Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Conker Live & Reloaded

Conker Live & Reloaded
Platform - XBox
3 Save Slots
1 player / Multiplayer

Conker L&R is a remake of the N64 game, Conker's Bad Fur Day. I confess that I've never had the opportunity to try it. But that's exactly the reason I picked up Live & Reloaded. A remake with a total graphic overhaul? Sign me up. What I didn't count on was getting a game completely different from what I was expecting. But sometimes that's not a bad thing at all.

I've always thought Conker was a third person shooter. I've seen clips of Conker here and there with references to The Matrix and Saving Private Ryan. Little did I know that these scenes are at the very end of the game, and that for the other 90% of the time, Conker is a 3D platformer. The way it controls reminds me of Rayman 2. Both have loose control. Both have a helicopter-glide move that extends jumping distance. And both have clunky combat. Your main weapon is a bat. If you time your attacks, you can perform a combo to defeat enemies in fewer hits.

By far, most of what you'll be doing is jumping and gliding over a large expansive world. As you progress, you'll be able to go further and deeper into the areas. The thing that impressed me the most is that Conker consists of a series of puzzles. Everything from how to proceed to how to defeat bosses requires some brain-work. I first noticed this on the initial boss fight with an angry bull. There were healing items all over, and even when consumed, they would reappear after a little while. It finally dawned on me that this wasn't a game to be conquered by outlasting the boss, but rather by discovering the opponent's weakness. All bosses seem impenetrable, but as you try different things, the game will alert you when you're getting warm. So the game gives you a few clues, but stops short of holding your hand. It's a nice change of pace and many of the boss battles are quite clever.

One of the most talked about things about Conker is its humor. There's a lot of cursing in the game, mostly bleeped out, and there's a lot of wrongness too. I can't think of any other games where you push a ball of feces which grows bigger as you roll it over the diarrhea-covered ground in hi-res glory. I also appreciate its neverending list of film references. They're really just icing on the cake.

Conker is one of the most original games I've played in a long while. I had a blast going through the game and its variety of playing styles. You'll sneak, jump, push, whack, fly, shoot, pilot, and swim your way through the stages - and what pretty locales they are. The effects and graphical power of the Xbox really make the graphical update worth it. It's one of the nicest looking games on the system. But what I enjoyed most of all really are the puzzles. Some of them are quite a challenge. Once solved, they're rewarding. There's something about having it click that gives you a feeling of accomplishment. Funny how perceptions of what a game is like can be so wrong. This time though, I've been pleasantly surprised.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Mario Kart DS

Mario Kart DS
Racing - Nintendo DS
1-8 players w-lan, 1-4 players wifi

I loved the original Super Mario Kart. It was simple, and it was fun. I didn't really get a chance to play MK64, MKDD or MK Advance, but from what I've heard, MKDS is a return to its roots. From what I can discern, it feels very much like the SMK that I've played, only with new additions.

As a racing game, it's still pretty solid. There are tons of karts to choose from. Each of the characters have their own attributes. Some have faster acceleration, others higher top speed, others are bulkier ie. harder to knock off the road, etc. Not only are there different characters, but each of them has a choice of two vehicles with slightly different charateristics for even more variety. It's all about the choices and Mario Kart DS has it in spades. This is reflected even in the tracks. There are a whopping 24 tracks here. 12 of them are "retro courses" that contain popular tracks spanning the entire series. The other 12 are new. It's a nice blend of old and new, so it's very accessable to old-timers and new-comers alike.

What makes Mario Kart unique is the ability to pick up items for use in the race. Some items give you a boost to help you make up lost ground. Others are purely offensive, where you can launch either forwards or backwards at unsuspecting opponents. Three new items make their appearance in MKDS - a squid will squirt black ink on all opponents ahead of you in the race. Their screens will be partially covered with the ink, so their vision is obscured. That's where the second screen comes in handy. It acts as a map of the course and it's detailed enough so that you could actually navigate your racer fairly easily by just looking at the map screen. Another new item is Bullet Bill. You transform into a bullet for about 5 seconds, and head toward the lead at rocket speed, knocking down any racers in your path. It's pretty destructive, but if the #1 person is pretty far ahead they'll still maintain their lead. Finally, there is a bomb you can toss that causes a small explosion. Anyone within that area will be knocked out for a couple of seconds.

Although most of the game sounds like familiar territory, there have been some tweaks for higher level play. First of all is the draft. When you tailgate an opponent, blue streaks form around your kart like a wind tunnel. If you maintain it for about 5 seconds, there will be a blue glow all around your kart that grants you an instant boost of acceleration. This keeps the game competitive, especially since tailgating could conversely result in a banana peel thrown your way. Also, like the original, there is a hop you can perform by pressing R. However if you hold R in conjunction with a direction, you'll start to drift. Drifting allows you to take corners without a loss of speed. This technique is a must to navigate corners sharply and quickly. And if you drift, rocking from one direction to another, your tires will start burning. Letting go of R will grant you a miniturbo for a temporary burst of speed. These additions reward technique and precision.

One of the main selling points is the multiplayer. You can play up to 8 players using one cart, if other DS owners are in the immediate vicinity. You can race or play battle mode with this method. Even more ambitious than just wireless LAN, Nintendo pushed to have Mario Kart kick off their wifi network. Using your home wireless router, or many wifi access points scattered throughout the world (McDonalds is an official hotspot), you can race against up to 3 others. You can choose to be matched with people in your country, people around the world, people on your friends' list, or even against people with similar win/loss records. The only option with wifi matches is racing the circuit. Battle mode is for 1-player or wireless lan only.

The online component is pretty barebones. You merely choose a category of people you wish to play with and Nintendo will randomly match you with them. In the games I've played, I have not experienced any lag at all. It's pretty amazing at how smooth everything runs. But if you're looking for other online features like communication, you'll be extremely disappointed. There is no dialog between the parties. You only get to be matched, view the opponent's win/loss record, and then race. Nothing else is allowed. Despite the lack of communication, for pure racing competition, MKDS is great. The neat thing is that every participant can choose their courses to drive on. It's a majority-rules system. If there is a tie (most of the time, there is a 4-way tie since everyone chooses a different one), the game selects one at random. So Nintendo has the essentials down. Hopefully as their wifi network expands, we'll see a lot more user-friendly services on their games.

Any way you look at it, Mario Kart DS is a fine game. As a single player experience, it's packed with different modes including 3 difficulties for the normal races, time challenge, and a new mission mode that contains various objectives. There's a lot to do and plenty of things to unlock. The addition of drifting and drafting techniques give the player even more incentive to master them for better times through the courses. Multiplayer and online wifi gaming is really just bonus and ensures that you'll have real people to play against to test your mettle. So if it's racing you're after - with a twist, Mario Kart DS is hard to beat. It delivers the goods.