Archive for April 2012

Gaming with GEL – Kinect Star Wars (and MORE!)

April 25, 2012

Here it is! The epic, feature length, weekend long Gaming with GEL-athon with Kinect Star Wars! Lasting nearly 4 hours, I check out every single aspect of Kinect Star Wars…then go on a motion control based tangent with plug n’ play lightsaber swinging, my good friend the Move, and even some Rise of Nightmares for fairness sake.

Watch it in four 1 hour long chunks on Blip or 16 chunks on YouTube! (coming soon)





If the above video doesn’t work:

Gaming With GEL – Power-Up Heroes Demo

April 25, 2012

A test run I did for the upcoming Kinect Star Wars episode(s) which is pretty entertaining in it’s own right:

Kinect Star Wars: Not Half-Assed! …but not quite good.

April 25, 2012

As you may or may not have noticed, I haven’t posted in a few days. There is a reason for this: I was recording a weekend long picture-in-picture playthrough of Kinect Star Wars (video coming soon!).

I rented the game because, let’s face it, I had no faith in the product. From the shoddy E3 demos to the lackluster reviews, I knew paying $50 for the game would be a waste of money. However, as a self proclaimed “Motion Control Aficionado”, it was something I had to play. I couldn’t just take everyone’s word that the game was crap, I had to play it myself. I’m glad I did.

The experience was odd as my opinion of the game wavered drastically as I played it. At times it was jaw droppingly disappointing and yet at other times it legitimately impressed me! But one thing was certain:

Kinect Star Wars is not a half-assed game.

This might come as a surprise to some. With the announcement of the eyebrow raising dancing mini-game, many quickly wrote the game off as yet another casual family friendly mini-game collection with a Star Wars theme. But this is not the case.

The core game, Jedi Destiny, wherein you play one of a variety of Padawans and engage in light saber battles with a variety of foes, is interesting to say the least. The game legitimately tries to provide 1:1 full body motion control and does indeed deliver some of the most impressive weapon control I have seen on Kinect! However, impressive though it may be, it’s not exactly “functional”. Part of the problem is lag, but most of it is that there are too many actions you will want to do at once. The core game is very fast paced and as such you will find yourself frequently dodging, charging, and slashing all at once and the Kinect just can’t keep up. It doesn’t take long for the game to devolve into a sloppy mess of random maneuvers strung together.

It seems like Microsoft recognized this problem though and it was at that point that it began to turn into a mini-game collection. They did the best they could to make it a serious gaming experience and it fell flat on it’s face. They couldn’t cancel the game though as it was perhaps the most anticipated Kinect game of all time! If they did cancel it, what would people say? How would that reflect on the Kinect? No, they had to find a way to make the game work and that meant figuring out other Star Wars related things the Kinect could do.

This, of course, leads to the podracing. The Kinect can, kinda sorta, do racing games and with a bit of work, they were able to make the podracing quite playable. Well…as long as you turn off the auto steering (yes, seriously) and don’t try to use any items. If you do that though, it’s very playable! Heck they could have just sold the podracing part as it contains a decent number of tracks, plenty of racers, and even it’s own campaign mode!

Rancor Rampage, on the other hand, is interesting. See, playing the Jedi Destiny mode it’s clear they wanted to make the game off-rails but couldn’t. I have a feeling that Rancor Rampage was their experiment in off-rails gameplay. In it you are given full body control of a Rancor and get to smash a city. It’s completely free roaming with players twisting their shoulders to turn, walking in place to move, and doing practically whatever they want with their bodies. Shoot, I made the Rancor dance quite a bit. However it’s very clear that this experiement did not work. The Rancor is a clunky and cumbersome mess that is very difficult to control. Turning in particular is insanely difficult. A part of me legitimately thinks they tried to make Jedi Destiny like this, realized that you look like a stumbling out-of-control monster, and thus turned it into Rancor Rampage. Honestly, it’s a clever idea and I found it to be an enjoyable mess. Partly because it’s so ambitious, and partly because it’s so bad it’s good.

Of course, once you realize you have two modes that don’t really work and one mode that does, you have to balance it out. Yes, it’s here that someone had to ask “What can the Kinect do well?” and the answer was “Dancing”. Thus, the dancing mini-game was included. With 12 Star Wars-ified cover songs and an interface that’s a fusion of Dance Central and The Black Eyed Peas Experience, it’s pretty decent. It’s written off as a “corrupted file in the Jedi archives” that “could prove amusing”, so it’s not like it’s canon or anything and it is indeed quite fun.

I mean, let’s be honest here people, there are tons of fanmade dancing Star Wars joke skits and songs. Just take a look at Robot Chicken! Considering, again, it’s not even really canon; there’s nothing much to complain about…except that they didn’t do the obvious. Where are the Weird Al songs? Where is The Star Wars Gangster Rap? Where is MC Chris? No, seriously, if they had just included one of these things then the dancing mode would have instantly gained “street cred” and no one would be complaining about it! It almost makes me wonder if their exclusion was intentional and that the dancing mode was thrown in to make the game look bad so that it doesn’t make the Kinect look bad.

That probably sounds like a crazy theory, until you look at the credits. The sheer number of people involved in this game is astonishing! Seriously, these are the longest credits I have ever seen in a video game and they couldn’t even fit them all in! It actually gets to a point where they just start listing full companies rather than individual people! It makes one thing glaringly obvious: Microsoft really wanted this to work. They tried their best and threw as much money at it as possible. I can’t even begin to imagine how much this game cost to develop. But, when all is said and done, it didn’t work as well as they would have wanted.

In fact, thanks to this game, I realized a flaw of the Kinect I had not noticed before! You see, as I’ve often stated, assigning actions to gestures is not a good way to do motion control. The actions are pre-programmed and thus can be done with regular buttons and the sensor can often have difficulty telling what action you are trying to do. The best way to do motion control is to just use the sensors to give the player 1:1 control over an object. Kinect Star Wars attempts to do this, but runs into a snag. With no buttons, no definite tracking points, and no tilt sensors, it can’t track movement very well. As such, you can’t merely swing the lightsaber and have the game translate your actions on screen because it can’t tell how the lightsaber is tilted. It needs to actively determine if you are doing a horizontal or vertical swing then turn your motion into the appropriate swing. This is not only a massive headache to program but it means that once again you need to rely on some degree of pre-programmed action. The entire game is an odd mix of these almost 1:1 but kinda pre-programmed actions. You can’t just press a button to have the Rancor grab someone, the game needs to see if the hand is near a person or droid and then automatically have the Rancor grab it. You can’t merely press a button to release said person, the game has to read your arm movement and try to tell if you are just moving your arm or trying to throw someone (leading to people often sticking to your hands). It’s quite a mess to be honest, but without buttons or tilt sensors, there’s nothing they could do.

The worst of these would have to be the lightsaber duels. Since the game can’t tell how the lightsaber is tilted, it can’t tell if you are trying to defend or attack! As such, duels are actually divided into attacking and defending segments. You can only defend when it says you can and you can only attack when it says you can attack. It was, disappointingly, the only somewhat viable solution.

So, is it a good game? Well, how much do you like pod racing and dancing? Because yes, those are actually good. The rest of the game, however, is a noble experiment. Kinect Star Wars pushes the Kinect to it’s limits and shows everything it is capable of. The problem is, the Kinect just plain isn’t a good game peripheral. An incredible piece of technology, but not a controller.

But, you know what? I’d probably pick this up when it drops to $30. The podracing is worth about that much and it does serve as an interesting tech demo of sorts.

To Be Continued…in DLC!

April 25, 2012

Well today brought with it yet another batch of DLC for a variety of titles, and included in the DLC was a $7 stage pack for Asura’s Wrath containing the last four stages of the game and the ending.

If you’re unfamiliar with the situation, Asura’s Wrath’s true ending is a cliff hanger which lead many to believe that a sequel was in the works. A perfectly reasonable assumption, really. However, it seems that in reality there is no sequel, just DLC.

What makes this situation all the more astonishing is that this isn’t the first time someone has pulled this crap! Final Fantasy XIII-2’s “True Ending” is also a cliffhanger and players will need to purchase DLC to continue the story! Not to mention, Mass Effect 3’s credit sequence ends with “Purchase DLC to continue your story!”.

This…is a disturbing trend.

Seriously, players already have to pay far more than they would like to when it comes to purchasing games. But, now developers are expecting gamers to pay even more if they want to actually see the ending?! One does have to wonder how long this trend will continue, if this questionable venture will actually prove profitable, and what kind of backlash we can expect.

To the credit of the games mentioned here though, Asura’s Wrath’s DLC is a handful of new stages along with the ending. FFXIII-2’s DLC is going to also be a continuation of the quest. Still, both imply their games are, in a way, incomplete. Mass Effect 3’s ending DLC (which contains JUST new endings) will be free.

Meanwhile, I just paid $1 today for a pack of 31 costumes for Warriors Orochi 3, a meaty game that already contains over 120 characters with 4 costumes each. It was also a 50 MB download, confirming it is in fact real DLC. I also grabbed a 4 stage pack for $2. A fantastic reminder of why DLC isn’t necessarily evil.

DDR in P.E.?!

April 20, 2012

Ah, Dance Dance Revolution. Me and that game have an…unusual relationship. I clearly remember adoring my import copies of DDR 2nd-4th Mix, buying expensive hard plastic and metal dance pads, hunting down arcade machines, the ill concieved DDR USA Mix, and then absolutely hating the DDR Max series and beyond (the difficulty got weird and the step charts got lame).

But back when it had it’s hooks in me, I even went so far as to say that in a perfect world, kids would play DDR in P.E. class. Well, seems Konami is making the world a better place then as they have just announced DDR Classroom Edition:

Talk about going above and beyond the call of duty! While the game itself seems very dry at first glance with some of the blandest presentation ever, looking closer reveals some interesting features. The background image of the people running track actually shows who is doing the best (and suddenly brings back memories of the movie The Wizard). What’s more, it supports up to 48 dance pads! 48 hard plastic wireless dance pads! Yeah, I think we all want those suckers released to the public! Those look nice! On top of that, they have progress cards as well which use the same technology seen in many modern arcade games. Shoot, the cards themselves look identical to the ones seen on Tekken 5 machines.

This probably looks pretty expensive and like something no school would be insane enough to purchase. The cheapest one is $10,000 for the 12 dance mat version, $20,000 for the 48 dance mat version. However it makes sense that it’s that expensive. The package comes with a computer to run it on complete with monitor and the works, the receiver, a bunch of high-end dance pads, a charging station for said dance pads, the personal data tracking cards (those are cheap), and the game. In the long run, that’s not a bad price.

But would any school pay that much? Well if you knew how much money schools already spend on building new gyms and crap, $20,000 for a DDR set is actually pretty reasonable…assuming the dance pads hold up. Build quality is going to be important because while schools will gleefully buy new things, they don’t like to re-buy them. $20,000 is cheap for everything they get as long as it’s durable enough to last a good number of years. Otherwise, it just plain won’t matter.

From a business standpoint though, this is a pretty brilliant move on Konami’s part. Think about it, they’re catering to a practically untapped market with no competition. It’s all just a question of how many schools will bite. But even if no one buys it and it winds up being a complete flop? Konami probably didn’t waste too much money on it. DDR is a pretty basic game, they have 80% of it done already, the only real money sink is the song licensing and the cost of developing the equipment. Something that is by no means cheap, but I’m pretty sure they’ll make back that money.

But enough talking about overprivileged schools getting DDR sets, what about us? As I said, those are some nice dance pads! How much are they costing? What are the chances the general public could get some of those? Well, according to my math, we’re looking at a price of $278 per pad. Which, actually, isn’t too bad. I think I paid about $200-$300 for my all metal pad a while back. I dunno if there’s enough hardcore DDR fans around who would want to pay that kind of money for a high-end wireless dance pad, but it’s not a terrible idea.

…until you realize they cost more than a Kinect. Hey, Konami! Release more Rhythm Party DLC already!

SSX becomes more SSX with upcoming DLC!

April 16, 2012

The SSX series is sort of a classic from the previous generation. With crazy characters and over-the-top snowboarding, it was well loved and spawned many sequels. I personally got in with SSX Tricky and loved SSX 3 as well.

However, after that it started to go downhill (pun not intended). The next game in the series was SSX: On Tour, developed by a different group and initially designed as a PSP game, it was a massive downgrade in terms of both graphics and gameplay. But, what was most baffling was how thoroughly they ruined the characters. The psychopathic Psymon was now a nice polite British chap. Meanwhile Kaori, the Japanese girl whom I applauded EA for getting an actual Japanese voice for, now spoke in broken English with an accent so bad it was downright offensive.

Things got worse with SSX Blur on the Wii, which recycled data from SSX3 yet still managed to be a significant graphical downgrade and utterly botch the characters again! This time, Kaori somehow managed to look like Ma-Ti from Captain Planet. I have absolutely no clue how they screwed that up. Tony Hawk’s Downhill Jam was undeniably the superior SSX experience on Wii…and it wasn’t even a snowboarding game!

At this point, SSX went on hiatus. The series was no longer selling well and fans were not amused. But recently, with so many series making a comeback, EA decided to bring back the SSX series. A smart move as many people would love a new entry in the series! The problem was…they went with a dark and gritty angle.

Originally titled SSX: Deadly Descents, the early trailer was very grey and though it featured a mountain collapsing around the racer it was somehow dull. Shortly after it’s announcement there was fan backlash and the game went underground until it re-emerged as simply “SSX” with a noticeably brighter style and something somewhat closer to what we remember. Somewhat.

Once players got their hands on the game, they found a very polished and well made snowboarding game. But, while EA touted it being crazier and more over-the-top than ever, it really wasn’t. The tricks were tamer, the courses were blander, and the character designs…were a mess once again.

Lemme put it to you like this: I couldn’t tell if the character in light blue was supposed to be series sex symbol Elise, or a grown up version of Griff. This should be a sign that something is very wrong here. Here’s an even better example though:

Who is that supposed to be? Well, believe it or not, it’s Kaori. Yes, Zoe is in the game as well. She looks nearly identical. In fact, everyone looks nearly identical!

The problem can be found quite easily on the official EA blog posts about character designs. Scrawled at the bottom of Kaori’s design sheet is a single line of text that defines everything wrong with the new SSX:

“ssx5=function over fashion”

Aside from the fact that this is actually the 6th SSX game, that line says it all. Function over fashion. Realism. If I could only have one motto in my life, it would be “FUCK REALISM”. Seriously, if I wanted realism I’d go outside. I’m playing a videogame, I want an escape from reality. What’s more, I’m playing SSX. If I wanted a snowboarding sim I’d play any other snowboarding game, but SSX is supposed to deliver on over-the-top arcade snowboarding fun! EA even advertised the game as being more over-the-top and crazy than ever before! So it should be over-the-top and crazy!

This probably seems petty to most people. I mean, I’m mostly complaining about the visual style and not nearly as much about the actual gameplay. But I’m not a snowboarding fan. There’s plenty of other good realistic snowboarding games out there if I was one, but I’m not. I want SSX.

Believe it or not, though, I am not alone in this mindset. Infact, most people had the exact same complaint. “The game is nice but it’s just not SSX! It doesn’t have enough personality!”.

Well, it seems EA was actually listening. Just recently, they posted the following image to their facebook page as a teaser of upcoming DLC:

As you can clearly see, that’s Elise in her SSX Tricky outfit and design, leaping through the air as fireworks explode around her above a Mt.Rushmore-esque collection of character heads with the Adam Warren SSX3 art next to it. In short, giving players (or at least me) exactly what we wanted! Sure it may be the cheap way out, literally copy as much stuff from the older games as possible and throw it all in our face at once rather than actually grasping what made those games so stylish and awesome and making something new that feels like SSX, but it’s better than nothing.

Infact, let me tell you something right now: while I played the demo, I did not buy the new SSX. I was thinking about it, it played well enough, but it just didn’t draw me in. If this new DLC really does deliver on it’s promise though, I will go out and buy the new SSX and the DLC that same day. I know it sounds crazy but that image actually makes me want to play the game. Hopefully it will sell well and thus send a message: Fuck realism, give us SSX.

Psuedo-Review: Skullgirls – Beyond the Overhype

April 13, 2012

*note: When I started this article it was mostly going to be first impressions and complaining about the fans. However as I progressed it basically became a review so heck with it. It’s a bit wordy and whiny and not quite on-topic but we may as well consider this some sort of review.

If there was one fighting game I would describe as overhyped, it would be Skullgirls. Over the past 3 years at least, people have been raving about the upcoming indie fighter. They, of course, had plenty of reason to. Created by a tournament player, the game boasted high-res hand drawn 2D artwork that animates as well as Street Fighter III and also claimed it would have one of the deepest and most balanced fighting engines around. Indeed, there was reason to be excited.

The problem, however, was how psychotically overzealous the fans became. Many declaring the game “The Best Fighter Ever” years before it’s release and bringing it up in any fighting game discussion. You want balance? Play Skullgirls. Hate infinites? Play Skullgirls. Wanna learn how to play fighting games competitively? Skullgirls will teach you. Great graphics? Skullgirls can’t be topped. Sexy characters? Nothing is sexier than Skullgirls. Good music? Michiru Yamane is composing the music for Skullgirls so clearly it will be better than anything else in the industry. Netcode? Did you hear? Skullgirls is gonna have GGPO so the online play is gonna be so flawless.

It gets worse once they start mocking other games because they’re not Skullgirls. Talking about old skool all-girl fighters like Asuka 120% or Advanced Variable Geo 2? Well Skullgirls is gonna be like those but so much better. Talking about new doujin fighters? Well Skullgirls is gonna be so much better. Talking about 3D fighters? Well I don’t play 3D fighters because Skullgirls will be so much better.

What makes all of this worse was that much of this sentiment was coming from people who had never played the game. At best they had played about 5 minutes of it at a special preview event.

With this much hype, of course, hype backlash is inevitable. As such there has been a cavalcade of jackoffs who take a sick sort of glee in bashing Skullgirls. Usually, however, their complaints are little more than “LOL GENERIC ANIMU! THIS GAME IS WEEABOO CENTRAL!”.

Sorry but no, while Skullgirls has definite anime inspiration, it is far from “generic”. I’d honestly say that it hits a pleasant middleground between anime and American cartoons. Not quite Matt Bozon-level, but close.

However, to the haters’ credit, that was all they could complain about because the game was not out yet!

It’s such a damn shame too because had I not had the game crammed down my throat for the past 3 years (has it really only been 3 years? It feels like 5!) I’d probably be a lot more positive towards it. I mean heck, it has freaking Bonus-kun in one background and has a stage full of cute fish girls! What part of this doesn’t absolutely scream GEL-bait?! But when it becomes completely impossible to hold a conversation about fighting games without someone bringing up how much better Skullgirls is gonna be, it’s hard to stay positive towards the game.

Not to mention there’s plenty of reason to be proud of the game too! It’s rare that a fan project like this actually makes it to completion. It’s rare to see an American made fighter that’s actually good (I mean shoot, Skullgirl’s closest competition was Clayfighter 63 1/3rd Sculptor’s Cut…and that’s not a joke either)! The visuals are incredible, the style is unique, and it has caught the eye of many major players in the videogame industry. This is a small fan project that has made serious waves.

So, with the game finally released, how is it? Does it live up to the hype? Is it the most amazing fighting game ever made?

No. Of course it isn’t. When you have people claiming it’s the most balanced and perfect fighting game ever made, that will unite every fighting gamer ever and bring newcomers into the fold while changing the face of the industry? Yeah ,it’s not going to live up to that kind of hype. It is, however, a very good fighting game.

If you picked up Skullgirls on PS3 blind, not knowing anything about it’s development history or the hype surrounding it, what you would find is a gorgeous looking, well presented, well made fighting game with good netcode, but a very small character roster, not a lot of modes, lengthy load times, and many strangely absent features.

Note that I said PS3, because if you picked this up on 360 you’d find a buggy unfinished mess. To be blunt, the PS3 is the native console and the 360 port was half-assed. The already lengthy load times are 3 times longer, matchmaking is a complete mess, and characters often break apart into clusters of green hitboxes. It’s honestly quite embarassing, especially after all that hype. Thankfully, these bugs are known and they intend to patch them soon.

Though, the fan reaction to the 360 port is “Well they’re playing it on 360 so you know something is wrong with them,” and “360 owners couldn’t appreciate Skullgirls anyway”. Because, you know, the 360 doesn’t have any exclusive anime-styled games that would appeal to Skullgirls fans.

In case you can’t tell, I’m just a little bit bitter towards the fans.

But getting back to the point, the game is very well presented. As such, you would not be able to guess that this was an indie game. The graphics even moreso. Visually the game is just astonishing. The character sprites are rendered at a higher resolution than any other game in the industry. We’re talking a higher resolution than KOF XIII and BlazBlue. What’s more, they animate incredibly well. Again, we’re looking at animation on-par with SF3. On top of that, the game features slightly 3D backdrops and 3D lighting effects on the 2D sprites. What this means is that lighting actually affects the sprites as they move around the stage. The result is a gorgeous looking game that manages to avoid the “flash game” look most high-res 2D games have.

The combat itself is rock solid as well. I’m very picky about my controls. I mean, I constantly complain about how awful SF4 and SFxT feel as well as any Tekken game released after Tekken Tag Tournament. If controls feel stiff, awkward, or “too Dimps-y”, I will complain. Skullgirls does not have this issue. The controls are tight and responsive with only one odd issue: air dashing.

You see, in Skullgirls, you can dash in two different ways: either pressing forward twice or by pressing weak and medium punch simultaneously. However, for some reason you cannot air dash with forward forward when you jump straight up; but you can air dash by pressing both punches. What’s more, you can also air dash with forward forward as long as you jump towards your opponent. The result, however, is that air dashing with forward forward (i.e. the way most people are used to air dashing) is awkward and doesn’t seem to work consistently.

Aside from this little hiccup though, the combat is great. It’s not blindingly fast-paced like BlazBlue or most doujin fighters, but it’s far from slow. It’s combo-centric but not overly so. Some folks describe the game as “basic” and that too is quite false. The game features ratio-based tag matches, meaning you can pit one, two, or even three fighters on a tag-team against any other team combination. What’s more, you can use nearly any attack as an assist (the exception being Miss Fortune’s headless-only moves), which is a fun new idea. There are tons of combo possibilities and some unique mechanics as well (like Miss Fortune’s detachable head that stays on-screen even when tagged out).

The big one, however, is probably the much lauded Infinite Prevention System. The fact of the matter is that every fighting game has infinites and/or 100% damage combos. There are no exceptions unless you actively go out of your way to prevent them. The best way is to have some kind of Combo Breaker move, but these are usually poorly implemented (like Guilty Gear XX’s Burst system) and annoy fighting gamers. The IPS is a heavily tweaked version of a burst, designed to prevent infinites but still allow big damage combos. The way it works is that it counts every time a move is repeated and looks for patterns. Once it sees one, the hit sparks and sound effects change and players can press any button to burst out of the combo. It’s a clever way of handling things as it still allows fighting gamers to get crazy with their combos but avoids the infinite issue.

The question then is if it prevents 100% damage combos as well. Characters do very little damage with every attack so actually dealing 100% damage would be difficult. However it may not be impossible and even if it is, I can definitely confirm 50% damage combos exist. You can decide for yourself if that’s an issue or not but if you ask me, it kinda is.

There’s actually more to the combat system as well, like Advancing Guard (i.e. a guard that pushes back the enemy if you press two buttons while blocking) and Delayed Hyper Combos, things seen in the Marvel vs Capcom series. Something people might know if the game bothered to tell them!

Yes, despite fans condemning every other fighter for not doing a good enough job of teaching new players how to play fighting games and insisting that Skullgirls would be the exception, the game’s tutorials are lacking. Not only does it not really tell you about some of the in-game systems, but it lacks an in-game movelist! Yes, that’s right, if you want a complete movelist you’re going to have to find one online. Even then, the official movelist from the website is incomplete and does not list all the special regular attacks (like forward+hard punch). While a minor hiccup in any other situation, it’s easy to see how aggravating this is when Skullgirls was hyped the way it was. Also, good job placing the character sprites in front of the text so you can’t read what you’re supposed to do.

This does bring us to the question of balance. Again, the game was hyped as being the most balanced fighter ever, but no fighter is truly balanced. The biggest question, of course, is Peacock. The character is built around keeping opponents at a distance and out ranging them with projectile spam. In a game that is otherwise almost devoid of projectiles, it’s kind of awkward fighting a character that is nothing but projectiles! Getting in close to her is a pain and it is far too easy for her to run away and make space between her and the player. Miss Fortune’s detachable head may also cause issues as it can be commanded to bite opponents, making for an easy combo opening. However, as the head itself can take damage, this might not be quite so bad. Cerebella being a grappler with chain throws also means she tends to have some of the biggest damage combos I have seen so far and may again be an issue. It is far too early to really make any sort of judgement calls and I will say the game feels decently balanced, but there are still questionable elements in there.

The Story mode is an interesting beast. It starts out very nicely presented, but when we get to just two portraits talking the presentation gets wonky, having to reload both portraits and the text box with each new line of text. I know it sounds minor but it really does hurt the presentation. What’s more, there’s not a lot to said story mode. There’s an intro, a middle, and an end sequence with some random unexplained fights in the middle. At first I wanted to complain about this as they should have thrown together some talking portraits for the middle fight. However, then I realized they’re trying to make it like BlazBlue’s Arcade Mode only they don’t have enough characters to properly pad it out. It’s a little awkward but not bad.

I do have to be honest though, the music is disappointing. It’s not bad by any means, just often too atmospheric. One stage, for example, is a happy suburb and it has happy suburb music. That’s great, it fits, but I can’t really fight to it very well. There are exceptions, like the lab stage and the boss stage, though. However, while their music is good, I don’t think any of it is that great either and it needs to be said that the atmospheric music greatly outnumbers the fighty music.

Credit where credit is due, though, the game does have a number of gorgeous looking and well detailed stages to fight in. Normally I don’t count stages that much, but after MvC3 and KOFXII, I’ve started to make note of when fighters have a decent number of stages. You can only fight in a hidden ninja village so many times before it starts to get a little bland. So, kudos to Skullgirls in that respect.

About the only other thing to comment on is the online play. The game uses GGPO and as such in most cases it works great. Mind you this game really strains the GGPO system (much like SF3 did) and as such connections aren’t guaranteed to be perfect. In a strange twist, Soul Calibur V has actually surpassed GGPO in terms of netcode quality. Still, 90% of the time you’ll have a wonderful lag-free match and that’s what really matters. The issue, aside from massive connectivity problems on 360, is that these are 2 person only lobbies, no spectating.

There’s also no replay saving, which is a real disappointment. Online Training Mode would have also been nice. Yes, only SFxT actually has this feature right now, but it is something fighting game fans have been clamoring for and so I kind of thought it might wind up in the game.

Of course it’s at this point that someone will point out that the game is going to be patched. We have been promised fixes for the 360 version’s bugs as well as in-game movelists and spectateable matches in an upcoming patch in the very near future. This is what brings us to what may be the best and most important part of Skullgirls: the game is made by actual members of the fighting game community. This means they are on the ground floor listening to fan complaints, knowing about the bugs and glitches as well as any broken tactics. As such they can actively work to fix these issues. Skullgirls is their only game and chances are they will be dedicated to making it the best tournament level fighting game on the market.

The problem is, it hasn’t been patched yet. We don’t know what kind of stupid red tape they’re going to slam face first into when it comes to patching these issues. We don’t know what exactly will be fixable. Not to mention, with how shoddy the release was and the general reaction from the fans, I’m not certain if the 360 release will get the same amount of support it’s PS3 counterpart will.

So, at the end of the day, is it a good game? Should you buy it? If you have a PS3, then yes. The visuals are amazing, the fighting is excellent, a lot of time, effort, and love went into this game and it is well worth a purchase. While $15 may seem a bit steep for a game with only 8 characters, I can also understand it. As for the 360 release? Well I’d only recommend that to desperate fans who want to play the game but don’t have a PS3. It’s far from unplayable but the lack of polish makes it difficult to justify the $15 price tag.

It’s at this point that I realize this has gone well beyonmd mere first impressions and fandom ranting. Heck, 2600 words in and every element of the game commented upon, I think I can officially call this a review. Make no mistake, this was not intended as a review initially but considering all I need to finish the job is a score, I may as well give it one.

At launch, Skullgirls on PS3 seems to get a…

4 out of 5

While the lack of characters is annoying and it is somewhat short on content, the low-ish pricepoint helps soften the blow (and it does have more content than Soul Calibur V). Meanwhile the excellent combat, good netcode, and buckets of polish make up for the minor irritating design oversights. Make no mistake, Skullgirls is a good game and does deserve a purchase. It just has a fanbase that deserves a punch in the mouth just as much.

However, I do need to mention that my assumptions on the PS3 release are based on the demo. I actually bought the game on 360 and no I am not buying it a second time. Because, really, who rewards a company for fucking up a port?! While the 360 release is still good, it really lacks the polish (at launch) that helps justify that $15 pricetag. So I give the 360 version a…

3.8 out of 5

Yes I know that’s actually a pretty drastic drop, but the matchmaking and loading really is that bad. Seriously, I’ll spend 10 minutes looking for a 1 minute match. But, once it gets patched, you can just give it the PS3’s 4 out of 5 rating.

As for why neither of them have a 5 out of 5? Well the roster is small and it’s short on features and modes. Maybe in two years, when the DLC characters are released, the issues are patched, and a disc-based version is on the way, it might elevate itself to such lofty heights. However, at the moment it is not the greatest fighting game ever.

The point is, Skullgirls is good. I’m just bitter.

The Double Downloadable Double Dragons’ Double Trouble

April 11, 2012

Fact: People love them some brawlers, especially classic ones like Double Dragon. Problem is, remaking classic beat ’em ups has never worked. Ever. Not because the games are bad but because people are often so attached to the classics that even the slightest change can cause them to burst into uncontrollable rage.

Enter Double Dragon, one of the original beat ’em ups and the series that made the genre such a smash hit. It’s receiving not one but two 3D downloadable remakes! One is Korean developer Baurunsoft Interactive’s “Double Dragon II: Wander of the Dragons” while the other is WayForward Interactive’s “Double Dragon Neon”. Both, however, have caused less than stellar reactions.

Early reports on these games have claimed they are anywhere from “bad” to just “bland”. However, the Brawler is a sorely misunderstood genre. Few people, both players and developers, realize that there can be more to a beat ’em up than just mashing punch. Special moves, juggle combos, and more are perfectly possible in a game like this, but few people realize it. When a developer fails to realize this and just makes their brawler yet another button masher, it continues to drag the genre down. But, when players fail to recognize potential depth when it’s there, then they often condemn an otherwise spectacular game.

So let us take a closer look at what is seen in these videos.

With Wander of the Dragons you can see it has 8-way running, which in the realm of the beat ’em up is not a good thing. However it also proudly displays text declaring “Perfect Guard”, “Blow Back”, and “Double St”. If you look closer you’ll see a diving kick move as well that definitely looks like a special attack. So there may just be some meat to this game afterall!

Unfortunately, while the game was finished and playable on reviewer consoles, Wander of the Dragons is probably cancelled. It has been removed from the developer console’s marketplace and the company appears to have gone under. A darn shame as I really would have liked to at least try it.

Double Dragon Neon, however, looks far from bad when inspected closely as well. The trailer shows a ground punch, money flying out of defeated enemies, and what appears to be a juggle combo between the two players. Interviews mention that WayForward (a developer I’m honestly quite a fan of) recognizes that Castle Crashers is the “Gold Standard” of modern beat ’em ups and is trying to reach a happy medium between it and the original Double Dragon. I’d argue that Castle Crashers, while very good, is far from the “best” beat ’em up; it’s good to see that WayForward knows what they’re up against. They are honestly trying to make a modern beat ’em up and appear to recognize that mindless button mashing will not suffice. In an interview they mention the “Mixtape” feature, wherein you can buy new attacks and equip them to your “Mixtape”. There was also some mention of switching mixtapes on the fly so it could be that the mixtape represents your custom combo (akin to God Hand) and you can switch between combos on the fly. Or it could just mean you can only have so many moves equipped at a time (as otherwise things would get messy). Regardless, this once again implies a greater degree of depth than normally seen.

Either way, I look forward to playing whatever of these games manage to come out and whenever said games manage to come out. Because, let me tell you right now, I love me a good beat ’em up. Especially when they go a step beyond what we normally see.

Xenoblade: Is it Revolutionary?

April 10, 2012

A few days ago, Xenoblade was released in North America leading to the latest ongoing argument. Some are claiming that Xenoblade is revolutionary, changing the face of JRPGs and is a game that cannot be missed. Meanwhile, others are calling it “just another JRPG”.

So, is it revolutionary or not, and if so why?

Well as with most situations, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Xenoblade Chronicles is far from just another JRPG, but it is not revolutionary in and of itself. Rather, it is part of a revolution. A revolution started quite possibly by Final Fantasy XII and includes Magna Carta 2 and White Knight Chronicles as well (meaning one on each system).

…and if that just made you cringe, you need to go back and give FFXII another chance.

You see, between FFX and FFXII was the MMORPG FFXI. Square wanted to dabble in the world of MMOs and in the process they discovered that the MMO has many incredible features not seen in JRPG as standard issue. Things like a massive open world to explore, rendered in 1:1 scale, tons of sidequests, armor that appears on characters, battles that occur on the field. The list honestly goes on.

So, when they began work on FFXII they felt they should try to incorporate these features into a single player JRPG experience. The problem is, JRPG fans don’t necessarily like MMOs and many lashed out against the game because of this. However, rather than merely condemning a game because it’s MMO-esque, let us look at why some people hate MMOs and how an offline game can fix these flaws.

#1) Gratuitous Level Grinding

This is an easy fix. Most MMOs are boring grind fests because they want to keep you playing. You pay a monthly fee and if you ever feel you’ve “beaten” an MMO, then you’re likely to quit. So they often make leveling take waaay too long. But, in the case of an offline single purchase experience, there is no reason to make players grind and as such leveling in FFXII and similar games is quite normal.

#2) Little to No Story

Another side effect of the online experience. With so many players, everyone can’t be the hero and as such big world changing events seldom happen. There have been games that have tried to work around this but even then it’s nothing compared to the flashy cutscene caked JRPGs we all know and love. Again though, this is an easy fix. With no other players to gum things up, MMO inspired JRPGs are free to pile on the cutscenes and dramatic storylines all they want.

#3) The Battle System

Here, however, is the big one. Combat in the average MMO sucks and can basically be described as “Click on Enemy. Wait for it to die”. I’m still not entirely certain why this is the go-to style of combat in MMOs. I think it has to do partly with server load and the fact that many MMOs were played on dial-up and partly because that’s how many Western RPGs (especially Ultima) played at the time. This, again, can be fixed but is where many games get a little strange. So, we’re going to have to look at this in greater detail.

In FFXII’s case, characters do automatically attack enemies when you click on them and you can even program auto0battle routines called Gambits. However, when you press the X button, the game will freeze time and you can issue commands to all of your party memebers. These commands overwrite whatever automatic actions they were taking. In order to try and prevent the game from “playing itself”, they made the enemies extra difficult so player intervention was frequently required and they made the amount of EXP you gain from each enemy drop drastically as you levelled. This attempted to force players to continue ahead into more and more difficult battles rather than level grinding their way to victory.

To make a long story short, FFXII’s combat worked because rather than controlling only one character, you did control the entire party.

Xenoblade Chronicles is a bit different. It also has auto-attacks and this time you do only control one character. However, the battle speed is rather high and the game makes player positioning and paying attention to your party’s actions very important as different techniques chain together. Then throw in skills that recharge between battles, a large number of extra strong special monsters, and a generous continue system to balance that out, and you have a game that again requires a greater amount of player input than the average MMO.

Though, admittedly, the lack of direct party command is going to be divisive. As I said, skills link into one another and their combined effect is so great that actually commanding the whole party is considered a Super Move. But normally you can’t, meaning you have to wait around and hope the party does what you want them to. The idea being that it’s all about the power of Teamwork and that players have to work as a team with their party; it does keep players on their toes as they have to pay close attention to their party’s actions. However, players used to controlling the whole team and unwilling to accept the somewhat strange dynamic will find themselves filled with rage.

But, I am getting off-topic. The Korean made Magna Carta 2 avoids the issue by not having auto-attack and actually allowing the player to have direct control over their character and switch characters on the fly. Meanwhile White Knight Chronicles also allows direct character control but…well…I was not a fan of that game (which sucks because it’s why I bought a PS3).

So, while on it’s own Xenoblade Chronicles is not revoltuionary, it is part of a revoltuion. A revolution that looks to make JRPGs bigger, more open, more free, and more able to compete with their rising Western counterparts. While their battle systems still need a bit of work compared to many of their less MMO-esque counterparts, they are far from as bad as the average MMO and I’d still personally rather play them over 90%* of all Western RPGs.

*games in the 10% include Mass Effect and Kingdoms of Amalur because they know how a freaking battle system works. Good combat is kind of important.

Kinect: Artificial Success

April 7, 2012

The other day I was browsing through some of the comments on a game review when I found a quote that truly resonated with me:

“What people really hate about the Kinect is that it’s success is artificial.”

Good lord, that was the word I was looking for: Artificial.

It’s true, the Kinect’s success really could best be described as artificial. A manufactured victory in the so-called Motion Control Wars that people officially stopped caring about 5 months ago.

The Kinect rolled out with a $500 million ad campaign designed to get the product in people’s faces. They had to make it known to the public and they did. It was on every TV station, website, and newspaper across the country! It was touted as the “Next Big Thing”, carted out onto morning shows, and in some cases it was even given away! It even made the Guinness Book of World Records as “the best selling peripheral of all time”! Soon we would see reports of how the Kinect can be used to treat medical patients, control robots, and help people with disabilities. One website even said “Is there anything the Kinect can’t do?”

Yeah, play games.

Much like the Wii, many of the Kinect’s early supporters had spent little to no time with the unit. Even if they did give it a serious look, they’d often come to the conclusion that “It just needs more time”. But now that it has gotten more time, now that game after game has failed to work, people’s interest in the unit is waning.

Does calling the Kinect’s success artificial mean it has no good games? No, it doesn’t. The Kinect does have a few good games. They’re almost all dancing games with the excaption of Rise of Nightmares, but it has some good stuff here and there. The artificiality comes from it being touted as the new way to control all games, as the way of the future, as something more than it actually is. It’s just a peripheral with limited functionality, like a Dance Pad or Guitar Controller. It is not the wave of the future.

It’s at this point that someone brings up an important point: “Is it fun?”. Yes, frequently the argument will come to the question of the nebulous fun factor. Indeed, games are all about having fun and that’s what really matters at the end of the day! Not which controller is more accurate or how deep a game is, but how much fun it was to play!

The problem is that these “fun” arguments are usually then followed by either the statement “My 5-year old son…” or “Me and my friends got drunk and…”.

The issue with the 5-year old son argument is that he doesn’t really have any refined taste in gaming yet. As such, nearly anything would probably amuse him. Much of this comes from one fact: he doesn’t buy anything. Kids are still developing a sense of the value of money. The more things you have to spend your own money on, the more critical you get of things. When someone just gives you a Kinect, it’s the most magical thing in the world! I mean it does stuff no other peripheral can! It really is just like magic how you can control a game without any controller! This is why early reports on the Kinect, and the Wii back when it came out, were so positive. You’ve got your pack-in game, it does some neat tricks, and you think “This is only the beginning”. Then you spend $50 on a new game and watch as the ill concieved control scheme renders the game unplayable. Then you buy another, and another, and another. After about five different games cost you $50 and just plain don’t work for the exact same reasons, you start to realize that maybe this whole Kinect thing wasn’t such a good idea.

As for the “Me and my friends got drunk and…” argument? Well, getting drunk and making an ass of yourself is fun whether it involves a game or not! The Just Dance series bases it’s equally artificial success off of this game exact concept.

Let me just make one thing perfectly clear: controls that don’t work are not fun (not to the actual person playing anyway).

But perhaps the saddest thing about the current motion control argument is that many people come to the conclusion that current technology isn’t good enough but it will one day get there. People will argue if we really need to use motion control to play FPS games and that the technology shouldn’t be judged on that. But, if we support the Kinect, in the future the technology can become more accurate and then we can play FPS games with it!

…except that there’s already a current motion control technology that is more accurate and does play FPS games: the Playstation Move. It’s almost bizzare listening to people describe the Move in accurate detail and then insist that such a thing does not exist yet and may not even be possible. It’s like the Move has become the motion control equivalent of Ron Paul*! That, my friends, is just weird.

*like him or not, I watched a news program make a big deal about how Rick Santorum was in second place in the latest polls while showing a chart that had him in 3rd place and Ron Paul in second.