Donkey Kong Country Returns (Wii) review

I am a tremendous fan of the original three Donkey Kong Country games on the Super Nintendo.  I spent dozens, if not hundreds, of hours playing those games over and over again.  I loved the art style, the variety of stages, the tightness of the platforming, and the timeless music.  When it was announced that another Donkey Kong Country game was being made, I was ecstatic.  Retro being the studio to craft this new adventure was even more exciting.  Unfortunately, it took me until recently to finally get to play it, due to not owning a Wii to play it on.  When I picked up a Wii U, this was one of the first things I bought–and I had a blast with it.  While I’m not a fan of a few of the design decisions made by Retro, Donkey Kong Country Returns is still a great blast from the past for fans of the series.

There is a story reason to encourage you through the eight worlds of Donkey Kong Country Returns, but it doesn’t really matter.  All you need to know is that Donkey Kong has had his bananas stolen again, and you have to get them back.  The structure of the game is pretty identical to the SNES classics: each world is broken up into several stages, ending with a boss stage.  Branching paths on the world map can be accessed with keys bought from Cranky’s store, but this isn’t necessary unless you are a completionist.  After finishing the game, players have the option to collect the KONG letters from every stage in a world to open a secret level containing an orb.  Collecting all these orbs opens a final world to conquer (which I didn’t actually do as of this review’s writing).  If you’ve played any 2D platformers in the past, you know how this works.

Similarly, the gameplay itself is also quite similar.  Donkey Kong can jump on baddies heads and roll through them just like always.  The biggest change is that you no longer control Diddy Kong (or whoever the other Kong is in later games) as a separate character; instead, having Diddy Kong around just extends the life bar of the player and adds a hover to the jump, courtesy of Diddy’s jetpack. Each Kong gets two hits before croaking, double of what the original games granted.  You will always want to have him around for the simplicity he brings to several of the game’s platforming sections and the extra hits you can take.  Donkey Kong himself also has a few new moves–a blowing move and a ground smash.  Unfortunately, both of these moves MUST be triggered with the motion control of the Wii.  Even worse is that his trademark roll also requires a shake to trigger.  This meant that I barely used the roll because of how unreliably it would often be.  I really would have liked at least an option to forego the motion controls.  Other than that, it plays just like I remember it from when I was a kid.

Another issue I had was that Donkey Kong Country Returns is quite unforgiving.  I would try and say that the original trilogy on the SNES was a cakewalk, but the difficulty always felt fair to me.  If I ate it on a section, I was just playing really poorly.  That still applies in Returns for the most part, but the mine cart and new rocket levels (which are touchy to control, in addition–think Lunar Lander’s thrust controls) are rough.  Touching anything will immediately kill the player, regardless of health.  I don’t mind challenge, but it has to be a fair level of challenge.  Having to perfectly memorize a stage to just pass it isn’t fun; a small margin of error should be allowed to keep things enjoyable.  I don’t feel like these stages keep with the spirit of the older games in the series.

Donkey Kong Country Returns manages to look quite good for a non-HD game.  Retro uses a bunch of color and stylistic choices in order to draw attention away from the fuzziness of the graphics, but it may bug you if you are easily annoyed by that sort of thing.  Some of the stages, such as a pair of contrasted Limbo-esque (or Shank-esque) levels and some neat tricks with foreground and background switching.  My only disappointment, and this is a bit of a nag, is that there aren’t any underwater or ice stages, some of my favorite from earlier games in the series.

The original Donkey Kong Country soundtrack is probably one of my favorite SNES soundtracks ever.  Each track is amazingly unique, and I love every single one of them.  I feel Retro did a great job of using the base melodies of those tracks but also managed to infuse of bit of their own style into them.  Several tracks from the original game made it into Returns, usually remixed to fit better in the modern game.  I loved hearing all the superb music that I remember so well, and all the remixed versions are excellent.  I didn’t even mind the few new tracks that popped up here and there.  Again, it would have been nice to have the ice and water stages, just so I could have heard that music as well.

I’m so glad I finally got to play Donkey Kong Country Returns after missing out on it originally; I’m even more glad that it turned out so damn well.  Most newer games that try to recapture what made the original great crash and burn so horribly that they sour me on the original game I loved.  Retro managed to avoid this fate and make a new DKC game that I am perfectly willing to consider part of the family.  The motion controls and rough difficulty spikes may not make it as enjoyable as it could have been, but the rest of the package shines so brightly that I can’t help but enjoy it.  Anyone who loved the original DKC games should definitely give this game a go.

Dead Space 3 (X360) review

The Dead Space franchise is one of my favorite new franchises from this generation.  The first game was a modern survival horror game done right, taking place in an interesting and well-realized space setting with some clever creature design and tight combat.  The second game built upon everything that was great in the first game, creating a sequel that was actually better than the original.  Dead Space 2 was a bit less about the horror and more about the action, but it suited the style of the game well.  I feel that Visceral actually struck the perfect balance between horror and action in Dead Space 2.  As you may know, EA wanted an even more actiony game with Dead Space 3.  This meant shared ammo between weapons, huge open environments, and a co-op mode.  All of these changes sounded terrible, but I wanted to believe that Visceral could still pull it off–and they did so…mostly.  While Dead Space 3 doesn’t come close to the level of Dead Space 2, it does manage to pack a lot of entertainment into one $60 package.

Dead Space 3 is once again about space engineer Isaac Clarke.  He is pretty fucked up after the events of the first two games, drinking heavily and falling behind on his rent due to his inability to work.  All he wants to do is try to forget all about Markers and Necromorphs.  Unfortunately, Ellie doesn’t feel the same way.  She wants to stop these things from ever happening again and leaves Isaac to do so.  When she goes missing and her team loses contact, they recruit Isaac for his knowledge of the Markers.  He can’t refuse and is pulled once again into this conflict.  The Unitologists are also involved, lead by a man named Jacob Davik, and are activating Markers and killing UAC soldiers in order to ensure Convergence comes to pass.  Of course, Isaac is forced to deal with them as well as the Necromorphs in order to save Ellie and end this thing once and for all.

The story starts off rather strong, but I felt it didn’t live up to what it could have been.  Dead Space 2 was full of moments where Isaac’s sanity started to wane; Dead Space 3 doesn’t do a single thing with Isaac’s mental condition, even though he seems even more mental than before.  Instead, they focus on the origins of the Markers and if there is a way to stop them.  This isn’t a terrible story idea, but it doesn’t pay off well.  The ending is almost guaranteed to leave you either wondering what the developers were smoking or laughing hysterically instead.  Another large issue is that the characters are pretty terrible.  I found myself barely caring for most the game about them or the events they were going through.  Davik could have been a cool villain, (especially voiced by Simon Templeman, the actor behind Kain from Blood Omen)  but he pops into the story at the strangest times and has some bland, cliche dialogue.  Ellie’s new beau, Norton, is somehow even worse; I guarantee you will HATE him by the end of the game.  Not only are these characters bad, but they spout some pretty lame dialogue too (including the groan-inducing use of the phrase “dead space”).  I do think it is worth seeing for fans of the series, but all other players can just ignore it contentedly.

The game itself starts off pretty strong (after a short human-fighting section).  You first travel to a derelict fleet of ships in space.  This is the Dead Space setting you will be familiar with if you’ve played previous games in the franchise–tight corridors, zero-gravity sections, and plenty of Necros to blast to pieces.  The coolest part is that Isaac gets a shuttle and can freely move between each of these ships.  When he arrives at a particular vessel, there is a large space area around the ship itself that can also be explored for loot (get to that later).  As a huge fan of the zero-G sections from these games, I really enjoyed this part of the game.  Later, the story of course moves to the ice planet seen in all the pre-release coverage.  These areas are much more open and start to introduce more and more soldier enemies as the game proceeds.  The game definitely slows down and becomes less fun at this point, especially as the story starts to really go nuts.  Dead Space, to me, is all about those tightly confined corridors so I had a very hard time enjoying the ice planet at all; this is a huge problem considering it is most of the game’s length.

Dead Space 3’s also has the problem of too often relying on the formula of “go to the quest marker, fix this giant piece of space machinery, fight some Necros, repeat.”  You fix a LOT of space machinery in this game, which always looks cool but isn’t particularly challenging or enthralling.  Previous games were a bit like this too, but this game really likes to separate Isaac from the others, forcing a story beat to take even longer to complete.  It’s quite annoying.  Another reason the game might drag is the new optional missions.  These are often paired with a small story to keep them moving and end with a large amount of loot for completing it.  Unfortunately, they aren’t interesting enough to be worth doing, unless you want that loot.  They are very repetitive (but at least have separate environments) and just feel like extra padding for length.

An interesting new feature added to Dead Space 3 is the co-op mode.  Instead of the competitive multiplayer from DS2, Visceral opted to include the option to play through the entire game with another person, who plays as broish soldier Carver.  Visceral tried to place a bit of backstory for him to make him relevant, but it doesn’t really pan out (at least, not in single player).  It is the exact same campaign, no matter which way you play it.  This doesn’t mean that single players have a companion foisted upon them (thank God!); the game is actually a bit different, just having Carver randomly appear at times for story moments (which is more than a little weird) and vanishing again when gameplay resumes.  The campaign seems very much tuned to two people no matter how you play it.  Enemies have a tendency to ALWAYS spawn behind you and there are quite a few of them to deal with.  It certainly feels like more enemies that previous games but maybe I’m mistaken.  I will note that I did not actually play any of the co-op.  This is due to the fact that I rented DS3, and the co-op required an Online Pass to use.  I’m not sure how I feel about a cooperative game having an Online Pass, but this feels less important with the knowledge that EA will not be using them in future games.  I still don’t appreciate its inclusion here, but it doesn’t really matter all that much at this point in time.

Let’s talk about the gameplay.  If you’re anything like me, you LOVE the sharp third-person action that Dead Space games bring.  Happily, I can tell you that the core gameplay of Dead Space 3 is just as fun as its ever been; blowing Necromorphs to pieces with a variety of weaponry is still immensely fun and doesn’t ever get old.  It feels pretty much exactly like DS2–tight and responsive controls, the ability to run and reload at the same time, and dismemberment galore.  I wasn’t expecting Visceral to suddenly fuck up the gameplay, but it is nice to note that it still feels fun three games in.  Of course, a big change is that Isaac now has to fight soldiers with guns every so often.  You may think that this would feel absolutely terrible with the types of guns Isaac has, but it actually doesn’t play too badly.  Unsurprisingly, soldiers are MUCH easier to kill than Necros; a blast or two to the head usually does them in.  Because of this, these sections are made very tolerable.  I won’t call them fun or necessary segments (and they really pack them in near the endgame, which can get annoying), but they are loads better than I would have thought possible.  The absolute worst new addition to the gameplay are these rappelling sections, where Isaac is forced to climb up or down a wall.  The first time or two I did these, they were kinda cool as setpiece moments.  By the end of the game, I had been forced into them probably a dozen times, getting more and more frustrated with them as they accrued.  Several of these sections have instant death mechanics that can be hard to dodge without trial-and-error to know when they happen.  Many of them also force you to fight a large number of enemies at the same time, which can be tricky since your range of movement is so limited.  I really came to hate these segments as the game wore on, as they slowed down the pace of the game for a mechanic that wasn’t really that fun or inventive.  I feel it would have been much better to simply not include them.

Of course, probably the most meaningful change made to the Dead Space style is the new weapon building and upgrades system.  Instead of pre-defined weapons found/bought as the game progresses, Isaac must build his weapons at benches.  Every weapon is made up of two basic parts: a frame that defines what size of weapon it is (one or two-handed) and a tip that determines the type of gun it is.  Various attachments, such as scopes, and modifiers, such as shock ammo, can also be attached.  Parts and materials to build new parts can be found lying around the world.  Materials can also be harvested with the new scavenger bots.  You use the radar on the bot to find the best spot for deployment, and it does the job for you.  Ten minutes later, the bot shows up at your bench with new materials.  Overall, the weapon building system is pretty fun.  Crafting a destructive new weapon with which you can lay waste to the game’s various difficulty settings scratches that creativity itch–or you can just find the best stuff online and make that.  I enjoyed playing around with different weapon types, and I recommend doing the same thing on your playthrough.

Of course, EA being EA, you can also opt to spend real dollars for packs of resources and weapon parts.  Thankfully, the option to buy them with an in-game currency called ration seals also exists.  These seals come solely from scavenger bots, and take awhile to accrue, but it is entirely possible to build up enough for several packs in one playthrough of the game.  The even sleazier packs upgrade the bots themselves in a variety of ways.  One halves the time the bots take to get back to the bench; another ensures you receive more ration seals from bot scavenging (essentially a coin doubler).  These upgrades really aren’t necessary (and I can’t stress that enough–don’t spend money on these) since you get so many free resources and parts just playing the game.  As always, these microtransactions are completely avoidable for a savvy gamer–but that doesn’t make them any less sleazy in a game that already cost $60 new and includes an Online Pass.

As was the case in the previous two Dead Space games, the visual and sound design is top-notch.  Visceral is unmatched in creating spaceship environments, making them feel like real ships instead of conveniently designed game levels.  Of course, the lighting and UI design are also absolutely fantastic, just as you would expect from Visceral at this point.  Sound-wise, the score is pretty so-so.  My rule with game music is that if I don’t particularly remember any of the music after I’ve played a game, it is probably underwhelming; that rule applies here.  Space sound effects are just as great as always, with everything going quiet when you are out in a vacuum (one of my favorite touches) except for Isaac’s breathing.  I mentioned the voice acting problem earlier: groan-worthy dialogue mixed with some middling voice performances.  It’s certainly not the worst out there, but it drags the game’s enjoyability down a bit.  Overall, the presentation is sharp and appealing, only hampered by the meh voice acting.

Looking back over my review, I feel that I was pretty harsh.  However, I think I ended up liking the game more as a whole than the individual pieces and systems.  I mentioned that I rented the game from Gamefly earlier; I would also like to note that I immediately bought the PC version of Dead Space 3 after I sent it back.  Something about the weapon-building system and the lengthy list of collectables and unlockables (handily noted in a checklist, by the way) drew me back in for a second go.  I still don’t think that Dead Space 3 is a worthy successor to Dead Space 2 (but what is?), but I do commend Visceral for managing to craft a suitable ender to a great new franchise.  I would like to see a DS4 on next-gen platforms, returning to the horror elements, but I sadly know that will probably never happen.  I hold DS2 as the pinnacle of the franchise, but I believe Dead Space 3 is still worth playing.

Why Dead Space 3 was a failure

EA has just posted their earnings call for last quarter.  Big surprise, they are saying that Dead Space 3 (and Crysis 3, but who really cares about that?) didn’t meet the grand expectations they had anticipated for it.

Who didn’t see this one coming?

Here is a great franchise that probably won’t exist anymore because EA didn’t know how to properly sell the title.  Changing the mechanics to suit a more action-oriented playstyle may have pulled in a decent new group of people, but it most likely alienated a fair share of those who loved the first two entries in the series.  I played through DS3 pretty recently (review coming shortly!) and definitely thought it was the weakest entry yet in the franchise.  Still, kudos to Visceral Games for still making it a fantastic game–just not one that lines up with my, and other fans’, expectations of how the game should have been.

EA needs to figure this out before they kill any other fantastic IPs.  Every game isn’t destined to be a top-selling blockbuster hit; some games are inevitably going to have a smaller audience in today’s gaming market.  The trick (says someone with no knowledge of actually putting out a game, mind you) is to manage the budget and financial expectations of a game based on the size of the potential audience.  A smaller, scale DS3 would have been slightly disappointing after the fantastic DS2, but it would probably have been truer to the original tone of the series and may have been more palatable to fans.

With the gaming market as hit-or-miss as it is nowadays, publishers need to figure out the best way to make these smaller-market games successful with the right size and budget for the product.  It is unfair for developers to be shuttered or moved to new, lesser projects just because the publishers don’t have a proper knowledge of the industry.  Making games doesn’t need to be so hostile; it’s just that a new way needs to be found for these more niche titles coming from a large publisher.

Source – Seeking Alpha

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Xbox 360) review

metal-gear-rising-revengeance-3

The history of Metal Gear Rising makes for a potentially suspect final product.  It was shown at E3 2010 to modest praise and then was promptly forgotten about (by both Konami and fans) for years.  When it was announced that Platinum was taking over development, some people were worried about the strength of the product.  Platinum’s track record is quite good, but how would they handle this game that was unceremoniously dumped into their laps?  While it is pretty obvious in a few places that Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance was developed by multiple studios, the mechanics at its core are solid fun action gaming.

Metal Gear Rising has you playing once again as Raiden, everyone’s favorite complaint from Metal Gear Solid 2.  However, this isn’t whiny, hard-to-care-about Raiden; he’s in full badass-cyborg mode like he appeared in MGS4.  He now works for a company called Maverick that hires out as security to protect VIPs.  When a job goes wrong, the group tries to stop the terrorists behind it.  As you may expect, it reveals a plot to destroy the world as we know it, requiring Raiden to fight his way forward at any cost.

Metal Gear Rising’s story is about as crazy as you would expect a melding of Konami’s introspective story style and Platinum’s batshit crazy flair.  We may never know how much of the story was the result of one studio or the other, but I can at least tell you what I think happened.  It seems to me that the base plot was developed by Konami.  Many of the themes touched upon definitely feel like they belong in a Metal Gear game, such as the horror of child soldiers.  However, it seems that Platinum sprinkled on a healthy dose of their magic juice to make it reflective of their own style.  I could easily see many of crazier moments coming directly from Platinum’s influence–but of course, I don’t know for sure.

Oftentimes, Rising is hilarious: even when it isn’t trying to be (or is it?).  Many of the plot twists are laughably flimsy or ridiculous, and the game doesn’t seem to care.  The characters that inhabit this world are stereotypical but often amusing in their portrayal.  You will probably guess the final boss’ identity before the final minutes of the game, but the form that he/she takes is so stupid that you will chuckle at its ridiculousness.  This absurdity can make it hard to really care about the themes in place, but, in the end, it doesn’t really matter.  My enjoyment of the story purely came from just how insane it was, just like other Platinum games.  I didn’t really care about the characters or what was going on in the story; I just wanted the next Platinum moment to come along and knock me out of my seat.

Where Rising redeems itself is in the combat department.  Combat is pretty much what is expected from an action game of this type, such as in God of War, but with two distinct differences.  The first is the unique parry system.  Unlike most action games which do a parry as a well-timed block, Rising forces you to both push in the direction of the enemy and hit the attack button.  How well you time this parry gives you one of three results: you go way too early or way too late and whiff entirely, you parry with non-perfect timing and reflect the attack, or you parry perfectly and counter-attack.  The timing for a counter-attack parry in particular is very specific, requiring near-perfect reflexes to pull off with consistency.  Later enemies seem to get trickier with this timing.  Proper use of this mechanic makes the game MUCH easier and is an almost necessary skill on harder difficulties.

The other unique mechanic is Blade Mode.  Holding a trigger allows you freely swipe your blade in any direction with the right analog stick.  If the enemy is weakened or stunned, this lets you slice them into (possibly) hundreds of pieces.  It looks pretty ridiculous, not really striving for any semblance of realism, but it’s always amusing to just flail the stick around and go crazy.  A more advanced technique is called the Zandatsu.  When an enemy is weak enough, you can launch into a pre-canned animation that usually has Raiden flipping through the air, ready to slice his opponent open.  Slicing a specific target has Raiden grabbing the enemy’s spine and using its energy to refill his health and Blade Mode meter (since they are all cyborgs–did I mention that?).  You will see these animations constantly–which makes the lack of any variety in them a bit of a problem.  Still, from minute one to the end of the game, I enjoyed frantically slashing enemies to pieces.

Where the game really forces you to play to perfection is in the boss fights.  One in particular requires you to cut very specific areas with Blade Mode or get severely counterattacked.  Most of them also require very precise usage of parrying in order to be overcome successfully.  This is where the game can get a little frustrating, if you aren’t very skilled with the parry mechanic.  Several of the bosses will eat you alive if you are unable to parry effectively.  The benefit to this is that every victory feels pretty damn sweet to achieve.

Easily the biggest gripe I had with Rising was its camera.  It may not be the worst I’ve seen, but it sure hindered my enjoyment of the game at times.  It had a tendency to get stuck on everything and would often zoom in so far I could barely see the action.  More than once I had it bug out entirely for a few seconds, costing me some much-needed life.  There is a lock-on feature that helps a bit, but the camera still liked to get lost in the action a little too often for my liking..

Rising is a fairly pretty game, with a nice solid framerate (key in action games with as frenetic a pace as this one).  Some things here and there look pretty rough, such as the crude way some objects slice apart, but they are hard to notice if you aren’t looking for them.  One major issue to note is the lack of varied level design.  Rising is a short game with a bit of repetition in the way levels look.  It even has the gall to make you run through the same level again but in reverse.  There’s some decent stuff to be seen, but I would have liked to see a bit more variety and quantity.  Many people have said that the game gets much more fun on harder difficulties, something I didn’t get to try as I had to return my copy of the game (Gamefly rental).  The combat may get harder, but the thought of running through those levels again and again for more combat just doesn’t appeal to me.

Musically, Rising is hard to describe.  Every song is some crazy metal/punk thing that both sounds entirely out-of-place and fits the game perfectly at the same time.  It is extremely hard to explain, and I would suggest just going to find some of the soundtrack on Youtube if you are curious.  I was constantly laughing at every new piece of music, wondering who could pick such a strange collection of music.  Then I remembered who made this and all was answered.  On the voice acting side of things, it’s pretty comparable to your standard Metal Gear game.  Some of the voices are perfectly fine; others are laughably bad.  Raiden’s voice in particular shifts occasionally into a gruffer, more-badass tone (think Batman-voice from the Nolan movies) that just seems silly and unnecessary.  I wasn’t really impressed with the sound as a whole, but it was what I expected from a game such as this.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance falls solidly on the middle of the scale for me.  The story was constantly making me chuckle–even though its tone is somewhat serious at times.  I really enjoyed the active nature of the parrying in combat which required me to put a little more thought into my fighting, unlike the button-mashy nature of many action games.  However, the camera is a massive hindrance, and a few more enemy types and levels to test my mettle against wouldn’t have hurt.  This definitely feels like a step down from Bayonetta for Platinum Games, but it doesn’t really seem like their fault.  I’m just impressed that they managed to pull off something for Rising in such a short time.  I would certainly love to see these mechanics more fully fleshed out in a longer game with some really clever enemy design.  Maybe a game like Bayonetta 2?