Game Review: God of War: Ascension (PS3)

July 10, 2013 in Game Reviews, Reviews

god-of-war-ascension-cover

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

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: NBA 2K12 (PS3)

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

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

Game Review: InFAMOUS (PS3)

July 9, 2011 in Game Reviews, Reviews

I’m a bit slow. Just about everyone is finishing off Infamous 2 on the PS3 and I’ve only recently played the original (purchased about 2 years ago when it first came out). I remember seeing previews for the game back in 2009, and they looked so cool that I just had to get it.

The premise was promising. It’s set in a post-apocalyptic world and you are a mean-looking dude by the name of Cole McGrath, a bike messenger who may have started it all with a massive explosion. As a result of that explosion you have gained nasty superpowers, and it’s up to you how to want to use them. Save the world and become a hero, or destroy it and become infamous.

For whatever reason I didn’t get to play the game until now, but I’m glad I finally got around to it. If I were to summarise the essence of the game, I would say that it’s like Grand Theft Auto except your character is like an invincible, ass-kicking Jedi master.

Positives

There are several elements to Infamous that make it a whole lot of fun. The first is that it is a ‘sandbox’ game, which means there is a big open world (much like GTA) which allows you to run around and do whatever you want in it. The finely designed post-apocalyptic world is pretty big (3 districts) and there are train tracks, underground sewers, wharves, warehouses, industrial areas, police stations, hospitals and so forth. You can’t really go indoors but the outside world is big enough for you to explore for hours on end.

When I played GTA, I often wished I could just scale the walls, climb trees, jump from building to building, or even fly. In Infamous, you can do all of that and more. Cole McGrath is like Spiderman in that he can climb just about every object in the game, and he doesn’t even get hurt when he takes a massive fall. For me, this was the best aspect of the game, and kudos to the makers for creating such an interactive environment. The only downside is that Cole can’t drive (he’s one heck of a runner though).

Secondly, like GTA, Infamous has a variety of missions for Cole to tackle. There are the main plot missions, which are longer and more difficult, but progress the overarching story (I’ll get to that in a sec). Then there are the shorter side missions which help you clear specific areas (so they are safe from enemies), including the good/evil missions, the objective of which is either good (like helping the police) or evil (like blowing them up).

That brings me to the third element of Infamous, that is, the Karma meter. In the missions, Cole will often be faced with a decision where he can either choose to do good or do evil. During non-mission periods Cole can also do good or evil, such as healing injured pedestrians or killing them. The repercussions from his choices will push the Karma meter in one way or the other (between the extremes of ‘Hero’ and ‘Infamous’).

How is this relevant to the game (apart from influencing the ending)? That brings me to the fourth element of Infamous — the awesome superpowers. At various points Cole learns new superpowers which he can upgrade with experience points received throughout the game. However, the upgrades of a certain power may only be available if you reach a particular point on the Karma meter — the more extreme the Karma, the more powerful the superpower.

Cole’s superpowers are insanely cool. Some help his movement (such as being able to skid along wires and train tracks and being able to glide through the air), some are defensive (such as creating an electrical shield), but the majority of powers are offensive — from powerful electrical blasts, throwing electrical shock grenades, a sniper blast (for far away enemies), and even massive electrical storms. Collecting these new powers and knowing when and how to use them to your advantage is one of the most fun and rewarding aspects of the game. Most of these powers will use up Cole’s energy gauge, which he can recharge from n assortment of electrical items on the street (such as telephone booths and telegraph poles).

Difficulty and Replay Value

Another thing I should mention is that Infamous does run at a fairly good difficulty level. While the majority of missions are not particularly difficult, many do take more than one attempt, and the good thing about the game is that ‘dying’ has no real consequence, which significantly reduces frustration. One thing you learn quickly in this game is strategy matters — you can’t simply run into enemy territory and expect to blast everybody away. Taking cover and finding high ground are imperative if you want to be successful.

In terms of replay value, Infamous is also relatively decent. The game does take a little while to complete, and can be elongated if you enjoy exploring the city to look for ‘blast shards’ (which lengthen your electric gauage) or ‘dead drops’ (which are recordings of information that feed you bits and pieces of the back story), and try and perform one of the 20 ‘stunts’. And because of the way the game is designed, you must play through it twice if want to experience both endings (the good and the evil).

Negatives

That brings me to some of the shortcomings of the game. First of all, while the Karma meter idea is interesting, its design has a serious flaw — Cole is always better off being either really good or really evil and there is no point being anywhere in between.

Furthermore, being good or evil doesn’t have enough of a bearing on the game. The outcome of each mission is almost always the same regardless of which path you choose, and the only real impact is when doing good missions lock out evil missions, and vice versa.

A second complaint is that some of the missions get a little repetitive. To be fair, I think there is enough variety to keep you going, but several of the main missions are similar and quite a number of the side missions are basically identical.

My main gripe about Infamous, however, is the story itself. Honestly, it is not very well written at all. Despite the promising premise, the progression of the Cole’s story is convoluted, often confusing, and simply not very compelling at all. None of the key supporting characters are very interesting either. Villains suddenly appear and you get a long spiel about their background and life story, but it’s all too crammed and lacks conviction. I tuned out after a while and stopped trying to figure out what the heck was going on.

Some people might disagree, but I also didn’t like the way the cut scenes were designed. Infamous uses ‘comic’ style hand-drawn cut scenes rather than the traditional high quality videos you see in most PS3 games these days. I don’t have a problem with them per se, but they almost always try to tell too much of the story in one go. You might take half an hour to complete a single mission, then all of a sudden the cut scene crams three days of plot progression into thirty seconds. The disparity in pace was disorienting.

Conclusion

In short, notwithstanding a few flaws, Infamous is a very very good game. It looks good and sounds good. It combines many elements of other successful games and adds its own touch to it. There are some weaknesses and it certainly could have been better, but as the first iteration of a fairly fresh concept, you really can’t ask for too much more.

Will be looking forward to getting the sequel when the price comes down a bit more. Anyone know if it is a substantial upgrade on the original?

8.5 out of 10

Game Review: Fight Night Champion (PS3)

May 11, 2011 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

Let me be upfront. You’re going to be reading a lot of complaining in this review.

Fight Night Champion, EA’s follow-up to the popular Fight Night Round 4 (my multi-part review of that game starts here), is a game that can be viewed in two ways. For those who have not played FNR4, the game will probably be the best boxing game you have ever played, whether it’s in terms of graphics, sound, gameplay, game modes or online play. On the other hand, if you already own FNR4, you’ll likely be sorely disappointed. The truth is, while FNC is an undoubted upgrade over FNR4, the improvements are so uninspiring and minor that it makes you wonder why they bothered with it in the first place. Well, apart from the obvious — make more money out of a successful franchise.

FNC Overview

FNC is basically a suped up version of FNR4. The ‘supposed’ improvements included:

  • blood, bruising and swearing;
  • improved gameplay and controls;
  • a new ‘Champion Mode’; and
  • an improved Legacy Mode.

There are still apparently over 50 licensed boxers (I didn’t count, but most of the ones from FNR4 are there, including add-on boxers from puchased updates, plus a couple more, including Tim Bradley and David Haye). Still no Floyd Mayweather Jr, no Juan Manuel Marquez, no Sergio Martinez. Heck, not even Naseem Hamed or Kostya Tszyu. At least you can still create your own or upload ones others have made.

The graphics and sound are, I suppose, also improved. So is the presentation. But they are, by and large, so similar to FNR4 that you won’t really notice them unless you care about minor aesthetic changes or study the game closely.

Let’s take a look at the supposed changes and improvements.

(to read on, click on ‘more…’)

Read the rest of this entry →

 
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