Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock

The Guitar Hero series hit a high note last year with Guitar Hero 5, a slick, entertaining game that embraced the social aspect of living room rock. This year's installment in the venerable franchise turns its attention back to the game-y aspects of the rhythm genre with new modes that cater to those who like something extra to strive for beyond the inherent satisfaction of rocking out. Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock boasts the same great gameplay that made its predecessor so engaging, yet even with more than 90 new songs on the disc, it's hard to shake the feeling that this is just more of the same, especially when it retails for full price. Though it may not stray far from the expected, Warriors of Rock can still rock a party with the best of them.

Something new for your plastic rock experience: fantasy story time with Rush!
The marquee new element here is Quest mode. Packed with cutscenes and narrated by Gene Simmons, this mode sends you on a trip through different venues to mutate familiar Guitar Hero characters into superpowered versions of themselves so they can help you defeat a sinister beast that threatens the very rock and roll we all hold dear. It boils down to little more than another way to chain setlists together in a careerlike progression, though it features a hefty amount of cutscene showmanship. A steady stream of intro videos and bizarre mutation clips is interrupted by a detour into the trippy world of 1970s Canadian fantasy when you play through Rush's seven-part epic, "2112," complete with voice-over from the band.
The "epic" setting creates some novelty, but the only substantial change from previous career modes is the addition of warrior powers. Each unique character has a specific power that can help you boost your scoring potential. For example, Judy Nails starts each song with the crowd meter at maximum and can overflow it to earn extra stars, while newcomer Echo Tesla fills the star power meter a little more with every 10-note streak you accomplish. Taking advantage of these powers can help you progress more quickly through Quest mode, and though they provide an extra incentive to do well, warrior powers are a bit of a double-edged sword. While the flashy visual and audio effects that the powers produce can make you feel like you're rocking that much harder, they can also be distracting, especially if you are playing with a few bandmates. All the electric flashes and stray sound effects can be off-putting, and certain powers allow you to extend your star power for so long that you can end up playing the majority of the song with only pale blue notes coming down the highway.
These abilities can also be used in the Quickplay+ mode, and are presumably one of the additional factors that the "+" indicates. The other notable change is the inclusion of challenges that are now attached to each and every available song, including all of the importable songs from previous Guitar Hero titles. These challenges reward you for long note streaks, skilled use of star power, high scores, and other accomplishments, granting you bonus stars and boosting the level associated with your profile. Gaining levels unlocks new instruments and outfits for those who like to customize their in-game appearance, and the whole challenge system caters to those who enjoy competing on the extensive leaderboards. For the more directly confrontational, there are plenty of multiplayer modes that enable online competition.
For those who just want to play some music, Party Play mode once again makes it supremely easy to join a song on any instrument at any difficulty level at any time. This mode is a great way to host low-pressure Guitar Hero sessions and encourage reluctant rockers to strum a few bars. The more creative modes from Guitar Hero 5 return as well, including GHJam, which provides an enjoyable opportunity for unstructured jamming. The GH Studio lets you craft songs of your own to play and share, while Facebook and Twitter connectivity provides further opportunity for sharing your in-game accomplishments.

And finally, if your stable of plastic rock instruments is looking a bit worse for wear, Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock comes in a bundle with a new modular guitar that comes with detachable body pieces. Though the pieces don't feel as solid as previous iterations of the hardware, it's fun to make your figurative axe look like a literal one. Unfortunately, the guitar and the game retail for $99.99, with the game alone going for $59.99. Though this is a robustly featured game, many of the features are so familiar that charging full price for them doesn't seem right. For folks who already own Guitar Hero 5, Warriors of Rock doesn't add a whole lot beyond a new setlist and some game-y bells and whistles. Yet it's impossible to deny how much fun this game can be, and with more than 90 songs to choose from, there are hours of entertainment in Warriors of Rock. The cover charge may be a bit too steep, but you can still count on Guitar Hero to rock.
-Courtesy Gamespot.com

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011

The Pro Evolution Soccer series has been stuck in a rut for the past few years, with gameplay that has stagnated and a feature set that has failed to keep up with rival FIFA. Thankfully, Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 addresses these criticisms, with improved gameplay, new features such as the Online Master League, and a higher visual standard than ever before. It's certainly slower and more difficult than last year's game, and therefore takes longer to learn, but as it retains the same fluid gameplay, fans of the series should embrace the changes. It's not in the same league as FIFA when it comes to online integration and presentation, but it's a welcome return to form for a series that has spent the last few years in relegation territory.

Manchester United take on Arsenal, or North London as they're known.
Fans of the series should appreciate how different the gameplay is within seconds of picking up a controller. The control system has been tweaked so that you now have to guide the ball much more precisely using the new power bar that appears above players' heads. Whereas passes previously found their way to the recipients' feet automatically, you now have to combine power and direction to place the ball exactly where you want it to go. This can result in a frustrating number of misguided passes at first, but as you get used to the system, you can mix up passing styles and really control the movement of the ball, rather than being dependent on where the AI player happens to be. The game is slower and more considered as a result, and it rewards players who master these techniques by allowing them to dictate the flow of the game.
The improved control system complements the new player animations, which are more graceful and realistic than before. There's a much better feeling of physicality between players as they jostle for the ball; if it's in the air, for example, players will compete for the header in a convincing manner. The downside to this physicality is that the game is now too strict on fouls; if you attempt to put pressure on an attacker, you can expect him to fall over and earn himself a free kick as a result. However, the impact of the changes is mostly positive--players no longer perform the same animations en masse (such as before kickoff), and you can even see their eyes following the ball during replays, which adds to the realism.
Last year's Pro Evo boasted accurate player likenesses, but thanks to an overall graphical improvement this year, the game is finally looking like a true current-generation title. Aside from better-looking players, the onscreen information is presented more efficiently, with power bars above players' heads, rather than at the bottom of the screen. The default camera position has changed to a lower TV-style wide angle, performing more dynamic movements as it's tracking the action, even if it is occasionally slow to keep up. There has also been a change to the commentary team; while Jon Champion remains, Jim Beglin replaces Mark Lawrenson as the analyst. He adds a little more insight and enthusiasm to the discussion, but overall the commentary is still one of Pro Evo's weak points.

Pro Evolution Soccer 2011 offers all of the same major game modes as last year but expands on them in minor ways. The UEFA Champions League mode makes a return this year and is joined by the South American Copa Libertadores tournament as well. The televisual presentation of both events is replicated with aplomb, including official memorabilia in the menus and Beethoven's Ode to Joy before each game. Both Become a Legend, where you create a player and take him through a career, and Master League, where you perform managerial duties, make a return, and you can now compete in the UEFA Super Cup and UEFA Europa Leagues in these modes, if your team is eligible to enter them. Otherwise, these modes are very similar to those in last year's game--the Master League offers a tremendous amount of depth through its player transfer, training and tactical options, but it's essentially the same as it was last year.
-Courtesy gamespot.com

Front Mission Evolved

Masking mediocrity by letting you blow up lots of stuff pretty much sums up Front Mission Evolved, a forgettable third-person shooter from Double Helix Games. The latest addition to the Front Mission family of tactical role-playing games may take this Japanese series in a new direction, but the old turn-based style of play has been replaced with an assembly-line shoot-'em-up that won't win the franchise many new fans. While the action is sufficiently bombastic, with giant mechs, gun turrets, and tanks constantly going boom, it's tough to get through the predictable, abbreviated campaign without snoozing. And the multiplayer is a bland assortment of games that will likely bore you long before you've explored it fully.

The story and setting are borrowed from the previous Front Mission games. The plot is a standard revenge saga featuring Dylan Ramsey, a civilian thrust into a war to find out what happened to his scientist father. It's hard to get into the story or to want to find out the identity of the mystery man behind an insidious plan to start a global war, because your suspension of disbelief is derailed by cornball villains who do everything but add "Muahahaha!" to the end of their cheesy dialogue. The setting is at least somewhat intriguing. The timeline has been pushed forward into the later 22nd century, a leap forward from the earlier releases in the Front Mission franchise. Most of the big players remain the same, however, with the geopolitical landscape still dominated by feuding supernations. The world of 2171 actually looks a whole lot like our own, right down to the cars that people drive, but futuristic touches like space elevators make it clear that we're a long way from 2010. It would be interesting to see this sci-fi saga explored more thoroughly in a more interesting game. There are some good moments, though they don't amount to much in the end. You can wrap the whole turgid tale in an evening or two of play, which barely gives you enough time to care about the protagonists.
Most of the action takes place with you at the controls of a Wanzer, Front Mission's not-so-unique take on battle mechs. These massive war machines are pretty typical for the giant robot genre, boasting projectile and melee weapons along with thrusters that let them skate along at high speeds. For giant killer robots, these Wanzers are pretty nimble and can be maneuvered much like they were plain old human beings. You can even get into toe-to-toe scraps and give enemies the back of your giant metal hand. Wanzers can also be specially outfitted with weapons and other goodies purchased with cash earned out on the battlefield. Customizing your ride isn't all that rewarding, though, as tight power and weight ratios make it hard to come up with an interesting loadout. The game also regularly forces you to use specific equipment for certain missions, such as hover thrusters and spider legs, taking the decisions out of your hands. In addition to the giant robot action, you're occasionally dumped out on foot to fight with a couple of rifles and grenades, and you also take part in a couple of shooting gallery sequences where you blast enemies from the air.
But no matter how you fight, combat has been stripped down to basics. Campaign levels run on rails, and from start to finish you simply blast everything that moves. Many missions see you fighting alongside allies, although you can't do anything with them, such as send them after specific bad guys. You're outside most of the time, of course, as giant robots don't exactly fit inside buildings, but most maps consist of generic corridor crawls. Dull, boxed-in highways and urban streets take the place of shooter hallways. Pyrotechnics are suitably intense. Everything blows up in impressive ways, particularly when you backhand an enemy into bits with a melee strike. Thunderous atmospheric audio adds to this, making great use of a subwoofer if you have one, and the shock effects during fireballs practically vibrate the gamepad out of your hands. But the satisfying impact of these explosions soon wears off. Seeing a few giant mechs go boom is kind of thrilling. Seeing a few hundred go boom mind-numbing. The action also bogs down during boss battles. Enemies are absurdly overpowered when it comes to armor and take forever to be whittled down to destruction. But at the same time, weapon and health power-ups on boss battlefields continually regenerate, making it just about impossible for the big bads to kill you. These titanic tussles can take a half hour to finally crawl to a halt, slowing the campaign so much that you want to just give up on the whole thing.

Multiplayer comes with basic shooter game types like deathmatch, team deathmatch, domination, and supremacy, along with an experience-point system where you earn ranks over time. There isn't anything here you haven't seen before. Sure, you're dealing out all the death at the controls of a giant robot instead of at the end of a soldier's rifle, and some of the maps feature cool space stations and futuristic cities for backdrops. But other than that, this is the same multiplayer found in many other console shooters. The only noteworthy difference here is length. Matches are structured to keep you playing for a long time, particularly domination, where the need to earn 1,000 points to win a standard match can keep you glued to the couch for going on half an hour. You'll also be playing for ages if you want to move up in rank. Experience points aren't doled out by the bushel for kills and wins, so expect to put in many, many hours if you want to get into the high ranks.
Front Mission Evolved isn't a step forward for the Front Mission series. Double Helix Games is treading water here with a very beige third-person shooter that doesn't do anything particularly well aside from explosions. Try it only if you're a huge devotee of the old series or are a big fan of blowing things up real good.
-Courtesy gamespot.com

Halo Reach Review

Halo Reach
For fanatical Xbox 360 gamers, the release of Halo: Reach positively hums with significance. As the first of this year's blockbusting games to break cover, it symbolically kicks off the Christmas games rush. But it also marks the end of the Halo franchise as we know it – developer Bungie has signed a deal with Activision, and will make non-Halo branded games in the future (Microsoft is bound to hand future Haloes to another developer, but that could easily prove to be a poisoned chalice).
Bungie is bowing out of the first-person shoot-em-up franchise it created with an air not of regret or ruefulness but sheer triumph. Halo: Reach is easily the best Halo game ever – which means it is also one of the best games ever, full stop. In terms of look and feel, it is comfortingly familiar but despite that, stops have been pulled out: for example, Bungie created an entire new game engine for Reach and, while that familiar, slightly washed-out colour palette and distinctive art direction remain intact, everything looks sharper and crisper, and feels even slicker than ever.
Story-wise, Halo: Reach makes its predecessors feel almost amateurish. It's a prequel to the first Halo, so Master Chief hasn't yet come into play. Instead, you play Noble Six, the last (and nameless) Spartan to join the elite Noble Team. Dispatched on a seemingly innocent mission on Reach, the last bastion of the UNSC's defences before Earth, Noble Team uncovers a Covenant invasion. Cue a titanic struggle for the planet which we know is ultimately doomed, but that doesn't make it any less epic.
Those who availed themselves of the multiplayer beta will be conversant with Halo: Reach's main gameplay innovation – armour upgrades, which give you short-lived abilities such as a jetpack, active camouflage and a holographic facsimile of yourself. These also feature heavily in the single-player game, introduced more or less individually, and turn out to be a clever means of rendering Halo's single-player gameplay much more diverse than it has been in the past. There are stealth episodes, and others where you have to cross big gaps using your jetpack.
Bungie's engine upgrade also extended to the artificial intelligence, bringing about some monstrously frenetic set-pieces in which you really have to develop a tactical plan (and, as ever, it's vital to work out where to find the required weaponry). Sometimes, taking cover and timing are paramount; other times, you'll have to find a nice sniping spot, or you might have to take down turrets before they cause havoc. And the presence in certain levels of civilians fleeing the Covenant attacks (all of whom are very pleased to see a rare Spartan) ratchets up the emotional intensity.
There's a lengthy portion set in space just beyond Reach's atmosphere, which includes some very serviceable space-shooting, plus some fearsomely intense shooting on foot in a Covenant spaceship, and another episode in which you pilot a Falcon around the skyscraper-tops of a city under attack. The big battle scenes – always one of Halo's strong points – are more impressive than ever to behold, and as some of your Noble Team-mates sacrifice themselves for the cause, Halo: Reach starts to pack an emotional punch unheard-of in its predecessors.
Online, Halo: Reach is of course immaculate. The armour upgrades add an extra dimension without compromising the headily addictive nature of the otherwise familiar gameplay. The flexibility, in terms of game modes, is almost bewildering, and the Firefight mode, which supports up to four people playing co-operatively, particularly stands out. Similar to Gears of War's Horde, it gives you extraordinary fine control over waves of incoming Covenant attackers which must be survived, even letting you define the type of enemy per wave and your weapons load-out.
Halo: Reach, simply, is Bungie's masterwork, and if you own an Xbox 360, you'd be an idiot not to buy a copy – even if you're not a fan of first-person shooters, it will still make you marvel at just how good a game can look and feel. And it throws down a massive gauntlet as part of what will be an intriguing sub-text this Christmas: will it be the game everyone is playing on Xbox Live, or will Call of Duty: Black Ops have the quality to usurp it online?
-Courtesy guardian.co.uk