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PSP

Half-Minute Hero

Half-Minute Hero cover

I’ve been playing on the PSP quite a bit lately. There’s been Vagrant Story, which is still very atmospheric and awesome, even though changing weapons every few seconds with a trip to the menu gets a bit old at some point. Very much worth the 5€. Then there’s Pom Pom’s Alien Zombie Death, a PSP Mini retro-shooter costing all of 3€. These are both downloadable titles, as is my current darling, Half-Minute Hero. I picked it up on UMD, though, because I came across a cheap copy on my recent trip to San Francisco.

The game’s premise is that the world is going to end in thirty seconds unless you stop the evil wizard’s spell. You explore the world, fight random battles, buy better items, level up, and take on the big boss, all within thirty seconds. There are some mechanics to help you – time is stopped in towns so you can shop in peace, and you can bribe the goddess of time (who’s partial to cash) to turn back the clock a time or two. Still, all told, you’re looking at around 45-55 seconds per quest. Obviously you save the world over and over again.

There are additional game modes, very different to the JRPG core. There’s a shooter where you’re a princess, riding on the shoulders of her loyal soldiers, wielding a giant crossbow, rapid-firing into the masses of weird foes you encounter while looking for a way to save your father, the king, from a curse. You have a thirty second curfew – if you’re not back in time, your mother locks you out of the castle for good. I find it very hard to put down this mode. The action is relentless, if shallow, and the writing is so good that it’s just from grin to laugh out loud to smirk, all the time.

There’s an RTS mode where you’re playing one of the dark lords you’re fihgting in the JRPG mode. I haven’t touched that yet, or the unlockable escort mission mode.

Initially the idea of achieving a complete JRPG arch in half a minute sounds like a joke. When you first do it, you’ll feel amused and also very good about yourself. The game then proceeds to make the now easy-seeming, straightforward task more complicated. It’s a delirious, refreshing game. The mechanics-based, ludicrous basic idea is supported very well by the glorious art style and witty writing. I challenge you to not feel good while playing it.

Speaking of the PSP, I find it hard to get excited about NGP. Sony is saying it will not replace the PSP, which is understandable as it’s going to be rather precious and PSP has managed to find a younger audience with less disposable income. It is quite exciting to think that as the current console generation is over five years old by now, you can actually pack the equivalent of that power into a handheld. And yeah, having to analogue sticks on a handheld sounds pretty awesome, supposing it’s ergonomical. But my problem is that I want to play games like Half-Minute Hero on my handheld. Looking at something super detailed like Uncharted on a small screen, requiring two analogue sticks and two touch screens to play… it just doesn’t sound like a natural thing to do.

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PC PS3 PSP roleplaying tabletop games Xbox 360

Games of the year 2010

Heavy Rain

As usual, I’ve missed out on several “game of the year” candidates in 2010, only getting to them some time later, if ever. These include Red Dead Redemption (which I will get), Mass Effect 2 (will play), the new Call Of Duty (was it Black Ops in 2010? Not interested), Civilization V (not interested, never was into Civ beyond the original), Minecraft (probably won’t play, too time-consuming), Starcraft 2 (not my kind of game), Super Mario Galaxy 2 (the original was enough for me and I don’t have a Wii). Regardless, here’s the stuff that stood out for me over the past 12 months.

Games actually released in 2010

Heavy Rain – Is it possible to make an “adventure game” without any videogame logic entering the scenario? People solving problems by talking and making decisions, not finding and using objects? I have been wondering about this since I played my firs’t King’s Quest and it’s turned out that yes, it is. It’s also possible to make a videogame thriller without any fantasy elements. It’s also possible to make a videogame sex scene that I did not smirk at and a plot that I actually cared about on a personal level. I can’t wait to see the next game like this. I’ve been pimping this to folks and dragging them over to our home just to play this game, it’s that good.

Peace Walker – Delivering on the PSP promise of bringing big screen entertainment into my palm and actually being the best game of the huge series, in all respects but name “Metal Gear Solid 5”. Peace Walker wins its big screen big brothers in plot, storytelling, mechanics and fun hands down, not even stumbling on controls. If you’re into MGS, you need to get a PSP for this game alone.

Alan Wake – Mature action adventure with a psychological bent that does a better job than Heavy Rain in remembering it’s a videogame and isn’t any smaller for it. Alan Wake uses its North-West US setting to a great effect and lays its plot with master class writing and editing. You get the sense they’ve cut a lot and there’s a much bigger world than what you get to experience out there. Indeed, some of what’s going on elsewhere and with other people in the city is more intriguing than Alan’s story. Shame about the mechanics becoming a bit stale towards the end, but the story beats are worth your attention all the way through. Also, best forests and darkness ever.

Halo: Reach – The first Halo sequel to capture the energy and emotion of the original, effectively turning back time a decade, except with today’s production values and technology. The storytelling is surprisingly good, the other Spartans you’re running with a great bunch, and the drama of the situation carries you on a tidal wave to the bitter end. A fitting, moving ending to the space saga of today’s kids, growing up without Star Wars.

Rock Band 3 – That Harmonix can keep improving on their already unconquerable game is awe-inspiring and exciting. The keyboard adds substantially to the game, making you learn an entirely new skill, and the Pro mode (drums, guitar and keyboard) is the logical conclusion to the journey myself and thousands of others began with the original Rock Band. I’ve picked up a real guitar since, but that doesn’t put a lid on my enthusiasm for a good Rock Band party.

Dawn Of War II – The Chaos Rising expansion was released in 2010, so I guess this counts. A bold re-imagination of the hero powered RTS, using the license in a fitting manner, Dawn Of War II dares to jump sideways from its roots, making a computerized Warhammer 40K a thing of its own, and not a schizophrenic imitation of the tabletop original. I never would have imagined a leveling and looting formula would fit 40K, but it does, and with a fearsome grip on my attention.

Neptune’s Pride – It’s a sign of the times that a free to play browser game would enter an end of the year list. Neptune’s Pride strips strategy and tactics down to their skeletons and diplomacy is but a clumsy inbox. The game is changed because all of the mathematics are transparent – there is no random element whatsoever and the only second-guessing you’re doing is what lies beyond your sensor range and what are your neighbors thinking. The whole game ends up taking place inside that inbox, with nervous checks during the day to see how the real-time but glacially slow space war is going. My office game ended with guys wanting to not play again because it was too exhausting. I’m on my fourth game now, the game open in a tab right now as I’m typing this. (It looks like I might win for the first time.)

Older titles I only got around to in 2010

Gratuitous Space Battles – Released perhaps some time last year, I’m not sure? A unique blend of tactics, design and passive watching, it’s smart TV for gamers. If you’re into gratuitous space battles, you need to play this game.

Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition – All the way from 2008 and I’ve been interested in it ever since, but only got to playing it late last year. The combat centric, mechanically very definite gameplay just works. It’s realizing what I feel D&D always tried to do, which is only logical considering the game’s wargame roots in the seventies. A more surprising change is taking on videogames face-on, characters full of color and fantastic powers, energy beams flying every which way in a fight. It’ll be interesting to see how it translates to an actual videogame.

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PSP

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker

I never learned how to play Metal Gear despite finishing several titles from the series. Peace Walker teaches you how to play Metal Gear properly, and it feels good to finally be on even terms with the series.

It’s quite simple, really: all the missions are split into short segments and you can choose to replay past missions. You’re being graded for your performance, the main criteria being speed and secondary how few alarms you’ve raised, how few kills you’ve made and how few enemies you’ve left dying (as opposed to hauling them away to your base for care). Acting violently decreases your heroism score, which affects how many new recruits you get, but it’s usually the easy way out to just shoot your way out of trouble.

But the thing is, you know killing is not the right way to do it, and while you can progress in the story by clearing a path with bullets, you’ll be back to perfect your scores. In past games triggering an alarm was frustrating, because the enemies would just keep coming. This time you’ll kill a few and that’s it. It’s also usually a viable option to just leg it, hide yourself and wait for things to calm down. The enemy is quite good at flushing you out, but playing smart it’s entirely possible to evade capture.

The outcome is that you learn how to sneak aggressively, taking out enemies on your way without killing them and always remaining unseen. And it’s voluntary – the game does not force it on you, rather, it rewards it.

This structure alone would make me consider Peace Walker an important title in the series, but it’s got a lot more going for it, as well. Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops was an interesting title with lots of problems, the main ones being that the soldier collection mechanic was tedious to use – you had to physically carry every knocked out soldier to the exit – and the controls were more or less broken.

Peace Walker fixes both of these issues with instant evacuation (via a balloon) and shifting the camera controls to the face buttons, in addition to a host of usability improvements. The inventory is now large enough, for instance. It works really very well, I’ve only cursed the controls a bit in up close and personal combat – which always means you’ve messed up anyway – and during some of the boss fights.

The soldier collection is actually a key part of the game. You’re assembling an army, building a base and researching technology. Set in the 1960s in South America, you’re playing as Big Boss (as in Portable Ops) and very quickly it turns out you’ll be putting together Outer Heaven, the legendary mercenary state featured in pretty much all of the previous Metal Gear titles, being the setting of the original game (Metal Gear, 1987) which Solid Snake is infiltrating (to take out Big Boss). If you’re a Metal Gear fan at all, this is very exciting stuff! The Metal Gear universe had got so convoluted by the time of Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) that I wasn’t really keeping up any more despite being a fan, and it’s great to reconnect with the series this way. It feels like you’re re-enacting history, if you’ve spent a lot of time with the series.

The oft-ridiculed Metal Gear gameplay to exposition ratio is better than at any time before in the series. Generally, you get a cutscene every few missions and while some of them are a bit lengthy, they don’t get tedious. Some are interactive. The comic book style used is gorgeous throughout. Missions generally are never interrupted by plot. When you’re playing, you’re playing, and for once the Konami designers have allowed the gameplay to shine on its own. There’s plenty of variety on offer. While the levels are relatively straightforward, you usually have at least two routes through them, exploration is rewarded, and you always have options on how to handle enemies on your way, depending on positions, time available and what equipment you kitted out with when embarking on the mission.

The Southern America setting and the 60s vibe with Ashley Wood’s lively, animated comic book cutscenes contribute in a major way to the strong mood.

As we’re just past the halfway mark, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is a strong contender for game of the year.

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DS PC PS3 PSP Xbox 360

What I’ve been playing this summer (part II)

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer
Brütal Legend
Brütal Legend

Alan Wake (Xbox 360)

Alan Wake finally came out and for me, it was well worth the wait. Top of the line storytelling all through, with unparalleled pacing and cinematic conventions. Great setting, great writing, great characters and good gameplay. It could have used a bit more variety in the combat mechanics towards the end, but aside from that, this is one of the best adventures I’ve been on in years. One of the setpieces is an instant classic (the farm fields), and the other scenes don’t fare much worse. They have clearly cut all the fat and only kept the very best parts. Remedy are really the masters in what they do. Must play, if you have a 360.

I’ve recently been replaying Max Payne 2, and everything that’s great about Wake is evident there. It may be hard to recall what an ambitious step in storytelling the sequel to Max Payne was, despite a short development time. If you’re thinking about a revisit, for a seven-year old game, on the PC it has stood up graphically amazingly well.

Dead Or Alive 4 (Xbox 360)

I initially disliked (whoah, four years already!) DOA4 because the computer is super hard. But this time I stuck to my guns and learned how to play it. It’s easily the best title in the series, in every way an evolution. I’ve been playing single player and grown to not be frustrated with the CPU. My wife has become rather proficient in it, as well, usually soundly beating me. (I think I’m thinking too much.)

I’ve also played some online, but that’s just harsh. The guys still online are way too hardcore for me.

Mystery Dungeon: Shiren The Wanderer (Nintendo DS)

All the way from 1995, this DS port of a 15-year old SNES game just sucks me in. It’s a graphical, less complex roguelike, which does not make it the slightest bit forgiving. A really hardcore experience, you’re supposed to perish dozens if not hundreds of times before making it to the end. Every time you die, you start from the beginning, although if you’re clever, you can carry over some of the stuff you’ve accumulated in your previous adventures. The narrow scope with lots of depth makes it very compulsive to play.

Soul Calibur Broken Destiny (PSP)

Still a great game. Both the fighting and the character building are fun and really at home on the PSP. If you have a PSP and like fighters at all, I’d say it’s a must have, even if you don’t have anyone to play it with locally.

Brütal Legend (PS3)

Tim Schafer’s heavy metal tribute is built for guys of my age (born in late 70s). I can’t help but smile! Right from the start menu, you’re in a world of metal, and it feels good. The writing is very good, often laugh out loud funny, and very well acted. The gameplay works, although it isn’t anything really special. If you’re into metal, you need this game.

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PSP

Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny

Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny
Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny

Fighting games on handheld consoles are something of a weird combination. Obviously the big problem is that unless there happens to be a PSP-player with the same game in the same room (and that room isn’t an airline cabin), I will be playing against the computer. Playing fighters against the computer is never ideal, and in many cases it can downright spoil the game due to cheap AI.

Yet I’ve put more hours into Tekken: Dark Resurrection (warning: clumsy and hilarious Flash site) and now Soul Calibur: Broken Destiny than their big-screen incarnations, much as I love Soul Calibur IV. Leaving out long flights, what makes me come back to these games?

I think it’s a combination of very quick, very short games which keeps me distracted when I’m not up for a more involved game and the character creation mode, shared by both of these PSP fighters. I spend probably more time in character creation than actually fighting. It’s a creative challenge, really – can I make this character look better just by changing the colors of his equipment? Can I make this hair work? I realize it’s dress-up, playing with dolls, really. In this PSP version, the character creation does not affect the way the character plays, so you can try out different looks without crippling your game, which was a problem in Soul Calibur IV.

It helps that Soul Calibur is really an excellent game. I’ve found several favorite characters in each instalment of the series, and the way how differently the characters play really keeps it fresh. The PSP version works just as well as the big-screen versions and I actually find the mechanics somewhat improved from Soul Calibur IV (I couldn’t tell how, exactly, they just feel better). Also, no ridiculous Star Wars characters this time around. Kratos from God Of War series is a very good fit in the character roster, even if he feels a bit cheap.

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blog culture DS miniatures PC PS3 PSP tabletop games XBLA Xbox 360

The best of 2009

My 10 best games of 2009
My 10 best games of 2009

For the most of 2009 I spent my gaming time playing games from 2008 – Far Cry 2, Fable II, Rock Band 2, lots of cheap PSP & DS titles, Company Of Heroes, Dawn Of War (the first one) – but I thought it could be fun to put together a list of what was the best 2009 had to offer. For future reference, see.

I have not played many of the big hitters of 2009 so there’s bound to be holes, but these days, gaming is too big a pastime for one man to wholly take in with his free time (and income). Major omissions include Halo: ODST, Modern Warfare 2, Resident Evil 5 and Dragon Age: Origins, to name a few.

My ten best games of 2009:

  1. Space Hulk (board game)
  2. Batman: Arkham Asylum. I haven’t written about Rocksteady’s phenomenal take on Batman (because I’ve been too busy playing it), but it ranks as one of my all-time favorite games. Play it.
  3. Demon’s Souls
  4. GTA Chinatown Wars (DS)
  5. Shadow Complex
  6. Torchlight. I’ve been playing this for most of the holidays, it’s crazy good. Too bad about the lack of variety and the still missing multiplayer.
  7. Killzone 2
  8. Plants Vs Zombies. This Popcap title stole a ridiculous amount of time this year. Probably the best value for money all year. [Update April 2018: looks like the original isn’t available anymore. This Flash version looks like it might work: http://www.crazygames.com/game/plants-vs-zombies]
  9. Street Fighter IV
  10. Rock Band Unplugged

I’m surprised by how many “small” games there are – mobile games and cheap PC games. Remarkably, the only one I was looking forward to before it hit was Killzone 2, the rest of these have been more or less very happy surprises.

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PSP

Rock Band Unplugged

Rock Band Unplugged
Rock Band Unplugged

I got the PSP incarnation of my favorite franchise on a trip to Guildford, UK. It continues to baffle me why I need to pay so much more for the games over here in Finland. I would certainly buy a lot more new games if they weren’t quite so expensive.

You’d think that it’s all about the peripherals (I have four plastic guitars, a drum kit and five mics at home) or all about playing with friends (I have some), neither of which comes with this portable Rock Band experience. But it turns out that no, it’s all about the music, and aside from some classic and progressive rock pieces, Harmonix is very good to my ears.

You can see the track listing on the official Rock Band Unplugged page. There are only nine out forty songs that are new to this game, which is a little disappointing, but overall the setlist is very strong. Freezepop’s Less Talk More Rokk is my favorite song thus far and indeed, I got their latest album based on how much I like them in the game.

You play the game by hitting a phrase 100% correct, which then triggers the instrument to play on its own for a while. You then switch to the next instrument. When you struggle to get a phrase correct, all the instruments start to fail and before you know it, the song is over. You only use four buttons (left, up, triangle, circle) to play, the shoulders to switch between instruments and X to engage star power. It sounds very simple, but the difficulty level is spot on. Moving up to hard difficulty, I have struggled to comprehend how my fingers could move that fast or my brain process the very complex patterns flying at me at warp speed and yet I usually somehow manage. Of course, it’s no different from doing the same on the faux guitars or drums, and playing at a sufficiently challenging level, you get the same kind of satisfaction from doing well.

I do miss friends and especially singing, but the gameplay is really very good.

You can even buy new songs for the game, in the first in-game store for the PSP. The price point should be lower, though, and I can’t really see myself picking up any of them unless there’s a more sensibly priced collection available at some point.

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PSP

R-Type Command (Tactics)

R-Type Command (Tactics)
R-Type Command (Tactics)

I got the US version of R-Type Tactics, titled R-Type Command. Hooray for region-free games, it should all be this way. (Incidentally, I also finally got Professor Layton And The Curious Village for the DS from San Francisco during GDC09 – and Every Extend Extra for the PSP – having been unable to find it domestically.)

You take command and build your fleet of R-Type armada, developing new models, revising your tactics and taking on the biomechanical Bydo Empire. “BLAST OFF AND STRIKE THE EVIL BYDO EMPIRE!!”, as it were. Only you do it in turns and move your ships on a hexagonal map representation of a side-scrolling 2D shoot em up game. It is what I signed up for.

Pilot development is disappointingly shallow and the scenarios could do with more variety, but I’m happy with the thing I was most concerned about – difficulty. Many a Japanese tactics game has lost interest to me when I realize that I basically either can’t lose or have to do things in a very specific way only. With R-Type Command, most of the time you need to be careful if you don’t want to lose some ships and many missions require a couple of replays to try different approaches.

Once you’re done with the modest campaign, it’s time to see things from the Bydo side, which I’m looking forward to quite a bit, actually.

The presentation and loading times continue to grate – far too much clicking and confirming, only to look at another lengthy loading screen – but the concept is just a winner in my hands.

With this and Every Exend Extra, I’ve been playing on the PSP a lot lately. I do hope that Sony’s push for new interest in the platform this year is a success. It looks like they’re going to concentrate on downloadable content via the PlayStation Network integration and I’m looking forward to see what they do with it. Certainly it makes more sense to me as a consumer than a handful of clumsy UMDs.

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PSN PSP

Speaking of Super Stardust

The 4€ Expansion Pack, adding some new music and three new game modes? Totally worth it. The three new modes are Survival, Bomber and Endless, all equally great at taking the base game’s mechanics further. Come on, that’s less than a lunch.

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PSN PSP

Super Stardust Portable

Super Stardust Portable
Super Stardust Portable

Housemarque’s space shooter has been through a great many incarnations. I’ve played the latest on the PSP for quite a bit.

As a score shooter, it’s the best “just one quick go” experience I’ve had in years. My favorite used to be Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on the Xbox 360, and the PSP flavor of Super Stardust beats that – while it isn’t quite as polished, it has a lot more variety and the vastly quicker games are appreciated. I also find myself in the market for a quick shooter more often with a PSP in hand than when I’m sitting on my couch.

Based on Stardust, the game is about you controlling a space ship blowing up asteroids and various kinds of more dangerous enemies. You upgrade your weapons, get all tactical about your scoring, and try to do it a little bit faster and a little bit better than the last time.

It looks great, sounds great and plays very well. The PSP’s ergonomics are something of a problem, but it never really hampers my enjoyment of the game. You move with the analogue nub and shoot with the face buttons. The tricky part is managing to hit the shoulders for a boost or a smart bomb, or the directional arrows or select button to change your weapon. With a bit of practice, it does work well.

I haven’t played enough to see whether the scoring holds up in the long run, but so far I’m getting constantly better and climbing up the very well working global leaderboards. There’s just enough of levels to play in and just enough of variety to keep it interesting. A superb game at just 8€ on the PSN – I can’t think of a better way to use your PSP right now.