Tuesday, December 29, 2009

DJ Max Portable

DJ Max Portable
Developer: Pentavision
Publisher: Pentavision
Rhythm - Playstation Portable
1 player
DJ Max Portable

I had bought this game when it first came out about 5 years ago, but never had a PSP to play it on until now. I remember it was pretty hyped on Play-Asia because it was a Korea-only import. I often import Japanese games but this was the first time I'd get one from Korea. They have since re-released this game as DJ Max Portable International with English menus, and released a sequel, 2 expansion games, and finally a US release called DJ Max Fever earlier this year. DJ Max Portable is more or less a Beatmania IIDX clone, but with Korean music rather than Japanese. It also sports a different "controller" setup than IIDX, but the game style is still the same:

Notes drop from the top of the screen and when it crosses a threshold, you time button-presses to that exact moment.

There are a couple of things that is different about IIDX/DJMP compared to most rhythm games. First of all, unlike Guitar Hero where you play the guitar parts of the song, these DJ games actually have you playing all the parts of the song. So you might be doing the steady drum rhythm with one hand, and playing the synth melody with another. In easier modes, one button press will set off a string of notes. In harder modes, you may have to play each one of those notes in that same string. The other thing about these games is that they allow for freestyling. In Guitar Hero / Rock Band, the games actively discourage it because if you don't play the right note, your "health" diminishes and you come closer to a game over. Here in IIDX/DJMP, playing a note that isn't on the screen does not affect you in any way and allows you some freedom in creating your own mix to the song. Of course, you need to also hit the required notes too. But there is some creative expression allowed on top of that.

Also like IIDX, DJ Max Portable sports many of the same types of modes. There's your standard "Arcade"-like mode where you play 4 songs sequentially. Only certain songs will be available at each stage. Clear it, and you'll get an overall score for the scoreboard and a Thank You screen. You'll also get a challenge mode where there are certain themes, such as playing a set of Rock songs. Then there's the Unlimited mode where you can choose from any of the songs available and practice them to your heart's content. Finally there's a Gallery mode where unlockable images and goodies go, as you meet certain goals.

Differences? DJ Max Portable is more newbie-friendly in the timing. Beatmania IIDX has a scoring range of MISS, BAD, GOOD, GREAT, JUST GREAT. The DJMP equivalent to these are MISS, MAX 1, MAX 40, MAX 80, MAX 100. IIDX is very strict and nothing other than perfection will give you a "JUST GREAT". But DJMP gives a larger window to achieve its best timing note, "MAX 100". On top of that, a BAD in IIDX breaks your combo and will hurt your "health". DJMP instead allows for MAX 1's to sustain your combo, and as a result, helps you to survive much longer. In a way, this is a necessary step because the PSP controls are not as tactile and intuitive as the turntable controller for IIDX. But it does make DJMP quite a bit easier. You can fudge some of the notes just by pressing everything, whereas IIDX will just fail you.

DJMP does introduce two new things to the mix. They add hold notes, where you must hit a note and hold it down for the duration as shown on the screen. It's intuitive and adds an interesting element to the mix that IIDX doesn't have (but other Konami rhythm games do have). But the other addition is the rotation of the nub during parts of the song. IIDX has a turntable that you turn, so maybe this is their version. Unfortunately, switching from D-pad notes to nub rotation in mere milliseconds isn't as well integrated as it could have been, and I dread these parts as much as I do the spinning wheels in the Ouendan DS games. Luckily I haven't encountered a lot of these. On the other hand, one positive thing about the PSP is that you can vary the scrolling speed of the notes on-the-fly with the L/R buttons, which is very handy. IIDX veterans know that many songs are actually -easier- when the notes scroll by faster. You can change speed on the fly in IIDX too, but it requires a combination of buttons vs. the more intuitive L/R in DJMP.

Perhaps the biggest difference of all is really the controller interface. I don't think the PSP is ergonomically sound and playing a game with such crazy rhythm patterns are probably recipes for Carpal Tunnel. The button pressing is ultimately not as satisfying as the turntable + 7 key setup of IIDX. Still, for a portable, it's the best approximate you can have. In fact, after playing this game, I lost interest in getting Rock Band Unplugged because it just seems so simple in comparison. DJMP sports a beginner 4-button mode that is similar in control scheme to Rock Band Unplugged. It also sports 6-button and 8-button (originally locked) modes for advance play, with harder patterns and more notes to deal with. The interesting thing is that switching to 6/8 button modes totally requires relearning the game and rewiring your brain to recognize which notes go with which buttons. So there's tons of content available.

The songs themselves are a mix of mostly K-pop with some drum & bass, house, soul and techno thrown in. Personally, I prefer both the variety and the compositions of Beatmania because they have some really talented electronic musicians. I miss the trance and more overall synth emphasis from Konami. The music videos are better in IIDX too. In DJMP, they're generally simplistic, partly because the rhythm game part is placed on top of the video, obscuring the middle 50% of it. In IIDX, the videos are never covered. I'm not sure how many songs there are in total, because I'm still unlocking them as I play. One nicety is that there's not only a video view mode, but there's a soundtrack mode where you can just listen to all the songs through like a digital album.

Overall, DJ Max Portable successfully pulls off the IIDX clone. Nothing can truly replicate the turntable controller of Konami's game, but all the other elements are there. Although DJMP is easier than IIDX, it's not an easy game by any means. I think that having my IIDX experience, I was able to easily blast by a lot of the patterns thrown my way. But this is a game that will definitely have learning curves - first as your brain adjusts to figuring out which note is which button, second to process fast strings of notes, and finally, processing simultaneous notes. But a magical thing happens when you practice. Progress will manifest itself. Songs you couldn't possibly imagine ever beating will become easier over time. And once you've learned to adapt, you can't unlearn it. I've found that even when I don't play IIDX for a year, I can get back into it with relative ease. DJMP is no different. So if you're willing to spend the time to learn it, this is one of the most rewarding rhythm games you'll ever come across.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars

Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars
Developer: Rockstar
Publisher: Rockstar
Action - Nintendo DS
2 Memory Slots
1 player
GTA Chinatown Wars Box Art

These days, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't at least heard of Grand Theft Auto. Notorious violence, controversial locked-out sex mini-games, and many an impatient girlfriend guarantee its place in video game history. But is it any good? I vowed to give the series a chance, and it wasn't until the DS game came along, that I finally became interested enough to do it. Somehow, the thought of old school GTA with new school GTA innovations appealed to me. So here I am.

You begin the game as Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss. As you travel to Liberty City, you are nearly killed yourself. Chinatown Wars follows Huang's life in Liberty City, as he seeks answers. You'll end up participating in the drug trade. It's pretty much the only way to make decent money. You'll be sent on missions of sabotage and theft for shady people. You'll be evading cops. A lot. Outrun them. Take them out by crashing them into walls and other vehicles. Hide in secluded areas. That's Chinatown Wars in a nutshell.

I have to hand it to the developers. The game looks and sounds very cool. The action is mostly from an overhead perspective, which makes navigating the huge city a lot more pleasant than it could have been. The overall look has a bit of an edge to it, with cel shaded polygons, and comic book-like cut scenes. There's not a whole lot of spoken dialog - strangers will randomly mumble sentences, usually when disturbed. But the voice samples and sound effects are of high quality. Music is only played during cutscenes and when you're cruising around in a vehicle, mimicing radio music.

What's really interesting about Grand Theft Auto is that Rockstar builds a virtual city. Independent of you, the player, there is traffic, passage of time, and random acts of violence. Cars will stop at stoplights, causing traffic jams. They'll signal before turning. The sun sets, and rises the next day. Occasionally you'll encounter thunderstorms too. Neighborhoods have their own look and feel. Gangs have their own territories, and you'll occasionally see warfare break out. On the flipside, police will also make busts. It feels like a living, breathing city. Even after finishing the game, I still can't say I have Liberty City quite figured out. The scale is massive.

But as fascinating as a video game representation of city life can be, it doesn't make for a good game. Grand Theft Auto gives you two things to do:

- Drive
- Shoot

All of the various missions in the game boil down to just those two tasks. There isn't anything else. Oh sure, driving can be a nice diversion. There's about 20 cars in the game that you can mess around with, each with their own power/acceleration and handling characteristics. And the damage modeling is more realistic than Gran Turismo. But it often feels like you're playing a dumbed down version of Crazy Taxi all the time. Because of the small screen size, the action takes place in the top screen, but the map remains on the bottom screen. It can be disorienting to sneak glances at the map, while you immediately affix your gaze back on the main screen to avoid colliding with cops. Many of the vehicles end up being totally useless. I did find it amusing that the car called "Stallion" was a go-fast car that couldn't maneuver its way through anything. Just like the typical American muscle car.

And the shooting? That's generally worse than the driving. Most of the game is an auto-aim affair, where you barely have to do anything other than press the button. It's completely uninvolving and hard to derive satisfaction from killing anyone. That's not to say that the game is easy. The missions can be quite challenging. But the gun-play combat is sorely lacking. The sole exception are the Molotov cocktails. You actually throw them out by using the touchscreen, and the length and speed of your stylus strokes determine their trajectory. These are easily the best parts of the game.

But touchscreen controls are also some of the worst parts of the game. You use the touchscreen for everything from stealing stationary cars (disarming their alarms), to trading drugs to searching dumpsters. After a while, the touchscreen gimmicks wore a bit thin. There isn't a whole lot of variety to these "minigames", making them more tedious than fun. Even worse, since most of the game uses standard D-pad and face button controls, you pretty much have to keep your stylus between your fingers just in case, making for awkward and cramped hands. The game will often suddenly shift from standard controls to stylus-only controls with no warning at all.

The GTA series generally gets praised for its "sandbox" style of game, where you have the freedom to make of it what you will. True enough, even if you don't follow the game's story missions, you can push drugs indefinitely, loot rival gangs, etch tattoos and fight crime. But for all the touting of freedom, there's still nothing to do but drive and shoot. I was a little disappointed that you can't influence the story in any way. All the missions point you closer to completing the game. If you want to stay loyal to a specific character in the game instead of doing a mission for a rival, you can't progress. GTA CW may be a box, but there ain't much sand in it.

Grand Theft Auto was a game series I wanted to understand. I knew that behind all the senseless killings of innocents, meeting up with hookers (on console versions), and stealing of cars, there was more to be found. But while I marvel at some of the little details Liberty City tries to emulate, I also realize the game contained within is extremely shallow. The shootouts are dull, and the driving can be cumbersome. The constant recycling of these two tasks make the game far more mundane than the controversy has you believe. It lacks solid game mechanics. The dialog wouldn't even impress an 8th grader either. Nevertheless, despite all these shortcomings, I couldn't stop playing it. There's something to be said about a game that keeps you coming back for more, even though the experience leaves you unsatisfied every time. Or maybe there's something to be said about the battered wife within me.