Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Metroid: Other M review, fall games preview

Above: This stuff -- good.

I meant what I said last week that Metroid: Other M isn't a bad game, and my review of Other M in the Phoenix provides a more balanced perspective than the blog post did. Considered purely on its own merits, this game does some things right, and it wasn't something I had to force myself to play through solely due to professional obligations. When you stack it up against other Metroid games, sure, it falls a little short, but I still think it was better that Nintendo tried this than Metroid Prime 4.

I am also jonesing to play Super Metroid again. Especially thanks to the pre-rendered Mother Brain cutscene at the beginning of Other M. Hachi machi!

Above: Yes, please.

I also filed a fall games preview for the paper, with my picks for the games worth watching this season, based on rigorous speculation and exacting wishful thinking.

The big story, unfortunately, is Move and Kinect, and despite some positive early reviews, I am wary of both peripherals. I look at Move and I just see Wii. I look at Kinect and don't understand how it's an improvement on standard game controls for standard games. (Hold a pretend steering wheel? Really? In what universe will this be more precise than an actual steering wheel, or even a thumbstick?)

The other part of filing a fall preview is that, lacking hands-on time with all of the available options, the hype machine tends to force my hand. It's very hard to give a nudge to a sleeper hit. Usually it's all about sequels, reboots, and whatever else the press has been talking about for months. Not that I even get those right. I left Call of Duty 4 out of the preview a few years ago. Durr.

One final note on fall preview: of everything listed there, I think I'm looking forward to Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit the most. I wouldn't have expected that when I started. Rock Band 3 also looks incredible. After that, it's all "wait and see." Nothing wrong with that, of course. But that's my opinion. What are you looking forward to this fall?

Now that I've got a week or two clear in my schedule, I am thinking about giving this Halo: Reach a fair chance. But that's probably a bad idea.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Stay tuned after the credits for a special treat!

Above: Samus' goth high school portrait.

Metroid: Other M is not a bad game. It's not a great game, either. But it's a strange game, and the strangest thing of all is this: it gets much better after it's over.

The initial campaign took about ten hours, all told, and while it had its moments it was also frustrating. For the most part, you can't explore. You have to go where the game tells you to. Your suit upgrades are doled out by a third party, and not because of anything you do.

This last part is pretty ridiculous. You repeatedly run through hot lava levels that sap your life, before some guy says "Oh hey, how about you use your Varia Suit?" You've had it the whole time, you see. You just didn't think to turn it on.

The same thing happens a little later: Samus is about to be blown into the vacuum of space, but fortunately, the game seizes control from you and activates the Gravity Suit. Well thank god for that. I didn't want to have to do anything there.

Some items are impossible to pick up your first time through, because you can't use Power Bombs until the plus game starts. Besides that, because so many doors are arbitrarily locked in service of the story, you're not free to backtrack whenever you do find an upgrade.

Worst of all is the story. Look, Nintendo and Team Ninja were under no obligation to meet some Platonic ideal of Metroid that may exist only in my head. If they want Samus to talk, Samus can talk. If they want her to whimper while a manly man father figure heroically sacrifices himself to save her, they can do that too (of course, they really shouldn't have). But, Metroid or not, they shouldn't have made long, talky, boring cutscenes that, when they aren't interrupting the gameplay, are replacing it.

Then, after the terrible climax,* the credits roll, and Samus flies back to the space station. Suddenly, it feels like Metroid again. Samus is alone. There's not some idiot chirping at her every five minutes. She can explore the space station at her own pace, and under her own direction. At this point, you have all the powerups, so the only upgrades remaining are generally more missile packs and energy tanks, but that's okay.

I'm not sure what to make of it. The plus game is a hallowed tradition, but it's not something I've tended to pursue. One playthrough is usually enough. Here, I'd say that it's almost worth plugging through the first game just to get to the second one. It's not a good thing that it takes ten hours to get where you're going in Other M, but it's nice to arrive.

*Story of my life.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Mafia II

Above: Vito Scaletta hides from my review.

My review of Mafia II is up at

I've said before that a good game succeeds despite its flaws, and a bad game fails despite its virtues. This is a prime example of the latter. There is a lot of good stuff to be found here. I don't agree with Bill Harris when he says that the writing is brilliant, but it is above average: thoughtful, deliberate, restrained. Character driven? Not exactly, but closer than you usually get with a game of this type. Compared to other recent gangster games, Mafia II avoids the fetishization of violence of The Godfather II, and the tone-deafness of Grand Theft Auto IV.*

The story needs to be good if you're going to play through a game like Mafia II, because the structure is very much cutscene-gameplay-cutscene. It looks like an open-world game, but it doesn't play like one. Were there side missions? If so, the game did a good job of hiding them. Not that side missions are the most important part of a game. I just mean to say that when you're driving down a street in Empire Bay, you do not stop to explore anything that catches your eye. You keep going to your next objective.

When Mafia II is bad, though, it is bad. I couldn't believe how awful the shootouts were. The enemies are bullet sponges, which is very much at odds with the game's ostensible realism. Targeting was next to impossible (I eventually discovered that there was a smidgen of auto-aim if you snapped in and out of cover quickly enough, but it usually didn't help). And the worst thing was, they all played out exactly the same way: rote duck-and-cover sequences taking place along straight, narrow corridors. Even outdoor shootouts found a way to lock you into what were, functionally, crate-filled hallways.

My experience with the game came to follow a pattern. First, a slow burning enjoyment, as I eased myself into the slow pace and focused on the story. Then, bewilderment and frustration as I came upon some idiotic part of the gameplay that I usually ended up repeating several times. Any spell the game started to cast would be broken.

The worst thing about it is that I would like to be talking about Mafia II solely in terms of the story. I'd like to be talking about what it's saying about loyalty and friendship. I'd like to be praising not only the direction of the storyline, but the obvious pitfalls it avoids. And in a sense the game would deserve that. But it's too hard to see past the basic mechanics of the thing to do that. It's really too bad.

*Though GTAIV's story is the far more dramatically interesting of the two.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Announcing the Laser Orgy 500, plus a Hydro Thunder review

Got a couple of important links before your Labor Day weekend.

First, now that it's been out for over a month, check out my long-awaited review of Hydro Thunder Hurricane. I really liked this game. Like I say in the review, it's not groundbreaking, earth-shattering, or sky-rending -- nor will it convince Ebert that games are art -- but it is pretty awesome. I was especially impressed how unpredictable and chaotic online races were, given the lack of missiles and such.

There's a much more important project at the Phoenix that you need to check out. In the Laser Orgy 500, you can vote for the best video game of all time. This isn't like most best-of lists you might have seen, or participated in before. This is a battle royal. Two games are chosen at random from the database, and you must choose which is better.

Sometimes, this leads to agonizing choices (Counterstrike vs. Civilization IV, say.) Sometimes, pairings so comical you'd swear there was a human intelligence at work (Gears of War vs. Xenogears). Sometimes, games so bad that you'd rather leap off of something than play either one (E.T. vs Custer's Revenge).

After awhile, it becomes less about which game is "better" than which game you'd rather play right this second. You'd be surprised what you come up with.

Vote in the Laser Orgy 500. And say goodbye to the rest of your afternoon.