Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Animal Crossing: New Leaf Review

Animal Crossing is a difficult game to explain to people who haven’t already played it. It’s not strictly a simulation, like The Sims or SimCity, nor is it an RPG, like Final Fantasy. It has elements from both those genres, but somehow the Animal Crossing series has carved out its own unique place in the gaming landscape. The newest addition to the franchise, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, continues the tradition of going into debt and paying off a raccoon while meeting and befriending animals and expanding your own home. If you are still tense from The Last of Us, Animal Crossing: New Leaf may be the game you need to relax your muscles and settle in for the night.
As with previous iterations in the Animal Crossing series, you arrive in a new town to start a new life, except when you arrive in this town, everyone thinks you are the new mayor and can’t be persuaded otherwise. As this new career is dumped upon you, good old Tom Nook arrives to help you start your path into debt as he starts renovations on a brand new house. Not to worry though, you can sell almost anything you find around town to the stores to make a bell, the currency in New Leaf, or two. Being the mayor of your town is a pleasant change in perspective from previous Animal Crossing games. As mayor, I could enact policies that would change the town in various ways. Being up at night most of the time, I was able to enact the “Night Owl” ordinance, so that the shops would be open later and more people would be out at night. This kind of control is a real treat for fans of the Animal Crossing series, as it gives players the control they lacked in previous games, as well as provide a new avenue for changing the town to fit your schedule and preferences. Even though the process of selling off items to pay off loans is a simple mechanic, the game is still fun and quite pleasant to play. I rarely got bored or frustrated, and the characters were entertaining enough to keep me from putting down my 3DS.
All of the other people living in your town are essentially NPCs, with pre-programmed responses and set personalities, yet it never felt that way. Each neighbor and friend in my town reacted differently whenever I spoke to them, and all of them change over time. As I did numerous errands for them, catching bugs, finding fruit, or fishing, their responses changed to whatever action I was doing. It is really enjoyable to play a game that values NPC interaction. Doing random favors for neighbors and playing games also nets you special items for your home. The more you expand your home, the more stuff you get to put in it, and delivering presents and playing Hide-and-Seek are easy ways to both interact with the town and get gifts for your home. Each day new items are found in the shops along your town’s main street, but the bulk of the items I received came from interacting with my towns inhabitants, or going to my friend’s town and talking with his neighbors.
Having Friends visit can be great, unless they are jerks and mess everything up
Being able to visit your friends in their towns is a great new addition to Animal Crossing’s gameplay. You can find fruit and other items unique to their town and see how your town compares. I enjoyed being able to talk to other townsfolk and peek in my friend’s house to see how their town has developed. While the game is largely a single player experience, it is great to be able to share your experience with others and not feel like your town is the only town in existence. One of the aspects of New Leaf that changes the most is the town’s main street. It’s where most of the stores are located and is the subject of a lot of change and renovation. New stores are created, older stores are upgraded, and plenty of classic characters, like KK Slider and the Able Sisters, can be found there. My town’s main street felt like a progression bar, covered in cute animals and functional stores. As I expanded my home, improved my city, and bought more items, different stores would move in and more people would show up and move in. It was a really clever way at displaying the result of my own actions.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf, is very much the same game as its predecessors, but also is a better experience than previous iterations. Any fan of the previous games would fall back into their old addictions and enjoy New Leaf immensely. While you could buy an older game in the series and be a little more cost-efficient, New Leaf provides more variety, content, and fun than any of the other games.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf is a pretty simple game; however that does not mean it is any less fun. Sometimes it is nice to sit back and relax with something pleasant and easy to play. Without any kind of drama, difficulty, or intensity, New Leaf keeps me coming back every day to find another fossil or buy another piece of furniture for my house. If you have played Animal Crossing before, or want to enjoy something uncomplicated and fluffy after getting eaten by zombie-like things in The Last of Us, pick this game up and spend hours talking to animals and catching bugs.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Microsoft Turns 180 On Xbox One DRM Policy

In the expected aftermath of the public relations nightmare that Microsoft had to live through, some very intelligent decisions were made regarding the used-game policies and online checking of the Xbox One. Now  the Xbox One will not require a ping to check for an online connection every 24 hours, and you can play single player games offline just as you can now with your Xbox 360, and there aren't any restrictions on sharing, borrowing, buying, or selling used games. First Microsoft tried to stick to their guns about the drastic changes in policy, and then the community outcry was a cacophony of disapproval and they quickly changed their minds about not letting gamers play games. Seems like a smart move so far.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Last of Us Review

It’s the game everyone’s talking about this month; the one that heralded the end of E3 and, amidst shout matches about Playstation 4 vs. Xbox One, managed to capture everyone’s attention. It roared on to the scene amidst a sea of perfect 10 reviews from reputable gaming websites and did so well in its opening weekend, it topped Man of Steel. This is The Last of Us.

I almost wish I hadn’t heard so much buzz about the game before it came out. It’s more difficult to be objective about reviewing a title when you’ve been slapped in the face with the “it’s perfect” stick so many times you’re expecting it to be mind-blowing. I popped the game into my PS3, settled down into the dark, and was crying within half an hour.

The Last of Us, first and foremost, is a game about mankind. Set aside the mechanics, graphics, environments, and sound engineering. The world has gone to hell and these people show all the signs of it.  Adults who remember how it used to be and have had the hope beaten out of them by a world of danger the likes of which have never been seen. Kids who’ve been disillusioned by the harshness of life and had the opportunity of having a childhood stripped from them before they could even miss it. Those brief moments in which the learned hardness of the new humanity slips away with the glance at a watch, telling of an old story, or spotting of a new toy. And the punitive situations that remind you why being tough is the only way to survive. The Last of Us is impeccably immersive. It’s on the level of Bioshock Infinite, if not more so due to better pacing.

The immersion assault is headed by the characters and their dialogue. Naughty Dog has had a knack for very human interpersonal interaction since Uncharted and that trend continues here. The stoic and intense Joel juxtaposed against the openly emotional Ellie creates believable conversations between a frustrated master and terrified pupil. The questioning of judgment between the two senior survivors Joel and Tess show you right from the get go exactly what is at stake and the state of the world twenty years after a fungal infection decimated the population. And this is all without ever once beating the player over the head with information, rather taking the more subtle approach of having characters talk to one another and allowing the player to read between the lines and imply what they will about these people. The most amazing thing about The Last of Us is not the game, as good as it is; it’s the characters. 

Another important factor to not breaking the immersion was the blurred line between cutscene and gameplay. They flowed so well into one another it was sometimes difficult to tell I was supposed to move after transitioning from cutscene to gameplay. This seamlessness works to alleviate the problem of becoming aware that you’re separate from the characters by not giving you firm “play now” or “watch now” times though the use of interactive cutscenes, very few quick time events, and revealing important plot details through not only cutscenes, but actual gameplay as well.
If you’ve played Uncharted before, you’ll recognize the combat system quickly. The game revolves around encounters in which you must find a way from point A to point B by either sneaking by or killing a number of enemies. This mechanic is fairly standard by now. Crouch behind a box, sneak up behind the guy nobody is looking at, choke him to death, repeat until objective is met. The interesting thing twist in The Last of Us, however, is resource deprivation and increased vulnerability of the player.

In Uncharted, you feel like Superman. A very unlucky Superman who can’t seem to find a sturdy metal object to save his life, but you feel empowered against enemies. Charge them with guns blazing, hide and shoot from a distance, punch everyone to death — it doesn’t really matter. Generally. Drake can get out of a situation with the guns with tons of ammo or hiding and regenerating health until the next baddie can be punched out. In The Last of Us, Joel is as ill-equipped as he can possibly be, at times relying on the player to find bottles to distract enemies with sounds, or a wooden board with which to melee his opponents. This game takes place twenty years since anyone professionally produced just about anything. It’s safe to say resources are scarce. Bullets are few, enemies are great, and remaining hidden for as long as possible is your best friend.

The player must attack each new encounter with wit first and force later. Common questions are “How many bullets do I have?” “When can I attack that guy?” and “Do I have enough resources to craft a med pack?” And no, health does not regenerate. You must either find food or use med kits. The helplessness evoked by scarce resources and dramatically increased danger with encounters is only compounded by the zombies. Technically they’re not zombies, they’re just infected with some kind of spore that turns you into a mindless person looking only to eat other people. 

...But basically, zombies.

These zombies are bad dudes, to put it bluntly. Remember Dead Rising? Dead Island? Hell, even Left 4 Dead? Even the bigger enemies weren’t too big a deal as long as you were fast enough and had enough bullets. In The Last of Us, there are only three types of zombies—runners which run at you and have melee attacks that can stop you for a few seconds, stalkers who are like runners with one hit kill attacks, clickers which have no eyes and require absolute silence otherwise their one hit kill attacks will have you cursing, and Bloaters who will also one hit kill you but also rip off fungus from their body to throw at you. Delicious. Notice how three of those will kill you instantly on contact? Well, the only one who doesn’t can stop you in your tracks for just long enough to allow others to catch up, and if just one of those is an instant kill zombie, game over man. Luckily, the game allows you to restart encounters instead of levels, encouraging you to experiment with your strategies by allowing you to correct your mistakes quickly and without too much of a penalty.

The game does have its problems though. The AI, for one, is horrendous at times. Your companions do their best to follow you, but I often found times in which they were in plain sight of my enemies, and were completely ignored. I think the enemy AI can only recognize the player and not the companions, but that breaks immersion for me and it happens often enough that it’s quite noticeable and definitely annoying. I also found that when pulling up items in my inventory, sometimes the texture for the zoomed in item would not show up for a few seconds, leaving me staring at a really blurry backpack until the game had time to catch up. I’m not sure why that happened, but it seemed noteworthy. Also, any time I chose to save, it always said autosaving was in progress. There was no time in which I chose to save manually that autosave was not in progress, so that’s strange. Seems like a bug to me.

Those small issues aside, this game is incredible. The immersion is hammered home by the beautiful landscapes. I’ve always had disdain for post-apocalyptic cities because they’re also so grey and drab and generally the same color (looking at you, Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas).  The Last of Us takes a different approach to this, having plants overgrow structures to make it look like earth is reclaiming what mankind has built. That visual is a kind of allegory for the whole story — mankind returning to its primal roots when nature reminded it of its place and showed man its hubris. Reading-far-too-much-into-landscape aside, I thought the visuals were stunning. In the same way Mayan temples are overgrown now, so too are modern buildings, streets, and cars. It’s a gorgeous sight and Naughty Dog really pulled out all the stops for the details in this game. 

The sound engineering is also quite subtle. The music all follows the same sort of theme with alterations depending on the mood and scenario, but it’s rare to hear it. Mostly, the sound is taken care of by the environment and audio indicators to give you hints on what to do. For instance, instead of having a bar on the screen that showed you how visible you are to an enemy, instead a rumbling noise is heard and if it goes on long enough, you’ve been spotted. It’s a great indicator that allows for less screen clutter while still having intuitive information feedback. The weapon effects and encounter noises all sounds as intense as it looks, allowing the visceral action of combat to be that much more believable. Believability seems to be a common theme running through every stage of development of this game.

Verdict: Is The Last of Us perfect? Certainly not. Immersion was broken too often by both the companion and enemy AI for it to be perfect. But was it incredible? Absolutely. The game comes in strong with its true-to-life characters that you can relate to on a deeper level than most games and really root for them to succeed. Pair that with stunning visuals, sound engineering that gets out of your way, but really lets you feel like you’re part of the fray, and a story that’ll be difficult to top this year, and you have Naughty Dog’s latest title. It’s not often that a game can live up to the hype, but The Last of Us sincerely blew me away.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Top 9 Shockers of E3 2013

9) Halo (5?) on Xbox One

The most alluring trailer of Xbox One's presentation had to be Halo's. For a full minute we're treated to a cloaked wanderer in the desert, going nowhere in particular. Then suddenly, a giant figure emerges from the sands, taking the form of a giant mech. At a minute and a half in, eagle eyes can spot Cortana's chip on a necklace in an armored hand. The cloak is pulled back and there is Master Chief in all his glory. The game's title simply said Halo, though due to certain plot-y elements, it appears to be 5. Chief is back and he's lookin' good.

8) New Xbox 360 redesign

To fall in line with the Xbox One's design, Microsoft unveiled a new iteration of the Xbox 360 that looks more like the One. This release will presumably trigger a price reduction on older models and the new model will take the price points of current models. Oh and they also released on Monday, so you can pick one up right now. I like that they do that with redesigns. Good on you, Xbox

7) Playstation 4's online multiplayer is through PS+ only

The days of free online gaming with Playstation have ended. No longer will Sony try to entice gamers through their free PSN multiplayer. The good news is that PS+ still comes with all the features it's known for (cloud saves, game collection, free titles, early beta access), and that they're not hiding streaming media services behind the PS+ pay wall. That's right, you don't have to pay an extra fee just to watch season 4 of Daria on Amazon Instant. Nice.

6) Megaman is back! Kind of!

Well it's not the game we were all hoping for, but if Pit making an appearance in Brawl could revitilize his series, there's no reason the Smash Brothers colossus couldn't do the same for the Blue Bomber. At the very end of the new Smash Bros. Trailer in the Nintendo Direct, Megaman make his presence known with rock remixes of classic Megaman jams, toting some heavy artillery, and all the squeals fans could muster. I wish they would have chose the Megaman Legends version, in which he looks more like a person instead of a tiny dollman, but at this point I'll take what I can get.

5) Microsoft stuck with their DRM guns and Sony took full advantage of it. Directly.

Image from IGN/Reddit
The gents at Xbox did a commendable job of not mentioning their strangely restrictive DRM issues we've all heard about by now. From having to authenticate your game once every 24 hours to effectively eliminate game borrowing through the use of user registration, the Xbox One offers an unexpectedly tight control on games and it's leaving gamers asking whether they really own the games they buy. So of course you'd rather not make gamers more angry by mentioning the sore subject again at E3 right?

Well Sony sure did, and they didn't do so lightly. Direct comments like "And it won't stop working if you haven't authenticated within 24 hours" to a room of screaming fans shows Sony more than willing to poke the Microsoft bear. Subtlety may not be Sony's strong suit, and fans love it.

4) Final Fantasy Versus XIII = Final Fantasy XV

Amid rumors of the rebrand, Final Fantasy fans finally had their hopes substantiated by Tetsuya Nomura himself. A new trailer for Final Fantasy Versus XIII was revealed, showcasing incredible graphic and playstyle not before seen in a Final Fantasy game. The most surprising aspect is the gameplay. As Noctus is zipping around in the game with his invisible swords, you can see commands in the corner that seem to point to inputs from the player, ala Kingdom Hearts. Perhaps they're finally departing from turn-based combat in favor of faster gameplay. The final surprise was revealing it was rebranded to Final Fantasy XV, making it a numeric title, and thus symbolically more important in some way. I just want the game. Come on Squenix, throw me a bone here.

3) Kingdom Hearts III FINALLY GEEZE


2) FFXV and KHIII are not console exclusive

Okay, this isn't really number 2, it should be somewhere around 7, but that would have spoiled 3 and 4. In a rather substantial blow to the exclusive titles for Sony, both Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III are going to be multiplatform. For the first time in history, Xbox owners will get to experience the Disney/Square combo powerhouse that fans have been enjoying for years. And for only the second time, Squenix's flagship series Final Fantasy will also enjoy a release on the Microsoft console. Though Final Fantasy's multiplatformship wasn't very surprising, Kingdom Hearts is eliciting almost as bad a reaction as FFXIII from die-hard fans.

1) Star Wars Battlefront

Fans have been begging and crying and sweating and gnashing teeth and kicking walls and screaming at the top of their lungs. And finally, after Disney shut down Lucas Arts studios, Star Wars Battlefront is back in the limelight. Its trailer was only slightly better than the Duke Nukem trilogy trailer from E3 2008.

Come on EA. You can't dangle a new entry in one of the best Star Wars Series of all time in my face, but only show me one T-47 airspeeder, an AT-AT, and some snow. Look at this.
That being said, this news makes me warm inside, even though it shouldn't since it's using DICE's Frostbite 3 engine.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Ouya Review

Ouya is here, but is it all gamers were hoping for? Join J to find out!

Free-to-Play Games Coming to PS4

As the info dump that is E3 draws near, more information is being released
about the PS4 and what we can expect from Sony this fall. Three popular MMO games are coming to the PS4 and will be available after launch. DC Universe online, an MMORPG set in the universes of the DC heroes and villains, Planetside 2, an MMO shooter where thousands of people can play in the same match at once, and the third-person co-op shooter Warframe will all see a PS4 port. Unfortunately we don't know the launch dates of any of these titles past the fact that they are all scheduled to release sometime in 2013, though it would help a bunch if we knew what the launch date for the PS4 itself was.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Tales of Symphonia HD Chronicles - Coming to PS3 Worldwide!

Last weekend, developer Namco Bandai announced that they would be releasing upgraded versions of critically acclaimed role-playing games Tales of Symphonia, as well as its sequel, Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World. The announcement was made the Tales of Festival in Japan, in commemoration of Symphonia's ten-year anniversary. 

The collection has tentatively been titled Tales of Symphonia Chronicles, and is slated to release exclusively on PS3 in Japan on October 10 of this year. Namco Bandai also announced that North American and European releases can be expected in early 2014. Both games will be given a high-definition graphic upgrade, and will include additional content. The upgrade of 2003's Tales of Symphonia has been confirmed to include additional content from the Japan-only special edition.

The bundle has also been confirmed to have new box art, cut-in animations, and costumes from other entries in the Tales franchise. Aside from a graphics overhaul, there have been no definite details on what additional content Dawn of the New World will feature. Some fans have questioned why the games are merely getting a graphics upgrade, rather than a full remake utilizing newer Tales engines. However, it is likely because Namco Bandai has focused the majority of its development efforts on its new title, Tales of Xillia, which is due for a release this summer.

Tales of Symphonia remains the franchise's most profitable release in North America, as well as one of the highest ranked role-playing games of the past decade. Dawn of the New World, on the other hand, was met with mixed emotions, as some fans criticized its shallow storyline, and poorly-developed protagonists. Regardless, this new HD bundle brings back one of the most beloved RPGs of the past decade, and that alone should make it well worth the investment.
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