Zone of The Enders HD Collection Review (Xbox 360)

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/ by DanielHill

Zone of the Enders HD Review

Publishers: Konami
Developers: Konami, High Voltage Software (port)
Release Date: October 30, 2012
System: Xbox 360, PS3

 


 
It’s hard to judge the games that come with an HD collection when you have never experienced them before. The idea of most HD collections is to bring them into the next generation with crispier graphics while retaining the game play that made people enjoy them to begin with. In some cases, it gains the series new fans. Such was the case with the Jak and Daxter collection that came out this year – I loved every second and felt like I was really experiencing something new. Unfortunately, I can’t really say the same for ZoE Collection, a pair of games that, though not without their charms, aren’t really worth checking out if this is your first time experiencing the series.

The animation in ZoE 2 looks great.

 
I’ll just say it right off the bat – the first Zone of The Enders is not really worth playing through, unless you have a strong nostalgic connection to the game. The story is fairly generic anime fair – boy sees friends killed, stumbles upon some type of power-enhancing device, sets out to make things right and save others. The characters are forgettable, primarily due to the poor script and worse voice acting. Sure, the combat is fast and responsive, but the action takes place in such monotonous environments cluttered with samey enemies. It does help, however, that the frame-rate issues the game initially suffered in the last generation have been fixed. Once you fall into an attack pattern, the game gives you little reason to switch things up all that much, making the five-or-so hour campaign only really worth playing through for those feeling nostalgic.

Thankfully, the second game is a far better experience. For one, the story is much better than the first game’s – there is less cheese in the dialog, more mature characters, and a narrative that is a little more ambitious in scope. The combat, too, has a little more depth. There is far more verticality to the encounters. Combat truly feels like it is taking place mid-air, with enemies attacking from all angles. The game over all felt more like a mech-fighting title than the first game, with the Orbital Frames feeling more nimble and deadly than ever. The inclusion of the previously European and Asia-only additional difficulty levels, extra missions, and VR Training rooms also sweetens the deal. Despite the improved gameplay, incredible animation on display in the cutscenes, and additional features, though, the game suffers a considerable amount of frame-rate slowdown – a puzzling step backwards from the original release that was addressed with the first game.

Combat is fast and responsive, but repetitive.

 
As it stands, this is one of my shorter reviews because there isn’t a whole lot to say about these games. The combat is simplistic, narrative nothing to write home about, and really only serve to fill the mech-sized hole in this generation. I wrote this review through the lens of someone who never played these games upon their initial release, and it provides plenty of evidence to support the idea that these games were remastered for those who experienced them on the PS2 and wanted to see what they would look like in HD. To that end – job well done. Everyone else need not apply.

7/10

Review – Dust: An Elysian Tail

Dust-An-Elysian-Tail
/ by DanielHill

Dust An Elysian Tail

Publishers: Microsoft Studios
Developers: Humble Hearts
Release Date: August 15, 2012
System: Xbox Live Arcade (Xbox 360)


How often can one say they walk away from a game with a different perspective on life? How often does one come across a game that takes them on not just a journey in a physical sense, but in an emotional one as well? In an age where it is hard to argue that games haven’t started to lose their soul, Dust: An Elysian Tale is one that stands among a very proud few that does not count itself among these ranks. This game is a labor of designer Dean Doodrill’s love, and it shines through in nearly every aspect of a game that should be experienced by everyone.

One of the things that makes Dust so damn great is the amount of charm and character that gushes from every crevice in the game. The gorgeous cel-shaded environments are nothing if not memorable and I found myself wishing I could live in the world in which this game took place. The characters – whose voice work is at best great and at worst serviceable – are all great and the writing was pitch perfect. The game has no problems expressing self awareness and when sidekick Fidget (a flying creature that is ironically afraid of heights) says things like “We’re going on a laundry quest?” in response to a fetch quest, I found myself genuinely laughing out loud – showing that games can be humorous and poke fun at convention without it feeling forced (here’s to looking at you Duke Nukem and Matt Hazard).

The story, while nothing new, was great. A tale of redemption, you awake as Dust, who soon receives the Blade of Ahrah with which he begins his quest to find out who he is (or was). There was a level of mystery that had me excited to see where Dust’s quest would take him next, and going somewhere new meant more to me than finding new monsters to kill or loot to collect. Every location had an important piece of story tied to it, and this made visiting each new place all the more exciting.

For the most part, the game’s aesthetic charms are matched by the gameplay itself. Taking place on a two-dimensional plane, Dust melds action-RPG elements with platforming elements in an addicting Metroidvania fashion. As more powers are unlocked, more and more parts of the map become accessible, making backtracking to past areas something to get excited about. Powers, however, are not unlocked through leveling, but as the story progresses. The leveling is probably the least memorable thing about the game, since there are only four attributes to level. If one was to play through the game more than once, it wouldn’t be to try out different character setups.

Combat, fortunately or unfortunately depending on the person, is almost as simplistic as character progression. You have your regular attack that can be mixed with the blade-spinning Dust Storm attack, which can then be modified with Fidget’s elemental magic. There are some combos to learn, but this is no Bayonetta. Thankfully, though, despite the lack of depth in combat, the visual results of your sword and magic slinging are always spectacular. Pillars of flame will reign down from the sky as Dust sweeps his opponents hundreds of feet into the air, juggling them with terrifying grace – not bad for just a few button presses, eh?

The game can even make dreary look vibrant

While the simplicity in leveling and combat can be left open to interpretation as to whether or not they are good, the total lack of enemy variety is something that was mildly annoying. Though there are many different looking enemies, these were really just skins for three basic enemy types that were repeated ad nauseum – light, heavy, and flying. The boss fights were also nothing to write home about, and really only served as a strengthening of the argument that perhaps boss fights no longer have a place in modern gaming. Another glaring flaw, though there weren’t that many combos to learn, was that there was no guide that could be referenced as a refresher after they were flashed on screen for an instant at the game’s onset.

Despite these flaws, however, the game is not only a great one, but a great value, too. For $15, players are given a game that can last as many as 20 hours depending on how you play. When I finished the game for this review, I had around a 95% completion with 15 hours clocked. There is plenty to explore and challenge rooms scattered across the land for players looking to get scored on their performance. All in all, the quality and scale of the game makes it all the more impressive that most of the work was done by one man, and is a love letter both to the RPG and Metroidvania genres. It comes highly recommended.

9/10

 

5 Games Attending To 5 Neglected Genres In The Gaming Industry

cyberpunk
/ by DanielHill

5 Games Attending To 5 Neglected Genres In The Gaming Industry

by Daniel Hill


For whatever reason, there are certain themes or game ideas that are never given love or are not loved enough. How often do you see games like Mirror’s Edge or cyberpunk games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution? Granted, the trendy thing to do right now is to develop an FPS with a full-loaded multiplayer suite, so it’s not necessarily a surprise that we don’t see a lot of these games. When they come along, though, there is always a very specific itch that they scratch, and it is always one of those itches where it is just out of reach on some really inconvenient spot on your back. One that you can’t reach even when you twist your arm and try to scratch it with the very tip of your finger, and you have to ask your friend to get it for you.

Risen 2: Dark WatersPirate-Themed RPG’s

This seems to be an even more egregious omission from video games given the wildly-popular Pirates of the Caribbean series of movies, but it blows my mind that there aren’t more pirate-themed RPG’s out there, and the cancellation of the planned RPG based off the series made things even worse. They embody pretty much everything that RPG’s are about! Discovering unexplored, exotic locations, plunder their loot, and kill a bunch of creatures ranging from innocent bunnies to evil creatures. I just started playing this a few days ago, and it’s charmingly good. If you can ignore the bugs and mediocre visuals, everything else about the game is pretty great and feels inherently piratey.

Cyberpunk - Well, um, cyberpunk

Minus last year’s excellent Deus Ex: Human Revolution and this year’s okay Syndicate, the cyberpunk genre hasn’t really gotten a lot of love in the video game realm. Again, this just seems ridiculous because the whole idea of cyberpunk is a perfect fit for video games. Anyhow, minus a few details posted on CD Projekt’s site in the form of  a Q&A, there isn’t really much known about it except that it’s inspired by the pen-and-paper game Cyberpunk (thus the working title) and is drawing influences from William Gibson and Deus Ex (among other sources). Given that it’s being developed by CD Projekt, the guys behind the wonderful Witcher games, I think we’ll all be in for a treat when it comes out.

Assassin’s Creed III - Revolutionary War-themed games

Gamers have visited just about every imaginable battlefield that World War II and, increasingly, fictional modern battlefields, but we’ve never really visited the Revolutionary War. It was an exciting time for our country and has a lot of history that developers could use to make some interesting games. Though the mechanics and concepts of Assassin’s Creed are nothing new at this point (it has adopted a Call of Duty release schedule), the setting is most definitely fresh. Another unique idea is that you are stepping into the shoes of a Native American. Minus 2006′s Prey, when have we ever really done that?

Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time - Anthropomorphic platformers

The ’90s and early 2000′s were riddled with games starring cute and cuddly creatures collecting arbitrary crap and hopping gleefully across a variety of, ahem, platforms. Lately, however, developers are really loving the “adult,” profanity riddled, gritty games that are exactly like real life. Thankfully, developer Sanzaru still loved this particular genre as much as whoever else loves it, and we will be travelling through time with Sly and the gang stealing things this fall.

Dishonored -  choose your own path adventures

Now, that genre I listed above is not a reference to open world games or decision-based games, I am speaking of games that give you about a million ways to approach any given situation. In an age of on-rails, look-at-this explosion cinema-inspired games, this genre doesn’t have a big showing.  In this game though, it’s all about choice. For example, you can get through the whole game without killing a soul and can exact vengeance  on your targets through death, or you could, say, get one of your connections to kidnap the target, change their identity, and send them to work in the mines for the rest of their miserable existence. Either way, I am already excited to see how many different ways I can play through this Dishonored when it comes out this fall.

Are there any other games coming out that you think are going in a direction that isn’t exactly conventional or popular? Let us know in the comments below!

5 Things That Can Make Just About Any Game Better

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/ by DanielHill

5 Things That Can Make Just About Any Game Better

by Daniel Hill


Games, at their very heart, are all about their mechanics — how well they play. Things such as good A.I., a good control set and pretty graphics are some of the biggest categories that video games are scrutinized under. However, in the event that the first three tangibles don’t pan out so well, what is there left to fall back on? Can a game with ugly graphics and controls that aren’t exactly top notch still be worth playing? If it has any of the five things listed below, it just might be.

An Attractive Art Style

Don’t mistaken this for graphics, because that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I am talking about is a level of artistry that goes into the design of the gaming world that surrounds you. A game with a well-put-together artistic direction can be leagues better simply because the world can almost seem either alive, simply one that you would want to jump into and live in yourself just because of it’s pure beauty. If you remember the game for nothing else, you may be able to pick even the most inscrutable screenshot out and know immediately that it is from that game. Even if the graphics aren’t up to par, a good art style can still make the game pretty to look at.

Games made better by this: El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, killer7, Majin and the Forsaken Kingdom, Enslaved, Asura’s Wrath

Atmosphere

When done correctly, a game can not only make it look like you are inside of the world, it can make you feel like you’re in the world as well. Atmosphere can range from giving you the shakes to giving you a sense of childlike wonder. Even if the enemy A.I. is imbecilic or the game doesn’t come off as all that original, these things will hardly be as noticeable when the game is dense with atmosphere. Setting the mood for what is about to happen or giving the game a consistent feel throughout can make a huge difference. Even the most realistic graphics or the largest amount of imaginable gore can’t replace a good atmosphere.

Games made better by this: Metro: 2033, Singularity, Goldeneye (Wii version), Galleon, Alan Wake

Split-Screen

With the exception of taking a dump, I really can’t think of a lot of things that aren’t made better by doing it with a group of friends — or even one friend. You can work together to take out baddies in ways an A.I. partner would never do, you can poke fun at a game’s poor A.I., or you can just shoot each other for the fun of it. Giving players the option to play a game with a friend sitting right next to you, like atmosphere, makes a game feel better to play. It can make a romp through the most mundane of games feel like so much more simply because you’re doing it with a friend.

Games made better by this: Both Kane and Lynch titles, Dungeon Siege 3, Perfect Dark 0

A True Sense of Purpose

Do you ever feel insulted when you’re asked to go find a key in a game? Do you ever want to strangle that prick in that RPG for sending you on the 1,000th mundane task in under an hour? Playing video games is considered by many people to be a waste of time, but when you feel like you’re truly accomplishing something in a game and you’re not just going through the motions, those detractors couldn’t seem more wrong.

Games made better by this: The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings, Deus Ex: Human Revolution

A Good Story

You might look at this one and just ask, “well why don’t you just go read a damn book, then?” Well, don’t ask me that, that’s not the point here. Anyways, when a game has us not only guessing at what is going to happen next in the narrative, but eagerly anticipating it, there is something there that even the most functional game play gimmick or shiniest graphics just can’t replace. Good writing can capture just about anyone’s attention.

Games made better by this: Asura’s Wrath, Singularity

What do you think? Are there any things about video games unrelated to game play that can make just about any game great in your eyes? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Best Level Ever – Halo 2: Delta Halo/Regret

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/ by DanielHill

Best Level Ever – Halo 2: Delta Halo/Regret

by Daniel Hill


Video games are a form of escapism. We can go anywhere, be anyone and do anything. The execution, but not the idea, of this has changed over the years, as games overload us with cinematic action and scripted events to scream “HEY, DID YOU KNOW YOU’RE ON AN ADVENTURE?! ISN’T IT F$$$$$G AWESOME?! THAT CONTINENT JUST EXPLODED! LOOKATITLOOKATIT!” in our faces. Because of this, what made the 1-2-punch of Halo 2‘s “Delta Halo” and “Regret” levels great was the way in which the developers didn’t do this – it was as much a mystery as it was a thrill ride.

These levels communicated flawlessly an air of adventure and excitement, and this could not have been done without the gorgeous music piece that plays as “Delta Halo”" opens. Take a listen below:

In Combat Evolved, the first Halo, the titular Halo rings were a mystery – alien even in a world where humanity was fighting for its life against a religiously fanatical race of tyrannical alien races. However, in Halo 2, these rings are no longer the mystery they once were, we know why this is here. However, what we don’t know as Chief leaps out of his drop pod in the level’s opening is what challenges we will face and this music portrays that feeling perfectly with the upbeat strings and trotting rhythms. Our weapons are drawn, our heads are up and we are setting out on a new adventure.

“Delta Halo” also excels at the art of suggestion. Covenant pour out of a mysterious ruin as you work your way up the slopes of the lake you land by. Cresting the first hill, you see a monolithic temple standing alone in the middle of a lake, hinting at what is to come. Looking to your right, you see another ruin across a bridge. As the bridge draws up, it averts your eyes to what is invariably an ancient control room for this crossing. Not long after you enter these labyrinthine ruins, you come upon yet another lone structure that you must steadily work your way into as Covenant pour out. The level is paced and designed to fill you with child-like wonder whilst pondering at the mysteries this ring world contains – even in the midst of an extra-terrestrial bloodbath.

The art of suggestion.

What follows the mystery and wonder is an incredible sense of build. Delving deeper into the ruins, you come across holographic sermons from the Prophet Regret (the Prophet whom the next level is named after), along with progressively more difficult enemies, such as honor guards wielding the deadly plasma swords that Halo 2 famously gave gamers use of for the first time. What’s incredible is that this even this level of build is topped when you stumble into the next stage: “Regret.”

Finally, you are here, the lake that you laid eyes on not long ago. The temple stands in the distance, across a vast expanse of water whose depths are unknown. What happens next is the most baffling thing ever: an incredibly fun and entertaining gondola ride. Moving steadily across this lake, you are besieged on all sides by Covenant buggers and Banshees. Gondolas coming in the opposing direction allow for Jet-Pack Elites to board your craft and engage you. Once again, the building excitement is exhilarating.

Oh, the places you will go.

Climaxing with an underwater elevator ride and a great boss battle with the Prophet Regret in the main throne room of the temple, Halo 2′s ”Delta Halo” and “Regret” is undeniably one of the greatest 1-2-punches in the history of level-based games. The art style is great, the pacing is pitch perfect, the music sets an enthusiastically adventurous and mysterious tone all at once, and it ends with some incredible moments. Of the many campaign levels that I have played in the Halo series, these stand out as landmarks as an embodiment of what video games are all about: going on a fantastic adventure to places we could only imagine.

What do you think? Are these two levels really that great? Do you think there are some that are just as good, if not better? Let us know in the comments below!

The 5 Best Uses of Cel Shading In Video Games: Part Deux

XIII
/ by DanielHill

Last week, I constructed a list of what I thought to be the five best uses of cel shading in gaming in terms of how effectively they melded with the feel, atmosphere and mood of the game. While I think my original list was strong and I stand by my original choices, it was not without its flaws, and thanks to the always-insightful comments section, I realized that there were some titles that deserved to be there, but weren’t. I’m doing this to appease no one but me…don’t call me Bioware. As an enthusiast, no, a beau of this writer’s inamorata that is cel shading, I am giving these games shine because they do, indeed, do use cel shading beautifully.

XIII

Am I reading a comic or playing one?

There are games that come along that are almost too different for their own good, even if they are great. Inspired by the French comic of the same name, XIII was one of those games, whose cel shaded visuals were not exactly traditional for the normally staunch FPS genre. Using onomatopoeias to depict an approaching guards footsteps, slick comic panels to display a gruesome kill and iconic text bubbles during dialog, XII was a comic reincarnated into the digital realm. The unique sneaking mechanics and great plot were just the icing on a very pretty cake.

Naruto: Rise of a Ninja

You know you've nailed cel shading when just running around looks cool.

Anime is a treasure trove for video game developers. They already have a story written out for them, many are action oriented and characters are already developed. Naruto: Rise of a Ninja took full advantage of these things in creating a convincing world ripped directly from the Naruto universe. Just maneuvering the titular character about the world was a treat as the boy sped up – watching the colorful plumes of dust kick up and seeing the sense of speed visualized in white streaks was great. There couldn’t be a better world to see made into a cel shaded video game.

Killer7

Atmosphere...visualized.

From the utterly fu…err…unique mind of Suda51, Killer 7 was something of an art house piece. As expected coming from Mr. Suda, the world in which the game took place was a strange one. The graphics did far more than make the game pretty, however; they enhanced the noir atmosphere tenfold and lent perfectly to the surreality that ran throughout the game’s psychological, conspiracy-ridden plot.

Gravity Rush

It plays how it looks.

This is the only game on the list that I haven’t played, but after watching many game play videos, there is no doubt in my mind that it deserves to be on here. The game’s use of gravity as the primary mechanic lent an airy feel to the gameplay that melded perfectly with the ethereal tone of the dream-like, amnesiac tale. If there is one game that makes me want to own a PS Vita, this is it.

MadWorld

Now THAT's some effective violence.

What better way to depict a world in which violence reigns than rendering the whole thing in black and white and have blood red represent the only other color in the game besides the yellow text? The noir-ish/comic book-ish atmosphere the game had was visualized by the visuals that almost made the gruesome violence that was front and center throughout the entire experience that much more disturbing, even when it was almost comical (Man Darts, anyone?).

Still think that there are games you think use cel shading even better? Let us know in the comments below! (No, I will not make another list on this topic – sorry!). 

The 5 Best Uses of Cel-Shading in Video Games

wallpaper_the_legend_of_zelda_the_wind_waker_01_1600
/ by DanielHill

The 5 Best Uses of Cel-Shading in Video Games

In this writer’s mind, there is nothing more beautiful in this world than a cel-shaded video game (I am guilty of purchasing games based entirely off of the inclusion of cel-shaded visuals). The vibrant colors and charming aesthetics bring a certain warmth to any digital realm. Sadly, this is not seen enough in a generation concerned first and foremost with gritty realism. It sounds cliche and cranky, I know. But stereotypes don’t appear out of thin air y’know. Foregoing any further lamenting, here is a list of games that not only buck this trend, but do so using cel-shading in such a way that the visuals transcend their purpose and become characters themselves.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Let’s start off with the most obvious choice: the black sheep of the beloved Zelda franchise. While some bemoaned the “kiddiness” of the new look, those that loved it really loved it. The stylized wisps of wind blowing about on the beautifully blue ocean under the vibrant sun was a sight to behold. Every character and location was memorable and the sense of wondrous adventure the visuals added to the game complemented the atmosphere perfectly. One needs to look no further than the game running on the Dolphin Engine to see just how much the visuals were loved by the game’s supporters.

The Dolphin Engine in action.

Dark Cloud 2

Not only was Dark Cloud 2 head and shoulders above its predecessor, it also came bearing one of the most beautiful visual styles to ever bless the Playstation 2. Mixing a variety of art styles such as steampunk and organic forests, the world in which Dark Cloud 2, like The Wind Waker, lends an impressively charming air of adventure to the game. As I’m writing this article, I am playing through the game and let me tell you: it still looks great almost nine years after it came out. That is something that not even the most realistic-looking games of the time can claim.

Charming, 'innit?

Valkyria Chronicles

Whereas the previous two entries had colors that popped, Valkyria Chronicles took a different route with its gorgeous hand-drawn battlefields. Thematically, the game seemed to focus on humans and nature coming together to from a natural order – and the visuals spoke to this flawlessly. Every non-urban battlefield – from forests to deserts – looked like the dreams of an artists rendered in water color. War may not be pretty, but it sure looked it in this game.

If god had a coloring book...

Okami

Much like the games listed above, the visuals in Okami did more than make the game look pretty – they added to the game on multiple levels. The Japanese myths and legends that inspired the narrative were complimented perfectly by the (as Wikipedia so helpfully put it) “sumi-e-inspired” cel-shaded visuals. The water colors made even more sense when one considers the fact that a celestial brush is used to paint miracles into the world. Using the brush to make trees bloom or feed wild animals became even more of a unique gaming experience with the cel-shading complimenting the proceedings.

Gonna cry...too pretty

Jet Set Radio Future

When the first Xbox hit the market over a decade ago, it came in touting graphically superior hardware over the Playstation 2 and Gamecube – and the comic-inspired world of Jet Set Radio Future made that evident. In a world where video games are becoming more and more realistic (therefore restricting somewhat the artistic expression of the medium), this game stands out even a decade after its release. Cel-shaded Tokyo is a sight to behold and each piece of graffiti is made even more beautiful by the visual style. With the recent move to true HD with the Xbox Live re-release, the game looks even better now.

Cel-shading is even prettier at night...

Naturally, I couldn’t put every cel-shaded game on here and given how big the internet is, yours was probably left out. Feel free to scold me on how I left your game out in the comments below!