Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V (PS3)

February 20, 2014 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

GTA-V-big

I don’t get much time play video games these days, so when I do, it has to be something totally awesome. Grand Theft Auto 5 is such a game.

The first game I got on the PS3 was GTA IV, all the way back in 2008. I never got to finish that game, but I remember at the time thinking it would be very difficult for an open-world game to top it. Five very long-awaited years later, Rockstar has finally done it with GTA V,  one of the most immersive and entertaining games I have ever played — on any console.

Like its predecessors in the series, GTA 5 is also an open world which the player can run around and explore to their heart’s content. As usual, there is a central story line which requires you to complete core missions in order to progress in the game (if you want to eventually “finish” it), but if you want, you can just live a virtual life for as long as you want, wandering the streets, checking out the sights and sounds, or even just sit at home and watch TV while smoking weed (and yes, there are TV shows to watch and weed to smoke!).

I applaud Rockstar for taking their time to develop a real masterpiece rather than hastily belting the game out following the success of GTA IV. The world of Los Santos (a fictional version of Los Angeles) where the game is set is so vast, and the game itself has so many improvements and additions across the board that you can potentially spend more time playing GTA 5 than all of the previous instalments in the franchise combined (according to Wikipedia that’s 14 other games dating back to 1997).

It’s hard to know where to start when discussing this game, but I’ll give it a shot.

Graphics and cinematic presentation

I’ll start with the obvious, which is how amazing the game looks. When I played GTA IV I thought the graphics were incredible, but GTA V, despite being on the same console, blows it right out of the water. The characters have a smooth design that has this semi-realistic comic feel to them, one that is consistent with the rest of their surroundings such as animals, trees and cars. Of course, given how incredibly large the world in this game is — it’s literally an entire city with bridges, tunnels, beaches, oceans and buildings you can walk into — it’s unreasonable to expect the detail to be as spectacular or as intricate as some of the best-looking games on the PS3 such as say God of War III, but everything that needs to be there is there. Put it this way — the in-game graphics are every bit as good as the cut scenes.

gta sky

The other thing that immediately jumped out at me was the game’s cinematic presentation. The camera angles — whether during cut scenes, normal gameplay or specific missions — all have a cinematic edge to them, almost like you are watching a great film unfold. You can tell a lot of thought has been put into where the cameras are situated and how they can be used to capture the best angles. The way the camera angles chop and change is also very crafty, and I even noticed handheld camera techniques in some of the cut scenes. These are not things you would usually think about, but when they are done this well you tend to notice them.

Multiple playable characters

One of the main additions to GTA V is the introduction of multiple playable characters. As far as I know, in past renditions of the game you only get one character to play, which can sometimes get a little boring. This time, you get to play three very different characters. There’s Michael, the smooth, seasoned middle-age criminal with a dysfunctional family. There’s Franklin, a young gansta from the hood trying to work his way up the food chain. And there’s my favourite, Trevor, the psychopathic, sadistic hillbilly with anger management issues and a stubborn loyalty for his buddies.

Usually you can choose which character you want to play — you just need to press a couple of buttons and the camera pans to whoever you choose, wherever they are in the city  – but sometimes a specific mission might require a specific character, in which case the computer will designate him for you to use. Often there are also core missions where the three guys will team up, and you have to switch between them to accomplish different objectives. For example, Michael might be in charge of stealing computer data, while Trevor will protect him with a sniper rifle from afar, and Franklin will be in charge of the getaway vehicle.

The multiple character idea is a stroke of genius, but what is even more impressive is how well these vastly different characters are written and developed. Each one of them have their own personalities and quirks, and they are as well rounded as any criminal you might see in a critically acclaimed movie. The voice acting also does a great job of bringing them to life.

GTAV

In addition to the team missions, each character will have their own story arc and specific missions that only involve them. And because they are so different, you’ll tend to find that the missions are also very varied. Michael’s missions, for example, will often involve cleaning up after his dropkick son or skanky daughter. Franklin’s missions might involve a lot of driving and muscle work, while Trevor’s are usually about pissing people off and going on killing rampages. It provides wonderful balance and keeps the game fresh and unrepetitive, while also adding an extra layer of strategy to the team missions. Each character also has their own “special ability”, which can come in handy during certain missions.

Improved gameplay

The gameplay in GTA IV was already quite mature, but Rockstar still found ways to improve the gameplay in GTA V. One of the big additions is the shoot-and-cover element which I had already experienced in the excellent Sleeping Dogs last year. As this is a crime game, there are naturally a lot of shootouts, and during these scenes characters can find objects to help them take cover from enemy fire, but also quickly come out of cover to take their own shots. I really enjoy the shotoouts as they can get really epic, and often survival is contingent upon finding the right objects and locations to help you take cover from surrounding enemies.

Another addition that makes the game more physical is that in addition to running, climbing and swimming, players can propel themselves over objects when running, kind of like Parkour. Similar to an RPG game, characters can also improve their physical abilities, like running speed, stamina, ability to hold their breath under water, and shooting accuracy.

Immersive missions

The missions, in my opinion, are the biggest improvement in GTA V. In previous editions of the game, the missions usually had a singular objective, such as drive from point A to B, or kill person X, and when you achieve that the mission is over. They start off fun, but after a while they become really repetitive and almost blend into one another. The missions in GTA V are completely different. For starters, each mission has a story behind it and feels almost like a mini-movie. They are immersive, and they feel like they have a purpose. Secondly, rarely are the missions single-faceted. Most of them have multiple objectives that need to be achieved one after the other and you rarely feel like you are doing the same thing. Even the side missions (that don’t need to be completed to finish the game), which are called “strangers and freaks”, are a lot more well thought out than side missions in previous GTA games.

The core missions, in particular, are incredible and can take a significant amount of time to complete. Every now and then there will also be an opportunity to carry out a heist that can earn you a lot of money. But before you commence a heist, you need to do a lot of preparatory work, such as scoping out the scene, preparing vehicles and weapons, and selecting your crew. The better the crew members, the bigger the cut of the loot you have to hand over. It’s a lower risk, lower reward situation. Moreover, you usually have two choices of how to go about the heist. For example, one might involve stealth, and the other could be to shoot your way in. The best part about the heists is that they always involve all three characters who each have different tasks, so you have to keep interchanging between them to make sure you not only grab the loot but also get out alive.

During missions there are also lots of little things you might have to do, such as learn how to pilot of plane or helicopter, or drive a submarine or crane, or abseil down the side of the building. These all add to variations in the gameplay and prevent the missions from becoming repetitive.

Expansive world

Los Santos is so huge that it blows my mind. It’s a genuine metropolis that features all the same major regions and landmarks as Los Angeles. You can ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier, take a stroll along Venice Beach, go shopping at Rodeo Drive, take a drive into the Hollywood Hills or visit the TCL Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.

The missions will take you all around the city, where you can find a lot of cool stuff to check out if you have the time to spare. You can actually go and play a full 5-set game of tennis or go for 18 holes on a golf course, and the amazing thing is that these mini-games are really fun. If you want to do something more constructive, you can go to the shooting range at the weapon store and practice your shots. Shop for clothes, get tattoos, practice your piloting skills, steal cars and store them at a garage, see your therapist, pick up a hooker off the street, or even drive a taxi to earn fares. Go to the cinemas to watch a movie or go get a private dance from a strip club. If you want to build an empire, start buying real estate and earn rent, but sometimes there could be problems you’ll have to go deal with in person. There are a zillion things to do, and even if you don’t play any of the core missions you can still spend weeks or even months exploring the world of GTA V.

GTA-V-Gets-Full-Map-Reveal-from-Fan-Community

Attention to detail

The makers of GTA V have, like they’ve always done, paid a lot of attention to detail, and I don’t mean just the graphics and the designs of the characters or their environment.  Each of your players has a smartphone which can be used to receive emails and text messages. You can also call people in your phone book to “hang out” or use the built-in camera to take photos, even selfies! Franklin also has a dog, which you can train to help you do things. They’ve even created a real-life iPhone/iPad app(it’s called “iFruit”) for you to train the dog and then sync it with the game. I haven’t had the time to do any of this but it’s fun knowing that they exist.

Things are always going on around you in Los Santos. The people on the street are a lot more interactive than they were in past games, and running into them can cause them to run their mouths, run off, or start a street fight. GTA V has also included some daily occurrences you can stumble upon — such as a robbery — and it’s up to you whether you do something about it. If you help someone chase down a pickpocket, you can choose to return the wallet for a reward or keep the wallet’s contents for yourself. Occasionally you might stumble onto someone apparently in need of help, only to find out that you’re being hustled.

I haven’t found many yet, but apparently there are also bucketloads of Easter Eggs to be discovered throughout the city, like a Walking Dead-style zombie, the Thelma and Loiuse car and a tribute to High Hefner’s Playboy Mansion. There are hippie cults, weed farms and nude colonies. Again, these are probably only things people with a lot of time on their hands will care about, but the thought and effort the makers have put into the game is undoubtedly impressive.

LS_Vinewood_ZonbieV

Summary

GTA V is by far the best-looking, most interactive, compelling and playable game of the franchise to date. The size of the Los Santos map in the game is apparently twice the size of real-life Manhattan. Just imagine how much effort went into creating every building, every car type and every minor character in a world of this size, and then to bring it all to life with great protagonists (and great interaction between the protagonists), an engaging script, exhilarating missions and hilarious dialogue.

Last night, for example, I played as Michael on a home invasion mission where I had to fend off multiple attackers to protect my family. Not long after that my cell phone rings and I have to decide whether I want to go rescue my son after he is kidnapped by people he trolled on the internet. As I chase off his kidnappers and drive him home, he tries to explain to me what “trolling” means. It’s genuinely funny stuff.

The GTA franchise has always very much been a very adult-oriented one, and it’s primary selling point is offering players the chance to be a reckless criminal without having to worry about the consequences. It’s escapist fun, and that’s all it is, so I don’t really understand all the criticism being leveled against the game. Yes, it is over-the-top violent but it’s not done in a realistic way, so it’s not at all confronting. Yes, the female characters are portrayed badly, but then again, the male characters are too, so why is the game misogynistic? The game actually provides some very interesting  and witty satirical insights into Western culture, pop culture and politics, and you just need to approach it with the right frame of mind to see them.

On the whole, GTA V is as close to a modern masterpiece as you can get on a console. It may lack that jaw-dropping “wow” power of some of the PS3′s most visually spectacular games, but whether it is in terms of storytelling, gameplay or lasting power, GTA V ticks all the boxes. Pound-for-pound, minute-for-minute of gameplay, it’s hard to find a game that’s better.

10/10

Game Review: God of War: Ascension (PS3)

July 10, 2013 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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God of War III on the PS3 is, to this day, one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It’s stunning to look at, with innovative controls and gameplay, brutal combat and kill moves, jaw-dropping bosses and boss battles, and a captivating storyline that will have you immersed in the world of Greek mythology. (My full review of that brilliant game can be found here.)

And so it was with great excitement that I purchased a copy of God of War: Ascension during my trip to Japan in March, even though I had about half a dozen games I hadn’t even played. That’s how much I wanted to play it.

It took a few goes, on and off, to get through the game (you know what it’s like when there are more pressing concerns like work and a family), but I finally managed to complete the first run through the other night — a huge accomplishment in itself.

Unfortunately, Ascension could not come close to replicating the wonderful experience I had with GOWIII. Technically, it is as good as the series has ever been, with some astounding backdrops and beautiful scenery. The gameplay is pretty much the same, but with a few nice new additions including the ability to make an object move forward and back in time and create clones of yourself. The boss battles are still epic and the bosses themselves are bigger than ever.

But to be honest it didn’t feel like the game broke any new ground. GOWIII was such a massive step up from GOWII, but Ascension felt like the makers of the game were just trying to cash in on the success of the franchise by adding a bit of spit and polish to GOWIII. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the lack of ingenuity and innovation did make the game feel a lot more stale and repetitive than its predecessor.

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Ascension is actually a prequel, chronologically the first game in the series. That said, I wouldn’t have known that without reading about the game, because the storytelling this time around is sorely lacking and too convoluted for my liking. I wish I could explain what the plot is about, but I seriously have no idea. I didn’t skip the cut scenes or anything, but all I knew was that there were a bunch of scary-looking ladies I had to fight.

It’s a real shame because Acension, as a standalone game, is still pretty awesome. I still loved the combat gameplay, especially against the epic bosses, which are usually broken down into several phases and require a very long time to conquer. The kill scenes are more gruesome and bloody than ever, and really bring out the power of the PS3 graphics, with the blood specks and splatters clearly visible in the detailed close-ups. The game itself, on the first run through, probably takes about 13-15 hours (which is fairly substantial), and then there are some extras which allow you to restart the game with a different-looking character/outfit but fully-charged weapons.

However, these solid elements don’t quite add up to a memorable game. Part of it is the lack of innovation from GOWIII, but I think it also has something to do with the storytelling and the lack of variety in the game’s progression. In GOWIII it never felt like you were doing the same thing over and over because one minute you might be scaling walls and fighting minions, and the next you could be sliding down a ramp, solving puzzles, then engaging in an epic boss battle. Ascension’s gameplay didn’t feel like it had that variance, and the puzzles also weren’t as creative.

What Ascension does have going for it is the online multiplayer aspect. I haven’t tested it much yet but the ability to play with other people is an excellent addition to the franchise. My main complaints are of course the inability to use Kratos (apparently the developers didn’t want everyone choosing Kratos, as they probably would), and also the inability to play offline with two controllers (or more) on the same system and TV. Not everyone loves online play, you know.

A scene from a multiplayer mission

A scene from a multiplayer mission

On the whole, God of War: Ascension is a sound addition to the GOW franchise, but it’s also one of the more unremarkable ones. Perhaps it’s because I was too spoiled by GOWIII, but despite its strengths there just wasn’t enough freshness or variety to make Ascension a must-have for PS3 gamers.

7.5/10

Game Review: Sleeping Dogs (PS3)

December 9, 2012 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I hadn’t played a video game with a storyline since I was immersed in Heavy Rain and Infamous well over a year ago, mainly because such games require a significant investment of time which I don’t have these days. Nonetheless, I kept hearing rave reviews about this Grand Theft Auto-like game based in a Hong Kong called Sleeping Dogs (I would have thought Eating Dogs was more appropriate), so I decided to put away some spare time to tackle it.

It turned out to be an investment with great returns, as Sleeping Dogs was an addictive and fun experience that has enough distinctive qualities to separate itself from all the other open world games out on the market. If you’re a fan of open world games such as GTA and Infamous and/or fans of Hong Kong gangster movies then it’s likely you’ll enjoy Sleeping Dogs as much as I did.

You play Wei Shen (a transliteration of “dangerous” in Mandarin), a HK native who has returned after spending years in California to work undercover for the HK police. He infiltrates the Sun On Yee triad organization, starting off from a low-level enforcer and, over the course of the game, rises through the ranks to become an invaluable member of both the triads and the police. As the stakes get higher and higher, Wei Shen finds himself torn between the two sides, blurring the line between good and evil  and forcing him to decide where his loyalty ultimately lies.

From a story perspective, it’s a game that steals from HK gangster movies such as old classics like A Better Tomorrow and newer hits like Infernal Affairs. The swearing and violence are full-on; there are street brawls with kung fu moves, meat cleavers and machetes, car chases and crazy shootouts. You can drift up and down the mountain paths like Initial D, run all day and swim in the ocean, sample local delicacies, hack computers and install surveillance cameras. It’s old fashioned yet refreshing in a lot of ways.

The gameplay also steals from many of the more successful video game franchises. It is based on the GTA foundation which allows open world exploration with a main core mission, dozens of side missions, mini games and plenty of other stuff to check out and do if you can’t get enough. It’s not quite like Infamous in the sense that you can choose to be “good” or “evil” by selecting a certain route of missions, but it is similar in the way you can attempt both “police” and “triad” missions and level-up both sides to learn different skills and abilities (eg, car jacking without setting off alarms, etc).

The graphics are excellent but by no means revolutionary. The game provides a sprawling, glittering vision of HK that isn’t quite “realistic” but captures the city’s reputation and charm with a mix of high rise buildings, traditional ghettos and neon lights. The characters’ faces look genuine enough, although a little more facial movement could have added to their emotions. It’s one of the better looking games out there but you can’t really it to the best of the best because of the vastness of its open world nature. As often is the case with such games, camera angles occasionally become problematic, but not to the point where they become annoying.

The voice acting is brilliant, led by Will Yun Lee, who voices Wei Shen. He’s not particularly well known right now, but that could change after he plays the Silver Samurai in The Wolverine next year (though perhaps not Mortal Kombat Legacy). Many of the supporting characters are played by Asian and Hollywood stars, including Edison Chen (sorry, no sex scandals this time), Emma Stone, Lucy Liu, Tom Wilkinson, Kelly Hu and Lost‘s Yunjin Kim — but its Mrs Chu (voice by Irene Tsu), an old-fashioned triad mother who works in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant, gets my vote as the best of the lot.

You don’t wanna mess with Mrs Chu

The combat system is apparently modelled on the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City games, which I have not played but understand it is a freeflow combat system which features both hand-to-hand fighting and melee weapons. You can punch and kick, perform roundhouses, tackle people, trip people, break arms and legs — the whole shebang. You can also accomplish cool/sick kills by utilising the surrounding environment, which ranges from phone booths and electrical panels to wood saws and swordfish (!).

As the story progresses, you get to use a variety of guns which adds a new dimension to the game by allowing players to take cover, fire blindly and target specific enemies and body parts. You can even leap over certain obstacles and fire while time slows down. It’s all pretty cool, and there are always tutorials to make sure you get the hang of things before you start testing them out on the streets.

The driving system is similar to GTA and allows players to shoot from moving vehicles. Also added is the ability to jump from moving vehicles and guiding indicator arrows to let you know where and when to turn if you have a set destination, which really helps if you have trouble keeping an eye on the road and the map at the same time. My favourite is the ability to hail down taxis to take you to a destination of your choice, which saves a lot of driving time especially when you have to drive all the way across town.

In-game driving footage

The biggest strength of the game is the compelling core story, which is what makes it as good as any of the other open world classics. I was surprised by the effectiveness of the storytelling and the well drawn out characters. I inexplicably grew to care about Wei Shen’s plight and understood his obsession and rage. And some of the multi-part core missions involving one-on-everyone fights and shootouts are simply incredible, as epic as the climax of any HK gangster flick. The introductory mission, the wedding, the hospital shootout and the final mission are the high watermarks in my opinion.

The shorter side missions are nice too. Wei Shen can go on dates with various girls, go drag racing (on a bike or car), do favours for people, go on drug busts, gamble, bet on cockfighting, join a fight club or collect stolen statues to learn new martial arts moves from his master. Most of them will pop up from time to time on your map, but some can be random happenings you stumble across on the street. They do get repetitive after a while, but the same can be said for most open world games.

The trimmings are really for the die-hard fanatics. I’m talking about finding all the health-increasing shrines and locked suitcases littered throughout the city, becoming a karaoke master and improving the collection of outfits, cars/bikes and paintings in your possession.

It’s really a question of how much you want to explore. The game took me around 23 hours to finish on its maiden (and probably only) run, which included a lot of time on the fight clubs, side missions and especially the drug busts. A friend of mine, however, told me it took him just over 10 hours to complete when just focused on the core missions, so it’s up to the individual how immersed they want to be.

At the end of the day, regardless of whether you want to go straight through to the end or take the scenic tour, Sleeping Dogs is a whole lotta fun. There are ample open world games out there these days but Sleeping Dogs takes the best of those games and adds a unique HK flavour to go with its compelling core story, superb voice acting and timely humour. I might even consider buying the some of the online add-ons, in particular the Nightmare in North Point expansion title with Chinese vampires/zombies!

9/10

Game Review: Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Battle (PS3)

April 17, 2012 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Ahhh…the nostalgia. There is nothing that sparked my interest in Greek mythology and the zodiac quite like Saint Seiya (known for a while as Knights of the Zodiac — what a lame name), possibly one of my favourite animes of all time.

Though ecstatic, I was a little surprised when I found out that Namco Bandai was bringing this legendary anime/manga back to life on the PS3, considering it’s been more than 20 years since the original series (on which this game is based) ended on Japanese television. But I guess the signs were there – in recent years toymakers have been bringing out a lot of premium quality Saint Seiya figurines and models, of which I have acquired a few for my collection.

More on this sensational anime later, but for now, allow me to get to the game itself. I must admit, Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Battle is almost strictly for the fans of the manga/anime or fans of one-vs-all games like Dynasty Warriors. In essence, this game takes the foundations of Dynasty Warriors and wraps it around the awesome original story where Seiya and his fellow Bronze Saint friends try to break through 12 arduous “stages” to save the life of Saori Kido, a young girl who happens to be the reincarnate of the goddess Athena.

Each of the 12 stages is set in an ancient Greek temple and is guarded by a Gold Saint representing one of the 12 signs of the zodiac. The first stage is Aries and Seiya and his buddies must fight all the way through to Pisces and beyond, where they will face the ultimate enemy in “the Pope”. Those who kept on reading/watching the series will know that the story goes on much further, but this game finishes at the end of the Gold Saints arc (and let’s face it, it was by far the best one).

The limited gold box edition of the game which I wish I got!

The brilliance of the concept and the story simply blew me away as a kid, though my infatuation went beyond that – it was also the design of the saints’ armours, weapons and special fighting moves, all of which were so freaking awesome. Playing this game made me fall in love with it all over again, especially as it manages to replicate all those things to perfection with the power of the PS3.

The story mode of Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Battle follows the anime very closely. You will play as one of the five Bronze Saints – Seiya (Pegasus), Shiryu (Dragon), Hyoga (Cygnus), Shun (Andromeda) and Ikki (Phoenix). Unfortunately, who you are for each stage (and each sub-stage) in the story mode is fixed according to the storyline, but you will get to use each character at least a couple of times. There is also a sixth character which you will get to use for a little while but I’ll keep that a secret.

Anyway, each character is very different and while the buttons to execute moves are by and large the same, the moves that they perform are extremely varied, and it will take some time to get used to the character and learn their strengths and weaknesses. At the end of each sub-stage you can use the experience points your earned to upgrade certain attributes, and it’s up to you whether you want to make them stronger offensively, defensively or give them more endurance or stamina. You can even upgrade special moves.

Pegasus Seiya executing one of his special moves in melee combat

Ah yes, the gameplay. As I noted before, the combat system somewhat resembles that of the popular (though now completely stale and even a little annoying) Dynasty Warriors franchise. The camera sits behind your designated character and you can unleash a series of melee attacks and special moves to defeat your enemies. Of course, being based on an anime with super powers sourced by the “cosmos”, the attacks are much more outrageous in Saint Seiya than they are in Dynasty Warriors — you can kick people sky high, pile drive them, throw super blasts, freeze enemies, slow down time, utilise super-human speed — and all that kind of crazy stuff. Let’s put it this way: it’s certainly a lot more entertaining to use the superhuman Bronze Saints from Saint Seiya than the mere mortals from Dynasty Warriors.

Generally speaking, each of the 12 temples follows the same trajectory. You start off on the road to the next temple, where you are surrounded by hundreds of weakling enemies you can beat to a pulp with your powerful attacks. Towards the end of the road there will usually be a couple of minor bosses (mostly “shadow” versions of the Bronze Saints), after which you will go into a major boss battle against one of the 12 Gold Saints.

This is where the game diverges from Dynasty Warriors significantly, because the boss battles in Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Battle are epic and often involve various sub-stages. After all, it makes sense – you are a lowly Bronze Saint while they are a mighty Gold Saint. These on-one-one boss battles tend to be long and difficult, and can take a long time to finish.

Pegasus vs Taurus

I was concerned that the game would get repetitive after a while, but to the credit of the makers there was enough variance in the styles of the bosses that you would have to employ a different set of tactics for each one. For instance, against one boss you might have to fight up close, whereas against another you need to keep your distance, or keep running and wait for an opportunity. For those who love mammoth boss battles, this could be your thing.

The game’s graphics are solid, though as it is based on an anime the in-game visuals are nowhere near as detailed as say something like God of War III. The cutscenes (of which there are many), however, are done brilliantly, and it’s almost as if you are watching the cartoon, except in beautifully rendered high definition! Note that the art and character designs of the game follow that of the anime as opposed to the manga (there are quite significant differences).

For fans of the anime/manga and/or the Dynasty Warriors-style genre, Saint Seiya: Sanctuary Battle is worth at least a single play-through. Once you are done with the story mode you can of course play it again on a different difficulty setting or test your skills on one of the many challenge modes and stages. What I particularly enjoyed was checking out the unlocked photos of the dozens (actually, hundreds) of licensed toys and models based on the anime. But to be honest, apart from that, I don’t think I would feel much of a desire to play it again, except maybe if a fellow fan ever dropped by my place (yes, you can play two-player mode outside of the story mode).

Ultimately, I don’t regret purchasing the game at full price (by the way, I got the Japanese version). The game was pretty enjoyable for the most part, and even though it does not have particularly good replay value, I think it was well worth it for that single trip down memory lane.

7 out of 10!

PS:  Here’s the intro — the theme song is still my favourite anime theme of all time.

Game Review: NBA 2K12 (PS3)

February 21, 2012 in Basketball, Game Reviews, NBA, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller

I really need to find more time to play video games these days.  Despite purchasing the game on DAY ONE, I have only recently found time (well, at least at the time I typed this sentence a few weeks ago) to play enough of NBA 2K12 to be able to give my thoughts about it and found the time to write the darn review.

It’s easy to proclaim 2K12 as the greatest basketball simulation of all time.  After all, 2K11 was the previous GOAT and there has been nothing to challenge it since, especially considering that the NBA Live (aka Elite) team is still on hiatus after the embarrassing debacle that was NBA Elite 2011, the game that never was.

That said, I’m not going to judge 2K12 as a an independent video game.  It’s only fair that I compare the game to its predecessor, 2K11, because that’s the only yardstick people can compare to.

So does the 2K12 compare favourably to 2K11?  On the whole, yes.  The best improvements are the controls, the simplified playcalling, the widened legends roster, more legendary teams, and the presentation.  But to be perfectly honest, it’s not a revolutionary advancement in the franchise.

Let’s break it down.

Visuals

The graphics are supposed to be improved, but I really could not tell.  In fact, some friends have told me that they felt the visuals actually took a step back this year.

There’s just something different about it, as though the level of detail has been pared back slightly.  The players don’t look quite as shiny during the gameplay, though the close up cut scenes are as impressive as ever.  Another improvement is the extent to which the computerised players resemble their real life counterparts (for instance, Kobe looks less like an alien).  One of the biggest problems before — the bad hairdos of white guys (including coaches) — has been fixed somewhat.  It’s not perfect but it’s a step in the right direction.

There has been an improvement, but white dudes' hairstyles still don't look quite right

This year, with the new NBA’s Greatest (discussed below), the creators of the game also ingeniously tried to emulate the TV broadcast quality of times gone by, so if you play an 80s game, the colours are less sharp, and if you play a 60s game, the game is fuzzier and in black and white.  Even though it’s kind of gimmicky, it’s a nice added touch.

Ultimately, I think it’s possible that the visuals are more realistic but less detailed.  It looks more like a live game you would see on TV rather than a video game with mind-blowing graphics.  Does that make sense?

Sound

Not a lot of improvement here.  New music, a new commentator (Steve Kerr, replacing Clark Kellogg and joining Kevin Harlan), but not a whole lot of freshness.  Not to say the commentary isn’t good, but in terms of variety and the amount of excitement it can add to the game, I think it has essentially peaked for the series.  The only real way to improve it is to make the commentary more varied, more dynamic and more excited when players make big plays.

Presentation

Improved again from last year.  Not dramatic changes in terms of the menus (just more streamlined) but I quite like the changes they made in stuff like player intros, the half time reports and the post game features like Player of the Game, etc.  You can tell they put a lot of effort into making the game seem like a real TV broadcast.

Gameplay

Last year I thought the gameplay was already pretty awesome, and this year they upped it another notch.

It might take a little while to get used to the changes, but it’s worth trying the various tutorials and drills to get the hang of them before playing proper games.  It makes a HUGE difference when you feel more in control of the players you are controlling.  It not only makes you a better player, it makes the games far more exciting.

The best improvements are in the areas of post play (offense and defense) and off the ball movement.  There is an entire tutorial teaching you how to fake out your opponent when playing without the ball.  You can learn how to pound the ball inside and wreak havoc down low like Kevin McHale or Hakeem Olajuwon by using an encyclopaedia of post moves.  It’s awesome.  Your ability to call for screens, utilise the give-and-go, perform up-and-unders, hop steps, spin moves, in-and-outs, behind the back dribbles, crossovers, Euro steps, face-up moves — the whole shebang — makes the game super real and will keep players coming back as they improve their techniques with the control pad.

That’s the best thing — you can play on the lower levels with just the basics and it’ll be fine, but as you get to the more difficult settings, you really need to learn the entire repertoire of moves to have a chance against your opponents.

The computer AI is also improved, though it might be hard to tell for casual gamers unless you line the two up side by side.  But it’s there.  Fast breaks are better on both sides of the ball.  Crazy passes are less likely to thread through untouched.  If you run into teammates you’ll lose the ball.  Playcalling has been simplified and you can simply call plays for particular players or just call the best play available.  It’s the little things that have made the biggest differences in the game.

Game Modes

You still have the same stuff from last year, so I won’t go through them all.  The new headline mode is the aforementioned NBA’s Greatest.  Last year it was reliving Michael Jordan’s greatest moments — a good idea that got old real quick.  This year, there are a lot more legends and you only need to complete one challenge game to unlock more stuff, and all you have to do is win the freaking game.  You got guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Isiah Thomas, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Karl Malone, John Stockton, and so on.  It’s fine, but it’s still a single playthrough kind of mode.

The modes you’ll spend most of your time on are still the Association Mode and My Player Mode.

Association Mode is largely unchanged, but it’s still the most packed mode in the game that will allow you to play for hours and hours through years of NBA seasons, playing games, organising rosters, scouting new rookies, making trades, signing players, scheduling practices, developing young players and so forth.

A little overboard for the 14th pick of a weak draft, but these little touches make 2K12 fun

My Player Mode is slightly improved.  The biggest change is that instead of going in the D-League to start off, you get to play in a showcase game which will determine where you go in the NBA Draft.  If you play well enough you get drafted, which is pretty cool (they show the whole process, including handshakes with Commissioner David Stern), and you’ll get a chance to fight for a starting position straight away.  Jeremy Lin, anyone?

There are also add on downloadable features, such as the Legends Showcase.  I’m too cheap to get it, but here’s a review and it seems decent if you are into living in the past and playing with legends all day long.

Online

Not for me, but I hear that the online mode is not very stable, at least not on the PS3.  Apparently, a lot of people have flooded back to 2K11′s online mode, which is a huge indictment of this year’s game.

The good thing about having the Internets is that you can update your roster to keep them up-to-date with what’s been happening in real NBA (eg, I hear Jeremy Lin recently got a stats upgrade). You can also download fan-made rosters and players, so you can get your hands on players who aren’t licensed for the game — the main ones being Reggie Miller, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson.  If you have a lot of time on your hands you can also create your own players and teams and share them with others.

Reckon there's going to be a lot of Linsanities online?

Playstation Move

This was one of the things 2K played up in the lead up to the release — you can play 2K12 with the Playstation Move!  Wow!  And it’s so easy and intuitive anyone can do it on their first try!

Err…no, that idea just stinks.  If you want to play real basketball, pick up a ball and go outside.   I haven’t even bothered trying the Move mode of the game.  It’s a waste of time.

Check this out and tell me it’s not lame.

Conclusion

So is 2K12 worth getting if you already have 2K11?  Now?  Yes.  Originally, when the game was first released, the NBA was still in lockout mode, meaning you had only a couple of the pre-signed rookies in this year’s class.  With the NBA now in full swing, you can download the official updated rosters or the fan-made ones.

For me, the greatest improvement was the controls and gameplay.  If you have the patience to lean the moves, 2K12 becomes much more enjoyable than 2K11.  All the other improvements, such as the presentation and the graphics (if you call it an improvement) were nice, but they’re not game changers.  If you can’t let go of the past and feel the urge to keep using Larry Bird to shoot over Chuck Person while saying, “Merry F&*%ing Christmas”, then the NBA’s Greatest Mode would also be a great reason to buy the game.

At the end of the day, 2K12 is of course a better game than 2K11, but it didn’t blow me away like I thought it would.  Nonetheless, credit must go to 2K for making the effort to improve last year’s game when they had zero competition.  It will still be the most played game in my collection until 2K13.

8.5 out of 10

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