Sunday, October 16, 2005

Halo 2

Halo 2
First Person Shooter - Xbox
1-2 players campaign / 1-4 players deathmatch

As the sequel to one of the most beloved recent franchises, Halo 2 has a lot to live up to. Even though Halo 2 follows most of the conventions of the first game, Halo 2 carves up its own game. Unfortunately, I just don't care for what it has become.

Let's get the good out of the way. Supposedly Halo 2 is awesome on XBox Live. I don't have a subscription so I never tried it out. But from what I hear, Bungie concentrated on making it a blast to play online against other people. The interface, maps, balance patches, etc are all geared toward an awesome competitive experience.

But for all the work they put into the multiplayer, I'm a campaign player. And I just didn't enjoy the experience. Most people bash on Halo 2's ending, but that's a non-issue for me. In fact, I thought the ending was one of the highlights of the game. Not that it was great. It just wasn't that bad.

Halo 2 feels like a totally different game than its predecessor. It's faster paced and more action-focused. I'm sure some people would appreciate the change, but I personally played Halo for its emphasis on strategy and resourcefulness. Halo 2 is more of a blast-a-thon in that the situations are more wild. You have to run around like mad shooting enemies left and right. In Halo, many times you would want to be more discreet and sneak behind enemies to whack them on the back of the head. Halo 2 isn't any more difficult because of the action emphasis. It's just different.

Nevertheless, Halo 2 does have some cool aspects. Vehicles play a bigger role here than in Halo. There are more types of vehicles that you can ride, and you find yourself having many more vehicle-vs-vehicle battles here, distinguishing it from other FPS. Halo 2 also has a lot more weapons to play with, although a lot of them are unnecessary.

The big thing Bungie was plugging for Halo 2 is the ability to double-wield, and I have mixed feelings about it. Basically for the smaller weapon types, you are allowed to hold two guns simultaneously. They don't have to be the same weapon, so you can mix and match at will. And with each gun mapped to the L and R triggers, you have perfect control over them. The nice thing is that dual-wield has a cost. With two guns, you give up the ability to perform melee attacks and the ability to throw grenades. So there will be times in the game where you'll dual-wield, drop a weapon, toss a grenade, pick up another weapon, and starting firing out of both guns again. Nevertheless for all the trouble, it mostly feels gimmicky and propagates the action-oriented experience of Halo 2.

There are other changes to the game that I don't like. The guns have been rebalanced - but not always for the best. Now rocket launchers can shoot homing missiles against vehicles. In Halo, there was a certain sense of satisfaction that I got when I perfectly aimed and timed a rocket to blow up a tank. In Halo 2, you just home in on an enemy and press the trigger for effortless killing. It just makes the game less challenging. Halo 2 also gives up what I was most impressed with in Halo - the scope of the environments. Whereas Halo had these expansive immersive worlds to explore, Halo 2 is very confined. Sure, Halo level design had its issues, but Halo 2 is completely uninteresting.

I admit that I am sorta biased because I played Halo on Normal and Legendary and had a blast. Halo 2 I've only played through on Normal, and didn't find it challenging at all. I'm sure if I turned up the difficulty level, it may force me to be more strategic. But even after finishing Halo on Normal, I knew I wanted to play it on Legendary. The fact that I don't want to play Halo 2 again speaks volumes about the changes implemented in the game. Bungie pointed the series in a direction I don't enjoy. I'm skeptical, but I hope Halo 3 makes Halo proud.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Advance Guardian Heroes

Advance Guardian Heroes
Action - GBA
Battery Backup - 1 slot
2 players

I did not like Guardian Heroes on the Saturn. There I said it. It's nothing more than slapping a beat 'em up together with RPG leveling aspects and street fighter moves. There is no cohesion to the design, and although there's some neat things about it (multibranching paths/stories, crazy sprite fest) you could have just button mashed your way through and it wouldn't have made a difference. But this isn't Guardian Heroes.

And that's a relief.

Advance Guardian Heroes is in many ways a sequel to GH. The storyline continues, albeit at a future timepoint. But other than the mythos, AGH plays quite differently from its older brother.

It's still a frantic beat 'em up with juggling tendencies. But Treasure does something different here and adds a new mechanic - the counter system. The counter system works similar to the parry system of Street Fighter III. You need to time the counter so that it executes right when you are to get hit. If you mistime it, you're generally wide open to get hit. But it's in the details that Treasure distinguishes itself.

Whenever you attempt a counter, your magic bar goes down. So you have a limited amount whether successful or unsuccessful. If you counter a melee attack, the enemy is stunned for a couple seconds so you can unleash a combo. If you counter a projectile, the projectile is reflected back toward its original owner.

This one addition is a rebirth for this stale genre. Now instead of mash mash mash, there are many times where you have to coordinate with countering attacks going around you making it far more thoughtful and engaging. Not only is the counter system an addition, but the entire game is built around it. Bosses will have minions that shoot projectiles at you while you are trying to take him down. And some parts of the game you can only get through with counters. In some ways, it feels very much like parts of Sin & Punishment, except in that game you are shooting at enemies and whacking projectiles back at others with your sword.

AGH is very much like Guardian Heroes in a lot of aspects. You still got the juggle fest going on, the crazy spells, an arsenal of moves to choose from (although, all the Street Fighter moves are gone), and it remains a celebration of sprites. They did away with the 3-plane system, but now give you free Y-axis movement like other beat'em ups. Plus you can still level up at the end of each stage. The multi-branching is gone, however it's not really missed. I much prefer the carefully designed stages of AGH to the random sloppiness of GH.

The dueling is still here too! There are 2-4p battles (only 2 human though) and it's just as crazy as the Saturn version, except throw in counters and it's a whole new game.

There are tons of extras in the game, where you can unlock a slew of characters to play in single player and battle mode. There's multiple difficulty levels that in typical Treasure fashion, mixes up the enemies you fight rather than just increasing damage. Super hard is ridiculously hard, for all you enthusiasts. And finally, there's a time-attack mode that opens up where you take 50 enemies and compete for fastest ranking.

Advance Guardian Heroes is a total-package game. I've been lacking in Treasure love lately, but AGH shows me that they are back to their innovative selves. The English localization is pretty poor - awkward grammar abounds. But since it plays well, who cares? Seriously, this is one of the best games of "this generation". Every GBA owner should have this in their library.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Trace Memory

Trace Memory
Adventure - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 2 slots
1 player

Ever since I saw a trailer of Another Code ~ Futatsu no Kioku, I knew I had to get this game. The atmosphere and art seemed captivating right from the trailer. And now it's come to our shores as Trace Memory!

If you've read any reviews regarding this game, there's one consistent comment being made - It's short. Yep. The game will probably take around 5 hours. But that's not a huge deal to me. It comes with the genre. I can't think of many straight-up adventure games that are longer than that anyway.

With that out of the way... Trace Memory's story begins with Ashley Mizuki Robbins heading toward Blood Edward Island to meet her father. Thing is, she thought he had been long dead. Ashley realized that most of her life has been a lie. Why is her father alive? Why did he wait over ten years to contact her? Is her mom alive as well? On top of her confusion, she's been having recurring nightmares of the past. Is there a connection?

The point of the game is to unravel all these mysteries. Trace Memory is a traditional adventure game in that you do nothing but do fetch quests and solve puzzles. As long as you don't have any illusions that it's greater than that, then read on.

The dual screen is put to good use with the top screen typically signifying Ashley's view and the bottom screen is a top-down navigation screen. As you walk around, Ashley's perspective changes to help you figure out what you can examine. It's mostly a point and click adventure in that regard.

But Trace Memory could use some work in the puzzles. There's just not nearly enough. Most of the ones that are present, are easy to solve. There were a few that stumped me. I confess: I had to look up Gamefaqs on a couple of occasions. When I looked them up, I realized that those puzzles were pretty clever - maybe too clever. The cryptic nature of the clues can be a challenge or just plain frustrating. Still, I wish there were more puzzles in the game because it would have made the game a bit more interesting. Too much of Trace Memory is spent on examining surroundings.

Some minor quibbles I have about the game: When I first saw the trailer, I thought the game would be dark in tone. But as you play, it's really light-hearted in nature. For instance, the music is very poppy and doesn't shut up. Even though you're walking through dark corridors with spooky atmosphere around you, you hear this happy bgm playing through the speaker and it kills the mood. It could have been more eerie and immersive if they used BGM more sparingly. I also didn't appreciate that you aren't able to skip text. Granted, this is a text-driven game. But when you're stuck and you examine an item (or accidentally click it) for the umpteenth time, there should be a way to bypass the description or fast-forward it.

As with many other adventure games, there really isn't much incentive to play again when you're done. There is a starred save for subsequent playthroughs. But the differences are so minor that they're not even worth mentioning.

Overall, the Trace Memory was as expected. It wasn't phenomenal. Neither was it garbage. Compared with other $30 games out there, it's hard to recommend a purchase. But if you're ever aching for an adventure game with some pretty neat visuals, it's definitely worth a rental.