Thursday, November 6, 2008

Gears of War 2 (Xbox360)

The original Gears of War became an action genre classic thanks to its incredible graphics, cinematic presentation, and solid cover system. The sequel repeats this formula, and though it introduces new weapons, enemies, and environments, it remains an incredible yet familiar experience. The 10-hour campaign is rambunctiously entertaining, with clever set pieces and epic confrontations that punctuate the exhilarating stop-and-pop gunplay. The multiplayer offers more significant upgrades, with four new modes, 10 new maps, and support for up to 10 players instead of eight. These things make for a package with significant longevity, and though Gears of War 2 ultimately refines more than it innovates, it still deserves a place in any action fan's collection.

Gears of War 2 picks up the story six months after the end of the first game. The Locust are so powerful that they can sink entire cities from below, whereas the humans are becoming even more desperate thanks to the spread of a disease called rust lung. With fears that the last city of Jacinto might fall, it's down to Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago to take the fight to the Locust in a desperate last stand against their alien foes. Survival is at the centre of Gears 2, but there's also personal drama, with themes such as family, death, and even love interwoven into the grand plot. This sheds some light on the characters and the universe, and though it ultimately uncovers more questions than it answers, the game has a much grander premise than its predecessor.

In terms of gameplay, Gears 2 is fundamentally the same as the original game, but fans of the series should be able to spot some key refinements. The cover system has been honed so that you cling more accurately to surfaces, and the weapons have received subtle alterations to make them even more balanced than before. The revival system has also been tweaked considerably. Not only can your AI teammates heal you if you're injured, but now you can also tap A to crawl toward them more quickly when you're injured. This makes the game a lot fairer in terms of difficulty and allows for some heart-pounding moments as you race to your teammates to avoid a fatal curb-stomping from the opposition.

Although the assault rifle is still the go-to firearm for the duration of the campaign, there are plenty of other weapons to play with. New to the Gears universe is the flamethrower, which doesn't have a great range but is excellent for dealing with groups of enemies that get a little too close for comfort. Then there are the heavy weapons, which stop you from being able to roadie run but make up for this with their immense power. The mulcher is a high-calibre chain gun that can cut through even the biggest enemies in a single burst, whereas the mortar rains down a shower of explosives from afar. Grenades have also seen improvements; you can stick them to surfaces so they become proximity mines, there's a new model that gives off noxious gas, and the smoke grenade delivers a concussive blast that knocks surrounding players off of their feet. All of these new weapons are great fun to use, and crucially, they're well balanced for use in multiplayer.

The first Gears of War was brutally over-the-top in its violence, and the sequel manages to take this even further. You now have four ways of executing your enemies, all of which are mapped onto the face buttons of the joypad. X performs the standard curb-stomp, B delivers a quicker blow to the back of the head, and Y flips your foe over for repeated punches to the face. Finally, the A button lets you grab the wounded enemy to use as a meat shield, affording you some protection until you decide to finish it off with a neck-break. The signature chainsaw move has been adapted so you cut upward from the crotch if you approach from the rear, and if two players ready their saws, they enter a duel that's won by whoever taps the B button the fastest. These new additions improve on the already gritty and satisfying melee combat of the original Gears of War and make close-quarters combat even more gruesomely rewarding.

Gears of War 2 has a considerably different look from its predecessor. Whereas the first game was characterised by derelict cities and crumbling monuments, a good portion of the sequel takes place in huge outdoor spaces and underground caverns. You'll see fluorescent lights, snow-capped mountains, and enemies so big you'll actually need to get inside them to destroy them. There are also more vehicle sections, and though they can be a bit fiddly to use, these segments are thankfully short and infrequent. The traditional stop-and-pop gunplay still makes up the majority of the campaign, and it's a raucously enjoyable ride that you'll want to play again and again.

Gears of War 2 is best when played with friends, and the entire campaign now features drop-in support and independent difficulty levels for two players. The competitive multiplayer has also been substantially improved and now offers more players, maps, and game modes to select. Warzone, Execution, Assassination, and Annex modes all make a return, along with King of the Hill, which was introduced in the PC version of the game. There are also three new standard multiplayer modes called Submission, Guardian, and Wingman. Submission is a variation on Capture the Flag, but here the flag is a civilian who you carry to the checkpoint using the meat-shield technique. The hostage also carries a gun and is hostile to anyone who comes close, making for a really great twist on the traditional CTF game mode. Guardian is a team-based game with a designated leader; keep the leader alive and everyone else can respawn, but if the leader dies then that privilege is over. Finally, Wingman splits players into teams of two, with the emphasis on working together to kill and revive. You've probably seen these game modes before in other games, but they fit perfectly into Gears of War 2 and add even more variety and longevity to online play. Thankfully, the benefits of being the host online have also been lessened, making the online experience much fairer across the board.

The final multiplayer mode is called Horde, and it's the most addictive and challenging take on Gears yet. It could be described as a cross between single- and multiplayer, in which a team of five COGs take on wave after wave of Locust enemies. As long as one player stays alive at the end of each round, the entire team respawns and the game keeps going, with progressively bigger and more difficult enemies. It's an incredibly tense and exciting game mode, and despite the steep difficulty curve, it's highly rewarding to play with friends. Gears 2 is also accommodating to new players and those without Internet connections, with five training missions and bot support for every multiplayer mode except Horde. The bots are surprisingly good at replicating human players, and they make great practice for people who have never played the game online.

Gears of War 2 includes a total of 10 new multiplayer maps, plus a code to download five remastered maps from the original game. The new maps take inspiration from the locations in the campaign, whereas new environmental effects change some of the maps as you're playing. For example, Hail features razor-sharp rain that gradually kills anyone out in the open. Furthermore, Day One has a huge emergence hole in which a beast can take swipes at any surrounding players. Finally, Avalanche is completely transformed when a snowstorm hits, turning it from a multitiered level into one flat plane. These environmental effects don't feature in every map and game mode, but they definitely liven up standard deathmatch-style multiplayer game types such as Warzone.

The original Gears of War was a spectacular-looking game, and the sequel maintains this high technical and artistic quality. Instead of pushing for increased visual fidelity, the graphics engine adds a couple of other dimensions to the presentation, with walls that crumble under gunfire and dozens of enemies onscreen at once. These new features don't necessarily affect the gameplay, but they look good and help add to the dramatic scale that the designers have chosen. The new organic capabilities of the Unreal Engine make for one particularly memorable level in which you literally have to kill a giant enemy from the inside. Gears of War 2 also has impeccable sound design, with terrific voice acting, meatier weapon effects, and another beautiful cinematic score.

Gears of War 2 has a lot in common with its predecessor, but the new environments, darker storyline, and epic scale certainly have a lot to offer fans. The new weapons, melee attacks, and co-op options make for a campaign that you'll want to complete a number of times, and the new multiplayer modes give the game variety and longevity. Simply put, Gears of War 2 is a superior shooter that no action fan will want to miss out on.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Little Big Planet (PS3)

Although Little Big Planet could be described as a platforming game, its dedication to creativity in every area takes it far beyond the confines of the genre. Everything from your character to the environment is geared towards user creation and adaptation, via stickers and costumes right up to a full-blown level creator. Each level of the story mode is an unforgettable trip through the wild imagination of the designers, and it would be difficult to find a game that's as much fun to play with friends co-operatively. It's a little disheartening that the Story mode is over so quickly, and although there's some longevity to be had from finding all the hidden extras, you can still see everything the story has to offer in six hours. Then there's the level creator--an astoundingly powerful toolset that theoretically allows you to recreate anything you see in the included levels and much more. However, it still requires a great deal of time and skill to develop something that people will actually want to play, and despite the best intentions of the developer, it's a feature that not everyone will be able to take full advantage of. The overall result is a game that's incredibly fun while it lasts, and one that has the potential to be taken further by its community.

The titular Little Big Planet is the place where all human imagination collects--the planet above the cosmos where our untapped creativity escapes when we're asleep or daydreaming. That's the background, anyway, and though characters occasionally refer to each other in the game, this fantastical journey has little in the way of exposition or backstory. There are eight themed worlds in total, and they vary in style from places such as the African savannah to the Mexican desert and ninja-obsessed Japan. Each world has either three or four individual levels, most of which can be completed in less than 10 minutes, and each level also has a bonus challenge or race if you can find the key hidden within. These bonus levels offer some of the most fun and imaginative experiences in the game, with an homage to Line Rider, skipping contests, and even drag racing competitions.

Little Big Planet's emphasis on creativity is completely embodied by its mascot, Sackboy. This endearingly cute rag doll acts as a blank slate for your creativity, and as you collect new materials and clothing in the story mode, you can constantly try out new looks. You can dress him up in costumes, add accessories such as hats and glasses, and even change his covering from that familiar brown to a particularly gaudy pink. Sackboy is also highly expressive, and you can use the controller's triggers and analog stick to move his arms and even smack unruly players. The D pad controls his facial expressions: up for happy, down for sad, left for scared, and right for angry, and repeatedly tapping in that direction further emphasises these emotions. You can also use the motion sensor to move Sackboy's head and hips, nodding knowingly if you win a level, at least until someone inevitably smacks you in the face for being so smug. With so much control over your character, you often end up spending a good deal of time just changing clothes, pulling faces, and maybe even sticking a "LOLZ" sticker on your buddy's forehead.

Although the character customisation may be in-depth, the platforming itself is not. There are only two action buttons: X to jump, and R1 to grab hold of swings and move objects. Sackboy doesn't use any special powers, and he doesn't become any faster or stronger throughout the course of the game. This is platforming in its purest form: jumping from platform to platform, dodging obstacles such as fire and electricity, and collecting blue orbs to score points along the way. What makes Little Big Planet unique is that it frequently goes way beyond platforming into something else entirely, seemingly for no other reason than to satisfy the designer's rampant imagination. With scenarios such as hot-air balloon riding, animal prison breaks, and ninja henchmen battles, every level of Little Big Planet demonstrates incredible imagination.

The main story mode follows a sequential progression, so you open up new levels by completing them in order. However, even when you've finished a level, you'll want to return to collect the hidden items, keys, and point bubbles that you likely missed the first time around. Collecting items allows you more creative freedom in the form of stickers and costumes, whereas music and materials can be used in the creation mode afterward. You can also collect loot drops by putting stickers down in certain places, and there are puzzles that you can only solve by playing in the two- to four-player mode. These include gates that can only be opened remotely, objects that require multiple characters to pull, and in one brilliant scene, a car driven by one character while another dangles on a trapeze underneath.

Little Big Planet poses a bit of a dilemma; it's miles more fun in multiplayer, but also more flawed. Figuring out the puzzles and experiencing the set pieces for the first time with others is one of the most memorable experiences we've had this year, and chances are that you'll find yourself recounting the best moments with your friends afterwards. Unfortunately, there's a downside to playing in multiplayer, and it's something that often afflicts platforming games: the camera. It frequently struggles to frame the action, and considering many precision jumps are required, certain sections become nigh-on impossible. The generous spacing of respawn points lets you retry most of the tricky sections, but if you fail after using up your lives, you have to restart the entire level. There were many occasions in multiplayer in which we intentionally killed ourselves, just so that one player could try a section without the camera jerking around all of the time.

Sadly, with no scalable difficulty level and relatively few truly testing challenges, stalwarts of the genre will be able to reach the last boss in less than six hours. This isn't counting the time it takes to go back and collect everything, but the fact remains, you can see all the main levels in one prolonged sitting. Clearly, if the community jumps on the creation tools then this longevity will be extended, but it will take time and great skill from home designers to match the creativity and professionalism of Media Molecule's work.

Once you've finished the story and built up a stock of items, stickers, and other creation tools, you'll want to head to the My Moon that orbits Little Big Planet to start building your own levels. The creation tools are comprehensive, which is why you have to go through plenty of tutorials to learn the basics. You begin by moving items around, but things become a lot trickier when you start creating characters and moving objects. For example, enemies and allies have to be given an AI routine so they know whether to follow or run away from a player when they're approached. The physics system is easy to understand, so making things is common sense, but it can still be very time-consuming to construct even the most simple moving objects. You can create structures and glue everything together with ease, but it takes a lot more work to use motors, pistons and springs. These help to set traps, make puzzles and add vehicles, which makes for more interesting levels, but creating and testing everything is a lot of work for the creator. Given the work required to build even simple systems, it's a pretty momentous task to re-create something on the scale of the levels made by the developers.

Thankfully, the task has been made easier by the inclusion of premade objects and level templates from the main game. This makes it a lot easier to start dropping in characters, structures, and vehicles, although you'll still want to adapt them to create your own look. The other problem for budding designers is that the game has three separate planes to work on, which lets players move between fore, middle, and background when playing. This means that unless you think on all three levels when making obstacles, players can simply pop into the foreground and avoid them completely. Once you have all of your main content in place, you can add finishing touches such as respawn points, dynamic music that changes according to player proximity, and characters that offer instructions on what to do. You can also throw in point bubbles and prizes to encourage players to play your level, and of course it's a good idea to play through repeatedly to make sure that others won't get stuck.

With all of this in mind, it's no small feat to create a Little Big Planet level that people will actually want to play. The reality, at least according to what we've seen happen in the game thus far, is that home designers will use the tools to make much smaller-scale creations than the levels in story mode. We've seen some great creations based on a nightclub and even TV show The Crystal Maze, in addition to video game homages such as Space Invaders and Breakout. They're simple ideas that incorporate systems already built by the developers, and they're probably a good indication of where the community is going to go with the game.

Going online with Little Big Planet is a breeze as you can see which of your friends are online and jump straight into their pod. The multiplayer online mode works well, even if it's not as smooth as the local multiplayer. You also can’t play the create mode online, though a future update will purportedly enable this feature. Sharing is also well implemented, and you can choose to move levels from your My Moon to the online Little Big Planet. When people play a level here, they can choose from preset tags to help describe the level for other players. This helps Little Big Planet to group similar levels together, so if you like what you're playing, you can search for creations that players have awarded similar tags. You can also add a heart to your favourite designers and search through all of their levels, and the system streams content live from the network so you don't have to save anything. There's even an option to play 'Cool Levels' from the main menu if you want something at random. If you really like a level or fancy adapting what you've seen, you can take levels submitted by other people and copy them to your own moon for later. All in all, it's a system that looks like it can cope with the content that's set to come out after the game's release.

This is a beautifully assembled game, with a patchwork visual style that covers the technical achievements underneath. There are smaller details such as reflections in the collectable balls to look out for, as well as some really nice fire, smoke, and electricity effects. It may be cruel to watch Sackboy die, but he can be electrocuted, burned, and disintegrated in a variety of ways, each resulting in highly detailed effects. Special mention should go to the physics system, which is pitched just a fraction beyond realistic to allow for some amazing stunts, jumps, and races. Then there's the soundtrack, a mix of genres from indie artists such as The Go Team and Jim Noir that all suit the game to a tee. Finally, a nod has to go to the pitch-perfect narration from British comedian Stephen Fry, and apart from his insistence that you don't post anything rude online, his voice is just as charming as the rest of the game.

Little Big Planet is a startlingly imaginative take on the platforming genre, and its story mode, while short, is truly outstanding. It's down to the community to elongate the life of the game, and while only the most ardent fans will be up to the task of making compelling content, the tools here certainly have some potential. If you've not got a creative bent then you might feel like you're getting half a game, but that doesn't stop Little Big Planet being a star that burns twice as bright, half as long.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Braid (Xbox360)

Have you ever wondered how the princess locked away in the castle must feel? Or what's going through the head of the eager hero--the valiant young man who gladly leapt over treacherous pits and onto the heads of dangerous foes--after receiving a cursory kiss on the cheek for risking his hide? The motivations of these archetypical characters are rarely explored, but Braid tries to answer these oft-ignored questions. It serves as the contemplative companion to the typical Mario adventure while embracing the unbridled fun found in the best platformers. Clever gameplay mechanics are the driving force, pushing you toward your inevitable confrontation with the woman you've lost, but it's the engrossing story that cements this as something really special.

Braid is the rare game that will make you rack your brain trying to solve puzzles one minute while challenging you to come to terms with its mature tale the next. The plot is succinctly summarized before you enter the first world: Tim, the hero, has made a mistake that cost him his love; now, he has to rescue his lost princess from an evil monster. The story, told through books before each of the six worlds, chronicles Tim's ruminations on the subjects eating away at him. These could be labeled poetic or sappy--depending on your level of cynicism--but they add powerful context to the running and jumping action that follows.

Tim's thoughts often drift toward changing the past, which ties in nicely with the time-shifting mechanics you'll be employing throughout the entire adventure. Your standard ability allows you to rewind time with the push of a button. The most basic use of this is simply pushing back time to avoid being killed by an enemy or reattempting a mistimed jump, but it goes much deeper than replaying failed opportunities. However, there are green objects and enemies in the world that are unaffected by your time changing powers. So if you unlock a green door and rewind time, it will remain open. Your ability to control time is used in many unexpected and often brilliant ways, making you use parts of your brain that are rarely tapped during most puzzle games.

Later levels retain this basic mechanic but add unique twists that ensure every world feels completely different. Which time manipulation tool you are given depends on what world you're currently exploring. In the fourth world, you control time simply by walking. Every step forward pushes objects and enemies forward in time, while moving backward takes them into the past with you. Because these levels have enemies and items that move in direct relation to you, they have been meticulously constructed to make navigation possible. In another world, you make a copy of yourself every time you rewind time. Your shadow can jump on enemy heads, pull switches, and unlock doors; you just have to perform the action yourself first. The different solutions built around these powers vary widely, so you have to figure out the extent of your powers before you happen upon the always logical solution. Though the puzzles are formidable, Braid never frustrates.

Each of the first five worlds in Braid has 12 different puzzle pieces to collect. The levels are actually extremely short, so if you wanted, you could run through most of the game in little more than 15 minutes, but you'll have to collect all 60 of the deviously placed pieces if you want to see the poignant conclusion. The entire game should take more than six hours to finish, depending on your puzzle-solving acumen. It may seem unfair to ask you to collect every little piece to see the thrilling ending, but by encouraging you to tackle the most challenging puzzles, the game is ultimately much more rewarding than it would have been otherwise. Though the game only forces you to backtrack during one very early puzzle, it's unlikely that you'll be able to nab every piece the first time you play through the worlds. It is only after mastering your abilities and learning your limitations that you'll be able to conquer the puzzles that seemed impossible your first time through.

Most of the puzzles in Braid emphasize clever thinking over quick reflexes. The actions you're required to pull off should be second nature if you've ever jumped on goomba heads in the past. Braid certainly realizes that its running and jumping encounters feel an awful lot like Super Mario Bros.--there are clever references to the venerable plumber throughout the game. From the dangerous plants coming out of pipes to the flag pole that greets you at the end of every world, there are constant reminders of Braid's progenitor. Like the musings from Tim's books before each level, these homages tie into the overarching story of the wounded hero's subconscious longings.

The subtle visuals are eye-catching but never distracting. The world looks like it was composed with pastel watercolors, swirling blends that create a very distinct look. The characters themselves--Tim, his enemies, and the princess--stand out prominently against the serene, multilayered backdrop. They're like flat, cardboard cutouts colored by markers. The score is elegant and mild--quiet songs that mirror the deliberate pacing. The music bends with the time, racing forward and backward along with your actions. Braid's presentation is uniformly impressive, and serves to complement the gameplay rather than draw focus away it.

It is impossible to ignore Braid's price point. At 1,200 Microsoft points ($15), it is one of the most expensive games for the Xbox Live Arcade service. But do not let a few extra dollars deter you from an exemplary experience that can rival many full-price, retail games. Braid is worth every penny. The captivating ending sequence, which makes use of your rewind ability in a jaw-dropping new way, provides the exclamation point on this remarkable game, but the adventure is consistently engaging throughout the entire ride. The clever puzzles alone are enough to make this an adventure worth taking. Braid's deep and mesmerizing tale is evergreen: it is outside of and beyond time. It will never get old.