Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Now Playing: TOO! MANY! GAMES!


The holidays are a tricky time of year for most people.  Of course, 'most people' have bills and families to worry about, and I don't, so you'd think I'd be content, but never let it be said that I can't find something to gripe about in even the best of circumstances.  For example: having so many genuinely good games to play, which is a problem because I like to keep updating this blog with thoughts on stuff like that, and I just don't have the time to give each individual title the write-up they deserve before it's no longer timely to do so (read: before it's bloody mid-January again).

So, I'm gonna limit my thoughts to a couple paragraphs for each game I've played since late November, going in descending order of how much time I've logged into them.  Skim at your leisure.
Lego Marvel Superheroes (Multiformat)

Traveller's Tales' Lego games, taken as one single meta-series that swallow other franchises whole, was and is possibly the most durable cash cow in gaming outside of Call of Duty, and while I've had my ups and downs over the series it's not hard to see why their popularity remains unblemished, and that is, simply, love.  The TT crew don't just slap some recognisable names and logos onto their long-in-the-tooth (but constantly expanding) game engine and call it a day; every new title is full to bursting with inside-baseball nods to the source material, fantastic touches of character and buckets of ineffable charm.  Lego Marvel doesn't change that, and purely for being based on some of my favourite comics people, it's now my favourite.

As with Lego Batman 2: Also Featuring the Justice League (Sometimes), Lego Marvel gives you free run over a sandbox city when you're not on a specific mission, in this case the Marvel Universe version of Manhattan instead of Gotham.  It's reasonably accurate to the real world equivalent, albeit a shade smaller, and throws in basically every significant building to ever feature in the comics.  And sure, Stark Tower's an easy spot after the Avengers movie, but there's the Baxter Building, the Daily Bugle, OsCorp HQ, Fisk Tower, the Hellfire Club (oddly denoted by a giant red neon trident on the outside...bit showy for a secret kink society, no?) and more.  Plus, the city itself feels more alive than Lego Gotham ever did, thanks to sharing the improvements from Lego City Undercover that allowed for traffic on the roads and pedestrians who speak and react to the world around them.  It's a great place to muck around with, even before you get to the Helicarrier hanging high in the air that you can fly up to without waiting for a loading screen...and then freefall back down to Earth from.

The missions (15 story, 11 bonus) take the same puzzle-platform mould they always have, with the usual swapping out of characters to apply specific powers to matching problems.  It's as satisfyingly mechanical as ever, though it may feel old hat for some, and certain powers are incredibly restrictive (i.e. nobody except Mr. Fantastic can use shape-change pads) which limits your choices a bit.  As for the 'big figs' - the new way of treating powerhouse characters, giving them big broad-shouldered models based on the real Hulk figure - they're not much to write home about, with even their mighty strength being matched by some of the smaller figs.  Still, these are minor issues for a game that lets you lap Central Park as Captain Britain on Ghost Rider's bike.

Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy (3DS)
By comparison, I have honestly no idea how the Professor Layton series has run this long.  At their core is a series of increasingly challenging puzzles not unlike those of former DS stalwart Prof. Kawashima's Brain Training, connected by a simple point-&-click adventure interface, which sounds like the sort of thing the senior crowd (the people who bought a DS to play friggin' Sudoku on it) would be into.  But then, said adventure is based in a rich, warm, comforting and frequently completely insane world where an English professor (or a Japanese storyteller's ideal of an English professor) with a very large hat is the greatest works-for-free detective in all the land, and people spend all day fretting over said puzzles like they're a form of currency or something.  That's round about where I imagine the seniors would check out, and for every younger gamer who'd be attracted by the art vibe, you'd lose as many who find the puzzles too tricky or 'boring'.  And yet, here we are at game 6, not counting a few mobile spin-offs and an animated movie.

Azran Legacy isn't about to shake up the existing formula, so series stalwarts - or basically anyone who's ever touched these games before - will know what to expect.  150 new puzzles are included as standard, and although we're stretching the definition of 'new' quite a bit here (Level 5 are masters of the touch screen but even they can only go so far without repetition creeping in) I didn't experience much deja vu from game 5, Miracle Mask.  The game's varying locales cover more diverse scenery than ever before thanks to the globetrotting plot and the art department prove up to the task of delivering on such promise, and the 3D remains some of the nicest to behold on the system, with the multi-layered backgrounds feeling pleasantly like a pop-up book made digital.

Of course, I'm no puzzle gamer myself; I've stayed interested in this series because of their often-mental but genuinely affecting stories, and while Legacy hits a bit of a slump in its treasure-hunt second act, it recovers for a breathless and tear-jerking finale that, as with game 3 (Lost Future), caps the prequel trilogy with flair.

Saints Row IV: Enter the Dominatrix DLC (Multiformat)
This post - nay, this blog - isn't big enough to adequately cover all that is great about Saints Row IV.  To put it simply, it takes Saints Row the Third - itself probably the greatest and most insane open-world crime simulator of the ages - bolts on superpowers borrowed from the Prototype games, and crafts a plot that's simultaneously ludicrous to a hitherto unseen degree, while also serving as a remarkably intelligent deconstruction of the impact of violence in videogames, and as a parody of every over-serious action title of the last generation (and by the look of it, the upcoming generation to boot).  It couldn't be any better without having Nina Williams in it.  And, in fact, it's pretty easy to put together a Nina-esque costume for the player character this time, so it nearly achieves that too.

What's funny is, it was very nearly a different story.  The last extra DLC pack for The Third was meant to be Enter the Dominatrix, before the designers at Volition found they had too much material in the virtual world concept to leave it as just a mission pack, and instead made that story the basis of IV, something which rather annoyed me at the time (I got over it).  And now, they've jokily gone back to the original plan with the latest SRIV add-on, framing the original script and choices as an earlier draft rejected by the principal cast of characters (which would be a shocking break of the fourth wall if this sort of thing didn't happen all the time in the Saints Row series) and letting you act out some of the alternate takes.

It'll only last you a few hours but there's plenty of great gags, and really, if you've played IV already, I doubt you need a reason besides getting to hang out more with the eccentric cast, who are all on fine form (great to have Zimos back as well).  Saints Row's greatest strength remains its writing, and the way the concept of 'behind the scenes feature from the DVD except it's a game' is implemented here is easily worth £6 or whatever of anyone's money.

Super Mario 3D World (Wii U)
Behold my shameful confession: I am a Nintendo die-hard who doesn't like Mario side-scrollers.  Yeah.  I said it.  I don't even know why, honestly, but from Mario Land on the Game Boy through the SNES years and now with the increasingly inaccurately named New SMB series, I've never been much good at these titles and nor have I had the desire to push through the tricky bits.  There's just something 'off' about how they handle, how Mario skids when he stops, stuff like that.  By comparison, the 3D Marios are much more my cup of tea; I was terrible at Mario 64 back in the day, granted, but by the time of Sunshine I had grown into a more skilled gamer and could roll with the punches (just as well, because that game did not screw around), and I count both Galaxys as the joint best game ever across all genres and formats.  Super Mario 3D Land, which translated the mechanics of those titles into something more manageable for handhelds, didn't quite match Galaxy's brilliance but was pretty wonderful in its own way, and always left me with that 'just one more go!' feeling every time I picked it up for a short burst (which turned into an hour) (and then into 2).

3D World (which seems superfluous as a title since it's not actually on a 3D-displaying console) takes Mario, Luigi, Peach and a Toad which isn't the 'true' Toad (the one with red dots on his head) to another world populated by oppressed fairies, which...still seems to be the Mushroom Kingdom, judging by the level furniture and enemies.  That's kind of irritating since most Mario titles that take place in 'another world' (Sunshine is one example) tend to feature whole new designs to support that reality, so it's disappointing to not see that continue here.  Levels are structured similarly to 3D Land, looking less like livable worlds and more like colourful assault courses of wooden bricks floating in a cloudy nullspace, and has the same retro holdover 'shrinking' life system and time limits.  Each stage has 3 green stars scattered in some of its more obscure nooks and crannies, and though you can finish the stage without them, they form the keys needed to unlock the boss stages.

I'm only up to World 3 so far thanks to a weekend holiday coinciding with the release date, but in that time I've rode a Loch Ness monster down a waterfall, defeated an ominous shadow Bowser that turned out to be made of plywood, fought the actual Bowser while he was driving a massive purple hotrod (see pic), sent Cat Mario chasing after a rabbit, stormed a military parade with Mario's head stuck inside a cannon, and completed an uphill level while attempting to wrangle 4 Marios at once.  It's been said before and I'll say it again: nobody is as creative as Nintendo firing on all cylinders.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)
Another, slightly less shameful confession is that I've been wary of the Fire Emblem series for a long time now.  A large part of that is simply because I'm too stupid to figure out a cost-effective way of playing imports (or learning Japanese, for that matter) and this series spent its formative years never reaching Western shores.  The other part...is that they're really hard, and I don't take failure well.  This is magnified by Emblem continuing to practice its famous 'dead for good' rule that means any units you lose in battle are capital-D Dead and never coming back.  I've dipped my toe into both the Gamecube's Path of Radiance and its Wii follow-up Radiant Dawn before, and came back with an understanding and appreciation of the mechanics...and still that old knot of dread in my stomach.  Nevertheless, I bought Awakening anyway, bolstered by the announced option to allow for limited companion resurrection.

...a feature which I have yet to use, because the one time I've lost a unit so far (Miriel, a mage who acts like a librarian) I hit reset and started the mission over, and took much better care of her the second time around.  It's the coward's way out, I know, but she was only level 3!  She had a whole life ahead of her!  Anyway, the lowdown is that Awakening plays much the same as previous Emblems have: you command a squad of medieval-fantasy warrior types in turn-based strategy battle across a gridded battlefield, aiming to clear the board of the enemy units that typically outnumber you or complete some other story-based objective.  Different characters have different stats and use different weapons, which are more or less effective against each other in the same way that Pokémon types clash.  The AI doesn't follow a pre-set pattern, so each skirmish plays out differently and you'll have to think on the fly to win.

One change since my last encounter with the series is the option to craft and name your own player character.  Of course, in-game you boss around a full squad from a bird's-eye view, which led to previous games simply sticking your narrative perspective close to important players out of convenience, but here you're specifically attached to a lone warrior with memory troubles taken in by the militia of Ylisstol, a peaceful nation still dealing with the ramifications of its less-than-peaceful past.  I'm only ankle deep in what promises to be an epic, sweeping story of lineage, succession, civil war and dragon stabbing (Fire Emblem was doing Game of Thrones before anyone knew what Game of Thrones was) and I'm already dreading the point where my feeble skills fail me and I'll need to resort to a Let's Play video to see how it all ends.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS) 
List of predictable things in life: death, taxes, Nazi supervillain schemes, Zelda games.  Whether you love them (and consider the repetition to be a key element of why the series calls itself 'legend' in the first place) or hate them (and just make snide eye rolling jokes about 'playing like a girl' or somesuch) there's no denying that, at this point, a Zelda story almost writes itself.  That we once again witness a foreboding nightmare scene only to be rudely awoken as humble farmboy Link is a sure sign that A Link Between Worlds isn't interested in dragging the series forwards into something new and unexpected.

Well, probably not, anyway.  I'm not even at the first dungeon.  What I can tell you from my few hours of mostly confused wandering in this new Hyrule is that it is just as much a throwback to A Link To The Past as Nintendo claimed; new graphics aside this feels super-duper old school, to the point where I occasionally hallucinate Animal Crossing NPCs wandering around.  Which is not to say it's bad, just that - for a boy who took until Twilight Princess to overcome his ambivalence with this series - it's an odd beast.  Maybe I'll blog about it some more later. 

Rayman Legends (Multiformat)
When the hell did Rayman become good?  His various PS1-era platformers were shoddy things with floaty handling and unpredictable physics, and nothing about the limbless freak or his world stood out design-wise in any way besides 'deeply ugly'.  I don't even remember what he was doing during the PS2 days, other than being supplanted for the role of 3rd or 4th best-selling mascot platformer by Spyro the Dragon.  When it came time for his Wii debut, Ubisoft basically used his series as a backdoor pilot for those shrieking Rabbids, and the mad-eyed migraine-causers only took 2 games to completely give him the boot back to obscurity.  And yet, here he is with a new platformer all to himself, and it's honestly great.

Again, I've not had as much time to muck around with Legends as I'd like, so most of the bonus stuff is untouched (it seems to be multiplayer-focused anyway), but what I can say from what I've played is that none of Rayman's old demons plague him now.  He handles smoothly - not like Mario, maybe not quite that perfectly, but he's responsive to your every touch and never goes flailing to his doom for no reason.  The basic level design is more varied and hides its goodies in a more natural way.  And the graphics, oh my goodness.  This is a gorgeous game, with bravura art direction and gloriously animated sprites, and multi-layered backdrops that seem to be always in motion, it's...man, it's hard to describe.  I suppose it could all fall apart and be terrible from the next few levels onwards, but I doubt it.  Here's to you, Rayman.  You got good.  Now get rid of the Jason Donovan haircut.

Thor: The Dark World Official Game (iOS/Android)
While my Kindle tablet is now a very important part of my life, I can't say I'm sold on its game library, or that of touchy-tab gizmos in general.  My write-up of the Man of Steel game was fairly positive, but I had to be very forgiving of the game's responsiveness (or lack thereof), which I expect has less to do with the coding by the developers and more to do with the physical limits of the format.  Nonetheless I remain a whore for superhero licences, so if Gameloft are gonna make a Gauntlet clone where you control Thor and twat Frost Giants and Dark Elves with his mighty hammer I'm gonna give it a shot.

And, well...it's a pretty good Gauntlet clone.  You drag your finger around the screen to move, tap on an enemy to attack, draw special patterns to activate special moves, and can spawn in reinforcements to help tackle crowds.  It all mostly works, save for hammer-throwing - accomplished by a tap with two fingers rather than one, which is the sort of command a tablet just doesn't 'get'.  The difficulty isn't so unforgiving to let that error dent your progress much, though.  There's a story too, albeit largely the usual 'bad guys are amassing, go sort them out with your mighty pecs' yarn that's not gonna win any awards, but it's a fun enough distraction, and for a free-to-play title it's quite relaxed about trying to squeeze money out of your wallet, which makes a change.


And now, if you'll excuse me, I gotta ditch all these losers and go feed my Sigilglyph more cupcakes in Pokémon Y...

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