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Recent gaming: a drive-by

Advance Wars Days Of Ruin coverart

Advance Wars: Days Of Ruin (aka Dark Conflict)

The sequel to the excellent Advance Wars: Dual Strike doesn’t look very promising. It’s post-apocalyptic world may be atmospheric and something new, but it’s just too gray. The same goes for the characters and plot. First of all, I don’t want a plot in my tactics game, and second of all, the Days Of Ruin plot just plain blows. I don’t care about it, mostly due to the uninteresting characters, yet it keeps interrupting my gameplay. So you’ve basically got Dual Strike without all the charm.

However, Intelligent Systems has realized it’s gone overboard with unnecessarily fiddly elements in Dual Strike and instead of pouring more topping on the cake, it’s decided to trim it down to the delicious core. Advance Wars is now more about the basics and much better for it. The CO powers have thankfully been toned down, too.

FIFA Street 3

I am not a sports gamer. FIFA Street 3 seems to be made for me. Playing a very showy game of street soccer is very easy. This streamlining does make playing defense boring, but you don’t really care so much, because it’s just so feel-good. The music is excellent, the cartooney style and animation bring a smile and it all feels very effortless. Like a summer vacation.

Extra mention goes out for the menu design. I can actually see every single piece of text without squinting my eyes at all. It feels so good, I hadn’t quite realized how bad it has gotten with most games these days.

Army Of Two co-op

Army Of Two’s vague plot and characterization did not hold up after a somewhat promising opening. Indeed, it manages to outright offend at several places. My recommendation is to entirely disregard the context and concentrate on the gameplay, because played with a friend, it’s a lot of fun. The “professional” difficulty level makes things interesting.

I hope they get an actual writer for the next installment, because upgrading the weapons and tagteaming with your buddy is solid entertainment. That, or ditch these token, failed efforts at characters entirely.

Burnout Paradise (Xbox 360)

I quickly tired of Burnout Paradise’s directionless wandering. Playing it on the Xbox 360 instead of the PS3 made me really get into it and – I’m a little ashamed to say – it’s all about the Achievements. When the game fails to keep my interest in progression, Achievements come to the rescue. I still can’t see myself completing it something like 99% as with the previous Burnouts, but at least I’m enthusiastic about it again.

Lost Odyssey: disc two

Then there’s been quite a bit of Lost Odyssey, which has only gotten better as it goes along. Really top-notch Japanese roleplaying, I think it’s up there with Final Fantasy XII. I hope it sells well and Mistwalker gets working on a sequel. The dream sequences work well and the fighting and character development are still engaging.

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Monster Hunter Freedom 2 (PSP)

Baby steps. Usually you get faster at playing a game, but with Monster Hunter Freedom 2 I’ve constantly been moving slower. You need to, or it kills you, time and time again. By the four-hour mark I was getting to grips with the somewhat cumbersome controls, but my enemies were just too tough. I was ready to give up. But veterans of the game instructed me to keep re-doing the lowest level hunts before moving on, at least making some better weapons and armor. Doing this, I realized what the game is all about. You can’t rush it. Baby steps.

In Monster Hunter Freedom 2 you’re a hunter-gatherer in an exotic fantasy land of considerable beauty. Your task is to hunt ever bigger monsters. You do this by acquiring better equipment – your character does not get better, only your gear and yourself do. There is no plot to speak of, you’re free to concentrate on your life as a hunter. Indeed, the game is almost simulationist in its approach. You need to keep yourself warm and fed, watch your stamina and sharpen your weapons while out on the hunt.

But really, the hunts are not the focus of the game. You need a passion for gathering resources. You’re going to fish, catch bugs, dig up plants, mine for ores, just generally dig holes in the ground and see what comes up – and of course carve your prey for bones, teeth, furs, organs and the like. By combining resources you can get more valuable stuff and by combining those, you can get new gear. It’s very complicated and something you either love or hate. You also have a farm and a kitchen (with cat staff!) to make you even more resources. Even the hunts are centered around the concept of gathering raw materials: if you want teeth, you need to strike your prey’s teeth. If you want the tail, go for the tail – in realtime. If you want a hard shell, you need a blunt weapon to crack it, and you can only carry one weapon at a time.

It took me several nights of frustration to realize how the game is supposed to be played, because you can easily progress to unbeatable hunts if you should wish to, and there are no real indicators to warn you to stay away. In this sense, too, the game is about really absorbing yourself into the hunter life and knowing you prey. You’re given a choice of weapons and I picked the largest one, with a huge damage factor compared to a basic blade. Bad mistake! You’re free to partake of the heavy weapons from the get-go, but they’re incredibly tough to use, leaving you wide open for a counter-attack once you’ve missed. You will miss, too, the large weapons requiring precise timing, a single attack taking many seconds to complete. Mark my words and just take the sword and shield to get started.

Now that I have a handle on how the game plays, I can see why it has such a following in Japan. I was initially turned off by the perceivedly high difficulty level, but that’s really a skewed perception. Taken slowly, the game becomes just deep, not difficult. Recommended, if you have the time and patience to learn it.

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Ninja Gaiden 2 first looks (Xbox 360)

Oh god, yes. Ninja Gaiden 2 images were accidentally up for a moment, which promptly led them to spreading all over the internets. Check out Kotaku’s gallery if you’re so inclined. It’s looking good, which comes as no surprise, but at some level I was expecting more – it’s a little too much like the previous game.

The one thing that interests me is how they’re gonna get away with the whole flying body parts theme. The severed heads were censored from the European version (thank you, UK), which was a let-down, but when whole bodies are coming apart in every which way, what are you going to censor? Ban body parts not attached to torsos? Ban torsos? Ban moving body parts not attached to other body parts? Just what is a body part? See, this can get all philosophical awful fast. We need some ninja-skills in the ratings boards with this one.

Update: And the first teaser is out, too. Nothing much to look at yet, just Ryu’s pretty eyes and messy tools. Cool logo, though.

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Go for the balls (Skate, Xbox 360)

EA has realized what most would-be skateboarders know best: how to laugh at bail videos. You know, the kind with sk8rbois damaging their private parts. Their Tony Hawk killer Skate’s (points for the simple title, guys) physics and animation is suitably advanced to make this possible in videogames – hell, they might’ve even coded it in order to coerce spectacular bails out of the physics system. Hence the following trailer.

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Tampons on the battlefield (Army Of Two, Xbox 360, PS3)

I’m not sure what sort of tone they’re going after here, but Army Of Two is looking all kinds of awesome.

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Tired of feeling good about yourself? (Bioshock, Xbox 360)

I’ve been playing Bioshock, which is something that people do these days. I was aware of all the hype and the much-publicized question of whether to harvest or rescue the Little Sister characters. Either way you’re rewarded, but you apparently get more goodies if you kill them. In case you don’t know, the Little Sisters are like ten-year old girls with zombie eyes. You can pull out the stuff (Adam) that’s making them all weird, which benefits you. You can do this by stroking them gently or by killing them. If you rescue the Little Sisters, they become normal girls. Not much of a decision there for me.

However, I wasn’t ready for the Big Daddies. These are the iconic diver suit types from the game’s cover, an excellent design overall. We don’t know much about them (well I don’t, at least), except that they protect the Little Sisters when they go about extracting Adam from dead bodies with giant syringes.

Now, in order to get your hands on the Little Sisters, you need to get rid of the Big Daddies protecting them. The thing is, the Big Daddies and Little Sisters are absolutely no threat to you. They let you go about freely – they’re only interested in the dead. I found it very hard to attack a Big Daddy; I was clearly being the predator, the aggressor here. Hell, the Little Sisters give the Big Daddies names (“Mr. Bubbles”, “Rosie”)!

My sympathies were entirely with the Big Daddy, trying to protect the Little Sister, I felt like such an asshole. So in order to avoid this, maybe find an excuse to attack him, I followed a lone Big Daddy around. His Little Sister was nowhere to be seen. The hulking creature went to a vent up high in the wall. Checking his surroundings, he banged on the wall. Out came his Little Sister. The Big Daddy, Rosie, helped him down from the height, being very careful in his movements. It was touching. I couldn’t attack them, so I followed them around for a while. After extracting some Adam, Rosie helped the Little Sister to another vent. I tried going away, moving to the next area in the game, but I was warned that unless I rescued or harvested all the Little Sisters in the level, I would have very little chance of surviving.

So after a while I was looting the cold body of Rosie. I’m actually ashamed to tell about it. It’s very clever, really. I’m still thinking about if I could make do without the Adam; after all, there are resurrection chambers everywhere. Speaking of which, Bioshock isn’t really a “spiritual successor” to System Shock 2, as has been said: it is System Shock 2, identical in all core gameplay elements, but with a tighter plot and drop-dead gorgeus visual design.

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I can feel it kicking in (Tekken Dark Resurrection, PSP)

I used to play a lot of Tekken. Especially Tekken 3, which – along with Wipeout – really brought the Playstation to fore in my circles. There was a time when I knew several characters well, being able to play very tactically. Since then I’ve been much more into Dead Or Alive and Soul Calibur, coming to regard Tekken’s combo-smashing as a more primitive affair. (I believe this was a defense mechanism to excuse myself for not keeping my iron fist skills up to date.)

I didn’t really expect much when I slotted in Tekken Dark Resurrection. For starters, I didn’t recall its positive reviews, and come on – it’s a beat em up on a portable. How could it work? You need precision, smooth framerates and a stable controller.

I bashed away for a couple of hours, really just mindlessly button-mashing, until I hit a brick wall and couldn’t progress. Then I came across Forrest Law, doing the torso punch combo and switching stances, and it all came flooding back. Jack’s annoying sitting punches… Yoshimitsu’s sewing machine… Within minutes, I was in practice mode, going through moves for the characters I want to learn.

Tekken’s visual design doesn’t always appeal to me these days, and indeed the gameplay requires a lot more memorization than the more recent contenders, but you can’t keep a quality brawler down. That it works flawlessly on a portable is a miracle. I haven’t played many PSP games yet, but this one I’d rate as a must-have.

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Dead Island (PC)

Dead Island appears to pick up where Dawn Of The Dead left off, with a tropical island full of zombies.

Having come from World War Z and Dead Rising recently and already set my sights on Left 4 Dead, you might say that I’m adequately zombiefied already, but the tropical island makes things interesting. I always wanted to get back on Far Cry’s island and an island is just perfect for sandbox gameplay. With the undead.

What I’m worried about is that the game looks like it’s lacking character – making up for lack of ideas with sharp textures, as is often the case with PC FPS titles.

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Still evil (Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition, PS2)

I’ve been playing Resident Evil 4 on both the new Wii incarnation and the old PS2 version – I’m reviewing the Wii version for a magazine and wanted to check out how it compares to older hardware. I haven’t seen the original Gamecube version, but I take it’s the same as the Wii version, with a tailored-for-Wii control scheme and the extra content from the PS2 version.

As most gamers already know, the game itself is brilliant. I love the way it takes a rural daylight setting and makes it a thing to dread. Also the way it plays with the environment interactivity is classic: the first big lock you see, you can kick it in. You can jump off mostly any ledge and vault any low obstacle, jump through any window, shoot through doors, kick down ladders to stop pursuers and so on. (Well yeah, there’s still the odd inability to duck under tripwires.) It is even more exciting to see the enemies climb through windows after you once you’ve barricaded the doors, and raise fallen ladders to get to you.

The cosmetic differences between the two machines are surprisingly minor. The Gamecube/Wii version is definitely more beautiful, with tons of more foliage and more depth to the colors, but in all the ways that matter, the PS2 holds up. You’d think it was a well-done Xbox game. Mind you, the Wii version is graphically not quite up to par with modern action titles – it’s really beautiful for a last-gen title, but it’s a little questionable to release a two-year old title on a new console without some polish.

But since it’s mostly an action game, it all comes down to the gunplay. The Wii’s controls take some getting used to, but the point and shoot works beautifully. I scored some 95% accuracy on my first play and it was never a chore to line up the shots. Switching to the Playstation DualShock controls, I was surprised that they felt more solid. The basic moving around is shaky on the Wii, and the button placement never feels natural. It is more difficult to shoot on the PS2, but overall, I prefer the old-style controls. You can’t really lounge back with the Wiimote and the need to hold your gun-hand steady becomes tiring after a while.

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Seeing the forest (Final Fantasy XII)

Final Fantasy XII was a huge hit and got a lot of praise, but there were some strange misgivings about the game. The foremost of these is the “gambit” system. The basic idea is that since playing a Japanese roleplaying game tends to be a tedious exercise in repeatedly hitting the same button to dispatch the grunt enemies and healing when someone in your party is low on hit points , why not automate the routine? I know I’ve been so comatose “playing” FF VIII and even the revered FF VII that I’ve had people in my party die due to inattention. How could I be interested in what’s going on the screen when the game is obviously uninterested in what I’m doing?

Thus the gambit system. You can assign targets and actions to your characters. My current party automatically attacks any foe they come across. All of them attack the same target. One character is assigned to stealing from the foe when he’s close to dropping. Magic user characters will heal any ally who’s below 60% of HP, and all characters will use a healing potion on an ally who’s below 20% of HP. One magic user keeps my lead character under the Protect spell. Playing the game, I only need to scout new enemy types by using the Libra “technic” and use additional spells when needed. Of course I can turn off the gambits at any time or just input specific commands, bypassing the system.

The game has eliminated the tiring grind, making combat fast and exciting, and even made dispatching the basic enemies a joy as you need to plan your gambit setup to maximum efficiency and then observe it in action, thinking about improvements to your scheme all the time. Instead of focusing on the tiny stuff (choosing to attack, with each character after the other, on the same enemy, until they all fall), it lets you focus on the big picture.

Yet people complain that they don’t get to “play the game”, which is just wrong in every level. Tuning your gambit setup is vastly more interesting than brainlessly hitting X every few seconds – your every decision is a meaningful one. And as the game progresses in real-time unless you access the menus, going through enemy-infested areas is fast and exciting, when your gambit setup is functioning properly.

The gambit system is perhaps the biggest innovation in console RPGs to date and one I should hope will be copied a lot in the future. I know I’ll be very disappointed if Final Fantasy XIII makes a return to pre-XII standards. Square Enix was worried about the gambit system’s reception and they chose to keep it a secret prior to launch and when the game launched, the unannounced, totally new base gameplay element left many a player dumbfounded. Square Enix can only blame themselves for not marketing the system as the revolution it truly is.