Sorry for the lack of posts!

I know it’s no excuse, but I’ve been a little busy lately.  The new release of Bioshock: Infinite (review coming soon!) and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate (my first Monster Hunter game – will probably write something about this at some point too!) have been taking all my free time after homework and studying.  Within the next few days, I should have a new, substantive post.

A Few Stray Thoughts on SimCity

Let’s talk about SimCity!

I know, it’s been talked to death.  Still, I would like to give my thoughts on it.  Especially since I don’t really have anything else to write about right now…

This whole debacle has been extremely interesting for me, a person who didn’t buy the game and can look at all this from the outside.  Every new comment for EA or hack from the community makes me both shake my head and laugh at how much EA has borked this whole thing.  Today, John Riccitiello actually stepped down as CEO of EA, something few people probably expected.  He had survived through disasters such as Star Wars: The Old Republic but didn’t manage to last through this shitstorm of a game release.  No one really knows if it was his own choice or pressure from the company, and we probably never will know for sure.

I don’t think him stepping down really proves that EA has learned anything from the SimCity launch.  No matter how bad things seem to get, EA is always ready to answer with some bullshit-filled press releases and infuriating quotes from PR and people who worked on the game in question.  Instead of taking the punishment in stride and actually thinking it through, it just refuses to back down.  I think it would be much easier for EA if did just take the blame.  So what if they fucked up, as long as they admit they did and try to fix things.  Stop trying to pretend that always-online games are automatically better for everyone; it always ends up that the paying customers get screwed over while the pirates find a better way to play the game, hassle-free.

Do I think EA ever will learn this lesson?  I’m not really sure.  The company sure has proven in the past that it REALLY doesn’t like to bend on matters like these.  We, the consumers, aren’t so stupid that we can’t tell when a game company is feeding us a hot load of bull.  It just makes them look way worse when they do eventually admit to the mistake (if they ever do; not a guarantee in EA’s case).

We will have plenty of chances to see how companies handle always-online games in the future.  I’m sure that as the years go on, we will see them more and more often.  Hopefully, by the time they become the norm, EA may actually figure out how to respect how its mistakes affect those consumers who pay for their products.

Tomb Raider review (PC)

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The Tomb Raider franchise has been all over the place in the decade and a half since it began.  The first three games were quite loved, but soon the quality started to decline and followers began to drop off.  A reboot, Angel of Darkness, was meant to start a new trilogy but failed to entice customers.  Crystal Dynamics was passed the torch, and they began a new trilogy.  These games were well-received, but Crystal Dynamics wasn’t happy with making the same old games.  They wanted to take the protagonist we all know and love and explore her roots.  A third reboot went into effect and now we have the new, simply-titled Tomb Raider.  This is the biggest change the series has ever seen, adopting an entirely different gameplay style.  While it doesn’t quite go in the direction some of us may have wanted, it is a sharply-made game that left me wondering just what will happen next for Lara.

This new Tomb Raider game is all about Lara Croft becoming the video game heroine she is meant to be.  She is fresh out of college and on her first archeological expedition along with the crew of the ship Endurance.  A storm hits one night and causes them to shipwreck on a mysterious island in something called the Dragon’s Triangle.  These storms prevent anyone from leaving the island, no matter how much they try.  Almost immediately, they are set upon by a strange, aggressive cult that seems to want them dead for reasons unknown.  Lara manages to escape and must learn to survive on the hostile island.

The story is very much about a scared young woman overcoming her fears in order to do what she has to do in order to survive.  Lara isn’t the grizzled veteran we know her to be in the other Tomb Raider games; her first few kills leave her pretty shaken.  Her very first kill actually brings her to tears, a reaction that maybe feels a bit direct but is still effective.  Of course, she soon kills a dozen more men and then hundreds more by the end of the game.  Crystal Dynamics tried to balance the absurd number of people Lara kills with the way she takes those deaths and it really works—at first.  As the game goes on, she becomes more hardened to the violence.  It never quite feels like she has become heartless and bloodthirsty, but she gripes less about what she must do as the game marches on.  Even though this character building doesn’t quite succeed, it’s the best I’ve ever seen a game do with this dissonance between a character’s personality and what that character is doing during the game.

The bigger problem in the dissonance category is that I often wondered how in the hell Lara survived everything that happens to her.  At the beginning of the game, she frees herself from a rope just to fall onto a piece of rebar.  It stabs her completely through the torso, in through the front and out the back.  For awhile, she holds her side and seems pained by it.  Pretty soon, however, it seems to be just fine; at least until later when it starts to pain her again and she has to cauterize the wound with a heated arrowhead.  It feels very inconsistent, how she can be winded and hurt at one moment but is just fine the next, even though she hasn’t patched herself up or even taken a rest.  These wounds also almost never seem to hinder her climbing ability, except for one or two parts in particular where she climbs slowly and groans as she does.  I understand the need to make a game fun to play and not hinder the player, but it really sucks all the believability out of the moment.  Even with all these complaints, I still really enjoyed the story.  It was interesting seeing Crystal Dynamics come up with this origin story for a new Lara.  There may be a bit of dissonance in the story, but I was still fascinated by the way she grew as a character.  I haven’t really seen anything like it and am intrigued to see where the next game will try to take her.

Fans of earlier Tomb Raider games may not like the changes that have been made to the gameplay.  Those games had a very unique feel, combining tricky platforming that required sharp timing and reflexes and an acrobatic and fast-paced shooting system.  This new Tomb Raider feels more like Crystal Dynamics copied Uncharted’s style in more than one area.  Both games have the third-person shooting (although Tomb Raider has no true cover system), the follow-the-obvious-path climbing, and the huge setpiece moments.  It even feels like an Uncharted game, in the way it moves and the way it plays.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as those games are pretty well-executed third-person shooters.  The unfortunate thing is that this robs Tomb Raider of some of its uniqueness, making it feel like a clone of another game when it could have been its own thing.

Of course, Tomb Raider isn’t exactly the same as Uncharted.  The way the game progresses is very different.  Tomb Raider is a bit of an open-world game but not in the way you might hope.  The loop is pretty much get an objective, climb and maneuver to get to the marker, and shoot some dudes on the way.  The enemies only appear when moving forward with the story, and they never respawn.  This means that there are a set number of combat encounters in the game, a number that I feel is just right.  Combat moves well and has some good options.  Lara starts with a bow and arrow but later finds a pistol, assault rifle, and shotgun.  Each weapon feels tailored to the job it is meant to perform: the bow is good for stealth, the shotgun is great close-up, and so on.  My personal favorite is the bow; in fact, it’s one of my favorite implementations of a bow in a video game.  It feels very different from the guns, requiring time to pull back an arrow and grab the next from the quiver.  The complete silence of it also helped to sell me on it.  I actually used just the bow for most of the game and had a great time slinking around and headshotting enemies silently.  It’s a bit harder to use in active combat, but the challenge made it a more rewarding weapon to use well.  Even if you hate the bow, the other guns do their jobs well.

Melee is also part of the combat, but it isn’t that important.  At first, Lara can’t do any melee attacks.  As she finds new equipment, such as a climbing axe, she can unlock the ability to perform counter moves after a dodge or just straight-up chop at a guy’s body.  It works okay for countering the enemies who run at you (of which there are several) but trying to run up and axe a guy with a gun is just going to get her killed.  Nice to have but not really necessary to finish the game.  These kill animations also jar heavily with the tone of the game.  For someone who is squeamish about violence towards another human, Lara sure doesn’t mind shoving an arrow into someone’s throat.  It’s a minor complaint, but it just adds to that dissonance I mentioned earlier.

The rest of the game has Lara exploring the island for collectibles or just moving on to the next objective.  If you’ve played an Uncharted game, you will understand how most of the climbing works.  There are a few differences, mainly the climbing axe and its requirement of an active button push to jam the axe into the wall, but it’s very similar.  This means that it is also quite easy, requiring little in the way of timing or skill.  Most of the paths are straightforward and just have you holding up until she makes it.  I would have liked to see a bit more challenge in this part of the game.  As the game progresses, Lara receives new tools to open new areas in a light Metroidvania style.  Some examples of this are rope arrows for making bridges and the climbing axe that lets her climb a different kind of wall.  It never goes quite far enough down this path (at least for me), but it still gives you good reasons to go back to re-explore old areas for collectibles.

Wrapping all of this together is a light leveling system.  Lara earns XP from killing soldiers, finishing objectives, and finding collectibles.  Every level earns her a point to spend on a small list of skills.  These do things like highlighting collectibles with her Survival Instincts (similar to Detective Vision from the Batman games) or letting her hold the bowstring back longer.  More of these open as the game progresses.  None of these skills do anything too radical, but they do make you feel like Lara is learning how to survive, adapting to her environment.  You can also find salvage, both on enemies and in chests around the environment.  Salvage is used for upgrading Lara’s weapons.  Want a silencer for your pistol?  Spend some salvage.  More draw on your bowstring?  Spend some salvage.  These upgrades are locked until the appropriate level of weapon has been reached.  New versions of the weapons can be unlocked by finding weapon parts in those same chests.  Enough parts change the look of the weapon and unlock new upgrades.  These systems are light but influence the gameplay enough to be meaningful and worth spending points/salvage on.

The biggest problem I had with Tomb Raider was the extremely high frequency of the Uncharted-like setpiece moments.  These are scripted scenes with very little need for player control, usually just having you hold the stick forward and jumping on occasion.  SEVERAL times during the game, these scenes take place on collapsing bridges.  While these scenes are very flashy and well-realized, they are also extremely boring to play.  These scenes also add to the dissonance of just how Lara can survive all this craziness. I don’t like scenes like these because they wrest most of the control away from the player.  If I wanted to watch a movie, I would go and watch a movie.  When I’m playing a game, I want control during most of the game.  I wouldn’t be so irritated if these scenes were infrequent, but they happen all the time, almost more so than the Uncharted games!  A few of these flashy moments are fine, but Tomb Raider has too many for my liking.

Tomb Raider is a breathtaking game, particularly on the PC (the platform I played it on).  You traverse through some beautiful environments and see some gorgeous vistas, especially when transitioning to a new zone.  The level of detail is pretty intense; it is easy to see why it took Crystal Dynamics so long to get this game out.  My particular favorite scenes are ones where a high level of wind is blowing around the area you are travelling through.  Shutters clap, Lara’s hair flutters with the wind, and she puts up a hand and steels herself against the gale.  It’s quite impressive.  The animations are also quite good, like how she puts down her torch to open a door.  It isn’t always perfect, with some odd glitches here and there, but that’s to be expected in the first game in a reboot series.  I also liked some of the smaller touches, how water will clean the dirt and blood off of her and how her new gear would show up on her model.  Tomb Raider even does the Batman trick of having her outfit get worn down over the course of the game, shredded and covered in blood.  It really helps remind you how much she has been through.  As a last side note, I think Crystal Dynamics also worked the tutorial messages into the game very organically.  Where they appear on the screen and the way they seem to actually fit into the environment is done extremely well.  A small part of the game but done in a sharp way.

As for the music, it does its job adequately.  There are a few moments where it really shines, particularly near the end sequences, but it didn’t really stand out to me otherwise.  Sound effects, on the other hand, are terrific.  Sharp gunshots, howling winds, and torrential rainfall are all captured beautifully.  Lara is constantly groaning and gasping from exertion (and emotion), a feature that seems minor but one that helps to sell the character’s reality.  It is much more believable that she is being worn down when her VO gets so stressed.  The voice acting is serviceable, with Lara’s being the best of the bunch.  She had the hardest job of all, selling Lara’s distress and reluctance to do these things that she must, but she does it quite well.  I look forward to hearing more from her in the future.

Crystal Dynamics spent a long time with this reboot, but it clearly made a difference for the final product.  Tomb Raider is a game that takes Lara Croft and her fans in an entirely new direction, one that some may not like.  While seeing the birth of such a beloved video game heroine is interesting, the gameplay could still use a little refinement in order to find a style that is more unique.  The tone of the game doesn’t always quite line up with what I think Crystal Dynamics intended, but it gets the point across, trying to humanize a video game character in a way that hasn’t been done before.  We don’t know where Lara is going next, but thanks to the strength of this first outing, I’m excited to find out.

The True Power of Your Site Visits

Like most people nowadays, I use an ad-blocker when I go online.  I made the switch to Firefox a year or so ago and installed Ad-Block at about the same time.  It made a world of difference in the quality of my web-viewing experience, and I haven’t looked back since.  A few days ago, gaming site Destructoid posted an interesting article regarding ad-blockers and their website’s revenue.  Using a third-party site called BlockMetrics, they were able to determine that roughly 40-45% of their users blocked ads on their website.  That’s about half of their ad revenue going straight down the drain.

I never really put much thought into how my Ad-Block usage might be hurting sites I enjoy visiting.  I’m sure that many of you are the same way.  Ads can range from non-obtrusive, simply displaying product information and logos, to horrible ads that pop over your screen (quite rare nowadays) or play video/audio automatically.  As soon as someone has a terrible ad experience like this, I can’t really blame them for installing a solution to prevent it from happening again.  I didn’t really feel like I needed to install Ad-Block when I did finally install it, but I knew that I would rather just block everything instead of taking the risk of being irritated.

You may be surprised at just how hurtful this can be to sites you like.  A large percentage of that site’s revenue, probably most of it, comes from these ads.  When a blocker program prevents you from seeing those ads, the site doesn’t get the hit for your view, meaning less money in their pockets.  A site that grows more popular by the day won’t see a similar increase in funds because of these blocker programs.  This is how big sites like 1UP and Gamespy can close down and is probably one of the major factors of any site that does end up having to shut down.  Many sites, such as Giant Bomb, offer subscription packages both to convenience their visitors and to help recoup some of that lost revenue.  Unfortunately, not every site can pull something like that off.

It’s really sad to think of writers not getting paid for their work, especially for someone like me who would like to be in that line of work some day.  As much as people tend to complain about “professional” game journalists, they are something we need in the industry.  They bring us the information we want with previews (although PR makes this hard; a topic for another day) and release-day reviews.  They have access to interview developers and learn things about the industry that we never could.  The best of them poke and prod at industry failings and speak out about what needs to change.  We get some of this from individuals on the Internet who don’t work at a publication or those who freelance, but those writers who do work professionally have more connections.  They can do more interesting things thanks to the place they work at and the people they know (even though some of them don’t currently).  Those writers will never get a chance to push games forward if they are out of work.

Advertising on websites is in a very strange place right now.  The old ways aren’t really working as well as they used to, and no one knows where to go next.  The best way we can help prevent talented writers from being put out of work is to ensure that our ad-blockers aren’t hurting them.  After reading that Destructoid article, I made sure to turn my blocker off for the sites I truly care about (Destructoid, Joystiq, Rock Paper Shotgun, etc.).  I won’t make excuses for having it turned on in the first place; I should have known better and wish I could give back the revenue I lost those sites.  Please do the same if you use one of these programs.  A little bit of annoyance for us goes a long way to supporting great games journalism.

Reference – Destructoid

The Pros and Cons of TressFX

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Tomb Raider has just come out, and I’m already greatly enjoying it.  It was one of my most anticipated games of last year, until it was delayed to 2013.  A few days ago, right before the game came out, I heard something about this new hair-rendering technology that would be included in the PC version called TressFX.  I went and looked up this tech and was intrigued by what I read.  Most intriguing was how it would much more realistically render individual strands of hair instead of the blocky groups of polygons that most hair in games use.  Realistic hair is something I’ve dreamed about in video games.  The few games that manage to do something more realistic, such as Alice: Madness Returns, are breathtaking.  I’m not ashamed to admit that it made me even more excited for Tomb Raider as I read about it.

Of course, I turned it on the first time I played the game, eager to see how it worked.  At first, I was blown away by the level of detail.  The tech seems to render the hair as individual strands that move according to what is going on.  It was quite impressive for the first thirty minutes or so.  After that point, the reality of the technology was starting to set in.  There are a few issues with the tech (widespread or just on my machine, I don’t know) that need to be ironed out before the hair I dreamed of ever since this generation started is possible.

First, and most noticeable, is the strange way the technology seems to try and prevent the hair strands from clipping into Lara’s body.  If you look closely, you can see what looks like some kind of field a few inches off the character model (very noticeable around the shoulders in particular).  The hair will just sit there and not actually touch her shoulders.  I see why the game renders it that way, as I’m sure that preventing clipping of models is still a very hard-to-solve issue for game developers.  However, it looks very unrealistic.  I’m sure that it will be the concern most people have about TressFX when they start playing, and it may be a severe turnoff for some of them.  I think it just looks too strange, for a tech that is supposed to be about realism.

Another issue I have with TressFX is that the individual strands of hair seem to be a little TOO responsive to the physics elements at work in the world of Tomb Raider.  It seems like every slight jerk of the character or gust of wind makes the hair blow about crazily.  Maybe it’s just that I’m not used to more realistic hair in my video games, but it looks like the physics aren’t quite right.  It’s hard to explain what I mean without seeing in action.  Shadows from the hair strands also look pretty grungy.  It’s almost as if they didn’t alias these shadows, as they look pretty blocky and unrealistic.

The reason for this may be that TressFX is quite intensive on the computer.  I could run the game at 60 FPS easily without it turned on, but the FPS dropped about half as soon as I did.  Other accounts I’ve read online say that some computers get unplayable framerates with it turned on.  Since the game has to realistically render all of these strands of hair in real-time, it can have a pretty severe effect on the framerate.  I’m assuming the tech is GPU-based, so it will probably get better with some drivers and newer video cards.  NVIDIA seems to already be at work on updated drivers to fix some of these issue, but the performance hit is quite the problem now.

Right now, I don’t feel that TressFX is worth having on.  It looks too odd and unrealistic for me to want to bother with the framerate hit.  I’m hoping that some optimization with patches and drivers will fix my issues, so I can use the technology on a second playthrough of Tomb Raider.  Even with these issues, I still think TressFX is a good step in the right direction.  I’m all for additional realism in character design, wherever I can get it.  The hair does look really nice; the physics elements of the simulation can just be a tad bit jarring.  I can’t wait to see what future iterations of this technology look like.

Review – Silent Hill: Downpour (PS3)

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Silent Hill is one of the granddaddies of horror gaming.  It created a now-infamous town that brings out the worst side of people; a place where the true horrors are the psychological ones, not the creatures that wander the foggy streets.  Many will cite the second game in the series as their favorite survival-horror game of all time, a true masterpiece of psychological horror.  In more recent years, the Silent Hill franchise hasn’t been doing so well.  It seems that Konami doesn’t really know what it wants to do with the series or what it should do to entice its core audience again.  Ever since Origins, they have even been letting other developers give the series a shot.  The latest game in the franchise, Silent Hill: Downpour, was given to Vatra Games.  While it is probably the best Silent Hill game since 3, it still has some pretty glaring issues that make it a rough journey.

This Silent Hill game puts players in the shoes of Murphy Pendleton, a prison inmate.  After a convenient (or is it?) bus accident frees him from his imprisonment, he stumbles upon the nearby town of Silent Hill and tries to escape to true freedom.  Right from the get-go, questions are raised about his past.  He doesn’t really seem like the kind of guy to be a prisoner, but several hints are given about the terrible things he might have done and what has happened to him in his past.  These hints are fleshed out as he ventures deeper into Silent Hill, the place where everyone’s secrets are revealed.

I was extremely interested to learn about Murphy as I progressed deeper into the game.  Vatra did a great job of teasing things about the character, making me want to know more.  Why did he supposedly kill a man in the opening scenes?  What happened to his son that we only see in flashbacks?  Why are there so many wheelchairs in this world?  The answers to these questions are trickled out to the player over the course of the eight-ish hours of gameplay.  Unfortunately, these interesting plot elements start becoming more and more predictable as the story progresses.  The game does have a few true surprises, but most of the moments are fairly easy to see coming.  Character interactions are also pretty strange to watch, even for the standards of a Silent Hill game.  One particular character doesn’t give Murphy a chance to speak and explain things, instead opting to always yell at him and point a gun in his direction.  If she would just let him talk for five minutes, so much trouble could have been avoided.  Another character seems completely superfluous, just meant to spout nonsense and be eerie.  I was constantly back and forth between being enthralled in what was going on and shaking my head at a weird piece of dialogue or strange decision made by a character.  It makes the story feel even stranger, although not in a way you may expect or even want.

Gameplay is just as you would expect if you are a fan of the series, alternating between combat with terrifying creatures and free exploration of Silent Hill.  Sadly, the combat in Downpour is easily the worst in the series.  While it greatly resembles combat from the earlier games in the franchise, those games have the excuse of being “acceptable” for the time they came out.  This level of button-mashing and bad lock-on targeting isn’t acceptable in today’s gaming market.  No skill is ever needed; just block and counter to win every fight in the game.  Most of the time, it’s easy to just avoid combat with enemies.  Unfortunately, Downpour has a tendency to force you into combat situations, something a game with such a bad fighting system SHOULD NOT do.  The fighting is never fun and just made me groan every time I had to stop exploring to tussle with another enemy.

Speaking of exploration, Downpour has taken a big step forward since the disappointing linearity of Homecoming.  There is a huge amount of real estate to explore in Silent Hill this time around and, for the first time in the series, side quests to find hidden amongst the fog.  These side quests are quite creative and oftentimes fun to complete.  A few of the moments from the side quests are actually some of the best in the game.  I hate to spoil one, but just imagine a movie theater where the movie reels project into another world.  Sounds pretty cool, right?  Sadly, these side quests are also a bit hard to find without exploring intensely. Odds are, most players will miss out on them.  There are a few pretty amazing moments in the main story too (especially a scene feature an interactive play production of Hansel and Gretel).  The Otherworld also returns in Downpour but in a new way.  These sections greatly resemble a mix of classic Silent Hill gameplay and the chase mechanics from Shattered Memories, complete with a button for looking behind you to see what is nipping at your heels.  It was very cool to see this homage to my personal favorite Silent Hill game, but these segments get a little old by the end of the game.  The thing chasing you is always the same, and these sections tend to rely on trial-and-error to find the right path to safety.  Puzzles have also gotten much better, since Homecoming’s unbelievably easy ones.  They never get as hard as some of the ones from the first couple games, but there are some clever elements weaved in here and there.  I chose to play Downpour on a puzzle difficulty of Hard, which may have been the reason why they were at least good.  I have no idea if they are as well done on easier difficulties.

Downpour is a decent-looking game but rarely does anything special with the visuals.  Most impressive are the Otherworld sections.  Vatra’s art team went absolutely nuts with these sections.  I could describe them, but I really don’t want to spoil the surprises for anyone who plays them.  Let me just say that they do a lot more than just using metal grating for floors and giant fans (although both of those things are present) like previous games in the series.  As for the creature design, it didn’t really impress me.  None of the creatures from previous games (at least to my knowledge) make an appearance here, and that is really for the worse.  Most creatures resemble humans too closely with none of the creativity present in earlier Silent Hill games – even the last one.  Enemy variety is also sparse, so you will see a lot of the few types that are present.

The real problem with the technical side of the game, however, is the way it runs.  Texture pop-in is extremely prevalent and VERY frequent, especially when switching environments.  Load times are rather long; again, especially when switching environments.  Worst of all, the game is one of the most hitchy I have ever played (PS3 version).  It constantly jerks and twitches when running around town as (I guess?) it tries to load things in.  Interior environments fare better but aren’t immune to the problem.  The whole graphics package is a little rough overall (I’m unsure if other versions fare better).

Another important thing to note is that this game has NO way to save it manually.  The only option is to let the game autosave, which it chooses to do seemingly at random.  Most of the time, it will save when you pick up any important item.  I’ve also had it save when leaving a building but not always.  It’s very inconsistent and cost me game progress once or twice before I learned to be cautious.  I urge anyone playing the game to wait for the “Saving…” message to appear in the upper-right corner before turning the game off.  It’s frustrating; games shouldn’t do this – period.

This marks the first entry in the series to not have the musical talents of Akira Yamaoka.  If you’ve played a Silent Hill game in the past, you will immediately notice the difference.  The music feels different but not in a way that I can put into words (I’m terrible at describing music).  The best way I can describe it is that it just isn’t as atmospheric as Yamaoka’s tracks.  It isn’t bad for video game music, but it falls into that category of game music that I describe as forgettable: I won’t be remembering these tracks 10 years down the line, while tracks from 2 and 3 are still stuck in my head.

Silent Hill: Downpour is a bit of a rough package.  The technical side of the game is extremely rough, and the combat is some of the worst I’ve ever played.  However, Vatra Games made some very interesting design choices in the exploration and story sides of the game that feel closer to the first three Silent Hill games than any other since.  I think they are on the right track here and should be given another go at the franchise.  If they can work out the technical kinks and figure out a better combat system, I could see them reviving the franchise in a way that would make the original creators proud and bring back all those fans that have been crying out for a true sequel.