maanantai 24. maaliskuuta 2014

REVIEW - Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes | PS3 | 2014

GENRE(S): Action / Stealth
RELEASED: March 18, 2014
AVAILABLE ON: PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
DEVELOPER(S): Kojima Productions

Six years ago, Solid Snake finally ended the reign of the Patriots and said goodbye to his father and once greatest rival Big Boss, before retiring from his life as a soldier to live out his last days in peace. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was a definite conclusion to Solid Snake's story, but creator Hideo Kojima - who has claimed just about every Metal Gear game to be his last - was far from telling Big Boss' story, and how he became what he was. 2010 saw the release of a critically acclaimed PSP game called Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker - another handheld game based on tactical operations and micromanagement; it was most essentially about building your own army. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is to take the Peace Walker formula to the big league, and much further with a whole new game engine and open-world possibilities. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes serves as a prologue to the upcoming The Phantom Pain, and a direct sequel to Peace Walker, a conclusion to that game if you will. Practically, it's a demo of the new FOX engine, and a taste of things to come. That's how it should be treated instead of a game... and so far, it hasn't. I've got to admit, it's hard.

Rush hour

Kiefer Sutherland : Big Boss
Robin Atkin Downes : Kazuhira Miller
James Horan : Skull Face
Tara Strong : Paz Ortega Andrade
Antony Del Rio : Chico Libre
Christopher Randolph : Huey Emmerich

Big Boss infiltrates a black site in Cuba to extract his allies, Paz and Chico, who have been imprisoned and violently interrogated by Skull Face, the leader of a mysterious military organization dubbed XOF. Unbeknownst to Boss and his most trusted comrade Kaz, the extremely cruel, intelligent and resourceful Skull Face has prepared for any rescue attempt; mission failure is inevitable.

Kept us waiting, huh?
Metal Gear - so good to have it back after Metal Gear Rising, a game that is still just gathering dust on my shelf, practically still in plastic wrap. I reviewed Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots four years ago, and back then, and lots of times since, I have constantly called it the "end" of Metal Gear. I really thought that it was the end-all game of the series. I thought Kojima would be done with Big Boss, too, but obviously he likes the character so much, even so much more than he ever liked Solid Snake, that I guess he won't be done with him until he's squeezed out absolutely everything out of him. I think Big Boss could be easily called the lead character of the whole series, since once The Phantom Pain comes out, he has appeared at some capacity in a total of nine main series games - whereas his son has only appeared in five, and will probably never return (though in Kojima's surreal universe, everything's possible...) In Ground Zeroes, it's the year 1975. In The Phantom Pain, it will be 1984. That leaves 11 years between the events of The Phantom Pain and the first Metal Gear game, so do I think we'll have a Metal Gear Solid 6? Or 7? I find it very likely, yes. But, we'll have to see what The Phantom Pain is all about, first, before we can be sure.

Ground Zeroes merely scratches the surface - if you're an experienced Metal Gear player, you will most certainly want to beat this mission in various different ways, and you're allowed to do that. A casual player who just zooms through the story and might not be familiar with the series, will probably be left wondering what the hell's so incredible about Metal Gear, and why in the hell did he pay 30 bucks for a demo. You might've heard Ground Zeroes lasts for two hours - nah, more like ONE hour. The series that was once known for very complex, but rewarding stealth gameplay, has now taken a turn to a much simpler action game with much less advanced features. You have no camouflage, and no classically cheap ways to distract enemies, for example - you can't throw stuff around or knock on walls. You can sneak through this mission if you want, by merely staying out of enemy sight the best you can, but you aren't really punished if you decide to take the easy way out and kill everyone. In fact, it's more fun to shoot guys than do this quietly. Fun, and even lucrative if you're going for all collectibles, but considering the brand name, it feels wrong. I'm guessing that The Phantom Pain is going to be chocked with all sorts of advanced features, judging by the gameplay videos, but none of them are really on show here. It feels like a mission in Peace Walker, only with (much) better enemy A.I., and naturally, better controls. The thing I'm most amazed about? It doesn't even look that fancy.

Though I'm kinda thankful for it - or at least my bank account is - I've no idea why they decided to make seventh-generation versions of both parts of the game, 'cause it's obvious they didn't really put their hearts into it. Ground Zeroes looks decent enough on the PS3, but Guns of the Patriots is six years old and it still looks better, in fact it's no less than one of the best-looking games on the PS3! Of course you'd expect the sequel to look better, especially when we're virtually talking about a technical demo that's supposed to stun you in every possible way. It's very dark and rough around the edges, and the background textures blur from time to time. Facial animation is simply superb, though, and this brings me to the incredible characters and voice acting. Every actor from Peace Walker reprises his or her role; not only do they nail 'em perfectly, but their transition from comic book characters to dynamic CGI characters makes them feel so much more alive and interesting.

Tonight's forecast: heavy rain. An assload of
Every actor...? Don't think I've forgotten. In perhaps his most outrageous move ever, but one you'll most definitely see the meaning behind once you play this game, Hideo Kojima replaced David Hayter - who's voiced both Big Boss and Solid Snake since Metal Gear Solid in 1998 - with Kiefer Sutherland. Not only did Hayter's retirement piss off a lot of fans in itself, but it seems they are even more pissed about the fact that he's replaced by Sutherland who will most likely make a Jack Bauer out of their beloved character. Well, in a way that's true, even Bauer's trademark "Damn it!" comes up, but let's face one truth here. The Phantom Pain is probably meant to be a really dramatic, cinematic experience, Ground Zeroes already is one - this series has always been known for its cinematics, and Ground Zeroes takes that side of the franchise to a whole new sphere. It's all way more balanced, though. In earlier games, there was a cutscene or two coming up after each two steps. Here, there's a lengthy cutscene in the beginning and another one at the end; everything in between is clean, uninterrupted gameplay. That's good, really good - I'm guessing anyone will appreciate that, be they long-time fans or people who are not really familiar with the series and have always thought of it as less of a game and more of a movie. Anyway, what I meant to say was, that it's high time Big Boss got a REAL voice actor. Hayter was comfortable and good at what was asked of him, but we're heading to a really dark and dramatic phase in the series timeline where that comfortable and familiar, all-purpose gravelly gargle just ain't enough - it needs more emotion and determination, and if Ground Zeroes is a sign of things to come, I think Kiefer Sutherland will turn out more than a handy substitute for the legendary David Hayter.

So basically, Ground Zeroes is like the intro mission in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, released as a retail game. Even the objective's the same: extracting a P.O.W. from foreign soil. In this case, two of them. If you haven't played Peace Walker yet, I suggest you at least try the game out, 'cause storywise, Ground Zeroes is really hard to follow if you don't, and will most likely feel really detached from the timeline to you, not just by terms of gameplay. Initially, I was kinda sad I never had time to finish Peace Walker, now I'm not so sure if I even want to 'cause I know what happens in it and the characters play out their parts so much better in this CGI environment. To be completely frank, I think now they _matter_. However, beating the intro mission in Snake Eater probably took you much longer than it takes you to beat the whole of Ground Zeroes' main campaign, first and foremost 'cause the FOX engine is so simple. Gone are the classic pause-action item and weapon menus - you simply choose weapons with the digital pad like in so many other modern action games. Two different weapons of the same type (one-handed, two-handed, explosive) can be stocked at the same time, and you can choose between two different weapons by holding down the corresponding button on the digital pad. You can use binoculars at any time by pressing the right trigger button, and by pressing left on the digital pad you can use items; only night vision goggles are available in this part of the game, though. Boss' (or Snake's) health regenerates automatically over time, but if things get really sticky, you need to find a safe place on the field to lay low and apply some of your endless supply of first-aid spray. Doesn't sound too familiar, huh? Well, get ready for an even further sideway stroll. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes isn't quite the Metal Gear you knew.

Before the breakdown, I'll tell you about the iDroid, which is Boss' personal terminal for all sorts of information, including map and mission data - and like you could use the iPod in Guns of the Patriots to listen to music, you can also use the iDroid to play... cassette tapes. Tapes recorded by different characters and tapes which contain musical tracks are found as collectibles, and you can also play up to ten of your own tracks from the hard drive (about as much songs that fit on a 60-minute tape). There's another hitch, right there... for some God damn reason, at least the PS3 version won't let you pick the tracks yourself. I have something like 250 songs on my hard drive, and the game won't give me the option to browse through the list like most games with custom soundtracks do; it just picks them at random. Let's just say that Cannibal Corpse's "Hammer Smashed Face" suddenly blasting through the speakers doesn't really help my concentration. As if the game really requires it that much.

The side ops bring in lots of wanted variety.
Yeah, so at least Ground Zeroes is not really a stealth game. You can tell by the nature of the equipment at your disposal, alone - and despite Boss' general movement being so straightforward and less stealthy, the combat mechanics are definitely buttered up from last time. CQC works much quicker and smoother, and if you're discovered by a single enemy, the screen goes to Reflex Mode - in other words, slow motion - which you can use to your advantage and pull a quick headshot before the guard's able to alert others. Of course they're still attracted by the sound of gunfire, but if you're quick about it, you can pick up the body, and in this dark and rainy environment, you don't need to carry it all that far to make a whole bunch of guys think they're just hearing things. First I used the vintage tactic of just tranquilizing everyone I could from afar, but it turned out a really slow and awkward tactic here, as I simply couldn't avoid some serious fights. I think this game was designed so that you couldn't get through it without killing at least one dude. It's not impossible, but it's really hard to resist the temptation. Especially since there are no essential rewards to be had in the main campaign for being a nice guy, and long-distance sneaking past guards while having someone on your shoulders is really frustrating.

I've got to admit that I played through this game a lot quicker than probably any game I've really looked forward to for a long time. I just felt that maybe I should just check it out and leave the perfect run for whenever The Phantom Pain comes out, 'cause you tend to lose your touch to Metal Gear games if you leave them be for too long. Well, Ground Zeroes ain't like that, it's easy to access, and I'll probably go on a perfectionist's round pretty soon - it won't take long. This round includes finding all collectibles, and a Trophy hunt for the very few Trophies this game has - none of which seem too hard to get, either. I think the most boring task that lies ahead of me is rescuing all the prisoners in the camp; it's something a perfectionist just has to do. I'm guessing rescuing prisoners in The Phantom Pain will help you with the construction and maintenance of the Mother Base like it did in Peace Walker, here there is no Mother Base - therefore, there really ain't nothing to the rescue except a lousy Bronze Trophy for a certain prisoner whose identity I believe to be randomly generated. The whole P.O.W. extraction thing in Ground Zeroes probably has no effect on The Phantom Pain, either - Kojima hasn't really commented on that - I guess they just wanted to show how the system works. Which is ironic, 'cause extracting people is what you're doing in the first place; they didn't need an optional side mission to show it off.

The way this works is that you carry a prisoner down to a landing zone, summon a helicopter with your iDroid, and then... you wait. Sometimes, for really long periods of time, for a chopper to come, and then wait for a little more for it to actually land. The landing zones are marked on your map as red or white circles, depending on their threat level, and there's a total of three in the whole camp, making the last trip to the nearest landing zone a particularly tedious one, as it's the same long distance away from every damn zone. At this point, I had already extracted three optional prisoners, and the first mandatory one, and I was really eager to do something else for a change and see what else this game had to offer. So I simply blasted through everyone I saw, and just ran towards the landing zone with maximum speed with that second and last mandatory P.O.W. on my shoulders. What I got in return was one of the best damn cutscenes I've ever seen... and the credits. WHAT?! It's over?! I knew this game was short, but... damn. Just... damn.

Driving vehicles is not the most fresh new
addition to the Metal Gear experience, but a
neat one, I guess.
Well, now that I've spent tens of minutes just bashing this game, I think it's high time to go to the good parts, and why I'm still shitting my pants out of excitement for The Phantom Pain. Like I said, the ending, I liked it very much - I think people are so critical about the ending 'cause it's so predictable, it doesn't really tell us anything new. After all, we've watched the trailers for The Phantom Pain, we know the basics of what happens in the end of Ground Zeroes. Still, to me, it's a treat to watch how it actually comes together, and the acting's just so spot-on, we might be in for the best cinematics in the already colourful history of Metal Gear, even if this version of a dying generation isn't quite of the "end of an era" type of technical quality we expected. The most important upside to Ground Zeroes is its variety of side ops, the first of which are unlocked after your first playthrough - the others are unlocked when certain criteria is met. These side ops go to show what could potentially make The Phantom Pain a great game; although they all take place in the exact same level as the main mission, they're all completely different from it, and each other. They go to demonstrate the FOX engine's possibilities a little further, by showing off how the day/night cycle affects gameplay, and how important stealth can actually be in the long run, among other things. It's the same level, yes, but it feels like a different one on each mission. Stick around for a side op called "Deja Vu". If you're a long-time fan initially kinda disappointed in Ground Zeroes and really doubtful of The Phantom Pain, there's a good chance your heart will be won by this one.

The bottom line is, you can't really live without this small - not to mention cheap - bundle of joy. It's not really the Metal Gear you grew up with, and it ends long before you get the slightest chance to really get comfortable with it, but don't let the staleness of the main campaign get you down. Go for the collectibles, trials, and the side ops, and I think you'll walk away happy, and in huge excitement to see what's next for Boss. Weighing and comparing Ground Zeroes' notable downs with its just as notable ups leads me to the conclusion that we might be in for a great game in the main course. Whenever that one comes out - hopefully soon.

+ Great characters who totally dominate their previous incarnations in Peace Walker, and superb voice acting updated to current standards; Kiefer Sutherland's arrival to the scene is a blessing after all (My friend's honest reaction to when he first heard that Boss is now voiced by Sutherland: "Damn it!" :D )
+ Great story with a bone-chilling start, and an explosive ending - literally
+ More weight on gameplay than ever before in the whole Metal Gear Solid series; even the radio conversations take place in real time. Shows great promise, be the main mission as disappointing as it may.
+ Good, diverse side ops, with treats for long-time fans
+ Simplified, and somewhat more responsive combat mechanics...

- ...Too bad the game itself feels too simplified, and much less of a stealth game with the removal of helpful stealth abilities and items, including camouflage; I'm guessing this doesn't quite reflect on the main game though, as we've seen him wearing all sorts of different clothes in gameplay videos for The Phantom Pain
- Disappointing visuals
- Stale (and short) campaign; extraction is boring in itself - most of all waiting for that damn chopper to arrive - and that's what it's all about
- All-around left hand design and programming for this PS3 version

< 7.5 >

keskiviikko 19. maaliskuuta 2014

Ode to the 7th

He's swooping on the screen one more time courtesy of the
Arkham series. I wasn't that excited before, but the trailer
convinced me otherwise. Enough for me to buy a new console.
Yesterday, on March 19th, 2014, I pre-ordered Batman: Arkham Knight. This marks the first pre-order I've placed for a PlayStation 4 game (for the record, I don't even have a PS4 yet). Tomorrow, two highly anticipated games are released in this part of the world and yours truly is out to get 'em both fresh out of the oven. The first is Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, and the other is Final Fantasy X | X-2 HD Remaster. If you count out the rest of Metal Gear Solid V released at a later date, subtitled The Phantom Pain, due to the fact that it's part of the same game as Ground Zeroes, you could say that getting these games marks my very last, _new_ video game purchases of the seventh generation. While I'm sure that the development of games for the PS3 and Xbox 360 - digital releases in particular - will continue for a long time, we've reached the end of an era. Lucky for us gamers, it's been a glorious, nearly decade-long ride.

In their constant, steadily streaming development, the PS3 and Xbox 360 have outlived all consoles ever made to date, even their direct competition - ever since the late 90's and the rise of the PlayStation, Nintendo's been just way too stubborn to make it in the modern world of gaming. While it's highly respectable to go your own path, it's a solid fact that you need way more than respect to keep your product afloat; I think no developer particularly wants to make adult-oriented action games for a console that's known for family-friendly adventures. No one into those adult-oriented action games wants to buy a Wii for just a couple of random afterthoughts released on the Wii for the heck of it. And finally, I think a whole bunch of Grade-A games available on other platforms outweigh one Zelda or Mario game, be they as good as they may. The Wii had its moments, and I never claimed I wouldn't accept a Wii into my collection if offered. For a while, I even seriously thought about getting a Wii U instead of a PS4 or an Xbox One, partly to mindfuck my friends and partly to take a brief break from the cursing, killing and other forms of graphic violence with much lighter entertainment than I was accustomed to. And, ever since my hard decision of not to buyback the SNES - which is kinda absurd knowing my feelings towards the SNES, I know, it's kinda hard to explain - I thought that it would be great to have a next-generation console with the possibility of downloading and playing my whole SNES library from days of old. I ultimately digressed.

Just look at all of the potentially great things to come to the PS4 and One. Wii U doesn't stand a chance - its greatest third-party draw at the moment is an exclusive sequel to Bayonetta. Woo-hoo. Sure, Bayonetta was a good game, but not nearly good enough to spin my head around. Besides, what made Bayonetta such a standout game? SEX. While I do believe Nintendo - who are publishing this game themselves - understood that, I doubt they'll let Platinum Games make the exact type of game they want to make. Finally, whether it was published by Nintendo or not, I highly doubt the game will remain a Wii U exclusive for very long. Assuming it even succeeds, of course.

We have the aforementioned Batman: Arkham Knight coming up. When asked when I was going to buy a PS4 - I was always on PS4's side against One, at least by terms of prioritization - I simply answered "when there's a good game coming up". Well, there have been good PS4 releases already, but nothing I wouldn't be able to enjoy to the fullest on the PS3 or the Xbox 360. Now we've got a raging climax for one of the best game franchises of the last decade coming up strictly for the PS4, One and very likely one powerhouse of a PC. Sure, the last game wasn't quite as awesome as its couple of predecessors, but it was made by completely different people. Here we have Kevin Conroy back as Batman, and a Rocksteady team back at the helm with Sefton Hill as lead designer. Hush and Scarecrow, both of whom have been on the run for quite some time in the Arkham universe, will probably finally refill the main villain slot vacated by the Joker thus far - although I'm sure the Clown Prince of Crime will make a notable appearance, just positive - and what we've seen thus far, this game is going to be both gigantic in size and phenomenal in look. And, it's said that it's going to be the absolute conclusion to the Arkham series. Can we afford to expect something relatively as grand as Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises? I think we can!

She's coming back.
It seems that BioWare is going for a complete facelift and a search for their roots with Dragon Age: Inquisition, after a long string of insults relating to the latest installments in two of their biggest franchises, and for being EA's bitches. The little you might or might not have seen of Dragon Age: Inquisition looks amazing, a perfect mix of the whole package that was Dragon Age: Origins and the few things that were truly great about Dragon Age II, complete with a huge technical overhaul; what the last two games lacked in the audiovisual department, Dragon Age: Inquisition seems to pay back in full, and then some.

These two games are almost within our grasp, and that is why I'll leave other upcoming, merely announced releases out of the discussion for now. As to why I decided to promote these games in the first place, and what they've got to do with the subject at hand... they're both installments in huge franchises that kicked off during the seventh generation. I think the time is quite ripe to go over my personal history with the PS3 and Xbox 360, and how this generation of video gaming affected my interest in video games, promoting me from a relatively casual player to a collector and critic.

To be frank, my sudden infatuation with writing video game reviews had nothing to do with modern gaming. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing reviews, way before I decided to establish this blog, I thought of only writing reviews of games from the third to the fourth generations. I felt that games had gotten way too big to be reviewed thoroughly, and games in particular genres way too alike, both gameplay- and quality-wise, to be interesting to write about for too long. It all changed when I started to look at modern games differently through the eye of a critic, and as I broadened my horizons to riskier purchases, games I didn't really know all that much about. As I said, I wasn't really a collector back then - my financial situation and relationship back then didn't allow such a "childish" hobby - and actually all of the PS2 and PS3 games I had back then were purchases that were carefully thought out, or budget games. Which I buy VERY rarely nowadays, by the way. I looked at these games differently, but I still didn't want to write about 'em. But, when the time came for a Batman marathon, I couldn't pass on the opportunity to write down what I thought about Batman: Arkham Asylum. "It'll only be this one game" was never an option, never a slight thought. If I'm going to review this game, I might as well take a shot at any modern game. I thought I'd fail miserably, but on the contrary, many reviews of last generation's games are some of the best I've written. Probably always will be.

I have a feeling we'll shoot that shit up a few times more
in the future.
Two of my personal favourites out of all I've done for the blog thus far are the Star Wars and Resident Evil marathons. Star Wars, because as a video game franchise, it's so damn big and dates back as far as 1982 or 1983. There's still a lot to do, one gigantic heap of shit to scour through, if I want to succeed in my mission to play and review every Star Wars game ever made, but if I never get the chance to play and review another Star Wars game again, I consider the finished part of my mission a very successful one. It started on the NES and ended on the Xbox 360, visiting almost every major platform made in the between; it was great. Resident Evil, because it used to be one of my favourite franchises (I suppose it still is, despite its slumps); despite changing so much through the years, I always know exactly what to say about it. I always know exactly what I like about any Resident Evil game, and what I don't, being a faithful follower of the plague since the first game's European release on the PlayStation. And once again, we have a trip that started from a crummy old (terms used loosely) PlayStation game to a cinematically adept, but less playable PlayStation 3 game. ...More's to follow, in case you're wondering... see you at the next Monster Mash...

So, from here we get to the truth: the seventh generation hasn't been all song and dance, especially not when it comes to my all-time favourite brands such as Resident Evil. The best and most obvious example is the total decline of the once great Final Fantasy. Square Enix is still rich. Why? Because they have eyes everywhere and their paws on everything. They have meddled with re-releases of successful games, such as the already often mentioned Batman: Arkham Asylum, and they've also offered to publish a couple of major reboots in the last three years alone, namely Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Tomb Raider, which were both very successful (although the sales of the latter did not seem to please 'em). Also, high-definition re-releases of their most successful games made in the last 13 years help 'em thrive - but they still won't remake that one game everyone's asking them to, and which they damn well know to sell like bread. They're telling people that they will consider remaking Final Fantasy VII after they've come up with a completely new Final Fantasy game that surpasses Final Fantasy VII in every way. Looking at what they've done to Final Fantasy in the last five years tells us that if this is the case, we can kiss our dreams of a Final Fantasy VII remake goodbye. Final Fantasy XIII was a bad game to begin with. Final Fantasy XIII-2 was slightly better, I guess, but still a direct sequel to a bad game - how's that for "interesting"? Then came A Realm Reborn, both a remake of and a sequel to the abysmal MMO, Final Fantasy XIV Online. Now this was a good game - but an MMO in a series known for immersive single player experiences driven by great stories didn't quite cut it for all fans. Then, came Lightning Returns - perhaps a decent game, but a SECOND sequel to a bad game, and yet another action game in an RPG franchise. I don't know, being 100% more excited about Kingdom Hearts and Final Fantasy X (as well as X-2) getting the HD treatment than a brand new Final Fantasy game seems kinda wrong. Especially since they're remaking everything but the one game people are asking 'em for - it's like Square Enix WANTS to piss people off.

When these HD collections and remakes of sixth-generation games first started pouring in, I thought that it was a sign of developers lacking imagination. Then, when I borrowed the first God of War Collection from a friend, I figured out a whole lot of things that were definitely right about these releases. First of all, if you have a high-definition console, you probably have a high-definition TV - and PS2 and Xbox games look like shit on those TV's. It isn't fatal, but it does a number on your interest to play the game, there's no escaping that fact. Secondly, in most cases, you get several great games from yesteryear for less than the price of one new game that might not have that much to offer to you as just one of the games in the collection. The God of War collections and the Metal Gear collection are perhaps the best examples here - though I'm still pissed of never getting that port of The Twin Snakes. Aaaaand, here's the best part of these HD collections, which has commonly been a subject of debate ever since it was first introduced on the Xbox 360 upon launch in 2005; an achievement-tracking system. "I can get Trophies from Metal Gear Solid 2 now? FFFFFFFF...!!!"

Trophies and Achievements are both the spice and scourge of modern gaming. When I bought the PS3, neither me or my neighbour and friend who also had a PS3, had any idea what Trophies were. We knew that Xbox 360 had this great system in all of its games - you accomplished something within the game, it could be anything, and you got an Achievement for it, which translated to a certain amount of points, and added up to your "Gamerscore", which you could then show off on the network. We both had the exact same pair of games on the PS3, namely Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and Grand Theft Auto IV. The Trophy tracking system was launched on the PlayStation Network some time in the summer of 2008, and neither one of these games made the launch. Then my sister bought me Buzz! Quiz TV for my birthday; I was playing the game with my girl and suddenly, there was this icon that lit up in the right corner of the screen, and told me I had "earned a Trophy". I didn't really know what it was, but never mind that, I wanted more of those! It just gave me some odd feeling of victory and accomplishment. I started to get Trophies from a few games and it was then I finally figured out that they're the exact same thing as the Achievements on the 360 - the thing was that not nearly all games supported Trophies before they came a requirement for all new games. Some choice hits, such as Metal Gear Solid 4 and Grand Theft Auto IV got Trophies through software patches later (MGS4 got 'em extremely late on, though), but many PS3 games, both exclusive and multi-platform titles were ignored for one reason or another. The potential result? No one buys those games, at least not for the PS3. Trophies have become such an essential part of a modern video game experience. In turn, games that make Trophy and Achievement hunting too easy, lack replay value. You know: if you have all the Trophies, why waste your time on a single game? Go buy another one, go for another Trophy hunt. It's sad and awesome at the same time.

PlayStation 3; launched in Europe in March 2007, bought
it in August 2008. Favourite exclusive: The Last of Us.
Finally, after all this random ranting about this and that, let's go over statistics. I bought the PS3 in early 2008, with the price at an approximate 500 €. However, since the PS3's sales simply skyrocketed due to its first true exclusive megahit Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, it was sold out everywhere. My neighbour got the last one in the whole city, and online shops were out of stock as well. I placed a pre-order in one of 'em and finally got my PS3 about three or four months later. (It's the exact same thing with the PS4 at the moment, but I'm in no rush 'til October.) By the same time next year, I had eight games in addition to those two games I got bundled with the PS3. Actually, I remember them all by name: Buzz! Quiz TV, Guitar Hero: World Tour, Guitar Hero: Metallica, Guitar Hero 5, LittleBigPlanet, Resident Evil 5, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune and WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2009. Not a collector's list, not by quality OR quantity, I know. I have even traded out two of these games, marking the last games I'll ever sell, for one brand new game in October 2009. Legend something. It had Jack Black. And Lemmy. And Ozzy. ...And it wasn't quite as good as I expected. Now, I have a total of 60 PlayStation 3 retails, 62 by the weekend. 15 of these games are currently on the GameRankings Top 50 for the PS3.

Xbox 360; launched in Europe in December 2005, bought it
six years later (to the exact day). Deciding on a favourite
exclusive is ultra-hard, 'cause it has so few. Seems I must
go with Gears of War 2 for now.
I kinda bought the Xbox 360 by complete accident in December 2011. I was getting real frustrated with my old computer that was a handover to begin with (due to its hardware problems, go figure), so I just decided to buy a new one, right then and there, and there just happened to be a limited offer in my favourite online store for a bundle of a good PC and the Xbox 360. Thinking about how nice it would be to have the Mass Effect trilogy (with Mass Effect 3's release a couple of months away) and Alan Wake on my shelf, I bought the damn thing without further thought. It turned out that the reason the console was a freebie was that it had no hard drive, just the 4 Gb memory unit that outright prevents you from playing certain games, and especially from downloading extra content. Well, I went out and bought a hard drive, even got a pre-installed game for my troubles (Lego Star Wars III, yay). Various problems emerged later, such as not being able to continue my old game of Mass Effect (which turned out a good thing, though), and the Xbox 360 didn't quite suit all my needs or meet my expectations, but I ended up buying lots of games for it (including my friend's whole 360 library for the price of eggs) and I quickly grew very fond of it. For example, newer multi-platform games are way easier to find for the Xbox 360 than the PS3, probably due to all those hi-fi freaks out there who prefer the better technical capabilities and properties of the PS3. Plus, it really doesn't matter if I had to buy a hard drive for the 360 - I've had to buy TWO for the PS3, due to the mandatory installation of gigantic games. I have 57 retail games on the Xbox 360, I've only installed a few of them by my own choice (to make 'em run smoother), and I still have well over a half of the hard drive's capacity at my disposal. 11 of these games are currently on the GameRankings Top 50 for the Xbox 360, goes to show that I've become less and less careful about what I buy nowadays. I've grown to like taking risks, and it's very often been worth it.

To wrap this up, this is how the seventh generation changed me. As a younger man, ready to get married and have children and all that, I started to think of video gaming as a time-killing tool and not much more or else. Perhaps that's why I was so easy to lure into selling games - way too easy at my worst. I watched a lot of movies, and a lot of TV as well, especially after meeting my ex-fiancee for the first time - as you've probably noticed whenever I review licensed games, I tend to talk a lot about the source, sometimes more than the game itself. There used to be a few certain franchises and types of games I would've never let go by my own will, such as RPG's. Especially any game in the Final Fantasy series, and from outside those boundaries, any Metal Gear game. You know why, above all else? The stories. Storytelling is one of the most important things in modern gaming. Retro games, they're a whole different deal. If you're honestly making an action or adventure game of any type by modern standards, you'd better have a great story - that's always a good start, whether your game will turn out shit or not. I can play a substandard game and leave it with a smile on my face if it has a good story. I might not give it a good review, and I probably will never play it again, but I'll remember it. I've no longer the interest I once had in movies. I don't watch the idiot box at all really, due to all the crap on it and due to the fact that the good stuff always pops up somewhere else for easy access sooner or later, and what I've noticed just recently is that I don't read books anymore. I just haven't been able to concentrate on 'em. No worries, 'cause I have a whole "bookshelf" full of great stories I can actually PLAY. It's become just that important - Assassin's Creed, Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire, The Last of Us, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, Uncharted... these are all games and brands from this generation, and these are all some of the greatest stories ever told. Anywhere.

In the last decade, video games might not have become my life, but I'm proud to say they've become a huge part of it. Thanks to this fine era, it will always remain one.

My Top 20 Games of the 7th Generation (does not reflect on the original rankings, or the official Top 60)

1. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
2. Mass Effect 2 (2010)
3. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011)
4. Red Dead Redemption (2010)
5. The Last of Us (2013)
6. LittleBigPlanet 2 (2011)
7. Fallout 3 (2008)
8. God of War III (2010)
9. Assassin's Creed II (2009)
10. Batman: Arkham City (2011)
11. Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
12. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009)
13. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (2008)
14. Heavy Rain (2010)
15. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch (2011)
16. Mass Effect (2007)
17. Rock Band 2 (2008)
18. Dead Space (2008)
19. Tomb Raider (2013)
20. Mortal Kombat (2011)

Without a shadow of a doubt,
Grand Theft Auto V was this generation's
killer app.

maanantai 17. maaliskuuta 2014

REVIEW - South Park: The Stick of Truth | Xbox 360 | 2014

RELEASED: March 4, 2014
DEVELOPER(S): Obsidian Entertainment, South Park Digital Studios

First question: does anyone even remember when they started making this game? Second question: did anyone ever REALLY come to think that this game might turn out good? Let's go back to August 13th, 1997. Based on an animated short now cult among fans, and a second one which is considered the pilot episode, Trey Parker and Matt Stone unleashed South Park on Comedy Central with the first episode called "Cartman Gets an Anal Probe", which was an instant hit, and is still regarded one of the best episodes in the show's colourful history. 17 years later, the all-rule-breaking cartoon continues to thrive and stay fresh thanks to its timely humour and extreme audacity, both of which know less bounds as time goes by - as Parker and Stone have often said, "if you aren't allowed to make fun of something, what's the point in making comedy?" Existing for almost as long as the show itself, is an array of bad games that are not only bad by standards of gameplay, but games that completely lack the show's look and atmosphere, and have only been made to cash in on the brand name, and none of which have had Parker and Stone's direct involvement. An RPG completely written by Parker and Stone, partly based on the success of a 2002 episode named "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers", was announced to be in development by Obsidian Entertainment, fairly fresh off Fallout: New Vegas, in 2011. After the first official trailer was launched in late 2012, it was announced that publisher THQ had filed for bankruptcy. Ubisoft bought the rights to the game in early 2013, but could not nail down a specific date for the release - except that it would be out in late 2013... when it was announced the game would be delayed again due to censorship issues, among other things. Well... believe it or not, but after all the countless delays, even frustratingly noted by Parker and Stone on the show, here it is - it's called South Park: The Stick of Truth, and it is more than you could've ever dreamed of. It's fucking awesome.

Definitely gonna have myself a time

Trey Parker : Grand Wizard (Eric Cartman) / Stan Marshwalker (Stan Marsh) / Various
Matt Stone : High Jew Elf Kyle (Kyle Broflovski) / Princess Kenny (Kenny McCormick) / Butters the Merciful (Butters Stotch) / Various
Mona Marshall : Sheila Broflovski / Linda Stotch
April Stewart : Wendy Testaburger / Liane Cartman / Carol McCormick / Mayor McDaniels / Sharon Marsh / Shelley Marsh / Principal Victoria

You are the "New Kid", a 9-year old boy fresh off a move to South Park, struggling to become cool by making tons of friends on Facebook, and getting entangled in a war between the humans led by Grand Wizard Cartman, and the drow elves, led by High Jew Elf Kyle; a bloody war for the most sacred artifact in the history of fantasy gaming, the Stick of Truth. ...Too simple, you say? Enter Nazi zombies, aliens, Crab People, Underpants Gnomes, Jesus, Mr. Hankey and family, Terrance and Phillip, Big Bad Government Guy, Mr. Slave with a thermonuclear device (plus mounts of other stuff) up his ass, and just about everyone and everything else that ever made your trip to South Park a nice one.

South Park premiered in Finland on October 7th, 1999. Since that fateful Thursday night, I've been a humongous South Park fan - I would even go as far as to rank it my second favourite TV show in history, right after Twin Peaks. (Kinda ironic that they're both completely different shows set in "quiet" little mountain towns, huh?) I was in the 9th grade, and I had never even heard of South Park. One of my classmates was like "Hey, you know what happens tonight? South Park airs, baby, yeah!", and I was like "Dude, what the fuck is South Park?", and he goes "It's the best fucking show ever!", just like any of the kids on the show would describe anything slightly above standard. So, I sat down to watch the pilot episode with my brother, and we both laughed 'til our asses bled, straight from the first couple of lines. Sure, if you want to be snippy about it, we already had The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-head, two animated shows that used to be referred to as crude toilet humour, but never anything like South Park - nothing as brutal and honest. If Parker and Stone happened to offend someone, they responded by making the next episode positively worse than the last. While The Simpsons has long since run out of semi-decent jokes, Beavis and Butt-head has lost all its anarchistic appeal with the times, and even Family Guy suffers from season-long slumps every now and then, South Park just tramples on (despite its admittable share of really bad episodes), 'cause it quickly improves from mistakes and stays with the times. 17 years and counting... and now we finally have a game that reaches that level of entertainment - a perfect mix of a love letter to long-time South Park fans all around the world (except Germany and Australia, where the game is banned altogether for good reasons), and humorous insight on modern trends. Just what you'd expect from a game that was probably aimed for the show's 15th anniversary. There's more to it, though - cinematically, it's just like one long-ass South Park episode. And, if that isn't enough of a hook, let me tell you it's a great role-playing game too - if you're a South Park fan and ever liked comical RPG's such as the Mario RPG's (Paper Mario and Mario & Luigi in particular), you should wait no longer. I'm going to tell you a bit about it, but I'd probably never forgive myself if I spoiled too much. So I'll try to be careful.

Your house. You're not allowed to come home
'til you've made some friends on Facebook.
The graphics are fantastically crappy; the game is just like South Park down to the last detail, it adapts the cut-out animation style of the show and does it perfectly, complete with the occasional CGI effects that've been featured on the show for several seasons, as well as some special effects created specifically for the game to spoof the role-playing genre. Even the world map is a faithful recreation of the town of South Park, at least up 'til the fifth or sixth season of the show, with hotspots such as Stark's Pond, the school and Kenny's house ("in the ghettooooo") definitely in the game and just where they should be. The game also sounds like South Park to the last detail, and features some genuinely good music, ranging from epic fantasy score to classics such as "Kyle's Mom Is a Bitch", "Sexual Harassment Panda", "Blame Canada", Chef's old pillow tunes and finally, even songs from Parker and Stone's other works such as Team America. When it comes to who makes an appearance in the game and who doesn't, let's just say I can't think of many popular characters from the show's history that don't at some capacity, even if it's just a barely noticeable reference, a mention in the dialogue or a song clip or whatever; some of them deserve screen time or more of it, but I guess they just didn't fit and I'm perfectly happy with what we've got here. 'Cause we've got plenty.

Let's concentrate on what's key, first. South Park: The Stick of Truth isn't supposed to be the biggest RPG there ever was, far from it. Don't go expecting a gigantic, fully open world complete with full customization of your character and tons of hotspots to explore. Even one of the modern RPG's biggest draws, dare I say requirements, crafting, is totally ousted; and that's something I can't come up with any excuse for, since there's so much junk to be collected that I totally expected some sort of an item-crafting or alchemy feature to pop up at some point. You can modify your weapons and armour with different badges and stickers, and even dye 'em to match your favourite colours, but that's it; you can't make anything yourself. The "world" is the town of South Park, nothing less and very little more - though you'll find that very little is plenty, just wait 'til you see it. Character customization is very minimal, but on the other hand, how you design your South Park avatar in the beginning of the game is just a start. You can't choose your gender or age, there's not much you can do to your face (this is South Park, after all) and there are very few other options, such as hair and clothes, available in the beginning, but you get more wigs and make-up all the time. But, as one of the loading screens says, if no amount of wigs or make-up can patch up your broken self-esteem, you can always head to the nose clinic and get yourself hoffalized. Everyone's happy, wouldn't you say? What you gotta remember though, is that looking like the Hoff doesn't mean you can swim or sing like the Hoff. I kinda swirled off the task at hand here - usually happens when we're talking about David Hasselhoff - what I was supposed to say is that South Park's got something other games have not. An endless pool of the most crude and sexual toilet humour ever seen in any other game. Thought the movie was over the top in this sense? Or the last few seasons of the show? No... this is the climax of everything South Park ever stood for. Parker and Stone have got a whole lot of work to do if they want to keep the show on the air, and up to this standard. When it comes to simply making you laugh, this game is fucking merciless. It should come as no surprise that the game does not have one serious moment in its approximate 15-17 hours of total length, but what might, is that there's not one bad joke in the whole game. There are some who might disagree, but I highly doubt those people are interested in the game to begin with.

Now how did we get here?
Like most episodes of the show, South Park: The Stick of Truth has two separate, but equally funny and surreal stories, which bind together one way or another towards the end of the game, and just like in Skyrim - the main course here when it comes to video game parody - your character is a mysterious "hero" that practically appears out of nowhere, and finds himself "destined" to find a conclusion to both conflicts. The kids' story is about a role-playing game which they're taking just a bit too seriously, with elves led by King Kyle and humans by Grand Wizard Cartman fighting for the Stick of Truth, which in actuality... is just a wooden stick, that however is the key to the game's conclusion in one way or another. I won't go into too much details, but let's just say right now that the game is very linear. You get to make some small decisions which do not however have ANY major weight on how the story will ultimately play out. Even the lines are the same, they're just spoken by a different person. And, no matter how much you'd like to stay on one side throughout the game, you must work for both factions, starting with the humans who teach you everything you need to know five minutes into the game. Cartman will immediately make a sarcastic note if you choose the oddball class of "Jew" - which I believe most players will, just for curiosity, the other classes being as mundane as Fighter, Mage and Thief - but doesn't give you as much shit for it as I expected, after all you're probably a good choice for handling the faction's finances.

The other story that eventually combines with the kids' fantasy game is about the government trying to mask an UFO crash in the South Park Mall as the construction of a new Taco Bell restaurant - which gets harder on the go as an alien substance is turning every organic being into primal, brainless, flesh-eating... Nazis. There are quests related to both stories throughout the whole game, and of course, a few fun errands for sidequests, including a vintage mark hunt ordered by Jimbo and Ned. With a rare item or two in almost every single screen of the game, obtainable with certain story upgrades, it doesn't matter how long it takes you to beat South Park: The Stick of Truth - you'll never be still, not for a moment. Except when someone's poking something up your ass. Perhaps then you should. Suck it in, walk it off - it's just the world these people live in.

Those hobos have gotta go.
Although the tutorial of the game claims that you cannot use specific equipment or talents if you're in a specific class, that's not true at all. You can use any armour or weapons regardless of class, you always carry two weapons (melee and ranged), and you inevitably learn four different magic spells crucial to your progress in time. More specifically, powerful farts only a true Dragonborn can perform - and to serve as mana potions, you have burritos, beans, broccoli and whatever else you can think of that might have a wanted effect on your bowel movement. However, consuming too many of these "potions" will literally make you shit your pants and lose all your mana. The classes essentially differ in their variety of special abilities, simply dubbed "Powers", which use the blue Power Meter instead of the green Mana Meter. Each class has totally different Powers, and it's fun to see what they do, especially since even though you eventually have a Fighter and a Mage at your disposal as party members, their Powers are completely different from yours even if you're in one of those classes. Just to mention a few examples of your character's abilities, you may play a round of Roshambo with an enemy as a Fighter (fans will know), and perform an impromptu circumcision on an enemy as a Jew. Ouch. Either way, the classes are way too indifferent for immediate replay value. I took the game for a second round right away because of the errands, collectables and minor jokes I might've missed, not for a forcibly different gameplay experience. Might as well come out straight with the fact that the game will "continue" after the credits have rolled, but you won't be able to access all areas. Many collectables must be found on the first (and only) visit to certain places, which is a total drag for Achievement enthusiasts and perfectionists, especially in a game that otherwise supports the Metroidvania style. The post-credits game is more of an opportune DLC gap than anything else.

The game has a day/night cycle, which however is only active during the main quest - which lasts for three days. During the day, you have infinite time to explore and again, if you're aiming to collect everything in the game, you should do that right away - there'll be no second chances at the worst, not even on another day. During the day, you also enjoy the full benefits from your party members. At nights, you'll have to deal with mythical creatures of the night all by yourself in special levels not accessible from the world map, kind of like to challenge your experience level and make you see if you're equipped and experienced well enough.

Regular combat level pretty much equals to yours, as per usual in modern RPG's, but some bosses are really tough shit, not just for low levels but certain classes that lack certain types of Powers. If you've played those Mario RPG's I mentioned earlier, you will find the combat system really familiar, simple and comfortable. All available commands are laid out around your characters in a circular fashion. You use the left analog stick to choose the command, and a different minigame determines the success of each command except for the use of items, even standard attacks. By leveling up, you can upgrade your Powers, making the related minigames a bit more complicated but the Powers all the more effective. After learning your first magic fart, you can spice up any standard attack with a bit of gas, raising the effectiveness of the attack and often leaving your enemy grossed out (poisoned) by the cut cheese. You can also use any magic fart you learn by itself in battle; each fart has a special feature in addition to the gross-out effect, which might make up for something your chosen class generally lacks. What I'm trying to say is that you can win this game, no matter how you go at it. There are tough moments, but you will easily learn from your mistakes. Just sit back, understand the point of this ride and enjoy it.

Humans against the world.
Summons are most definitely in the game as well, but as the summonable characters themselves point out, they're only summonable once per day each, and won't go head to head with bosses, each for their own reasons. At some points of the game, you might find yourself in a single, semi-regular battle you're not ready for, and at these points, the summons come in very handy. There are four different summons, all acquirable through four different, simple sidequests. What you've got to remember is that each time you use a summon, you need to wait 'til the next day and seek that character out again to re-acquire his services. Might sound tedious, but if you had constant and unlimited access to the summons, you'd be done with this game in record time, and would probably miss a lot of its glamour. Same goes for one of your buddies who joins the party in a thankfully late part of the game, and is therefore only available for a very limited period of time.

One of the major keys to success is making friends on Facebook. Conquering every part of the main quest, every sidequest and some secrets, even just walking down the street and talking to everyone, result in a friend request or two, or a whole bulk of 'em at a time. The more friends you have, the more perks you have. Unlike in many RPG's that have a perk system, each perk is unlocked from the beginning. These include the standard stuff - an increase in maximum HP/MP/PP, resistance to certain types of illnesses, and all that. Just like you won't be able to get all upgrades within the confines of the game, you can't have all the perks, and you can't cancel 'em out either - but there's nothing you can't live without.

I guess I've run out of things to point out - there's no need to go over fast travel politics or how the Metroidvania schtick presents itself 'cause I would inevitably have to spoil a few key moments of the game in telling you about some of the abilities besides the farts. (Yeah, you need 'em for field work as well.) I guess I could tell you about the collectables before I head to wrap this up. There are 30 Chinpokomon toys hidden throughout the game, some in those secluded locations you can't visit beyond that one time; missed one on my first round, so heads up for those... each solid piece of equipment (weapons and armour, not the upgrades) found on the field or bought from a merchant counts as a collectable, as does every Facebook friend. This is South Park, so don't go thinking Facebook is just for humans; some of the friends are very well hidden, and some characters who won't speak to you on the first day, might like to have a word with you at a later time. Yet, this once more, it's occasionally kinda difficult to find the right time to do certain stuff, and you're punished by not being given the chance to correct your mistake. Not very Metroidvania- or RPG-like, and perhaps the greatest flaw of an otherwise fantastic game.

Learning the (f)art of war.
Out of the 50 Achievements of the game, a total of 13 are related to the number two, and most of the secret Achievements require you to dress in a certain way in certain battles. Both types of Achievements are the most frustrating types in a game that is otherwise really easy to complete, Achievement-wise - but we do need something for instant replay value beyond the humour and smooth gameplay, 'cause the game really is THAT straightforward. So I don't have much gripes with the Achievements, the secret ones are outright impossible to figure out without a guide though. I mean, who the hell will think of dressing up as a girl and having David Hasselhoff's face on him in a certain boss fight, when none of the attire even makes any sense, not even in a South Park-sort of way?

Despite its linearity and occasionally poor utilization of a certain classic style of gameplay, South Park: The Stick of Truth is a phenomenal game, no less than one of the best licensed games ever made. It's an endless laughfest which honestly makes me think that Parker and Stone spent most of Season 16 writing this game, almost ruining the show for the whole season with leftover jokes and lame plots that were way too clean and serious, and might've worked on The Simpsons. This game is nothing like it; it's like retribution for every bad South Park episode ever made, I think it's actually as long as every bad South Park episode put together. Tell you what: take a week all to yourself, watch the trilogy of episodes made in promotion of this game and leading to its originally planned release date, then slap this one in and give it your sweet time, don't stop 'til the credits roll. I guarantee you'll walk away a happier person. A bit grossed out maybe, but happy.

+ It's just like watching a long-ass episode of South Park - a simply phenomenal one
+ It's got an honestly good plot with bits and pieces of classic episodes and characters paid homage to here and there at just the right pace; even most of the Powers are familiar to fans
+ Great video game parody which comes to a raging climax in a late part of the main quest
+ Genius South Park-style adaptation of vintage role-playing elements
+ Fun combat with minigames keeping you on your toes

- Frustrating tutorials, especially the fart tutorials which make the execution of the farts seem much more difficult than it actually is 
- Lots of junk, but no crafting system of any kind
- A few must-have characters are missing, though usually subtly referred to
- Some collectables must be acquired at a specific point of time, as they are placed in levels that are rendered inaccessible after the first visit
- Most of the replay value stems from Achievements (besides the humour); the customization of your character is minimal at the start of the game, decisions don't really count, and all the classes essentially share the same key talents

< 8.9 >

maanantai 3. maaliskuuta 2014

REVIEW - Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 | Xbox 360 | 2014

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: February 25, 2014
DEVELOPER(S): MercurySteam Entertainment

In 2010, Spanish development studio MercurySteam, aided by Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions, rebooted the Castlevania series with a game called Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. Initially released to mixed reception possibly due to a radical change in the atmosphere as well as just about all of its gameplay elements shamelessly borrowed from many best-selling action games, the game won the hearts of critics and fans as time went by. It was praised for its fabulous story, which had never been the franchise's strongest suit, and its clever and beautiful reimagining of the Castlevania timeline and many classic characters. The ending of the game fast forwarded to the modern day; we learned that somehow, protagonist Gabriel Belmont had become an immortal vampire lord known as Dracula, and that main antagonist, Satan himself, was about to return to make an example of his now severely weakened arch nemesis. Instead of saving all explanations for a full-length sequel, MercurySteam developed two story add-ons for the first game - the result was horrible. After confirming that a full-length sequel to Lords of Shadow was in the works, they also made a poorly received Nintendo 3DS game, a 2.5D adventure called Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate to tie up the rest of the loose ends leading into the first and last major sequel; a high-definition port of the game was released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the end of 2013. So - considering the first impression I had of the first game, no matter how much it has changed as time's gone by, and the all-out suffering I endured with both add-ons and Mirror of Fate (which I've not yet had time to review), and finally, the heavy global criticism towards Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2, I guess I shouldn't be all that excited about the game. But, everything I've read so far leads me to believe that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 might well be a better game than its predecessor, and that it's just the presentation most critics care about; I think it's the critics who have misunderstood the game, not the game that has misunderstood Castlevania. Yet, as I'm writing this, I've only started the game. Let's go to work.

Dracula's Quest

Robert Carlyle : Dracula
Patrick Stewart : Zobek
Natascha McElhone : Marie Belmont
Richard Madden : Alucard
Jason Isaacs : Satan
Sally Knyvette : Carmilla
Anthony Howell : Victor Belmont
Alex Childs : Raisa Volkova
Alastair Parker : Nergal
Mimi Keene : Euryale / Medusa / Stheno

Thought to be vanquished forever by his son Alucard and grandson Simon Belmont centuries past, the frail, severely weakened Dracula lives on in the attic of a church overlooking a modern day metropolis. The treacherous Death incarnate Zobek is finally able to locate his "old friend" and convinces Dracula to join forces with him one more time, to prevent Satan's second coming. In return, Zobek promises to free Dracula of his eternal suffering.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is the 41st (!) release under the Castlevania brand, and by a quick count, the 18th Castlevania game I've reviewed, so there's probably no need to take you to the umpteenth trip through my personal history with the whole franchise; let's just say that I wasn't always a Castlevania fan, I've considered myself one for less than a decade actually. I never thought I'd go as far as to pre-order a Castlevania game, but this time I did just that, because I was dead certain Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 would be a good action game... in spite of everything MercurySteam has done to the franchise as long as they've held developmental rights to it. My first playthrough of Castlevania: Lords of Shadow was a decent experience, but back at that time, I had just got back upon my feet from one of the most epic climaxes in video game history, God of War III. That game was just one of the big hack and slash games Castlevania: Lords of Shadow shamelessly ripped off, to varying success. However, since the Castlevania series is very valuable to gamers and collectors alike, even the worst games in the franchise, I wanted to buy the game - also, since I love the genre, I want to own every decent game in that category. Picked it up for 15 € at a video store - for the Xbox 360 in contrast to my first playthrough on the PS3 - tried it one Friday night since I had nothing better to do, and it presented itself in a whole different way. I suddenly thought it was a great game, and if they ever made a sequel, it would surely be one hell of a title, it would have all the potential to become one of the greatest Castlevania games ever.

The prologue provides us with tons of vampiric
Well, since I bought the game, I thought I might as well get familiar with the DLC - which turned out expensive, and terrible. Main designer David Cox himself said the expansions were two parts of a big mistake, and that they exist only to explain Gabriel Belmont's dramatic metamorphosis into one of video gaming's most classic villains, something they could've easily explained later in a more thoughtful context. Then, they made the 3DS game Mirror of Fate, to bridge the events of Lords of Shadow and Lords of Shadow 2. Once again, the reception was poor, and once again, the designers were sorry they let out such garbage, and tried to make up for their mistake with an HD port of the game. You'd never guess it turned out the same garbage on a bigger screen. Mirror of Fate had a strength, though - a deep continuation of the Lords of Shadow storyline, which introduced both Simon Belmont and Alucard, two of the biggest names in this franchise, to this canon which now continues in the "real thing", Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2. Finally! But, the question lingers. With this much gone wrong for MercurySteam's Castlevania, how can we possibly trust this game completely?

Let's pretend that you're one of the critics who blasted Lords of Shadow 2 to oblivion at launch. My prediction is that whatever shit you have to hurl at the game, I can counter with a batch of flowers. I've read a bunch of these reviews and somewhat to my surprise, and outright disgust, these reviews go on and on about how Lords of Shadow 2 destroys what Castlevania used to stand for with its modern-day setting and lousy cyberpunk story. It's like "it's got great combat mechanics and exciting open-world gameplay, but the story and setting are shit", and the conclusive rating is something like 4-6 on a 1-10 scale. ...Who writes that shit? How can they get away with something like that? The moment Castlevania: Lords of Shadow ended, we knew that this saga's climax would mostly, if not completely, take place in the modern day. That means we've had four years to sink this one in. Besides, how can you not see and feel the freshness of this take, how it's a welcome change to the whole series in my opinion? And finally, all personal opinions aside, how in the hell can you put drama and aesthetics over gameplay? There was a time critics encouraged video game fans to care not for graphics and sound all that much; since today graphics and sound nearly always follow a certain standard, they could encourage focus on gameplay instead of story and setting. Yeah, yeah - it's not the Castlevania you grew up with. Again, you knew that damn well four years ago. You've had plenty of time to get over it. "Worst Castlevania game ever"? Say that one more time, and I'll put a stake through your heart and one through your left eye; not in desperate defense of this game, but in defense of your own dignity. Much worse Castlevania games have been made at smooth intervals for 20 years. And when I say "much worse", I mean it - there is much to like about Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 (still a crappy name for the game, though), and I enjoyed it very much despite a few momentum-killing flaws. And, call me simple-minded, but I liked the story; I've waited for this transition to a gothic modern-day setting in a basically ancient horror story ever since the rumor mill first started running for Soul Reaver 2 back in the day. That was 15 years ago. It's high time for the night of the vampire.

Dracula wakes up in the modern times, not
feeling too shabby.
Let's start with the graphics. To be honest, the game and its level design do look kinda monotonic; it's dominated by darkness (I understand why, thank you), in contrast to the first Lords of Shadow's bright, gradually darkening colours and artful, ever-changing world. Also, since it's an open-world game, there aren't many set pieces to take up extra capacity. There's an inevitable feeling that MercurySteam consciously downgraded the textures just slightly for the Xbox 360, to make the game fit on one disc. It's ironic that the first game came on two discs (besides, which action game of this caliber doesn't, nowadays...?). The kinda different character design looks OK, but I dunno, I liked the first game's designs better, and actually, the concept art shows the best designs of 'em all. Don't know why they didn't go with those. Dracula and Alucard look particularly bad-ass in those early drafts. The enemy design goes from classic (read: predictable) to fresh (read: some generic stock from anygame).

The voiceover work is superb, save for Patrick Stewart's most melodramatic fits and generally repetitive combat quotes. A special mention to Robert Carlyle who, I think, adapts more smoothly to a renegade prince of darkness and his absolutely darkest side - borderline psychotic - than a brooding hero type. Be the game's final fate which it may, I think Dracula's up as a nominee for the character of the year. Oscar Araujo's soundtrack is equally superb; of course, if you think too hard on the name of the game, you shouldn't even start with the music... least of all comparisons.

Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is very different from its predecessor in every way; actually, if Lords of Shadow was somewhat of a reimagination of classic Castlevania, Lords of Shadow 2 would then be somewhat of a reimagination of Symphony of the Night. Before you Symphony-fanboys start bombing me (again), let's just think a moment and I think we'll all reach the conclusion that it might've been the idea all along - just so they could reach every Castlevania fan that ever was with at least one major Lords of Shadow title. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 starts out linear, but only to hold your hand through the most basic situations you're going to be dealing with throughout the game. Once you've got a grip of how the game's gonna play out, you're free to come and go through different districts of Castlevania City (it's actually called that) and even through time as you please, to Dracula's castle centuries past and back. Don't you worry, those tutorials aren't gonna go away though...

Like in the previous major installment, you have three primary weapons at your disposal. The Combat Cross' been replaced with a "whip" which is actually blood. (Gross.) The Void Sword represents blue magic, and what it lacks in offensive power, it pays back in health absorption with each successful strike. You can also use its special ice attack to temporarily freeze enemies, water and steam pipes. The Chaos Claws represent red magic, and these puppies allow you to do some heavy damage with each strike, but it seems they also leave you a bit more vulnerable to enemy attacks. There's also a special attack here, involving some serious explosives. You can buy different combos with experience points and upgrade them, and as a completely new feature, you're encouraged to try out and stick to different combos, since you gain "mastery" from most of them. Once you have mastered one eligible combo, you can use that mastery to upgrade the weapon itself, which naturally increases the effect of even standard attacks. I liked this system very much, even if it takes forever to master certain combos. They're hard to do, and even harder to land.

The fast travel hub. You're gonna get really
familiar with it once you start scouting for 'em
The secondary weapons and abilities - there are plenty of them. First, you have two vampiric abilities which recover over time; you can summon a swarm of bats to distract enemies in stealth situations (I'll get back to 'em...), and much later on in the game, you can transform into a cloud of mist to move through vents and pass through bars. Then, you have a secondary weapon for each primary one; I already mentioned the ice and fire shots, then there's a "dagger" for your standard weapon, which again, is actually blood. (Again, gross.) By holding down on the digital pad you'll have the Relic menu, in which there's a whole bunch of useful items, selectable by one at a time; one allows you to have unlimited magic for a limited time, one replenishes your health and gives you a temporary health boost while at it, one maxes out your abilities for a while, of course there's the extremely rare super item which destroys everyone and everything around you - and does heavy damage to bosses as well - and finally, I've got to mention my favourite, a bird that scouts out the gazillion secrets for you so you don't have to run around like a moron two steps from the end of the game, searching for collectables you might've missed. ...It's still a pain to gather those birds, though.

Relics are quite rarely found from the field, at least those eggs that hatch the birds, so there's a shop - as a bit of annoying homage to Symphony of the Night and even Aria of Sorrow, there's JUST ONE SHOP, to be exact, and this is an open-world game with two different worlds, which you can travel between only at certain spots. So you run out of these eggs or whatever you might be missing, you have to backtrack your way to a portal, then to that one shop, get what you need (in limited quantities at a time, currency should pose no problem), then backtrack to the starting point again and somehow get back on track with what you were doing. The good thing about those eggs is that if the nearest secret is in the same room you are in, the egg won't hatch, the game simply informs you that it's very near. Also, the game is equally polite if there's simply no more secrets to find in the whole area, or if they're not accessible at the moment. Very neat.

Since there are no actual, clear-cut levels, you might think that there are no trials like in the previous game. Yes, there certainly are, but don't go expecting any more than deathmatch challenges - and these are also only accessible via the shop, and you need special collectables as "tokens" to enter these games. As per usual in hack and slash games, conquering these challenges to the hilt is nearly impossible if you're not 100% devoted to the game and 100% familiar with the advanced controls. Unlike the first game, Lords of Shadow 2 isn't that difficult in itself, actually it's disappointingly simple at times. There are hardly any puzzles, and every single boss in the game is easy enough to kill, especially since you have so many tools of both destruction and first aid at your disposal - the trials are made for people who crave that vintage Castlevania challenge.

50% of the game is this. Like it or not.
It's certainly not a hard game, but it is one long journey for the perfectionist... which makes it all the more painful to admit that I haven't beaten the game, and I probably won't, not for a long, long time. You see, the game crashed at the very final autosave... which resulted in the utter corruption of my save file. After spending the last four days - my first and last spare time in weeks! - playing this game, making it to the very final steps, and then experiencing something as devastating as that, really put things in perspective. It was a good game, but do I want to restart it right away? Hell no, 'cause it has a few flaws. Ultimately, the level design is not interesting enough for Metroidvania. Secondly, the checkpoint system is the lousiest excuse of one I've seen in a long time; if my memory serves me right, even the first Lords of Shadow saved each secret you found, even if you died and went back to an earlier checkpoint, so you didn't have to go out of your way to pick 'em up again. Lords of Shadow 2 doesn't. Finally, I do agree with the critics who blast at the stealth sequences.

I haven't the faintest idea why game developers seem to think that an action game can't survive without a little bit of stealth. Here we have these completely undefeatable security guards you have to play cat and mouse with - think about it, a few dumb security guards stand in between you, DRACULA, and two of your arch enemies... DEATH and SATAN. The stealth sequences feel really detached from the game and the story alike, way beyond that actually, and even if you're OK with the occasional dive into stealth, I assure you that you're not going to be OK with the few boss fights that are based on these very generic, unpredictable and untrustworthy mechanics. There are basically four abilities you need in the stealth sequences, since you're not even allowed to use any weapons; the bats and mist I mentioned earlier, and Dracula's basically cool ability to possess people, animals, and even some of these guards. That being said, you might even enjoy the first couple of stealth puzzles, but then they begin to repeat themselves, and they do that 'til the very end of the game.

The bottom line, even if I'm more prone to slitting my wrists than taking on this game again in the near future (20+ hours of my precious spare time down the fucking drain!!!), is that Castlevania: Lords of Shadow 2 is not nearly as bad as critics make it out to be. Again, I think they're just peeved of a fact they should have picked up years ago, that this was going to be a modern-day adventure. Besides, I don't see what even that fuss is all about, 'cause half of it takes place in a very familiar setting. I think this is a successful, fresh take on Castlevania, and a good ending to the otherwise uncertain and unstable Lords of Shadow series - I, for one, am really excited to see where Castlevania will go from here. Probably MMO... heh. Forget I said that.

+ You're Dracula...
+ ...Who's also a Belmont. Everybody wins.
+ Although not everyone seems to appreciate it, the story's great
+ Lots to collect
+ Great, updated combat mechanics
+ The weapon and combo upgrade system is neat

- To quote a movie which also starred Robert Carlyle, "the world is not enough"; the level design is monotonic, and not interesting enough for this kind of an open-world Metroidvania experience
- Just one shop
- The suckiest checkpoint system I've seen in years
- The stealth rooms are non-sensical, generic and repetitive
- On/off character design

< 8.0 >