- Uncharted: Drake's Fortune: In anticipation of the recently released sequel, I finally got around to checking out the original. It was one of the few notable PS3 exclusives a couple years ago and it is indeed one of the system's standout games (though the recent sequel is supposed to be even better). Overall, it's a great game, though there are some annoying bits here and there. Visually, it's quite impressive and ranks right up there with Assassin's Creed the prettiest games I've seen for the system yet. The gaming style is mostly as a third-person shooter, with some basic platforming and puzzle elements thrown in for good measure. I've heard a lot of complaints about the shooting aspects of the game, but I rather liked it. The cover system (similar to Gears of War's system) could get a bit cumbersome at times, but overall, I really enjoyed it. There isn't a huge variety in weaponry, but what's there seems to work well. I suppose the one thing that seems odd is that your primary enemy consists of endless throngs of pirates... you'd think that an organization consisting of several thousand pirates and the logistical ability to support them on remote islands would be more organized and effective (and perhaps not need to go on such risky treasure hunting trips), but I guess not. The platforming is well done, though there are lots of times when you think you should be able to climb up a wall or make your way through some rubble or something, only to find yourself jumping ineffectually. Still, 3D platforming can be very annoying, and it never reached those levels here (the focus of the game is not the platforming, but it works well). The puzzles are almost alarmingly simple, but they work well enough.
The one blemish on the game is the dreaded "Quick Time Events". I never understood the near universal hostility towards QTEs because my experience of them (mostly in the God of War games) was always pretty good. Well, they're awful here. This is a very cinematic game, with frequent cut-scenes where you passively watch the story progress. The problem, about 3 times in the game, the cut-scene suddenly throws up a button that you have to press within about 1 second, or you die. Not once did I ever notice it in time, forcing me to replay the QTE section again, this time knowing that the QTE is coming. It would be one thing if every cut-scene featured something like this, but 95% of them don't. The reason QTE works in games like God of War is that you don't immediately die when you fail to press the appropriate buttons in the right sequence. In some cases, the QTEs aren't even necessary in GoW. But in Uncharted, they are absolutely pointless. Fortunately, that's the only real major problem on an otherwise very polished game (and it's actually a pretty small problem). The only other minor annoyance is that saving the game doesn't actually save all progress... it only saves you up to the beginning of your current checkpoint. For the most part, the checkpoints are well spaced, but there is the occasional annoying area that's difficult to defeat.
In terms of a story, well, there is a coherent story here, which is more than you can say for most games. The plot is a little thin, but I can see why a movie adaptation is planned. Indeed, there are several sequences that actually built tension and made me surprisingly jumpy at times. The generator sequence towards the end of the game is pretty harrowing, for instance. It's a lot of fun and one of the better adventure games I've played recently, though I suppose it doesn't really add much in the way of new or innovative gameplay. Still, in videogameland, a game that is this well executed deserves some credit, and I'm really looking forward to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves.
- NHL 10: I've never been a big fan of sports or sports games, but for some reason, I've always loved hockey video games. From Blades of Steel on, I've gotten a new game every few years, starting in 1995. During the 2004 to 2006 corridor, I played 3 different games. I played the hell out of NHL 2004 (which probably remains my favorite hockey game of all time), but lost the game when I moved to my current house. I then made the ill-advised move to ESPN NHL 2K5, which was something of a disaster (and it appears that 2K Games were still suffering from major issues at least 3 years later). So made the move back to EA's franchise with NHL 06, which was a massive improvement over the 2K game, but ultimately lacked the spark that really captured me in 2004's installment. So I took a few years off and finally decided to take a look at what the current generation was doing. NHL 09 was apparently one of the best sports games of last year, and NHL 10 was poised to be even better, so I decided to pick it up.
I have to admit, it's not as good as NHL 2004 in many ways. It's a much deeper game, and it managed to add that depth without sacrificing too much in terms of usability, though there are some things that still baffle me. It seems that in 2009, they completely revamped the controller scheme, and after some initial discomfort as I learned the new scheme, I began to warm to the new system. It makes primary use of the two analog sticks, with much less focus on the buttons. I have to wonder how well someone new to the game would react. I had issues with it, I think, because I was unlearning 15 years of muscle memory. Someone completely new might think it was a little easier. Or not. Who knows? Once you get beyond the basic mechanics, I think it starts to falter a bit. I've always been a big fan of poke-checking, but this game also has this "stick lift" feature that I think might be overemphasized, especially when you get into online play with someone who is really good. It's amazingly frustrating to play against someone who is that good with the more subtle controls. In any case, the game is customizable, so if you're a die hard purist and want to play with NHL 94 controls, that option is available (the PS2 era control scheme is also available). For the most part, the actual gameplay here is probably better than NHL 2004. The game does feature a much deeper franchise mode (called "Be a GM" mode) that manages to be more usable than, say, NHL 2K5 (which also had a deep GM mode). Still, there are some weird usability niggles that confuse me. For instance, advancing to the next game seems oddly manual. You have to manually sim up to the next game. I believe previous games just had an option to "Play Next Game." Also, every time your minor league team has a game the same day you do, you have to tell the system that it's ok to sim the minor league game. This is extremely odd since you can't actually play the minor league games. And even if you could, who would want to do that? What's more, the dialog boxes for this are very poorly written. Anyway, aside from that, things seem to work reasonably well.
There are a lot of other modes available as well. There's a "Be a Pro" mode where you insert yourself onto a team and try to turn yourself into a star player. I haven't played this mode yet, but I'm very interested in checking it out. There is a new way of doing shootouts and penalty shots that I actually find kinda disorienting (in fact, I'm pretty sure I've never scored a goal against the computer - though I have against a human player). They also made a new fighting system that's a first person view. I'm not sure I have the hang of it yet, but it works reasonably well. There is an online mode that I think I'll actually play a good amount of... which is rare for me. The only online game I've played much of in the past has been Resistance 2's online co-op, and I didn't even play that much. I haven't managed to get into a league yet, but the Online Versus play seems to work fine for now.
Ultimately, I feel like the game is missing many of the little things that were just so right about NHL 2004. For instance, winning the Stanley Cup was much more memorable in NHL 2004. They played a song you rarely heard and did a really nice presentation of the trophy and recap of the season, featuring little recaps for each individual player. Most of that is gone in NHL 10. You here one of the standard songs they play all the time, the presentation is there, as is the final photo, but the rest is missing. Indeed, the soundtrack in general seems a little weak this year. There is supposedly a feature that lets you import songs from your own collection, which is something I should look into. I wonder how much the soundtrack really impacts a game like this? Also, is it just me, or is this year's play-by-play and commentary distinctly inferior to previous years? I understand that things will be repeated often, but it seems like much of what they're saying isn't really representative of what's happening in the game (ok, fine, I just don't like it when they say that I'm dumb for trying so many one-timers). Also, is it just me, or do the face/hair designs not seem to match the players as well as previous games? I find this rather surprising, considering the improved graphics capabilities. It's not that the designs look bad - the graphics are definitely better - but they don't look as much like the players. Strange.
The one thing that this game does have that no previous game has had is PS3 trophies. I know they don't really mean anything in the grand scheme of things, but I'll be damned if that feeling of earning a new trophy isn't awesome. When I think about it, that Pavlovian "ding" is a little disturbing, but I love it and it keeps me playing games after I normally would have given up on them. I certainly wouldn't have given up on NHL 10, but the trophies do get you to think about new and interesting ways to play the game. All in all, it's a worthy game, probably the best I've played since 2004. I wish there was a way to fix some of the things that annoyed me, but it's a solid game and I'm sure it will keep me busy for a long time.
- Valkyria Chronicles: This is a game I was really looking forward to for a while there, but as soon as I got it and started playing, I almost immediately lost interest... and I'm not sure why. I think it may have been because I started playing as soon as I finished Fallout 3. Not that I disliked Fallout 3 (in fact, I kinda want to revisit it), but the fact that you had to play for like 2 hours at a time in order to accomplish anything was annoying. I ended up writing a lot more than I thought I would below, but you should probably just watch Yahtzee's review. He's a bit harsher on the game than I would be, but he also hits all the pain points of the game and he is quite right that stuff like no auto-save and the crazy menu system are very annoying. (Also worth watching - the Unskippable guys tearing a cut-scene to shreds)
Valkyria Chronicles is a sorta mix between a RPG and a turn-based tactical shooter (it's, uh, kinda hard to explain). There are a few things that immediately turned me off about the game. First was the way the story was told. There's this book that is broken up into chapters, and you have to click through each one (not sure why it's set up this way - if there are 3 cut-scenes in a row and I have to watch all of them, why not just show me them all instead of taking me back out to the menu after each one). In a lot of cases, there aren't even animations on screen - you just see a lot of dialog boxes and hear people talking, etc... This is something I have associated with a lot of Wii games, but this exposition-heavy style seems like a more common Japanese thing. Whatever the case, that's annoying. The story itself is ok, I guess. I haven't gotten that far, but the none-too-subtle fantasy version of WWII seems reasonably well done. The story concerns an evil empire in the East attacking a group of allies in the west. You're characters are part of a Switzerland-like country caught in the middle of things. All well and good, I guess, though the main characters don't seem like your average soldier-types. There's a certain naivete that the characters seem to have that I can't quite reconcile with the war setting.
Anyway, once you get into combat, things are interesting and actually quite fun... but you can't save your game in the middle of a fight, which I predict will be really annoying as time goes on. I haven't gotten far into the game though, so maybe that part is addressed with checkpoints or something. I actually just finished putting together my first squad, and I've only really taken them on a small recon mission, but even putting together my team was a kinda odd experience. I would have thought we'd start out small, then gradually add team members. Instead, they make you load out a full 21 person team all at once. The process was kinda strange. I haven't played enough of the game to know what kind of balance I need from the soldier classes, and I'm not sure I understand the various attributes that give bonuses or penalties (i.e. some soldiers are apparently better at urban warfare than others, or vice versa, you have to consider the relationships between soldiers and various chemistry things there, etc...) I suppose that's something I can tweak as I go, but still. Again, I'm not very far into the game, and it is fun, but there have been a few annoyances along the way.
The cell-shading art style is gorgeous and the game is generally pretty nice to look at. As previously mentioned, some of the cut-scenes skimp on the animation, but otherwise it's pretty good. Apparently there is an Anime show that is loosely based on the game. Anyway, it's a game I certainly want to play more of before really passing judgment, but so far, I find myself agreeing with Yahtzee on this one. Also, this shouldn't matter, but I can't get my Pavlovian trophy fix with this game because it was made before trophies were required. Dammit.
Update: It seems I was too hard on Valkyria Chronicles. I've been playing it this week and am having lots of fun. The combat is great fun. The complaints above are still valid, but the story is getting more interesting and the various chapters seem to be a good mixture of combat styles (i.e. a battle in a wide open area of desert requires you to use a lot of scouts and snipers, but not so much shocktroopers). Good stuff...
I noticed the other day that I still haven't unpacked my Wii from when I brought it with me on vacation in August. And honestly, there's not much coming out for the Wii that really intrigues me either. I've never been a big Mario fan, so New Super Mario Bros. Wii doesn't interest me that much, and definitely not Mario Galaxy 2 (I liked the first game a lot, but ultimately got tired of it). I'm a little interested in Wii Sports Resort, but the fact that I have to buy another damn peripheral for the system holds me back (even if it is only an extra $20). Similarly, I might check out Wii Fit Plus. I tend to only do real exercise during the summer months for some reason, so perhaps Wii Fit will help me keep a minimum level of exercise going through Winter. It also sounds like they've improved on the original quite a bit. I'm not expecting my ultimate in video game fitness (which would be a game that combines the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side effects of exercise), but it does look better than the original (and it seems to be marketed more as a replacement than a sequel). Other than that, the landscape on Wii looks pretty bleak for me. There's supposedly a new Zelda game in the works, which is definitely interesting... but then, I never really got into Twilight Princess. The upcoming Metroid sounds rather dull as well (or maybe I'm just soured on the series because of Metroid Prime 3) There are a few other games I still want to check out, but nothing really jumps out at me. I've been a much more avid gamer with the PS3 than the Wii, and quite frankly, I paid around the same for both consoles. Plus, I watch lots of movies with the PS3 (and the recently added Netflix support is an awesome addition, if a bit awkward to use).