Top 3 in each. You certainly won't have to complete every single tedious Stunt Jump in the game, half of them is enough, although doing them all yields a Trophy/Achievement. Hanging out with one friend once at a certain location on six different occasions does bring you a small step towards the 100% mark, but beyond that, keeping friends is totally up to you. There are no special abilities to be gained through friendships, and people don't get mad at you if you don't hang out with them all the time. To really complete Grand Theft Auto V, you virtually just have to see all it has to offer. You don't have to go to ridiculous lengths to beat the game and yourself to a bloody, potentially repetitive pulp. The only exception to this is the Coyote Cross Country triathlon - imagine playing the 100 Meter Dash in the original Track & Field for a total of 30 MINUTES without breaks. I beat it, though, first place. Even made it to the Top 500 in the world - guess a lot of folks chickened out before the end of the first part. Can't blame 'em.

Meanwhile in the hood.
Again, 69 missions doesn't sound like much, but it certainly is when you consider how lengthy some of them are - you could fit four or five missions of standard length in any previous GTA game into one of these babies. Also, you wouldn't believe how much each mission differs from the last, and how well they keep certain personality traits in check; Michael's missions, for example, rarely involve any senseless killing. That is, until Trevor often comes along to force his hand. Franklin usually isn't afraid to do anything the old men tell him to. If he's gotta blast some fools, he's gotta blast some fools. Now, it's been said you can switch freely between the three men whenever they're on a mission together, and that's an outright lie. Sometimes, it is possible, but only when they're all doing the same thing at the same time; usually it's the game that decides when it's OK for you to switch characters, and sometimes it's all automatic, depending on the needs of the narrative. There were a few moments I would've liked to see things from another character's perspective, and found it disappointing that you can't actually pull a switch-a-roo at will, but in the end I realized that these limitations were necessary, and that they do positive wonders to the narrative. Each character has his own set of missions in addition to their mutual endeavors; Michael has to deal with each member of his disfunctional family from time to time, Franklin reluctantly supports his old gang and tries his best to enlighten his simple-minded best friend of how gangbanging's dead, and Trevor... well, Trevor wages short-sighted, ultraviolent, senseless war on every gang and group he despises. That list is not very narrow and it gets more names on the go - it's not wise to step on this guy's toes. Also, each character meets different strangers and freaks, in the principle style of Grand Theft Auto IV and Red Dead Redemption - but "strangers and freaks" is right. If you thought the guy collecting flowers for his corpse of a wife in Red Dead was strange, check these creeps out. My favourite pair of S & F must be the British celeb stalkers Trevor bumps into a few times. They're the perfect example of how freaky GTA characters can actually be, and they make Trevor look sane.

Switching characters outside missions is nearly always possible - as you can probably see for yourself, it turns out a nifty solution whenever you end up in a situation which is tediously hard to manage, such as getting stuck as far out in the sea as the game allows you to, or in the middle of a mountain path without any sort of vehicle to speed your way out up a little. Certainly happens whenever you go on a hunt for any of the game's seemingly endless batch of hidden packages. Michael and Franklin are usually hanging about at home watching TV, drinking or driving around the city, while Trevor's a constant surprise. We see him waking up utterly shitfaced from the strangest locations wearing nothing but his underwear, speaking of the strangest things, picking fights with the wrong people or running from the cops, usually for some sexual misconduct. Did I already mention this guy's a fucking hoot?

All of the three characters have their sets of special skills, which usually determine their roles on their all-star gigs, most notably the heists, which are definitely the cream of the crop when it comes to the already fresh and constantly surprising missions - think the casino robbery in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a series of turbocharged versions of it. During the very first heist, I got goosebumps when I watched the take roll in and then gathered my troops for a swift getaway. It was so real, the thrill of success I mean, and so exciting as I watched one of my guys smash straight into a wall during the escape and realized that he had a cut of few millions lining up his pockets. There was no going back, it was every man for himself; next time, I'll make a better call. The take from the heists is not a pre-determined sum of money; how much you reel in is totally up to your skills, and how well you've planned the heist. In my 25 years of gaming, no chaotic action game has given me these kinds of genuine thrills. Yes, so back to the skills: Michael has the traditional bullet time, inspired by Rockstar's other endeavors such as Max Payne and Red Dead Redemption. Trevor has "rampage time", which he can use to deal more and take less damage. Franklin can slow down traffic to make navigating while driving really fast and/or against traffic much easier. Also, some of the basic skills of the characters are higher than average from the beginning: Trevor's an aircraft enthusiast, so naturally his flying skill is high by default, and Franklin's essentially a car thief for both business and pleasure, so his driving skill's quite formidable from the start.

Planes. They're hard as shit to control, but
damn, I missed 'em.
To me, the biggest problems of the Grand Theft Auto franchise have boiled down to one thing ever since the series' original transition to 3D - controls. Each game has had better general controls than the last, but travel on foot has always remained a huge issue. Well, not anymore. I remember losing control of the character on just a couple of occasions when I tried to climb over a wall and watched him do the classic "head first into the wall, down on the ground, won't get up" trick, otherwise it was smooth, dynamic and above all, smart, all the way. Cars and bikes are easier and more realistic to control, while flying is so realistic and _difficult_ that you really need to go to flight school to get your act together - wind makes a huge difference whenever you're flying a small plane, landing a plane can be frustratingly hard, and flying a chopper's one nasty bitch at first. Trying to keep the new submarine - or rather, submersible - or any underwater antics, at that, in some sort of control and at a level depth is quite annoying, but on the other hand, this is their first punch at something quite like this, and aside from just a couple of missions, you won't need to go deep for anything except a couple of short sets of collectables.

Run-ins with the Los Santos Police Department are a little different from what they were before. Instead of just remaining outside of the borders of a circular threat zone for a few seconds, you need to find a smart hiding place from the police and remain out of the patrols' lines of sight, represented by cones known to anyone who's ever played Metal Gear. Naturally, the more Wanted Stars you have, the more patrols there are, the larger the patrol area, and as always, choppers and armored N.O.O.S.E. or federal vehicles are thrown into the mix if you're being a total bastard. Unlike in the earlier games, two stars is the default setting here - you always get two Wanted Stars right off the bat if a cop sees you commit a crime. One star is extremely easy to get rid of, but you survive with that little only if a citizen reports you to the cops, and you're able to stay out of their sight altogether when they show up. The A.I. of the police force has come a long way in 12 years; I'm still wondering why they punish you whenever _they_ crash into _you_, though.

I'd like to talk a bit more about the heists, 'cause really, they rock. It's really hard to make money in this game, and everything is damn expensive. In the old games, you could - to juice it up a little - help a 100-year old grandma cross the street and she gave you $2,000 for your troubles. That's not happening here - you get absolutely no money for most "favors" you pull for your employers. You'll have to make that money yourself - on the stock market if you're up to the challenge, take up a high-risk hobby, or rob some backwood general store once a day to scoop up some pennies. Or, you could just wait for the next big score to turn pennies into millions - literally. With these millions, you can buy up properties across San Andreas and make an "honest" weekly income (as well as gain access to a couple of simple missions that I think will be what GTA Online's missions are like), or just spend them the way you see fit for yourself and each of the characters; buy expensive toys from the Internet and customize them to the brim at the chop shop, for an obvious and most expensive example besides the properties. There are several ways to pull these gigs off. First, you have to do some scripted initial planning to get what you're going for, but from there on out, it's your show. You nearly always have two options for the climax - either the stealthy option, or the more straightforward option, it depends on your preference of gameplay and that alone; neither option is more dulled down or less effective than the other. Finally, you get to pick your crew, usually from random acquaintances you've met driving around - perhaps even an old friend or two. Better guys with better specializations to suit the job demand a bigger cut, but if you're taking too much risks with "cost-effective" boys and girls, chances are that they will fail the job and you'll end up with one less hand on deck, and a smaller total take. You know the best thing about these crew members? Even though they're highly random to come by, they take part in conversations just like any other character would, and they're mentioned by name every time during those conversations; they're not just some nameless, faceless stand-ins. Rockstar took good care of the smallest details here.

The world above ground not big enough for
Things to do in San Andreas when you're bored - well now, that list ain't short. Some of these pastimes count for the 100%, some of them have a Trophy/Achievement tied to them, some build up for both, and some build up for neither. First, there are street races. Franklin can take part in the traditional sports car and bike races, but only by night. Any of the characters can take part in offroad races, sea races and triathlons (swimming, bicycling, running). Trevor can go on a few Rampages which haven't been seen in the series since Vice City, and there's actually an "explanation" behind those violent outbursts this time around, the explanation being... well, "Trevor". He can also do arms trafficking on both land and air, go hunting, and work as a hillbilly bounty hunter - in the style of Red Dead Redemption rather than any traditional GTA Vigilante. Michael, in one of his worst fits of midlife crisis, gets dragged in a religious cult that gives him exclusive, increasingly crazy, yet non-violent missions in exchange for his own money and time. There are tons of collectables, which any of the characters can do their best to find, but only the guy who owns the establishment in search of certain collectables, or has otherwise been assigned to find them, gets the nominal glory and monetary profit for them. For example, you can buy an ocean clean-up facility that pays thousands of bucks for each piece of nuclear waste any character finds from the ocean floor - but only to the guy who owns the facility. If you're into more recreational stuff, feel free to try out the many options of sports and games available. Scuba diving, parachuting, darts, tennis, golf... and might I add that these aren't just some minigames slapped in for easy leisure, they're full fledged, entertaining pastime modules with mechanics replicated from actual genre games as carefully as possible. I think GTA Online will unlock a few more options, since I spotted two guys playing pool in the trailer, and there's a casino on the northeastern outskirts of the city that has a sign saying "Opening Soon". My thumbs are already tingling.

GTA Online is launched next week, and therefore, naturally, I can't actually review it here, but I know what it's about and if everything works out as promised, it's going to be my personal breakthrough in online gaming - I'm thinking nothing less than the best MMO ever made. Whatever was part of the multiplayer experience in Grand Theft Auto IV is probably there, but the most essential part of this renewed experience is how San Andreas is transformed into a hub world for 16 human players at a time. There are literally hundreds of missions available for you take on alone or with your friends, and you can do just about anything you can do in the single-player game, if not even more. You can buy properties and turn them into homes, you can invite your friends - or even a whole crew - to share some quality time with you, and customize everything including the gameplay experience itself. Don't want it to turn into a bounty hunt or deathmatch, just want to have fun? Tired of childish campers? Worry not! A huge batch of Trophies/Achievements related to GTA Online within the base list for the game shows how much Rockstar invested in this part of the game, and how certain they are to boggle the interest of the most sworn multiplayer naysayers.

Grand Theft Auto V is just as easy to beat as Red Dead Redemption, but at the same time, the most challenging game I've played in a while for many reasons. You can merely survive the missions easily with sheer luck and a good dose of recklessness, and by switching the characters back and forth when you're in trouble and when it's possible, but there's always a price to pay for your unique ways. First, it isn't like any GTA you've played before - it does not hold your hand the whole time. A tutorial or straightforward command does not always appear, instead the game forces you to come up with a solution to a problem by yourself from time to time. Let's take one of the assassination missions (shades of Vice City again) for example. You need to park outside of a hotel where your target is staying. He has a whole convoy of bodyguards standing outside and covering for him each step of the way as he checks out. These guards are very twitchy, and will notice any type of deterrence. Even if you sneak up to the target's car and plant a bomb to the side in perfect silence, they will notice it. You'd think that the game gives you some sort of a clue to a good solution as it always has, but no, it just says "Assassinate the target." That means there's a variety of ways to go at it, and you need to think for yourself for once. It took me a few tries before I had mapped out the situation and came up with the perfect solution. I was feeling pretty damn good...

...However, the game punished me for my decision, and prompted me to go for a different solution next time. You see, the optional objectives from The Ballad of Gay Tony are brought back. However, these objectives are much more diverse, and above all, more forgiving. The criteria for each objective is revealed after the mission on the first playthrough, just so that it wouldn't fuck up the smooth flow of your game and force you to try stuff that is unreasonably hard to pull, or alternatively, stuff that won't even cross your mind during the mission - Ubisoft should take some last minute notes here for next month's Assassin's Creed IV. There's a time limit to almost every mission, and that's the only truly unforgiving and sometimes utterly unreasonable part. The rest of it comprises of stuff such as killing a certain major enemy with a certain type of weapon to perhaps even get a look at a special kill animation, use as much or as little character switching as possible, remain undetected, waste as few bullets as possible, garner in a bulk of headshots, destroy as many vehicles as you can etc. etc. It's quite damn cool, but I wouldn't recommend replaying missions on the go. There's plenty of time for that after you've done everything - don't fuck up the good flow.

Finally, a weapon wheel.
A Platinum run doesn't seem completely impossible to pull off if you're a hardcore GTA player, and willing to commit yourself to GTA Online once it comes out. A bulk of it is simply about playing the hell out of the game, there's not too many Trophies/Achievements related to some superficially useless stunt or some online activity you wouldn't be able to control - both of which IV was full of. Beating the story takes about 30-40 hours, I lost a realistic count 'cause I did so much extra stuff in between - I'm an easily distracted sandbox gamer, and 86% in the completion stats after the final mission stands as solid proof of that. Some side missions remain locked until you've finished the story, so even if you manage to do everything before the (gigantic) final mission, there's still a LOT to do in San Andreas. Of course there is - you can't even afford everything before finishing the game.

I've beaten around the bush with it for almost two weeks, reflecting on a certain retrospective I did a while back, and how much I put weight on Final Fantasy VII being the best video game in history, and pretty much unbeatable in that context. Since 1997, I haven't even considered placing a game on par or above it - and I never thought to do that with a brand new game in 2013. Oh yes - believe the hype, believe the sales figures. Grand Theft Auto V is nearly flawless. It had a slow start, but it was a very brief one. Its collection of licensed songs struck a bad nerve. Yeah, there's a lot of total garbage on the radio - but the radio isn't nearly the important part of GTA as it was ten years ago, and there's really atmospheric stuff regardless of the genre or how it would sound like if you listened to it at home, outside of the game's confines. There's just a kind of magic in the air when you use Franklin for a frantic race or chase around the city while Dr. Dre is playing, and police sirens screaming in the background. Sounds really uncomfortable on paper, but it's a whole different thing in motion.

So, I hope I'm not going to regret this statement next week when GTA Online comes out, but Grand Theft Auto V is the best in a lot of ways. It's the best Grand Theft Auto game ever made, it's Rockstar's finest hour in a whole series of fine hours, easily the best video game of this generation and finally, at a very high probability, the best and most fulfilling video game I'm ever going to play in my life.

+ An amazing story with amazing characters, and the best, most diverse and daring humour in the series
+ A huge world to explore - can't wait for its transformation into an online hub
+ Perfect judgement for what to bring back from earlier games and what not; I'm not really missing anything here, nor do I think there's too much of something
+ Stunning graphics previously unseen in open-world games
+ Great controls and gameplay mechanics in every aspect, from straightforward action, to driving, to minigames
+ Each mission is different, and can be dealt with in numerous different ways
+ The perfect checkpoint system is just one of the factors that always guarantee a smooth flow
+ The heist missions are some of the most epic levels in video game history, and so immersive that they actually inflict goosebumps and a genuine thrill of success often described by real-life thieves
+ The 100% checklist doesn't require you to reach impossible heights in every single feature of the game, or go on a collectable hunt nearly as tedious as 200 pigeons or something
+ Reasonable optional objectives and different mission outcomes guarantee replay value
+ I could literally come up with these ups for the whole day

- The licensed soundtrack's got no thought for metal fans, while fans of rap and pop rejoice
- A bit of a slow start - just a damn tiny bit
- Switching characters is not as much up to the player as it was made up to be
- Underwater controls are a bit on the sloppy side
- Some side missions required for the 100% are intentional jokes by the developers, and not very good ones - the Epsilon story arc and the cross country triathlon are the first to come to mind
- I'm kidding myself here trying to come up with these downs

< 9.8 >

keskiviikko 18. syyskuuta 2013

GTA V: The Ballad of the Collector's Edition

Everyone's talking about it, your Facebook newsfeed is most likely filled with it, and guys are having a hard time remembering their girlfriends' names. Had enough yet? Too bad... here's another update on GTA V, now that I've finally got some time for an update - yet not enough time to play since I'm leaving for work in an hour - and I've finally slept just enough to be able to concentrate a little.

The local GameStop's arrangements for the midnight launch of Grand Theft Auto V had its ups and downs. I went in 10 P.M. and since I've never taken part in their midnight launches, I thought that as a customer who had pre-ordered the game, I was supposed to go there and register or something. I stood in line for a few tens of minutes until I realized that the people there were actually pre-ordering the game right there and then. There were a few others like me who had pre-ordered the game in the hallway, sitting down with a book or lying down and listening to music. Well, I'm too old to be standing in a line or setting up a camp in the hallway for anything. I'll go to the nearest bar, drink a couple of beers and play some Yahtzee on my smartphone to kill time. I'm supposed to go to work at 6 A.M. - I'm sure that when I come back at midnight, I'll get the game quickly, as it's first come, first served. I've no intention of going to sleep once I get home, it's gonna be an allnighter baby, yeah. I have plenty of hours to play.

Well, the "first come, first served" part was bullshit. The guys that pre-ordered the game just before the launch got the game first! They got these green, numbered slips when they made the payment, and set up a line of their own, and that line was long as fuck, even longer than the line formed by us angry and frustrated folk who had pre-ordered the game months ago. We just became more angry and frustrated when we realized that both clerks behind the counter served that one line, and guys from that line kept passing us by with stupid smiles on their faces and game in hand for about an hour - an hour which we stood in the exact same spot with some random dude, watching as those last-minute fuckers one-upped us. At about half past midnight, the _real_ pre-order line finally started to move, and all things considered, I was feeling pretty good, after all I was going to get a huge fucking box in my hands that said "Rockstar Games Presents Grand Theft Auto V - Collector's Edition". It's gotta be worth the wait; I just read the first reviews before leaving home and for once, I actually believed the straight tens. After all, it's GTA. Now hand me that box.

Well, the manager - an extremely cool dude, by the way - read through my receipt and gave me a bad look, saying he's sorry. I was like "oh no, you don't"... and then he said something about my other pre-orders and how this little mishap he was about to admit probably wouldn't affect me all that much. He went into the storage room, and brought me the Collector's Edition box... for the Xbox 360. Yeah well, that does affect me, 'cause I specifically wanted the PlayStation 3 version. Not because of the technological advantages, but because of my personal code of a consistent game collection - I have Grand Theft Auto IV on the PS3, in accordance to my code I wouldn't accept having V on the Xbox 360. But before I could say anything, the manager held up a copy of the Special Edition for the PS3, and told me that because of a severe problem in logistics, the board had decided that buyers of the PS3 Collector's Edition will get an Xbox 360 version of the Collector's Edition, AND the PS3 Special Edition as a freebie, with the huge bundle of downloadable Collector's Edition content available via an extra code. So, I essentially got everything I paid for, since this "version" of the PS3 Special Edition had everything any Collector's Edition had, with the exception of the huge box and most of the memorabilia. What to do?

One game, two editions. Hmm.
I got home (at about half past 1) and reflected on which copy I should keep to myself and which one I should get rid of. The visual advantages of the Collector's Edition were obvious, but after reflecting on the whole picture, so was the decision. I decided to strip the Collector's Edition of all the memorabilia that came with it, 'cause that's what I paid for, and keep the Special Edition. Why? Well... first of all, I need to stick to my code. Secondly, GTA Online is coming soon - the first MMO game I've ever felt the need to play, and I'm not fucking paying for LIVE Gold to be able to touch it. Thirdly, realistically, where would I put that damn thing? The Special Edition fits my shelf a "little" better - that huge Collector's box has "just decoration" written all over it anyway, and I'm not putting the steelbook on the shelf, since it doesn't have the Xbox 360 tag on its end label. If you find me a little neurotic, that's OK - I am, about certain things. But, you should meet my girl. Or my sister. They're much worse. And one terrible combo.

So, I kept the Special Edition, despite my initial reluctance; again, and especially since I stripped the Xbox 360 version of all its valuables and since it includes the Collector's DLC courtesy of GameStop, it's essentially the same thing. It just fits the shelf a whole lot better. I bundled up everything that remained from the Xbox 360 version - the blueprint map of San Andreas, the steelbook, and of course, another batch of those same DLC codes - as a "Jukka Edition" and put it on sale for €50 on Facebook. I was immediately bombarded with responses, as expected; I forgot to mention which platform I was selling it for, though, and had to turn a lot of PS3 hopefuls away. I also had to turn away a lot of folk who weren't excited of the fact that they were not getting the original packaging - more neurotics, it seems I'm not alone! Well, then one of my buddies I know through work finally contacted me and told me he'll take it, and that he's not worried about the stripped edition, he's not that much into visuals. If he'll get the game in any sort of casing, an extra map and the DLC codes, he'll gladly pay the 50 euros. Happy end.

The Collector's Edition, unboxed (and
stripped to the bone).
As always with a game this huge, I've already started writing the review, after finishing a mere 30% of the game (not just the story) in about 13-14 hours of in-game time. I'm not telling you _anything_ substantial just yet, but I can tell you that Rockstar's definitely made it back on track after a couple of good, but comparatively weak titles. I dare not say when this huge-ass review will make it online, but when it does, you'll know it; I've got a ton of things to say about it, in contrast to my previous GTA reviews which were kinda short. In other words, it's going to be fucking gigantic, so gigantic that it's probably going to have the largest ups/downs list ever, to spare you the trouble of reading through the whole thing.

sunnuntai 15. syyskuuta 2013

DLC REVIEW - Grand Theft Auto: The Ballad of Gay Tony | PS3 | 2010

RELEASED: October 29, 2009 (Xbox 360)
PRICE: $19.99

For the last review of a single DLC pack I'll ever write, I naturally chose the one part of the whole Grand Theft Auto IV experience I haven't covered yet. We're just a day and some away from the release of Grand Theft Auto V at the moment, and a few weeks ago my hunger for some city-sized havoc grew way too strong for me to let this critically acclaimed, but ultimately overlooked, and somewhat unattractive expansion pack pass any further. Grand Theft Auto IV was a magnificent game that I, for one, still considered somewhat of a disappointment after the nearly limitless experience that was its predecessor Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. The first expansion pack, The Lost and Damned, offered up a gritty second look at the story, through the eyes of the leader of a downtrodden biker gang. What's The Ballad of Gay Tony about, then? It's yet another telling of the same basic story, through the eyes of an extra you always hardly noticed in the midst of all that mayhem. He's Luis Lopez, the closest ally and bodyguard of nightclub owner Anthony "Gay Tony" Prince, and he actually plays the demanding role of a GTA lead surprisingly well. Make no mistake about it, The Ballad of Gay Tony's a keeper - although it fails to bring anything really substantial to the mix, and has only a couple of them unique GTA moments you really can't afford to miss.

Puto perro, El Diablo!

Mario D'Leon : Luis Lopez
D.B. Cooper : Anthony Prince
Greg Siff : Rocco Pelosi
Vitali Baganov : Ray Bulgarin
Omid Djalili : Yusuf Amir
Jaime Fernandez : Armando Torres
J. Salome Martinez : Henrique Bardas
Jeff Gurner : Mori Kibbutz
Timothy Adams : Brucie Kibbutz
Robert Youells : Evan Moss

Rollin' with the boss man.
Luis Lopez desperately tries to keep his boss and business associate Gay Tony from falling apart by running violent errands for his loansharks, shamelessly ripping dangerous people off to keep their two nightclubs open for business, and moderating his boss' reckless substance abuse in any way he can. At the same time, he has to deal with his naïve mother, psychotic one night stands and his two best friends who just won't get on with their lives. And they say he's being too tense...

I got The Ballad of Gay Tony well over two or three years ago, but just for the sake of completion. It's got a stupid title - nothing homophobic there, I assure you - and as acclaimed it was upon arrival, some even called it the best Grand Theft Auto IV had to offer, it simply didn't interest me. I liked Niko, the gruff, short-tempered war veteran with a sensitive side - he remains by far the most multilayered protagonist in the series. Johnny kinda grew on me as well, being a biker and all - it was quite enough of a draw, even if I found him and his intelligence a little inconsistent. Here, we have Luis, who showed up in the main game as often as Johnny, but he was always in the background, playing a minor supporting role. Honestly I couldn't even remember the guy's existence before the first promo shots of him as the lead star of this DLC pack were published. Niko's primary mission was to save his family from mobsters and avenge his fallen war buddies. Johnny's mission was to restore balance and control to a gang led far astray by its leader, who also used to be his best friend. Luis' primary mission is none as noble - everything you do is for the good of Gay Tony, an annoying, whiney junkie prick who would actually be better off dead. Which Luis himself reflects on by the end of the story, by the way. So, we're not off to a promising start on the outside. On the inside, we have... what else? More sweetness in the Grand Theft Auto IV style, actually a lengthier pack than the last one, and considerably diverse. Some new stuff, and not just cars and weapons, but a few exclusive features. And, evil Mr. Bulgarin might FINALLY get his ass handed to him, after disappearing into thin air in the main game and skipping the first extra episode altogether. Are you in? I'm in.

Of course Rockstar attempts to give something to everyone - and yet again we reach another point why I prefer the main game and especially The Lost and Damned. It's the audiovisuals, and it all comes down to personal taste. The main game had a balanced palette, The Lost and Damned was very dark and greyish, and The Ballad of Gay Tony is all about bright rainbow colours and bling-bling. While The Lost and Damned's additions to the original soundtrack did include some rap and hip-hop, the main focus was on enhancing the presentation of the rock and metal stations; given Luis' background and person, the song additions here are mainly Latino pop, house and dance music, and disco. Meh. OK, maybe I feel a little guilty and out of immersion listening to Liberty Rock or Liberty City Hardcore (fully loaded with The Lost and Damned soundtrack, of course) through this ordeal - thank the mayhemic lords of destruction for many choices of talk radio. It's really the way to go here for me.

There's always time for love.
The most noticeable new feature is the mission scoring system; each storyline mission ends with a total score comprised of mission time, accuracy, vehicle damage, headshots, and unique objectives. If you've played Red Dead Redemption or even L.A. Noire, you know how it's like - but way more unreasonable. It's damn near impossible to hit 100% in any mission on your first playthrough; mission replays are unlocked after you beat the whole game, just like in Red Dead. Friend activities are not forced upon you any more than they were in The Lost and Damned, and to my knowledge, there aren't too fundamental new minigames for you to exploit with your friends anyway, apart from a few different types of nightclub activity and cage fighting you will unfortunately get familiar with very early on in the storyline. Gang wars make yet another return as "drug wars", a few different types of side missions where you need to help your two best friends to gain a monopoly in the city's drug trade. We have crazy base jumping, somewhat standing in for unique stunts; fun, especially the truly challenging vehicle jumps, but being able to base jump raises an important question. Would it really have been so hard to add planes into the mix?! I don't know why, but I was under the impression planes would be this DLC's most important draw, but you can't fly 'em; you fly all sorts of choppers all the time, though. I've loved flying in this series ever since San Andreas - I'm so happy they're bringing it back full throttle in Grand Theft Auto V.

Tony's nightclubs are an important part of the plot, so of course you can expect a lot of investment in them. You can go to one of the nightclubs at any time to get wasted in the traditional way, take part in a drinking game or the dancing minigame, which plays out very similar to the low rider contests in San Andreas. I simply don't dance - my girl can vouch for that, doubly - but I kinda like that minigame. What can I say, I'm into rhythm wankery. Also, after a certain point in the game, you can go to work at the main club as a bouncer any night you wish. This job may introduce you to some hilarious (and sexy) scenes you don't want to miss if your only objective isn't to finish the story for completion's sake. Finally, there's yet another twist to illegal street racing; these aren't regular races, but lengthy vehicle triathlons that start off with a base jump and require you to switch from vehicle to vehicle at key points.

You'll be spending almost as much time in the
air as Johnny did on his bike.
If you've played Grand Theft Auto IV - and preferrably The Lost and Damned as well - you know what the rest is about. A couple of missions are surely familiar to you from a different perspective, and I won't deny that solving the rest of the GTA IV puzzle wouldn't be fun; I think I spotted a couple of plotholes, though, and this perspective is once again the least interesting of the three. Although the storyline and dialogue do definitely have their moments - DEFINITELY, I mean, Brucie returns for starters - it feels like they squeezed the absolute best out of this story and setting before, and even at his prime, Luis feels a bit too familiar, like a Mexican version of Niko. I think I truly started respecting this dude during the couple of side "missions" - more like just confrontations - with his psychotic ex. They're priceless, and luckily you can't really miss 'em, since within the confines of this pack - as well as The Lost and Damned, if I remember it right - you can spot a stranger side mission from as far as another continent.

Finally, the Trophies... those damn Trophies. Considering the length of The Lost and Damned, five Bronze Trophies were hardly sufficient. Well, there are ten to be collected in The Ballad of Gay Tony... BRONZE ones. God damn it, huh? Well, God damn this: you need to beat every mission to 100%, complete all the drug wars, complete all base jumps, and pull off a couple of crazy stunts that will take you at least 50 tries - basically, and utterly, waste your time, for ten Bronzes. They've given out Golds for less impressive feats. A Bronze for 100%... gimme a fucking break...

The truth is that anything I say about this DLC pack won't make a stinking bit of difference. Despite its high price, The Ballad of Gay Tony is a mandatory purchase for anyone who liked Grand Theft Auto IV - you'll want to complete the trinity. It's the weakest link in that trinity, yes, but it's far from being actually weak. The best thing about it, right now in September 2013, is that it goes to show how very little Grand Theft Auto IV has aged in five years, and just thinking about how they claim to have improved everything in Grand Theft Auto V gives me the chills.

< 8.5 >

perjantai 13. syyskuuta 2013

77 hours to go...

The time has come to retreat a little, get myself in the proper gear and prepared for the video game spectacle of the year. One can always _try_ to doubt Rockstar Games, but as the release of Grand Theft Auto V draws close and critics all around the world more impatient to unleash their takes on the game, I'm as sure of the game's omnipotence as the next guy. I'm working on a couple of reviews which will both be online by tomorrow night, but after clock strikes midnight on Monday, I think you can safely expect at least a week of perfect silence. Perhaps a few photos from the GameStop midnight launch though, if I happen to run into some friends - probably will, judging by the crowds that had gathered to pay up their pre-orders in advance yesterday.

I'm making some progress with all sorts of redesigning, and VGArchive's new root design is done. I've once again changed the link on the right, feel free to check it out. Pre-ordered games are already included as always, and there's a new feature in the form of Graveyard, which is a collection of games I've parted with and would like to have back on the shelf. I'm working on detailed game pages at a random pace, I'll be sure to highlight any changes on the top of the page as soon as they're ready.

RPG Time! ended up dealing with a total of five games, one of which wasn't as much of a review as it was a retrospective. I'm a bit disappointed, but one and a half months really wasn't enough for a truly epic marathon with the schedule I've burdened myself with since the last 'Time, I should've acknowledged that right away. Between everything I've got planned - picking up where the Marvel marathon left off, for starters, and I think I should get started with the Halloween Monster Mash early since there are ten games lined up for that at the moment - I think you're going to see a couple of more RPG reviews in the next few months. There's at least one prolific genre game that should've been reviewed a long time ago, but I never had the chance. Now, with the introduction of the three new systems I mentioned the last time, I do, and I'm playing that particular game right now. I'll have to push the review back, though...

...Just like everything else, 'cause in 77 hours, shit gets real. Grand Theft Auto V is out for early birds, and even if I can't be absolutely sure that it's the best GTA ever (I'll know for sure ten minutes into it), I am positive that whichever type of masterpiece we've been waiting for the last five years - or three, if you count Red Dead Redemption - we'll have it. It's the biggest, most ambitious and visually stunning Grand Theft Auto experience ever, and writing a credible and satisfactory review will take a lot of time. I don't expect to have any extra hours on my hands between the game, my girl, and work (damn that one to hell!), so I sincerely don't think you'll see much of any sort of updates before I've at least come close to finishing the single-player campaign. Here's a cool video before I go - a reminder of what Grand Theft Auto CAN be about if you're not too serious, and how glitches can sometimes be outright hilarious. Have a great weekend, I'm off to work (I mean it, damn it all the way to hell!).

torstai 12. syyskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Terranigma | SNES | 1995

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: October 20, 1995

After Illusion of Gaia, Enix commissioned Quintet for one last story revolving around creation and evolution. This game was called Terranigma. Determining that they had no chance on the North American RPG market wholly dominated by Square, Enix shut down their U.S. subsidiary indefinitely just before an English localization of the game had been finished, leading the expecting European audience to believe the game would be yet another Japan-only release by Enix. To the surprise of many, Terranigma did see daylight in both Europe and Australia, breaking the usual chain, and for once we got something to flaunt with. Terranigma came in much too late to enjoy any fundamental commercial success, but it turned out the best Quintet game ever and one of the best RPG's on the SNES.

Tales of Creation: Chapter V - The Alpha Game

In his ambition to break every rule, a consciously mischievous teenager named Ark manages to open a tightly sealed door in his grandfather's house, releasing an ancient power that not only curses his home village, but the whole world. Ark's grandfather sends his unruly descendant on a quest to resurrect the world, destroy this dark power and maybe grow up a little in the process.

Just tell me one thing, though. Why do they
all have to have the same hairstyle?
Back in college, I had a classmate - who's since become a good friend of mine - who praised this game, and he wasn't that much into action-RPG's. I knew the game by name, and I knew it was made by the same studio as Illusion of Gaia, but at the time I had no idea it was some sort of semi-sequel to the game. At that time, I liked Illusion of Gaia a lot more than I do now, for some reason, and when I tried Terranigma, it was so much better than the already awesome Gaia that I was easily led to believe that it would be a forgotten gem like no other - no less than one of the best games on the SNES. I never found the time to finish the game, not even close. It still always remained a very dear game to me and I considered it one of the best SNES games of all time even if I didn't know it inside out; as some of you might remember, I even listed Terranigma in the SNES Top 20 I did a couple of years back as a tribute to the SNES' 20th anniversary. I'm glad I won't have to back down on (at least all of) my words - Terranigma is awesome and it might well be my favourite Enix game of all time.

Woohoo, a world map which you can actually
explore. Changes all the time, too.
To elaborate, hopefully for the final time using these games for comparison, Terranigma is not Final Fantasy VI-awesome or Chrono Trigger-awesome. It's awesome in its very own fashion - it's something Quintet had been building up for quite some time, it's the game Soul Blazer was originally supposed to be. It's the best game you can get from those basic ingredients. With Soul Blazer, they made mistakes. Some of those mistakes were corrected with the development of Illusion of Gaia, but they made whole new ones with that game. They made mistakes with Terranigma, but the important thing is that most of the top worst nuisances that plagued those two preceding games are totally harvested from the fray. The result is the most simple, accessible and comfy action-RPG in the series. The downsides are few, but sensible - it's still cryptic, and the storytelling, as unique as the story itself once again is, is clumsy, occasionally dumb, and the game is really stingy when it comes to explaining some of the most basic things. Such as the use of magic in general. Players have to find out things like this for themselves, which means that you'll have to waste good spells just to find out how they work; there are some good spells, but once again some bad ones. There's also no strict, well-explained line between regular items and key items - in theory, you might go on forever before you realize you could've traded a seemingly useless piece of junk for a useful piece of equipment several in-game hours ago. Yes, this time there are different weapons and armour - even shops. While the previous games drew most of their influence from Zelda, Terranigma's definitely an RPG.

I still can't believe there was nothing behind
any of those waterfalls! What kind of adventure
game is this?!
In a word, the graphics are great. Perhaps even too great. As clumsy as the storytelling might be, it was one of the main focus points - the completion of each dungeon is followed by a lengthy, artsy-fartsy cutscene showing us how this "cleansing" affects a certain key element in the world's resurrection. The lengthiest of these cutscenes are almost as drawn out as the ending of any other SNES game. Also, it's funny that whenever you hitch a ride to any location you can't reach by foot on the world map - which is usually right next to wherever you're at - the transporter takes a huge detour, all the way to another continent and back, as if to flaunt with the Mode 7 effects. Flashy, but boring as heck. The soundtrack's an on/off deal - you'll be spending a lot of time in a single dungeon, 'cause almost every single dungeon you stumble into after the long introduction is a much worse maze than Sky Garden in Illusion of Gaia; easier on the eyes and eye-hand coordination, though. A 30-second loop isn't quite enough to cover the whole hour or two.

Funny how much he reminds me of the worm
in Silent Hill 3.
Let's get the downsides out of the way right now. Don't let Ark's admittedly fancy combat moves and such an odd feature as being able to jump fool you. If it's a fast-paced and fully dynamic game you want, then Terranigma might not be the right game for you - it's not just the cutscenes, it's occasionally a very slow game with constant halts. Ark's walking speed is muddy, the discovery of an important item results in Ark holding it up for about three years, and every time an enemy uses a special attack, text describing the attack appears on the screen and halts the game for several seconds. Just to mention some examples. It's all something you get used to rather quick, if you're not from the _most_ impatient end. Usually, I myself perceive such a slow pace as a near-lethal flaw - depending on the game, of course - but I can tell you that after a few hours, you won't even notice it anymore. In every other way, Terranigma is a giant leap forward from its predecessors.

The use of most magic is extremely clumsy, but also irrelevant - you usually have to resort to it only during boss fights since you might not be able to reach them physically, and the spells can't really miss since the boss is directly in front of you 90% of the time. All spells are consumable items - you can buy more spells from a Magirock Shop using gems called Magirocks, as well as a few gold coins, for currency. Item management was a huge issue in both preceding games - in Terranigma, it looks more complicated and uncomfortable than it really is. Pandora's Box, which you have in tow the entire time - a "little" artificial size difference between the Pandora's Box in God of War and the one in this game - serves as your menu, and the bat-like monster Yomi as your sidekick/navigational instrument through the initially confusing mass of maps, stats, settings, items, equipment and jewelry (magic).

Hanging out with "Simba", in a plot setting
that's actually ripped straight off The Lion King.
Items are actually quite easy to use. For example, in Soul Blazer, you only had room for one health item at a time. To use it, you had to equip it from the menu, perhaps to replace and sacrifice your armour on the behalf of being able to continue once your health ran out. In Illusion of Gaia, you also had to equip it from the menu, and depending on the situation, it was even more of a pain to use since you had to trigger the use of the item yourself, at the absolutely correct time window, and you even had to confirm your choice to use the item. I lost count how many times I got my ass kicked for answering "No" in a hurry. Also, in Soul Blazer you could only carry one health item at a time, in Illusion of Gaia you had space for plenty, but they didn't stack and there was a limited quantity of them in the whole game anyway (if you didn't find them all or used them "recklessly", you regretted it in the final boss fight). Terranigma doesn't have any of these problems for its burdens. Health items come in fair quantities, they stack, and you can either use them from the menu itself or equip them for immediate use any time during gameplay with the press of a single button. Consumable items (and unfortunately, some more or less useful accessories) have their own slot in the HUD, so you don't have to worry about trading your armour for a small drop of health for one second.

Terranigma offers up some good challenge - item management alone makes it a much easier and reasonable game to deal with than either one of its spiritual predecessors. However, the level design is so consciously confusing that you'll be in for a whole bunch of in-game hours just navigating the sumbitch. The bright side is that the enemies respawn each time you go to a different room, and grinding is not nearly as painful as it can be in many games with turn-based combat.

The occasionally extreme pacing problems and altogether crummy storytelling common to the series aside, Terranigma is a great RPG anyone into the SNES simply must check out. If you're a patient one, you might even be able to overlook the awkward pacing - hell, even appreciate it. I'll be back for seconds one day - that is something I haven't honestly said about any game in a long time.

+ Once again, a simple game with easy access...
+ ...Spiced up with a whole bulk of advanced options and development from "real" role-playing games
+ Ark reminds me of Yoda; walks real slow, but has some real awesome moves in combat
+ Finally, item management works...

- ...Magic doesn't
- Subpar telling of another good story
- A somewhat slow pace to everything
- Not good at explaining things

< 8.8 >

perjantai 6. syyskuuta 2013

REVIEW - Illusion of Gaia | SNES | 1993

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: November 27, 1993
PUBLISHER(S): Enix, Nintendo

"Is that The Legend of Zelda?" It might look like it, but no - it's Illusion of Gaia, one of Enix's most popular 90's titles alongside any Dragon Quest game. This game was promoted quite well internationally, thanks to Nintendo themselves, who took on the duties of publishing the game everywhere in the world a year and a half into its original release in Japan - in Europe, we knew the game as Illusion of Time. Connections to any earlier games were hardly mentioned back in those times, it was only later that people stopped looking at the game as a stand-alone, cute little RPG, and started to treat it as a follow-up to 1992's Soul Blazer, therefore also a follow-up to ActRaiser, although the Master is no longer part of the equation. Illusion of Gaia was also much closer to a true RPG than any of its predecessors in this curious arc by Quintet, but still as simple and accessible as a genre game could possibly be in those times and survive the competition. And, it's pretty good; a strangely attractive game, despite a slow start and a few major shortcomings.

Restoring the laws of evolution

Sure about that, slick?
Will is the young survivor of a mysterious shipwreck - how he survived he has no memory of, but he has since developed curious psychic powers. He accidentally enters a dark void, where according to its only inhabitant, the Earth's guardian Gaia, no human is supposed to be able to unless he's the "chosen one", to protect the world from a recurring meteor strike that has prevented mankind and the world's evolution into a more modern state for ages. With an exceptionally cute member of the local royal family in tow, Will embarks on a quest to find the only power strong enough to neutralize the meteor - the power of the firebird.

I always had some sort of infatuation with this game. Perhaps it's because I like the word "Gaia" so much, perhaps it's because it was treated moderately well for an Enix RPG in a time that Final Fantasy VI and Chrono Trigger were the genre games to watch for. I first played the game in 2001, and back then, I could see the errors of its ways, but I appreciated how simple and accessible it was, and I liked how the combat combined elements from both Legend of Zelda and conventional RPG's. After getting run over by a train of frustration when it comes to the worst parts of Soul Blazer, I find myself appreciating Illusion of Gaia even more... but in turn, I've matured and I can see the unique errors of its ways a lot clearer than before. Simply put, Illusion of Gaia is definitely not as good as I remembered, but definitely worth a look if you're able to digest all the cons I will try my best to cover as I go.

Freedan in Mushroom Kingdom.
Although the story is focused on a lot more and it's basically well crafted, it's poorly and cryptically told. Not only is the narrative uncomfortably clumsy, it's extremely slow at times. Especially in the beginning of the game there are long, dragging sequences that make you somewhat uncertain if you're making progress or not; it's like the game is waiting for you to make a right decision when all you actually have to do is WAIT. Now I see where they were getting at - a realistic pace to give the role-playing part a boost - but it's far from necessary, especially at such early parts of the game in which you don't know the game well enough to figure whether you've made a mistake or not. Also, third-person narration seamlessly mixes with the character dialogue, rendering it all perhaps readable, but impossible to fully understand, assuming you're even interested to catch every single detail beyond the halfway mark of the game. The characters are extremely annoying and way dumber than anyone you bumped into in Soul Blazer; one thing Quintet might've wanted to pick up from Square's R&D was at least some dramatic direction for character development.

You are asked many questions with multiple choice answers, but only one of them's right. For an easy example, if you answer "No" when you're supposed to answer "Yes", the NPC just keeps repeating the question until you say "Yes". Sometimes, NPC's will artificially comply to whatever your response is, but the story still develops according to the "right" answer. How open-ended indeed.

General graphics are only so-so when pitted against the most fabulous-looking genre games of the time, but there are some nice level-specific elements like a rain of flowers or a whole village that bobs up and down while you're exploring. The music ain't that special either - they once again opted to switch to a different, inexperienced composer, and this time, they didn't end up with one truly memorable tune. It's not bad, just forgettable.

Cannibal holocaust!
Now that I've pretty much bashed the game which I've previously referred to as somewhat of a cult classic, it's time to bring this review up a notch in tone. As it was with Soul Blazer, the most important key to Illusion of Gaia's charm is its simplicity. You are no longer mandated to kill every single enemy in every single screen to make actual progress, but it helps; killing the last enemy of a screen gives you a permanent boost in HP, strength or defense, at a well-balanced order right up 'til the end. So basically, you can level up in every screen if you're dedicated enough - which also means that the game isn't that lengthy at all, as you can see there's a pre-determined limit to HP. What makes Illusion of Gaia even more of an RPG than its predecessors is the actual exploration of towns and villages, not just a series of restore-and-fetch sequences like in Soul Blazer. However, there are only two people you really need to talk to in each town - the one to tell you where to go next, and the Jeweler Gem.

On your trip, you'll find regular gemstones yielded by defeated enemies. Gathering 100 of these grants you an extra "life" (it's-a-me, Maaaaariooo!!), in this case meaning a checkpoint at the last door you entered; otherwise, you'll return to the last save point. Believe me, you'll need those - the game likes to have a huge piece of your ass every once in a while. You'll also find hidden Red Jewels, which there are 50 altogether. Bringing these to Gem, who is found in most inhabited areas, and hitting a certain numerical mark grants you a special item or ability. For a simple example, further boosts to your basic stats. No special weapons or anything like that, but for the last item, an optional boss to fight, and he might or might not be someone you know from the earlier games. Neat.

The three heroes and the boss lady.
Actually, you can't change your weapons at all, so yes, you'll have to do with Will's flute. Yes, I said flute. A flute is a very dear item to any hardcore Zelda fan, but to me it spells out something I prefer not to say out loud. Oh, well. You attack with A, use an item with B, and use Will's telekinetic power to move objects with L and R. In time, you'll learn new abilities at particular save points - which makes finding each one extremely important - and they are used with combinations of these buttons. The item system is still quite retarded; once again, you use an item by going into the menu and linking an item to the B button, but at least this time the item menu's only one button press away, and at least this time you can carry multiple items of the same type. Also, there are no armour pieces to annoyingly vacate the item slot. However, the medical herb has a whole new problem linked to it; if you use it at the brink of death while getting mauled by an enemy, you will die, 'cause it takes a moment to load. There's really no right time for it, especially not in boss fights which range from incredibly easy (the sandworm ripped straight off A Link to the Past) to incredibly hard (the final boss). Magic or special physical abilities take time to load as well, but at least they blast straight forward this time.

I said you'll have to do with the flute, but would I like the game if it was that simple? Probably not. Quite early on at another particular save point, Will goes through a metamorphosis and changes into a pumped up knight with a long-ass sword called Freedan. Freedan has high power and range, which make him a very essential "friend" to have along on dungeon crawls, but he lacks Will's special talents (in the beginning, it's always the case of the fucking flute), which means that you can't just go bashing everyone's face in using Freedan all the time, but need to go back to the save point or sometimes, just wait for the game's decision to revert him back to Will. There's another alternative character that steps in much, much later, who's even better, and once you finally get to play as this character, you will find it very tough to be forced to go back to your own self.

I burned a guy alive. With my flute. I'm awesome.
Another thing that I truly like about this game - but which can be one of its most enfuriating elements depending on the surroundings - is that it's a constant puzzle, a true one. The dark side of the puzzle lies in the confusing level design. I'm not a huge fan of deliberate, warpzone-ridden mazes in games that promote exploration, never have been since I have such crappy sense of direction (which is just one of the hundred reasons I don't own a car), and this game has one of the worst I've ever suffered through to annoy you. What could be done in an hour takes three from me. The game also takes a turn for the overwhelmingly cryptic every once in a while. But alas, the game does pay back, with traditional and dare I say, surprisingly clever puzzles, and I also like the initially stumping parts where the very simple solution usually lies in exploring the talent of each playable character. It's like poor man's Lost Vikings.

As a whole, Illusion of Gaia is an entertaining and challenging game for any 16-bit RPG and/or adventure game enthusiast. You just have to fine-tune your receivers a little. The writers were very likely high as kites while scripting this game, it's extremely linear and the "cutscenes" are drawn way out of proportion, and it's really confusing at times altogether, but it's also an effortlessly accessible game for the RPG newbie, and the combat's simple and paced really well. I think that in the end, the game plays out slightly better than Soul Blazer... but has nothing on the final game in Quintet's SNES trilogy.

+ Easy access
+ Good combat mechanics, with a clever development system directly tied to the combat
+ Some clever puzzles
+ Another unique story with a lot of real world history tied in...

- ...However, it is told very poorly; the dialogue is uncomfortable to read with the third-person narrative mixed in, it's dumb anyway, and finally, long, linear and sometimes cryptic sequences ruin every remaining ounce of enjoyment
- Very confusing level design, partly caused by the graphical limitations (ie. dimensional differences)
- Item management is still a huge problem - although an update to what we had to suffer through in Soul Blazer

< 7.9 >