Fashionably Late: Mass Effect

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Storytelling in video games has come a long way since the creation of the medium, but in many ways it still has a long way to go. Gamers have often bemoaned the fact that movie adaptations of video games have been so universally shitty, but aside from the fact that the studios let hacks like Uwe Boll helm these productions, there’s a very obvious reason for their poor quality. Most video games barely have a story to speak of, or if they do have a plot, it’s some variant of “overpowered protagonist kills a lot of people.” That’s not a deep plot; it would barely suffice for a B-grade kung fu flick. So is it any wonder that adaptations tend to fall apart when you pull out the only thing holding the video game’s story together, i.e., the gameplay?

Still, while most game developers have spent their time aping plots that sound like they belong in movies the Cinema Snob would review, a select few have made the attempt to marry good gameplay to strong stories, mostly in the RPG field. And one of the luminaries of this movement is Canadian RPG developer BioWare, makers of such titles as Baldur’s Gate, Neverwinter Nights, MDK, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age, and the subject of today’s Fashionably Late, Mass Effect.

Mass Effect is, in many ways, one of BioWare’s most innovative and experimental titles, and is clearly an attempt to do what so many game developers have tried and failed to do in the past; to forge a genuine, original sci-fi epic that is unique to the medium of video games. And while Mass Effect is the first game in a trilogy, and I’ll be unable to measure the true extent of their success until I have completed all three games, from what I’ve seen here BioWare was clearly on the right track.

The story of Mass Effect is complex and detailed, but I’ll do my best to give my usual bite-sized summary here. The year is 2183. 40 years prior, humans discovered the ruins of an alien race called the Protheans on Mars, along with records detailing aspects of their technology that allowed humanity’s own technology to radically advance by utilizing a principle called “Mass Effect” that enables all sorts of futuristic phenomena such as force-fields, guns that never run out of bullets, and most importantly, faster-than-light space travel.

The Protheans had a vast empire that spanned the entire Milky Way galaxy up until they mysteriously vanished 50,000 years ago, leaving their cities and technology behind. The races that have evolved since then have discovered Prothean technology, much as humans have, and have formed a pan-galactic government called the Galactic Council, based out of an ancient Prothean space station called Citadel. Humanity has taken its place living in the galaxy and new human colonies alongside these other races, but has not yet attained full status as a member species of the Council; as the newcomer to the galactic scene, other races tend to view humanity as the snot-nosed new kid who’s too big for his britches.

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks...

Be prepared to take a lot of lip from these snooty jerks…

The player takes the role of Commander Shepard, a customizable (and male or female, hence why he/she is only referred to in-game as Commander or Shepard) player character who is a member of the Human Alliance’s navy. And when I say Shepard is customizable, I mean it in a very broad sense; not only can you choose Shepard’s sex and facial features, but also his/her backstory (from a selection of options) and a number of character classes that determine what he/she can do.

Shepard is the XO on a prototype Alliance ship called the Normandy, and considered to be one of the finest representations of the species that humanity has to offer. As such, Shepard is auditioned to join the Spectres, a group of agents that act as problem-solvers for the Council. They act with complete autonomy to preserve the security of the galaxy as they see fit, and Shepard would be the first human to receive the appointment. The Normandy is sent to secure a piece of recovered Prothean technology from a human colony called Eden Prime, along with a Spectre named Nihlus who is to monitor and evaluate Shepard’s performance. However, things rapidly go wrong when the Normandy arrives on Eden Prime, only to find it under attack by the Geth, a synthetic race of rogue robots who have not been seen in Council space for centuries.

Shepard’s team lands on Eden Prime to deal with the situation, only to find out that situation is far worse than they thought. The Geth appear to be working with an alien Spectre named Saren, who has razed the planet to gain access to the Prothean beacon. Saren kills Nihlus, makes contact with the Beacon, and wires the colony to blow. Shepard’s team defuses the bombs, and Shepard comes into contact with the beacon, accidentally triggering some kind of message that implants data into his mind; horrific visions of the Protheans being wiped out by a race of machines from beyond the edge of the galaxy called Reapers. Shepard and his crew are placed center-stage in a conflict to bring Saren down and stop the Reapers from invading and annihilating all sentient life in the galaxy.

To that end, Shepard is given command of the Normandy and her crew, and must follow Saren’s trail, determine what he and the Geth are up to, and put a stop to it. As Shepard, the player is given very free rein on how to deal with this investigation; the Council and other NPCs will, in traditional RPG fashion, give Shepard missions (i.e., quests), and the player is free to tackle them in any order he wants. The Normandy, in addition to serving as Shepard’s mobile base of operations, where Shepard can talk with members of his crew and squad, also serves as his means of going from solar system to solar system and reaching new planets to explore.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

Your home away from home! Sure beats tooling around in a RV.

The bulk of the action in Mass Effect takes place on foot; traveling to a new solar system or planet is as simple as pointing and clicking on the Normandy’s interactive star chart; the piloting is left in the capable hands of the Normandy’s helmsman, Joker, voiced in an excellent turn by Seth Green. If the world is a colonized, established planet, then the Normandy will simply dock and Shepard, along with a squad of two other characters that the player chooses before disembarking, will simply step out of the airlock and go about their business.

These worlds are the biggest game areas and contain many hidden items to find, are populated by many NPCs from several different alien races, and many of them will either advance the main plot or provide Shepard with new side quests when spoken to. A huge chunk of the game’s 35 hour length is spent on these worlds, and the Citadel in particular has lots of new quests that will become available over time, making it worth the player’s while to revisit frequently.

If a planet doesn’t have an established colony, then Shepard’s squad may still be able to go down and explore it, using an armored ATV/truck called the Mako. These un-civilized planets have mineral deposits and alien artifacts to recover, nests of pirates and smugglers to fight, and outposts that are the locale for several of the game’s side-missions. Inside these structures, the gameplay is much the same as the on-foot gameplay on the more established planets, but on the planet’s surface, exploration and combat is handled by driving the Mako around and taking out any threats with its mounted machine gun and cannon.

When Shepard and his squad encounter enemies, the game’s combat comes into play. Combat is one area where Mass Effect differs significantly from other RPGs, and even most other BioWare games. Mass Effect is an action RPG, but rather than combat being based around medieval melee weapons, it is instead a futuristic third-person shooter. Combat is handled in real-time, with Shepard (controlled by the player) and his two squad-mates (controlled by the computer) taking on foes using cover-based gunplay. The meat of combat in Mass Effect is avoiding enemy shots by taking cover, and taking out your foes either from a distance, or by flanking them and dealing with them at closer range.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they're dead, but it's not very sporting.

You can also lift them up with telekinesis and gang up on them until they’re dead, but it’s not very sporting.

Gunplay in Mass Effect differs from similar titles in that guns in the ME universe have unlimited ammo; the in-universe explanation is that bullets are actually slugs sheared off of a block of lead inside the gun via a miniature Mass Effect field, calculated to the appropriate size for the firing circumstances and distance by an on-board computer, so in-universe guns rarely need reloading (and mechanically in-game they never do). However, the act of firing the bullet along magnetic rails heats up the weapon with each successive shot, and firing a gun too quickly will cause it to overheat, rendering it inoperable until the weapon vents and cools down. Therefore, the player will always be searching for that balance between firing as quickly as possible and not overheating their gun, which adds an interesting layer of strategy that ammo-driven weapons mechanics lack. The exception to these rules are the grenades, which you have a finite amount of and should be reserved for dealing with large crowds of enemies.

The combat is in real time, but there are selection wheels for equipping weapons or activating character powers that, when brought up using the shoulder buttons on the controller, freeze the action while the player makes their selections. The player can directly order the allied AI characters to use specific powers or equip specific weapons, and can also issue commands using the hotkeys mapped to the d-pad to go after particular targets, advance to a selected point, follow the player or stay put. Or the player can simply let the AI make its own decisions, which actually works out fine most of the time. The friendly AI in Mass Effect is rather good, to the point where even a dedicated turn-based RPG wonk like myself doesn’t mind letting the computer handle my teammates for me.

Mass Effect utilizes a health system reminiscent of the first Halo game, in that it has two separate damage meters: health and shields. Every piece of armor in the game provides shields to the equipped character, and those shields will regenerate when not under fire and prevent the character from actually getting injured. Once a character’s shields are dropped, though, any damage goes to their health bar, and once their health bar drops, they’re unconscious (for squad members) or dead (for NPCs and Shepard). Health doesn’t regenerate on its own; the only way to restore lost health is through the use of Medi-Gel, a panacea that is dispersed to the entire squad via the power wheel, and can only be carried and found in limited quantities. Thus, it behooves the player to take advantage of their shields and of cover in the environment to protect themselves from damage.

A big part of what determines how combat will play out is the choices the player makes in character creation and character advancement, and this is where the game’s RPG roots really show. As I said, Shepard is a highly customizable character, and at character creation the player can choose from six different character classes to play as, which greatly affect the role Shepard will play in combat and in the field.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

Pictured: a rare instance of an engineer looking intimidating.

There are three schools of talent in the game; combat (i.e., weapon skills and physical abilities), tech (hacking equipment and manipulating computers and machines), and biotics (Mass Effect-driven telekinetic powers), and each class either focuses exclusively on one of these schools, or has a dual focus on two of them. For example, a character who takes the Soldier class can fully utilize every gun in the game and has access to skills that make them formidable at gunplay and physical combat, but gains no tech or biotic abilities at all, while someone who takes the Adept class has access to every biotic power in the game, but can only use pistols and is less physically powerful and durable. Meanwhile, a character who takes the Vanguard class gains some combat and biotic abilities, but doesn’t gain all the talents an Adept or a Soldier would, and only has full use of pistols and shotguns.

Characters can also be customized with equipment. By default, each character is outfitted with a suit of armor and one of each of the four weapon classes; a sniper rifle, assault rifle, pistol and shotgun, even though they can only effectively use a few of them (any gun a character isn’t proficient with can only be shot from the hip, with no aiming down the sights). As the player progresses through the game, they’ll find new weapons and armor squirreled away in storage containers in true RPG fashion, or available for purchase at vendors throughout the game. The equipment you find scales up with you, so you’ll always be finding new gear you can use. Additionally, the armor and weapons can be customized with mods, items attached to the gear that alter its properties to the player’s taste. Want to add some extra shielding to your armor, or reduce a gun’s overheating, or shoot an enemy with radioactive bullets? You can do all of that and more; the possibilities are very open.

However, the abundance of gear you find and the relative lack of inventory space (you can only hold 150 pieces of gear, including armor, guns and mods), means that you’ll either have to frequently visit vendors to sell off old equipment (which results in truly astronomical sums of cash by the end of the game) or you’ll have to break unwanted gear down into Omni-Gel, a futuristic substance that can be used for everything from overriding locks to repairing the Mako. Also, on another note, it is somewhat immersion-rattling that every locale in the game, from office buildings to abandoned ruins, has caches of body armor, assault weapons and grenades squirreled away. Office parties in the Mass Effect universe must be fucking terrifying….

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist's Rendition)

Pictured: Typical ME-Universe board room (Artist’s Rendition)

Each member of Shepard’s squad has their own class pre-assigned, and thus has certain abilities and weapons they can use and certain ones they can’t. It’s up to the player to pick teams to bring into the field that round out their weaknesses and compliment their strengths. Additionally, as the player completes quests and defeats enemies, Shepard and all the squad members (including those who aren’t on the active team, which is always appreciated) will gain experience points and their levels will go up. When characters gain a level, they gain a number of Squad Points that they can then spend to unlock new powers and skills, and to increase the potency of those they already have.

Powers are just what they sound like; they’re the abilities that are used from the power wheel to either buff the character using them, or cause damage or debuff enemies. Characters with a combat focus will get powers that enable their weapons to fire more rapidly, more accurately, or do more damage, or will make them tougher for a period of time. Characters with a tech focus can gain abilities that let them bring down enemy shields, hack enemy robots (including the Geth) and overload devices in a spectacular fashion.

Biotic focused characters gain telekinetic abilities that allow the player to fling enemies around like rag dolls, levitate them, freeze them in place, shred them in miniature black holes, and telekinetic barriers to supplement their shields. There aren’t MP or “Force Points” in Mass Effect, but there are cooldowns for each power, a delay that the player must wait after using a power before they can use it again. The cooldown time, damage dealt and effect duration all improve as a power is leveled up.

Passive skills aren’t activated in battle, but rather increase statistics like character health, weapon damage, damage reduction and the like. These skills are always on once they’re bought, and players should prioritize them when allocating Squad Points, since they offer a lot of bang for the buck. Additionally, some skills unlock both powers and passive skills. For example, the Shotgun skill both increases damage with shotguns, and also unlocks the Carnage power. Likewise, the Decryption and Electronics skills that Tech focused characters can learn not only unlock the Sabotage and Overload powers, respectively, but they affect what locked objects and computers the player can hack open in the environment, how efficiently the Mako can be repaired in the field and grant a bonus to the character’s shields (yeah, techies are a little unbalanced in Mass Effect).

Hmm...it's good, but it needs more "dakka."

Hmm…it’s good, but it needs more “dakka.”

Shepard also has some unique skill options that the squad members don’t when it comes to leveling up. First, after completing a particular mission and stopping a rogue military computer on a lunar base, Shepard’s class-titled passive skill will open up the option to select a secondary class that functions as a variation of the base one; all of Shepard’s previously unlocked powers will remain the same, but purchasing further ranks in the class skill will grant different bonuses than before, offering another degree of character choice and customization.

Second, Shepard is the only character who gains access to the Charm and Intimidate skills. While it may sound like Mass Effect is nothing but running around shooting people, the game involves a lot of dialogue sequences where Shepard can talk to people, learn their backstories if they’re central characters, and even romance a few of his squad mates if he wishes. Certain events in missions and the story at large can also be impacted by what Shepard says, and characters can be saved from death and conflicts can be avoided if Shepard is silver-tongued.

That’s where the Charm and Intimidate skills come into play; paying points into those fields unlocks Charm and Intimidate options in certain conversations—Charm dialogue options are highlighted in blue, while Intimidate options are highlighted in red. Both options have the potential to be real game-changers, but they can only be used if the player has put enough points into the skills. Also, advancing Charm and Intimidate is dependent on more than just spending squad points; it’s also dependent on what Shepard says and does over the course of the game.

Mass Effect has a morality system of sorts; it’s not quite as stark as the good/evil systems you’ll find in games like Fable, Infamous or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Rather than categorizing actions as “good” or “evil,” it uses the characterizations “Paragon” and “Renegade.” Paragon actions tend to be by the book; not breaking the law, being nice and respectful where appropriate, not resorting to lethal force as a first option, and respecting human/alien rights. Renegade actions break or bend the rules; resorting to violence and coercion to solve problems, being unnecessarily rude, breaking the law, and generally any action that’s self-interested and non-benevolent (though not necessarily evil, as Renegade actions frequently still contribute to a “good” goal). The dichotomy is less “good vs. evil” than it is “hero vs. anti-hero.”

Though some have observed it's more "reasonable person" vs. "unhinged asshole."

Though some have observed it’s more “reasonable person” vs. “unhinged asshole.”

In many dialogue scenes, Shepard has Paragon, Renegade and neutral responses to choose from; they aren’t clearly outlined, but on the dialogue wheel where responses are selected, Paragon options are at the top, Renegade at the bottom, and neutral in between. They’re also usually fairly obvious from the response summary provided to the player (although there are a few that are misleading and may catch you off guard). Unless the options have earth-shaking consequences, typically choosing a response will only net you a few points on the Paragon or Renegade scale.

The big bumps come from actions taken during missions. Do you spare the last member of a formerly hostile species, or destroy it? Do you attempt to save the homicidally brainwashed colonists trying to kill you, or shoot them all and let God sort it out? Decisions like this will invariably result in large numbers of Paragon or Renegade points, and will also have consequences later in the game, as well as in future Mass Effect games.

One interesting facet of the Paragon/Renegade system is that it’s not a zero-sum game; accumulating Paragon points doesn’t wipe out accumulated Renegade points, and vice-versa. The game tracks them separately. And while I don’t think it’s possible to accumulate enough points in one playthrough to achieve both full Paragon and Renegade status, you can gain a fair amount of one and max out the other if you choose. As I said earlier, Charm and Intimidate are paired with Paragon and Renegade scores, respectively. If you don’t have a high enough Paragon score, you can only purchase so many ranks of Charm, which won’t be enough to pass more difficult Charm checks later in the game, and vice-versa for Intimidate and Renegade.

But other than that, and the consequences coming from your actions, your alignment on the Paragon/Renegade scale doesn’t impact your ability to complete the game, and it doesn’t affect your relationship with your squad mates or drive them away. Certain characters clearly fall more on either the Paragon or Renegade side of things, and corresponding responses will please them or upset them, but it doesn’t impact them too much in the long run, so no need to worry about driving your friends into a homicidal rage…with one key exception, that can be bypassed with a Charm or Intimidate check.

Picture unrelated.

Picture unrelated.

Mass Effect has an impressive and colorful cast of characters. The galaxy is populated by a large number of characters who Shepard can interact with and do jobs for; as a Spectre, Shepard can go anywhere and do pretty much anything, so a lot of people want him to help sort out their problems, usually in exchange for a few credits. Many of these characters will make appearances in subsequent games, and they’ll remember what Shepard did, and didn’t, do for them, which can come back to hinder Shepard or help him in the future. Standouts include Shepard’s superior, Captain Anderson (voiced by the always-awesome Keith David), the Machiavellian Ambassador Udina, Normandy pilot Jeff “Joker” Moreau (voiced by Seth Green), and medical officer Dr. Chakwas.

But of course, the majority of the spotlight is reserved for Shepard and the members of his squad, all of whom have well-crafted backstories and sharp dialogue to tell them with. There’s Garrus Vakerian, a Turian officer in the Citadel Security force, frustrated by the red tape of being a cop, who joins Shepard to pursue Saren (a fellow Turian) against his superiors’ orders: Urdnot Wrex, a Krogan mercenary weary and frustrated by his failed attempts to help his doomed race save itself from extinction: Dr. Liara T’Soni, a scientist of the mono-gendered Asari race who is both an expert on the Protheans and the daughter of Saren’s right-hand woman, the Matriarch Benezia: Tali’Zorah nar Rayya, a member of the Quarian race, the creators of the Geth who were driven from their homeworld when the machines rebelled and now travel the galaxy in a fleet of ships, isolated in quarantine suits because of their weakened immune systems: Ashley Williams, a soldier from a military family with a love of classical Earth poetry, the lone survivor of her platoon after Saren’s attack on Eden Prime, who joins Shepard to face the galactic threat: Kaiden Alenko, a Biotic soldier under Shepard’s command who still suffers from the side effects of early, crude attempts to harness Biotic power in humans.

These squad mates become a continuing presence in subsequent games, and their journey at Shepard’s side weaves an impressive epic that rises from the attachment the player will form with these characters, and from the experiences of fighting at their side, and occasionally, deciding who lives and who dies.

Visually, the game is impressive, given that it was originally an early Xbox 360 title. The look of the game is well-designed, and rides a nice line between that squeaky-clean futuristic look of Star Trek and the utilitarian, lived-in quality of Star Wars and Aliens. The only real complaint I have on the design front is that many of the buildings and structures in on the non-colonized worlds, where side missions take place, have the same layout and look nearly identical. I suppose one could make the argument that such structures would be prefabricated and shipped to the planet, and thus would be very cookie-cutter, but in practice it feels like the designers recycled set pieces to save themselves time. Still, it’s a fairly minor flaw.

A slice of galactic civilization.

A slice of galactic civilization.

The design and concepts of the various alien races are another high point of the game.Mass Effect subscribes more to the Star Wars school of alien design, where species depart from a humanoid appearance as often as they adhere to it. The blue-skinned, tentacle-headed Asari are easily the most humanoid of the sentient races in the game, and they only get more exotic from there. The Turians, Krogan and Salarians are all bipedal, but their appearances lean toward the bird-like, reptilian and amphibian respectively, and could never be mistaken for human. The Quarians and the Volus, while generally humanoid in shape, are only seen in environment suits (the Quarians due to their poor immune system, the Volus due to the need to be in a high-pressure environment, breathing ammonia), giving both species an air of mystery and a distinctive identity at the same time. And the Elcor and Hanar don’t have the slightest semblance of humanity, appearing more closely related to elephants and jellyfish, respectively, than anything else. I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi where the alien species differ wildly from humanity, so the design and lore behind the aliens in Mass Effect really clicked with me.

From a technical standpoint, the game was at least partially made using the Unreal engine, which I’ve previously expressed my distaste for, and it has many of the attendant flaws of a game built with that engine—large amounts of texture pop-in when a level loads, dodgy frame rates during cutscenes, and the occasional geometry clipping error. The game is also somewhat crash-prone; I had to reset my PS3 from a hard-lock at least six times during the course of completing Mass Effect, so save early and often.

Sound in the game is strong; the effects all sound appropriate and are well-chosen, and the music is atmospheric and contributes well to the mood of the game. It’s nothing you’ll be humming years down the line, but it has its moments. And of course, the voice acting is excellent. Both the more well-known stars like Keith David, Seth Green and Lance Henriksen and the lesser-known voice actors all nail their performances and contribute to the feeling of authenticity and immersion the game drives home. It helps that they have some very well-written dialogue to work with, too.

At the end of the day, Mass Effect isn’t a perfect game; it definitely has a few issues. But none of those issues are enough to overpower a package that is clearly more than the sum of its parts. The lore, the design, the story and the characters all create a sense of immersion that even the occasional technical glitch can’t destroy. Mass Effect weaves a world around the player, a world where their actions have consequence, and their decisions have meaning, creating a kind of sci-fi epic that simply can’t be replicated in any other medium.

Join me next time as I continue my journey with the crew of the Normandy and fight against the Reaper menace in Mass Effect 2. Until then, when you find yourself in times of trouble, just ask yourself “What would Paragon Shepard do?

Fashionably Late: Doom 3

doom-3-1

Regardless of the medium, sequels tend to put a creator between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, going back to the well on an established concept is less effort than starting over from scratch, and it’s also more lucrative from a commercial standpoint. 

On the other hand, a creator making a sequel has to walk a very thin line between iteration and innovation. If they don’t change enough between installments, fans and critics will bemoan the fact that the sequel is just more of the same, and wonder why the creator bothered. But if they change too much, then the fanbase will inevitably be divided, with some liking the new direction and others absolutely hating it.

This is more true in video games than perhaps in any other medium. Gamers, particularly today, are highly sensitive to rehashes, since several publishers (*coughEAcough*) have gotten into the habit of releasing annual installments of franchises with only a bare minimum of changes in between games, just enough so they can justify charging fans another $60. By the same token, there’s nothing fans of a game franchise hate more than a game that completely breaks with tradition, especially if it does so in a way that runs contrary to what came before.

So it’s not hard for me to appreciate the position that id Software found themselves in when it came time to make Doom 3. The first two Doom games were mega-hits that established an entire genre of games, and id had taken that ball and run with it when they made the Quake series, fleshing out gameplay mechanics and improving online multiplayer. Finally, ten years after the fact, id decided to make a third game in their most storied franchise.

However, a lot had changed in the course of a decade. John Romero, one of the lead designers of Doom, Doom II, Quake and Quake II had left id due to creative differences, and gone on to incinerate his career in the spectacular failure that was Daikatana. And the FPS genre itself had changed a great deal since the last Doom game. Series like System Shock, Half Life and Deus Ex had redefined the importance of plot to shooters, and System Shock and Half Life had been game-changers for how shooters handled horror elements. If Doom 3 were to remain completely faithful to the games that had come before, it would be viewed as dated and poorly-designed.

Yep, that sure was a good idea...

Yep, that sure was a good idea…

And moreover, this is Doom we’re talking about, the first new installment in the granddaddy of FPS franchises. If a new Doom game was coming down the pipe, it had to be revolutionary and show all these upstart whippersnappers how it was done…again.

So, id had a lot of people to please with this new game; they had to please fans of the original games, please people who had come to like a good story with their FPS, and show fans of both that they could make a game that scared them just as much as the original had back in 1993. And what they delivered was a game that tried to do all of that at once…but didn’t quite succeed at any of it.

Anyway, first things first; the version of the game I reviewed is Doom 3: BFG Edition for the PS3. BFG Edition is the not-quite-20th anniversary collection of the Doom franchise, and contains full versions of Doom (which I’ve already reviewed), Doom II, and remastered versions of Doom 3, its expansion Resurrection of Evil, and a new mini-campaign called The Lost Mission. The remaster features some gameplay and graphical tweaks that I’ll cover when I get to those segments, but is otherwise the same as the original game.

Despite being titled as a sequel, Doom 3 is actually a re-make of the original Doom, in the sense that it starts the series story over from the beginning. The premise is essentially the same; the player takes control of a nameless marine (“Doomguy”) as he arrives at the Mars station run by UAC, the Union Aerospace Corporation, for his first day on the job. All hell quickly (and literally) breaks loose while Doomguy is on a security assignment to a remote part of the base, and demons, pouring through a rift between dimensions caused by UAC’s teleportation experiments, begin killing everyone in sight and tearing the base apart. The player must fight his way through the station and ultimately try to stop the invasion at its source.

It's all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars...

It’s all fun and games until someone breaks out the sacrificial altars…

The main difference here is that while in the original Doom the story existed purely as set-up for hours of blasting demons in the face, in Doom 3 the story takes center-stage, with cutscenes and voice-over advancing the plot in-game, and audio logs and e-mails found in PDAs scattered throughout the game environment that flesh out the backstory. While at first blush this seems like a good idea, the fact of the matter is Doom’s premise was always paper-thin, far too much so to support a full narrative, and it shows here. 

Doom 3’s plot revolves around weak, stock characters, plot “twists” so predictable they could be used to signal traffic, and dialogue so riddled with cliches I could, ironically, write it in my sleep. Normally I love stories in my games, but this is one of the few titles I’ve played where I’ve longed for the ability skip past the cutscenes on the first viewing (a feature disabled in the BFG Edition, for some inscrutable reason).

Even more problematic is the fact that, for much of the narrative, Doomguy really isn’t central to these proceedings. Much of Doom 3’s story unfolds through cutscenes for which Doomguy isn’t even present; the bulk of the plot revolves around a conflict between the demonically-possessed head of research, Dr. Malcolm Betruger, and a UAC troubleshooter named Swann and his bodyguard Campbell.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Betruger, AKA Dr. Evil.

Both sides are blissfully unaware of Doomguy’s existence for the first act of the game until, at the behest of his C.O., Sgt. Kelly (who acts as the “disembodied radio voice who gives you orders” first popularized by System Shock 2), Doomguy either radios the UAC fleet for help or doesn’t (a “but thou must” false choice that makes no difference at all to the plot), at which point, both sides get pissy at him. This plot point doesn’t hold up on many levels, since:

  1. The game establishes that it takes a month to get from Earth to Mars and vice versa. While this is clearly much faster than what we can currently manage, unless the fleet is already hanging out in Mars orbit, they would never arrive in time to make a difference, so it makes no sense for Kelly to tell Doomguy to truck it all the way across the Mars station to make the call.
  2. Swann gets mad at Doomguy because he says that the fleet will provide an opportunity for the demons to get off Mars. This is a pretty strange assumption, since the demons have demonstrated they can teleport anywhere they please. Granted, Betruger confirms that Swann is right, but Swann had no way of knowing that when he went out of his way to stop the call from going out.
  3. Betruger, who is the one sending waves of demons out, obstructs Doomguy from making the call and from preventing the base’s reactor from blowing up (after it’s damaged during a firefight in a sequence directly stolen from Aliens), even though stopping these events runs directly counter to his stated interests.

Now, some of you might be wondering why I’m going out of my way to berate and nitpick the story of Doom 3 when I hand-waved it in Doom. If id had been content to make Doom 3 another pure action title, I probably wouldn’t. 

But the fact of the matter is, id themselves made the story a primary focus of the game. They were damned proud of this little tale they concocted. They even hired a professional sci-fi writer to help punch it up for them. I have rarely seen so much effort put into telling a story this poorly constructed and unnecessary.

I said "rarely," not "never."

I said “rarely,” not “never.”

But what about the gameplay? Well, here again the split focus of Doom 3 really hurts it. The design tries to incorporate both the run-and-gun action that Doom was beloved for, coupled with modern features like vertical aim, jumping, crouching, magazines, etc., and the claustrophobic, dark environs of a more horror-focused game. This results in a system that seems to want to encourage gunplay and fast-paced action, but has an environment too restrictive to do it in. 

The corridors are frequently too narrow to sidestep in, and the game lacks a proper cover system, so combat with monsters frequently devolves into trading shots with them until they die, gathering some of the abundant armor and health power-ups to mend your wounds, and moving on. This is in stark contrast with the original Doom, where the player had to be constantly moving and trying to dodge enemy attacks; enemies were far too strong to simply trade shots with them, especially in later levels. Doom 3’s pattern of trading blows is almost more reminiscent of a turn-based RPG than a pulse-pounding FPS.

As for the horror aspect, well, Doom 3 was apparently designed with the same concept of “horror” as most modern “scary” movies. Much of the Mars base (even before the demon invasion) is poorly lit, sometimes pitch black, to the point where the player can’t see much of anything without a flashlight. Basically, this design serves two purposes: to show off Doom 3’s then-cutting-edge lighting engine, and to set up jump scares.

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary...Am I doing it right?

Ahhh, zombies in the dark, omg so scary…Am I doing it right?

Almost every monster encounter in Doom 3 is a jump scare. They teleport into an empty room to attack, come creeping out of crawlspaces, run out of hiding to shoot you or, most annoyingly, hide in closets near items, waiting for the player to come along and pick up ammo, body armor or a medkit, then pounce. It’s these last encounters that become really annoying, and the “monster closets” are a common complaint about the game. Granted, Doom and Doom II also had monster closets; I talked about them in my review of Doom. However, those were more forgivable, for a few reasons.

For one thing, the monster closets in Doom are much less frequent. They appear in a few locations in most levels of the game (I don’t think the first few levels have any, but my memory could be faulty). In Doom 3, monster closets comprise probably a third or a quarter of all monster encounters. 

Any time you go a little off the beaten path and find an item, it’s almost a guarantee that you will also find a monster closet. The frequency and predictability makes these jump scares lose their potency in record time, and exploring levels quickly becomes an exercise in frustrating tedium.

The other problem lies in Doom 3’s greater realism. Because of its simplistic design, it’s a lot easier for me to forgive a game like Doom for using such transparently game-like mechanics, because it’s obviously not trying to be even remotely realistic. Doom 3’s design becomes a victim of its own aspirations at seriousness and realism. When I encounter a monster closet in Doom 3, my thought process immediately tries to break the situation down logically:

Totally how it went down.

Totally how it went down.

Ooh, sweet, more body armor! Just what I needed! Let me just grab it and…OW! Eat lead, you cheap, backstabbing hellspawn!

Wait, where did that imp come from? I didn’t hear him teleport in…wait, that closet wasn’t open before. Was he just…hiding there in a broom closet? Waiting for someone to come along and pick up that armor so he could jump them? Why would he do that instead of running around the station killing everybody like all the other demons? Seems pretty inefficient. Wait, was this like some kind of demonic practical joke? Is there a camera? Have I been Punk’d?

That still doesn’t make any sense, though. Because this place is pretty isolated. I had to sneak through a crawlspace and past flaming gas pipes to reach it. It’s not exactly on the main drag. Just how long was he waiting here for some schmuck to truck it all the way here in search of body armor? It must have been a couple of hours, at least. Wouldn’t he get bored? What if he had to take a shit? Do demons even have to shit? I mean, they seem to eat people, so that has to come out somehow…

And thus I have gone from playing an exciting shooter to contemplating demonic gastroenterology. Somehow, I doubt that’s what the design team behind Doom 3 had in mind.

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

Maybe it was supposed to be an edutainment game?

This emphasis on jump scare encounters and teleporting monsters also destroys any chance the game might have offered for players to make tactical decisions. You see, unlike in the original two Doom games, where the enemies loaded with the level itself and were present from the start, Doom 3’s greater emphasis on graphical fidelity means that the monsters don’t load in advance of you entering a room to conserve system resources.

In fact, even monsters that don’t teleport in and pop out of closets or behind doors apparently spawn in the dark, out of the player’s view, a fact I discovered for myself when I witnessed a demon materialize out of nowhere less than a foot away from me while going slightly off the game’s beaten path. And no, this was not a teleporting monster; there was none of the light and sound fanfare that accompanies demonic teleportation in this game. I just stepped behind a stack of crates into the shadows, and abruptly there was a Maggot sitting there two feet in front of me where before there had only been empty space. I wish I had been recording it, because words don’t do it justice. It was disappointing on every conceivable level, and smashed immersion in the face with an aluminum bat.

Because the monsters aren’t pre-loaded, the player can’t take any kind of pre-emptive action in the game. Want to throw a grenade into the room to clear out any monsters you think might be lying in wait? Too bad, they’re not there yet! Want to be smart and clear the corners of the room like you would in any other shooter? Too bad, the enemies won’t be there until you turn your back on them, making the whole exercise of proceeding with caution entirely pointless! Unlike the fast-paced strategizing demanded by the original games, Doom 3 values a player’s twitch reflexes and nothing else.

Additionally, the level maps in Doom 3 are all painfully linear. Unlike the enormous, sprawling non-linear mazes full of secrets and side-paths found in Doom 1 and 2, the levels in Doom 3 are almost universally a straight shot down a dark hallway to the end of the level. Oh sure, there’s the occasional side-path that’ll lead to items before it dead-ends and you have to return to the main corridor, and sometimes the game will make you backtrack slightly from the end of the path to reach the actual exit, but these diversions don’t change the fact that there is exactly one way to proceed through these stages, and one way to approach any enemy encounter; enter a room, wait for the monsters to spawn, shoot them fast, mend your wounds and armor, and move on.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn’t invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

The monsters themselves are also pitifully stupid; they’ll either stand in one place and fire projectiles at you, or they charge in and attack you, making no effort to flank the player or take advantage of cover. It feels like they used the same monster AI from the original games without any sort of update over the intervening decade. 

The only reason enemy encounters are even slightly challenging is due their tendency to spawn behind the player and the confining corridors that keep the player from moving freely. A lack of situational awareness on the part of the player is a bigger threat than any demon in Doom 3.

One thing that hasn’t changed much since the original games is the array of weapons. The player has almost the exact same line-up of guns that were present in the previous two games. There are only three new additions (aside from the flashlight); the machine gun, the grenades, and the Soul Cube. 

The machine gun replaces the chain gun as the weak, rapid-fire gun of the game, and the chain gun instead becomes a heavy damage weapon; it’s fine, and you’ll use it a lot on weaker enemies in the first half of the game, but it’s nothing to write home about. The grenades are pretty much worthless; you have to equip them as a weapon, meaning you can’t mix it up with gun-and-grenade play, they bounce all over the place, and as I said before, you can’t throw them into a room to clear it, because the rooms will always be devoid of enemies until you enter them. I tried to use the grenades exactly once before I gave it up and stuck to regular firearms instead

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

Pictured: Worst FPS weapon since the Klobb.

The Soul Cube is actually kind of an interesting weapon; it’s new ultimate WMD of Doom 3, even trumping the returning BFG. It charges up as the player kills enemies, and once fired, it will seek out the most powerful enemy in the area and obliterate it, as well as doing massive splash damage to any nearby foes. It’s cool, but you also get it just before final level, so you have very few opportunities to play with it. 

This is depressing, since the player is forced to go through the first few hours of the game with no weapons available but the pistol, shotgun, machine gun and grenades (which, again, are useless). It’s incredibly tedious switching back and forth between the shotgun and machine gun over and over for the duration of these early segments; when the game actually relents and starts doling out new weapons on a fairly regular basis, it’s almost enough to make you forget how bland and brainless the combat actually is.

For the successor to the Granddaddy of the FPS, it’s hard to believe just how vanilla the combat in Doom 3 is. It feels so uninspired and incomplete. As much as id needed to come up with cool new ideas here, it also feels like they could have benefited from taking lessons from some of the other games that came since Doom 2

Alternate fire modes would have benefited the weapon variety immensely, and taking a page from Halo and giving the player melee and grenade attacks as standard actions would have helped with the pacing of combat. These weren’t new, revolutionary ideas by the time Doom 3 was in development; there was no good reason for the developers not to take advantage of them.

Ugh, I can't believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and "victory crouch" on somebody...

Ugh, I can’t believe I just praised Halo. I have a sudden urge to chug a Mountain Dew and “victory crouch” on somebody…

So the game is a dud as far as action goes; what about horror? Well, monster closets are one of just three elements that Doom 3 has in its repertoire of scares. The others are darkness and spooky noises. The spooky noises are your typical creepy whispers, demonic snarls and banging that you might find in any moderately competent Halloween spook house. 

It’s fine, but there’s nothing here that I really haven’t seen before. As someone who has played games with genuinely creepy sound design (Silent Hill, Fatal Frame and Eternal Darkness all come to mind), Doom 3 is very “meh” on this front.

Even ignoring the fact that the sound design just isn’t very scary, it’s also just disappointing in general. Music is practically non-existent in the game, in favor of ambient “spooky” noises, a major disappointment when Doom’s soundtrack was so memorable and exciting. Even the sound effects for weapons are underwhelming in comparison to the first game; the guns make little “pew” and “pop” noises compared with the electronic snarls and subwoofer roars of the original game. It’s underwhelming, to say the least.

The darkness is a whole other ball of wax. From the minute Doomguy sets foot on the Mars base, the lights are malfunctioning. The audio logs and e-mails you find make it clear that this has been going on for a while as a result of the teleportation experiments, and the electrical systems of pretty much every section of the base are knocked offline when demons start teleporting in. Mostly, though, this is an excuse to plunge the base into darkness to give the developers the opportunity to set up jump-scares, and to introduce the flashlight mechanic.

Now, the flashlight mechanic comes in two flavors, depending on which version of the game you’re playing. In vanilla Doom 3, Doomguy only has a handheld flashlight, and the game treats the flashlight as a weapon, meaning that Doomguy can either have his flashlight out and see in front of him, or he can have his gun out and shoot things. He can’t do both at once. This is an incredibly frustrating mechanic on many levels (not to mention illogical and stupid on multiple levels), especially in a game that’s meant to be a fairly fast-paced shooter. The flashlight is one of the most polarizing aspects of Doom 3, and it’s why many people dislike the game, understandably so; other people defend this mechanic, saying it makes the game “scary.” If by “scary” they mean “annoying and frustrating,” then I agree with them.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Actually, that explains a lot about the Resident Evil fanbase.

Having heard all the criticism about the flashlight mechanic, the developers decided to fix it in Doom 3: BFG Edition…after a sense. Instead of the handheld flashlight, the developers gave Doomguy an armor-mounted, off-the-shoulder flashlight that can be used at the same time as the weapons. However, this poses a balance problem, seeing as the game was designed around the original flashlight mechanic, and the challenge of combat is dependent on the player not being able to shoot their gun at an enemy at the same time that they can see it. This helps compensate for the game’s limited and rather pitiful enemy AI; with an always-on light, the combat is broken in the player’s favor.

So the developers attempted to compromise by giving the player a flashlight that can be used at the same time as the game’s weapons…but only has about 30 seconds of battery life. Once the batteries are drained, the flashlight cuts out, and the battery has to automatically recharge. From a gameplay standpoint, this does help balance the flashlight out…but it makes even less sense than the notion that Doomguy can’t figure out how to tape a flashlight to his gun. What dumbass engineer decided that what the world needed was a flashlight that burns out every 30 seconds? What corporation decided to mass-produce it? Who at UAC decided to buy it and outfit all their marines with it? The longer I play Doom 3, the more it finds new ways to insult my intelligence.

Visually, Doom 3 is a hard game to judge. At the time, its graphics were revolutionary, and were definitely the first thing reviewers and players talked about with regards to the game. And for the most part its visuals hold up well in the BFG Edition; the textures are occasionally blurry, but the lighting is still impressive and the game runs at a buttery smooth 60 FPS, so even though the action is dull, at least it’s fluid. 

The demon models still look rather good as well, though I miss the colorful demons of the original games, far preferring them to the beige and gray monstrosities of this title. Time has not been as kind to the human character models, with their blocky builds and lumpy, polyhedral heads, but it feels unfair for me to pick on them since they were products of their time.

Roll Swann's head to see if you save versus boredom!

Roll Swann’s head to see if you save versus boredom!

As I’ve mentioned in my previous review of Doom, Doom 3’s online community is basically extinct as of the time of this writing. Over the course of several attempts, I only ever managed to find one match, and it was a team match where two far more experienced players ganged up on my and killed me almost instantly every time I spawned. And Doom 3 does not have a local multiplayer component, so I can’t give an honest opinion of the quality of the multiplayer mode. Suffice to say that, if you’re looking to slake your thirst for some intense deathmatch action, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

If it seems like I’m being abnormally vicious with this review, I can honestly say I didn’t go into this one with the intent of ripping Doom 3 a new one. I mean, who would? It’s a sequel in a beloved, storied franchise that left a huge impact on the games industry and the community of players. It has an average of over 80 points on Metacritic, for crying out loud! 

Who would expect that the game would turn out to be a tedious, bloated, overly linear slog with dull gameplay, an insultingly bad story, world-building elements that make no sense, inferior sound design and music to its predecessors, and an emphasis on graphics over game quality?

Wait…why does that sound so familiar?

Apparently Final Fantasy XIII didn't invent the hallway simulator genre after all.

Oh yes, I’m going there.

I didn’t just make that FFXIII reference earlier as a gag; I feel that Doom 3 and Final Fantasy XIII have a lot in common. They’re both sequels in a venerated franchise that went through tumultuous development cycles, underwent drastic changes over the course of their creation, and wound up as mediocre products in pretty wrapping that were overly lauded by the “professional” critics for said wrapping. And both are games so tedious, dull and insipid that I couldn’t be bothered to finish them.

Yes, you read that right. Doom 3 marks a first for Fashionably Late; it’s the first game I’ve written a review for that I did not finish. Or rather, I should say I didn’t complete the game; I’m certainly finished with it. I thought about forcing myself to complete the campaign and the expansions, reluctant to give up on the game and leave it uncompleted. I was unwilling to let the game “beat” me.

But then I really thought about it. The reason I started Fashionably Late was not only to create content for my website, and complete video games in my back log, it was to have fun. And I realized that, 7 hours into the campaign of Doom 3, I wasn’t having fun, and I hadn’t been since I started playing. 

The main campaign of Doom 3 is roughly 20 hours long, and that’s not including Resurrection of Evil or The Lost Mission. That’s a long time to do any activity, especially one you don’t enjoy. Supposedly the game gets better in a few more hours, but…well, I’ve heard that one before. It wasn’t enough to keep me playing FFXIII, and it’s not enough to keep me playing Doom 3.

Well, I definitely got enough out of my time playing Doom 3 to write a review and create some content for my site. And I’m not having fun with this game. So I’m going to call it quits. And I’m going to mark another first for Fashionably Late by telling you not to listen to the critics. Doom 3 is a bad game. 

More specifically, it’s the worst kind of bad game; it commits the ultimate sin that any piece of entertainment can. It’s boring. Don’t play it. Do get Doom and Doom II, and thankfully the recent, fourth Doom game brought the series back to its exciting roots, so check that one out, but skip this. Sartre once wrote that Hell is other people. I disagree; I think Hell is boredom. And if that’s true, then Doom 3 managed to get at least one thing right.

Fashionably Late: Donkey Kong Country

DKC 1Video games, as a medium, have undergone a kind of paradoxical evolution over the years. Back in the 80s and 90s, when games tended to be more cute and simplistic in appearance, they also tended to be sadistically hard, almost like they were developed with the intent of drawing children in, lulling them into a false sense of security, then crushing them with brutal difficulty for the amusement of developers. It was as though your average game studio during the salad days of the Super Nintendo and Genesis was staffed exclusively by villains escaped from a Roald Dahl novel.

Now, almost the exact opposite is true; games with complex, serious, grim and violent tones dominate the market, but most them are almost insultingly easy by comparison to the titles of yesteryear. It’s a noticeable contrast for someone who cut his teeth on those older titles; I can beat most modern games in a week or two of free time, but my childhood memories are full of brutally hard games that would keep me occupied for a year or more as I applied myself to the Sysyphean task of trying trying to complete them, only to be crushed, go back to the beginning and start all over again.

One game in particular that sticks in my mind, both because it was so hard I never finished it as a child and because I still loved it, was Donkey Kong Country. Recently, I threw myself back into this monkey fracas, and avenged my nine-year-old self’s honor by finally beating it.

I've seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

I’ve seen this screen way more often than I care to admit.

Back during the height of competition between Nintendo and Sega, the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis were neck-and-neck in their struggle to dominate the console market. Sega had gained a lot of ground due to its attempts to wow kids with the “cool factor” of its titles in comparison to Nintendo’s more family-friendly image, and their 90s-tastic ultra-rad Sonic the Hedgehog franchise in particular had won them a lot of supporters. Nintendo decided that they needed a new platformer series to compete.

Enter Rare, a small British development house that had made a name for themselves developing titles like Wizards and Warriors, Battletoads and R.C. Pro Am for the NES (they also developed a number of terrible licensed games for third party publishers at that time, but we don’t talk about them).

Rare, in a rather brilliant reinvestment strategy, had taken the massive profits they’d made on the NES and purchased some then-cutting-edge Silicon Graphics workstations, the same computers used to design the ground-breaking digital effects used in Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park. They were experimenting with using these computers to make pre-rendered graphics that they could compress and use in place of sprite art to make video games with.

"Yeah, that's cool and all, but I've got a better idea: Monkeys."

“Yeah, that’s cool and all, but I’ve got a better idea: Monkeys.”

Nintendo took notice of Rare’s work in the field and bought a 49% stake in the company. They offered them a number of Nintendo properties to make a game using this new CGI technology, and Rare opted for Donkey Kong. And thus Donkey Kong Country was born; a game with enough “rad” factor to compete with Sonic, eye-catching graphics, amazing level design and a marketing campaign most Presidential candidates would envy. It took the market by storm, became the second-best selling game on the SNES (second only to Super Mario World, which was an early pack-in title), and helped ensure the system’s dominance over the Genesis.

DKC is a pretty radical re-envisioning of the Donkey Kong franchise; the original DK games were arcade-style platformers, in which the player fought (or in tried to rescue, in Donkey Kong Jr.) the titular ape on single-screen levels. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, casts players in the role of Donkey Kong, traversing a series of lengthy platformer levels, spread across a Super Mario-esque world map. It’s a very different game, to say the least; probably the biggest change to a Nintendo IP until 2012’s Kid Icarus Uprising.

The story, like most games of the time, is pretty basic. A horde of crocodile-like Kremlings, led by their overlord, King K. Rool, invade Donkey Kong Island and steal Donkey Kong’s treasure stash of bananas. Donkey Kong, along with his nephew, a spider monkey named Diddy Kong, (the Kong “family” is apparently more of a clan where membership can be earned, rather than a blood-relation-only outfit) set out on an adventure to recover their bananas and kick the Kremlings out.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

DK, moments before he realized that all his bananas had rotted in the time it took to find them again.

The bulk of the gameplay should be familiar to anybody who’s played a 2D platformer before; the player takes control of Donkey or Diddy and maneuvers them through the level, jumping over pits and other obstacles, defeating enemies, and making their way to the exit. However, there are a few key differences that set DKC apart from the competition.

First, the game lacks “power-ups” in the conventional sense of the word. Whereas Mario and Sonic games have always been driven by the acquisition of items that give the player a temporary edge, most of Donkey and Diddy’s abilities are innate.

That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of items to get and use; there are extra life balloons that give the player 1, 2, or 3 extra lives, depending on the color, there are four golden letters that spell out KONG in every level that, when collected, will give the player a 1-up, and golden animal tokens that allow access to bonus levels. There are also barrels that can be picked up and thrown at enemies and one-off gimmick items that will appear in a handful of levels, like tires that can be used like springboards, or drums of fuel for a moving platform.

In DKC, tires are apparently  made of Flubber.

In DKC, tires are apparently made of Flubber.

The way Donkey and Diddy themselves are handled in terms of gameplay is also a bit different. Rather than making you choose a character and stick with them the way most platformers with multiple playable characters did at the time, Donkey and Diddy travel through the game as a pair. The player can switch between which Kong they’re controlling manually, or if they take a hit from an enemy or obstacle, the Kong that took the blow will run off (they can be recovered later by finding and breaking a DK Barrel) and the game will pause briefly while the player is given control of the other character. As such, the second character acts like an in-level “extra life” rather than an invincible sidekick like Tails was in Sonic 2 and 3.

Donkey and Diddy each have strengths and weaknesses, making them best suited for different situations. Donkey is the larger, slower and stronger of the pair. In addition to jumping on enemies to defeat them, Mario style, Donkey can do a “barrel roll” on the ground that can take out several enemies before the animation ends. His greater heft allows him to defeat the game’s tougher enemies without the aid of barrels, and he can pound the ground to reveal hidden objects in certain places. He also lifts barrels over his head when he picks them up, and throws them in an arc before they hit the ground and start rolling.

Diddy is smaller, more agile, runs faster and jumps higher. He has a cartwheel which functions a lot like Donkey’s barrel roll, but Diddy is too light to take out some of the game’s stronger enemies with his cartwheel or with a jumping attack. He’s best suited for the game’s tough platforming sections, and he has much easier time with these than Donkey does. Diddy can throw barrels, too, but because he’s weaker he holds them in front of his chest, rather than over his head, and tosses them directly in front of him. This can actually allow Diddy to use barrels like a shield, which is useful against certain enemies and bosses.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

Also, never underestimate the power of a baseball cap.

The way the characters are differentiated makes it important to try and keep both Kongs together, and hinders the player for failing to do so. That’s not to say there are sections where it’s impossible to proceed if you don’t have one particular Kong, but some of them are much more difficult without both. It’s a very old-school risk/reward system, and one that works well.

Donkey and Diddy have their work cut out for them, too. In addition to avoiding pitfalls, launching through barrel cannon obstacle courses and navigating underwater mazes, they have a slew of baddies between them and their prize.

The Kremlings are humanoid crocodiles that come in a variety of shapes and sizes, from spindly leaping crocs to hulking brutes or invincible rock-like beasts. Additionally, Donkey and Diddy have to contend with a whole host of hostile wildlife, including sharks and piranha, nut-throwing vultures, gigantic wasps and some very angry beavers.

Even angrier than these guys.

Even angrier than these guys.

Additionally, each world culminates in a boss battle, usually against a super-sized version of one of the above-named critters, and finally in a battle against the lord of the Kremlings, King K. Rool himself. This last fight is one of the more challenging ones I’ve come across in a video game, and it’s the one that kept me from finishing Donkey Kong Country until now. If you give this game a shot, you’re going to burn through a lot of lives getting K. Rool’s pattern down.

Luckily for Donkey and Diddy, not everything on the island is out to kill them. They have some help from other members of the Kong family. Candy Kong, a female gorilla, runs the game’s save points; (one per world) Funky Kong, a surfer dude gorilla, runs an airline service that can fly you to any world you’ve been to previously; and Cranky Kong, an old gorilla who is both Donkey’s grandfather and the original Donkey Kong (guess it’s a title?) dispenses helpful hints and verbal abuse from the comfort of his rocking chair.

Help also comes in the form of animal buddies whom the Kongs can ride (similar to Mario’s Yoshi) and who have special abilities to help them make it through the game’s challenges: Rambi, a rhino, can ram enemies with his horn and can knock down some walls to find hidden rooms; Expresso the ostrich runs quickly and can flap his wings to glide, extending the length of his jumps; Winky the poison-dart frog can jump high and can safely kill any enemy with a jump, even the wasp-like Zingers; and Enguarde the swordfish can swim quickly, and his charge attack is the only way to defeat underwater foes.The animal buddies are infrequently found throughout the game (except for Enguarde, who almost always appears in the underwater levels), but they make for an interesting change to the level dynamic when they do make an appearance.

The level design, as I mentioned before, is one of DKC’s strongest points. Between clever arrangement of platforming elements and environmental items, introducing new enemies and scattering hidden rooms and mini-games throughout, DKC’s levels rarely feel alike. Really, the only levels that tend to feel very same-y are the underwater ones, (there’s only so much you can do with the concept of monkeys swimming, I guess) but they’re few and far in between, so they don’t really grate too much.

The aforementioned secret rooms are also a fairly big part of the gameplay; throughout the levels, there are secret exits and mini-games (usually offering extra lives as a reward) that can be found, usually through some fairly obscure means like smashing a wall with a barrel, or climbing to the top of a tree and jumping into a barrel cannon that’s just out of view.

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

Some of them have power-ups AND shameless self-promotion!

One level, Stop and Go Station, actually has a shortcut where, if you walk back through the level’s entrance, it’ll warp you right to the exit. These hidden paths were a big focus in advertising the game, and at the end of the game, Cranky grades you on how many of them you found. Of course, the game isn’t very transparent in tallying which secret rooms you’ve been to, so it’s not the sort of thing that lends itself to extending the game’s life or adding replayability. It feels more like a novelty than a real challenge.

The other heavily advertised draw of the time was the game’s visuals, and those hold up remarkably well. The amount of detail put into the character models and their animations gives them a ton of personality, and the game is still a wonder to behold, even though the fairly low number of frames of animation and pixelation do date it some.

Honestly, I still prefer this pre-rendered look to the real-time polygonal look that dominates modern 2D platformers, and it makes me sad that, despite the success of DKC and its sequels, this style of animation never really caught on outside of a few other games like Oddworld: Abe’s Oddyssey and Sega’s own attempt to cash in on it, Vectorman.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

Remember this guy? Yeah, neither does anyone else.

The music is equally spectacular, synth tunes ranging in style from jazz to orchestral to rock and ambient, Ecco the Dolphin-esque new age tracks. DKC was one of the first games I’m aware of to have a soundtrack album released for it (titled, in true 90s fashion, DK Jamz) and it’s not hard to see why. The score is one of the most well-loved of its era, and it’s a great example of how chip tunes can still make for great music.

Well, this stopover on Donkey Kong Island has been fun, but it’s time to head back to civilization for a more urban adventure. A trip to Amami City sounds about right…

Fashionably Late: E3 2015

E3-2015-logo

Hey, true-believers, long time no see! Prepping the print run of The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship has been eating up much my time lately, but I’m still alive and kicking! I decided to publish this E3 writeup under the Fashionably Late header, since it’s now more than a week behind.

In my continuing efforts to keep these writeups to a sightly less Melvillian length, I’m going to try a new format this year; instead of recapping all the major conferences, I’m going to talk about my top ten and bottom ten news items from this year’s E3. Most of these items will be games, but some of them will just be events that happened around the conference. So without further ado, let’s dive in. In the interest of positivity, I’m going to lead with the best of the show:

Top 10

10. Nindies@Home: Nintendo’s decision to experiment with their E3 presentations has led to a lot of cool stuff in recent years, like the Best Buy E3 demos and the return of the Nintendo World Championships, but none of what they’ve done has surprised me as much as this move here. During the week of E3, Nintendo released the floor demos for several indie games on the eShop, with the promise of a 15% discount on those games once they’ve released for everyone who downloaded the demos and tried them out. This is a great move to raise hype for games that might otherwise go unnoticed; I know that of the 9 games demoed, I plan to buy at least half of them, possibly more if the developers work out some of the kinks before they’re released. It was a really neat surprise, and I’d love to see Nintendo do more promotions like this going forward.

9. Dishonored 2: This one would have ranked higher, but Bethesda only showed a CGI teaser for the game, so I can’t in good conscience let myself get too hyped about this reveal. Still, the mere fact that they’ve announced a sequel to one of my favorite games of the last hardware generation was enough to put a grin on my face…and admittedly, the trailer did look pretty badass. The few details Bethesda has revealed, like the fact that they’re moving away from the Unreal Engine for development and the ability to play as either returning protagonist Corvo or the newly-playable Emily Caldwin, have me excited to learn more. And speaking of Emily…

8. More Female Protagonists: Remember last year’s E3, when one of the big stories on gaming sites was that Assassin’s Creed: Unity wouldn’t have playable female characters because they were “too hard to animate?” Well, it seems that the developers and publishers in attendance were listening to the backlash that hit Ubisoft, because a whole slew of games were shown featuring protagonists of the be-ovaried variety, including two new exclusive IPs from Sony and Microsoft (Horizon: Zero Dawn and ReCore, respectively), new installments in series with female protagonists (Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge), several games with fully customizable protagonists and even the first FIFA game to include female teams. Not a bad turn-around, all things considered.

7. DOOM: Regular readers will know that this year I played through Doom for the first time. This playthrough left me really excited to try Doom 3…an excitement that was rather short-lived. I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself since I have actually started a writeup for Doom 3 and plan to post it once I’ve finished the game (…eventually…) but suffice to say that their attempt to turn Doom 3 into a horror-focused title over an action-focused one left me cold after the high-octane thrill ride of the original Doom. Well, from the looks of what we were shown at this year’s E3, id Software has learned their lesson, because Doom 4 (confusingly re-titled DOOM) looks like fast-paced, gory, crazy demon-fighting action. When I get my gaming PC, I’ll be making sure it’s built to run this game, and I’m not sure there’s higher praise I could give to this reveal. As for Doom 3, I’m going to finish it and its expansions out before posting my review. I’m told that the game starts to get good not long after the point I’m currently at (…please get better…). On the subject of demons, though…

6. Genei Ibun Roku #FE: Formerly (tentatively) titled Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem, this game is the announced collaboration between Atlus and Intelligent Systems. E3 2015 is not the first time this game has been shown, but the previous trailers were…confusingly saccharine, to be blunt, and didn’t really feel like either SMT or Fire Emblem, something that was very off-putting to me as a recent convert to both series. However, after watching the Nintendo Treehouse footage of the actual gameplay, I feel like I finally get where the designers are coming from on this one…and I like it. GIR#FE (or whatever they ultimately call it for the American release) went from being one of my least anticipated titles of the show to one of my most anticipated, and I can’t wait to play it on my Wii U.

5. Persona 5: Speaking of Atlus, while Persona 5 technically didn’t make an appearance at this year’s E3, a new trailer for the game did leak shortly after the conference, and it looks pretty damn awesome. I haven’t really gotten into the Persona sub-series of SMT yet, but Persona 5 looks like it might be the jumping-on point I’ve been waiting for. My only real gripe (if you can call it that) is that, from what was shown, the game doesn’t look like anything that the PS3 couldn’t handle…which just makes me wonder what the big deal with the PS4 version of the game is supposed to be?

4. Fatal Frame: Maiden of Black Water: This is another long-running series that I’ve never really gotten into, but ever since MoBW was confirmed for a North American release a few months ago, I’ve been curious about this one, and the trailer that was shown at E3 cemented my excitement. The game looks suitably creepy and off-beat, and the use of the Gamepad as the ghost-fighting Camera Obscura is exactly the sort of inspired Gamepad implementation we haven’t been seeing for the past three years of the Wii U’s life. As such, I’m definitely buying this one…even if I ultimately prove to be too much of a chicken to finish it (Rikes, Raggy!).

3. Super Mario Maker: This is another title, much like GIR#FE, where my hype for this game was pretty low going in, but the footage shown by Nintendo really grabbed my interest. While I found the concept of a Mario level editor interesting in the abstract, seeing the possibilities for level creation, hearing about the online sharing and Amiibo options and seeing Miyamoto and Tezuka talk about level design and their vision for the came (screw the haters, it was charming) really got me pumped for this one. I think SMM just became a day-one purchase for me, and it’s one Wii U title I can see myself playing for a loooong time.

2. Star Fox Zero: This was easily one of my most anticipated titles of the show going in, and what was shown did nothing but increase my excitement. The announcement of the collaboration with Platinum Games, the smoother-than-12-year-Scotch gameplay footage, the neat vehicles and transformation modes, and that wonderfully cheesy vibe all have me excited to play my first Star Fox title since Star Fox 64. This is going to be another day-one purchase for me, and I can’t wait.

1. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, alongside Dishonored, was one of the best titles I’ve played in the last few years, so when I heard a sequel was coming down the pipe, I was pretty excited. The gameplay trailer that Square-Enix showed at this year’s E3 took me from “excited” to “grinning like an overly sugared 10-year-old.” This game looks even more amazing than its predecessor, which is quite an accomplishment. My only regret is that it won’t be on the Wii U, because I loved the Gamepad implementation in the Wii U version of DE:HR so much. This is definitely another “make sure my PC can handle this game” title, and is my personal pick for best game of the show.

Well, that’s enough gushing and positivity. We’ve sampled the cream; let’s shovel the crap:

Bottom 10

10. “Fem Freak”: Gamergate is like the herpes simplex of gaming fandom; just when you start to forget it exists, another outbreak of ugliness erupts. This time it came in the form of some obnoxiously stupid posters plastered around the perimeter of the E3 convention hall, bashing popular Gamergate punching-bag Anita Sarkeesian. Between the ugly hatefulness and the awful “All your Base” reference, this one would rank higher on my list, but thankfully it was kept out of the convention itself, and like most Gamergate activities, it did more to hurt their cause than help it. Still, it was a canker sore on an otherwise pretty decent conference.

9. Sony’s Backwards Compatibility Response: One of the high points of Microsoft’s conference was the announcement that they would be finally be implementing backwards compatibility with Xbox 360 titles on the Xbox One. Sure, it’s a piecemeal software emulation solution and it’ll never capture every game that was released on the 360, but the fact that Microsoft’s even trying this gives them a leg-up on their nearest competition. Sony’s response? “Eh, people don’t really want BC anyway.” Sure, Sony. Whatever you say. Just don’t count on getting a PS4 sale from me until I’ve finished my non-compatible PS3 titles then. So, I’ll see you about…never, then?

8. Vita?: On the subject of arrogant missteps by Sony, what the hell happened with the Vita? Sony basically sent the damn thing out to die from its first year onward, and aside from cross-play titles, they’re not even making a token effort to continue to feed games to their poor beleaguered handheld, and this year’s E3 was no exception.

7. NX Tease: While I like my Wii U, one of the reasons that many people criticized this year’s Nintendo conference is that they seem to be treading water with the platform, biding their time until their next system comes out…and that’s something I have a hard time disagreeing with. This was especially driven home by Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime’s announcement that Nintendo would…make an announcement about the next Nintendo system, code-named the NX, at next year’s E3. While there are still several games coming down the pipe for the Wii U that I’m looking forward to, the way Nintendo is already trying to drum up hype for their next system only half-way through the Wii U’s life-cycle doesn’t make me overly confident that we can expect an abundance of new content in the Wii U’s final days.

6. VR Hype-splosion: Listening to this year’s E3 coverage made me feel like I’d stepped into a time machine that couldn’t decide whether it was traveling back to 1995 or 2010. Every company seemed to be plugging some form of VR tech, whether it was Oculus Rift, Morpheus or Hololens, and it all reminded me both of that mid-90’s optimism that VR was the next big thing in gaming, and of that all-encompassing overconfidence that 3D TV would soon dominate the entertainment world. Call me a cynic, but I can’t see a gaming public that rejected both 3D TV and motion-control gaming embracing a technology that encompasses the worst aspects of both.

5. Remasters upon remasters…: This isn’t exactly a problem that’s only come up this E3, but it’s worth bringing up. A not-insignificant portion of both the Xbox One’s and PS4’s line-ups already consist of up-ports of games that are less than 5 years old, and it looks like we’re going to be getting even more of them, with remasters of the first three Uncharted games, God of War III and Devil May Cry 4. None of these are announcements that make me want to run out and spend $400 on a console so I can re-play games I played during Obama’s first term. Sony, Microsoft, it’s time to put up or shut up; for the love of Nolan Bushnell, make some new games, please. And on the subject of remakes, it’s time to talk about…

4. Final Fantasy VII Remake: I was amazed at the reaction to this announcement, I really was. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many people get excited over two minutes of CGI footage of vague narration and the main characters’ backs. I’ve said before that Final Fantasy VII is one of my favorite video games ever. I’ve also said that the modern incarnation of Square-Enix wouldn’t know a good Final Fantasy game if it dropped from a skylight and rammed a Masamune through their collective chest. Combining these two facts ain’t exactly mixing peanut butter and chocolate. I have zero confidence in SE’s ability to not retroactively ruin the crown jewel of their premier franchise; after all, what do you think they’ve been trying to do for the last 10 years with the glorified fan-fiction known as the Compilation? With director Tetsuya Nomura already talking about making changes from the original story, I’m fully expecting a train wreck of epic proportions. I’m staying far, far away from this remake, and if you’re smart, you will too.

3. RIP Konami: Earlier this year, following rumors that their lead talent and auteur Hideo Kojima was leaving over creative differences, Konami announced that they would be shifting their focus to mobile game development and canning many of their ongoing projects, including a new Silent Hill game that looked pretty damn scary. Sure enough, Konami showed off Metal Gear Solid 5 at E3…and that was about it. Anybody hoping for a surprise announcement indicating a change of course was sorely disappointed, and I’ll have to come to terms with the fact that yet another amazing developer from my childhood is going the way of the dodo. Man, I’m feeling old. And I need a drink. What do old dudes drink, Highballs? Yeah bring me one of those. And get off my lawn when you’re done.

2. Petition to cancel Metroid Prime: Federation Force: Change.org is a great website that’s been used to organize petitions to affect social change on important issues such as discrimination, animal abuse, pollution and video games you don’t like…what’s that? You say that last item isn’t important? You say that using Change.org to request that a developer cancel a video game you decided you didn’t like from a two-minute trailer is infantile and a waste of important time and resources? Congratulations, you’re a functional human being! This is easily the worst, most embarrassing example of gamer entitlement I’ve ever seen, and frankly I’m more than a little ashamed to be linked to this fanbase, even by association. You hear that, Metroid fans? You are now the worst fanbase out there. Worse than the Sonic fans. Sonic fans. I hope you’re proud of yourselves.

1. Sony Shenmue 3 Kickstarter: Don’t misunderstand me here, I’m not upset that Shenmue 3 is finally getting made. What I’m upset about is Sony using Kickstarter as a testing ground to justify funding Shenmue 3. The entire idea of Kickstarter was that independent artists and creators of all stripes could crowd-fund work that otherwise would never see the light of day. Sony using it as a means of testing the waters for a game they’re thinking of funding is a perversion of that original mission, and it sets a dangerous precedent. If this works, and Shenmue 3 is a success, who’s to say that other game publishers won’t try the same thing? What about record companies or book publishers? Sony is mucking about in territory where they don’t belong here, and they are doing it with very unclear outcomes as to how much they’re going to do to actually back the project to fruition. This could be to crowdfunding what SuperPACS are to politics, and if you care one bit about independent art, that should terrify you.

Well, that wraps up my take on E3 2015. Keep an eye on the site; we’ve got more Astonishing Bobcat news coming your way soon, along with new blog posts from Okcate, reviews for Donkey Kong Country, SMT: Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers and Doom 3. Till next time!

Fashionably Late: Doom

Doom 1

I’ve never been a very big fan of first-person shooters. The genre was one I never really got into when I was young, mostly because the vast majority of them could only be played on high-spec Windows PCs, which my family never owned.

Eventually FPS games did expand to consoles in a big way, but by that point a player culture had grown up around them that I found particularly repellent. With online multiplayer becoming an increasingly important part of any FPS, I wasn’t really inclined to put in the hours necessary to get good at games like Halo 2 when doing so meant enduring an equal number of hours of prepubescent boys screeching homosexual slurs at me through a headset.

And as the descendant of veterans who fought (and came down with PTSD) for their country, I find the “realistic” military shooters that dominate the genre today to be tasteless and offensive, so you’re not likely to find me online playing the latest Call of Duty, either.

However, there have been FPS titles that have endeared me to the genre over the past console generation. Games like BioShock 1 and 2, Portal 1 and 2, and Left 4 Dead all helped change my opinion, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored were two of the best games I’ve played in the last couple of years. Suffice to say, FPS games have grown on me. And as such, I decided to try my hand in earnest at the granddaddy of the genre, Doom.

And I got such a warm welcome!

And I got such a warm welcome!

There are a handful of games in the history of the medium that have been massively influential, hugely commercially successful, and have inspired so many imitators they kick-started an entire genre of games. Titles everybody knows. Titles everybody seems to have played at least once: Tetris, Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II. Doom is one of those games.

Originally released as shareware for MS-DOS in 1993 (which makes it the second-oldest title I’ve reviewed for Fashionably Late, after Ecco the Dolphin), Doom was hugely successful, selling 1 million copies back when that was something to brag about, and has now seen releases on just about every piece of hardware capable of running it, including the iPhone.

Though it wasn’t the first FPS ever made (technically, that distinction goes to a title called Maze War), it popularized the genre and introduced most of the conceits and qualities we now associate with it, to the point where for a long time, first-person shooters were more commonly referred to as “Doom clones.”

Part of Doom’s notoriety comes from the controversy that surrounded it following its release. Doom, along with Mortal Kombat and (for some bizarre reason) Night Trap, was a favorite punching bag of congresscritters who picked up violent video games as their issue of the moment during the early 90’s. The game, unlike Bayonetta, also caught a lot of flack for featuring demons and demonic imagery, and was accused of promoting Satanism by some…even though you spend the whole game killing demons. Go figure.

Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies...

A scene from Night Trap. Truly, this almost turned our school system into Lord of the Flies…

Anyway, the plot of the game is as bog-simple as it is ridiculous; the player takes the role of a nameless Space Marine, affectionately dubbed “Doomguy” by fans. When his superior officer orders him to gun down innocent civilians, Doomguy punches him out instead, which curiously leads to Doomguy getting assigned to a crappy posting on Mars rather than getting him thrown in the brig for a crime he didn’t commit and later joining the A-Team.

However, before he can begin to drown his sorrows in (and lose his eyesight to) fine Martian moonshine, Doomguy’s marine unit gets called from the surface of Mars to the scientific base on one of its moons, Phobos.

Apparently Doom’s resident megacorporation, UAC, owns stations on Phobos and Deimos, and rather than getting up to typical video game corporation shenanigans like making a zombie virus or syphoning the Lifestream, they’ve actually been doing something productive by trying to develop a working teleporter and sending things between the two moons.

But apparently something went wrong (my money’s on a tech spilling Space Frappuccino on the control console), and the teleporter, rather than mutating Jeff Goldblum or, y’know, teleporting things, opened a portal to Hell instead.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a sinister star probably wasn't a great call , either.

Shaping their teleportation chamber like a creepy star probably wasn’t a great call , either.

The demons quickly overtake Deimos, which gets pulled into Hell and disappears from the Martian sky, and Mars loses contact with the Phobos station as well. When Doomguy’s platoon goes to investigate, they leave him outside on guard duty armed only with a pistol and some brass knuckles and go in without him, promptly getting themselves slaughtered and turned into zombies.

On an interesting side-note, apparently Doom was originally going to be a licensed Aliens game before negotiations between id Software and Fox fell through. Apparently the competency level of the film’s Marines was one of the elements they decided to keep in the final product.

Doomguy, deciding that taking on the armies of Hell singlehandedly is much easier than the prospect of piloting the shuttle back to Mars himself or just radioing for help, fights his way through the Phobos station in hopes of finding a way out. His journey takes through Phobos, Deimos, and finally into Hell itself, where he must defeat the mastermind behind the invasion…who is apparently Krang from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy...

No wonder Shredder took orders from this guy…

Not that you’d know any of this if you didn’t read the manual. Aside from some very brief text crawls at the end of each of the game’s four episodes, Doom and its story are not on speaking terms. The minute you start a game, it dumps you right into the first level with a pistol and 50 bullets and expects you to shoot your way out. Like many games of its era, the plot of Doom simply exists to provide an excuse for the next several hours of carnage.

And truthfully, that’s just fine; so many game developers have gotten it into their heads that every game has to have hours of cutscenes that they seem to have forgotten to ask themselves whether the story they’re trying to tell is really worth all that effort. When “cinematic” snore-fests like The Order: 1886 and Ryse: Son of Rome are rapidly becoming the norm in modern “AAA” gaming, it’s nice to play a game like Doom and be reminded of an era where stories in games were a rarity and typically worth telling when the developer bothered to include them, and not a perfunctory feature on a checklist of expected elements of game design.

The meat of Doom is its gameplay, and that’s exactly as it should be.

If you're interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You're welcome.

If you’re interested in the story, you can always check out the Doom comic. You’re welcome.

And what a game it is. Doom consists of 36 levels (including 4 secret levels) spread out over 4 episodes. Each level is a maze of varying difficulty, populated by enemies, items and hazards. The player must navigate the level, fighting the demons that bar their progress and try to kill them, and find their way to the exit. It sounds simple, and it is at first, but the level designs rapidly become more complex as the game progresses, and the exits are soon shut behind layers of locked doors, hidden passages and switches, most of which are well-guarded by the aforementioned armies of Hell. Needless to say, Doomguy has his work cut out for him.

Luckily, the game offers quite an arsenal of weapons to deal with these devils, and Doomguy has the uncanny ability to carry several hundred pounds’ worth of firearms at once without so much as breathing heavy. Though the game starts you off with a wimpy pistol, you’ll quickly find much better weapons for slaughtering the demon hordes. Most of them are on the mundane side, including a shotgun, a chaingun, a rocket launcher and a chainsaw (on Mars…for some reason). But wait, you might say; this is the future. Where are all the phaser guns?

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

I will never miss the opportunity to make a Demolition Man reference.

Well, Doom has you covered on that front as well. The game also features a Plasma Gun, which rapidly shoots glowing blue energy at your foes, and the notorious BFG-9000, an energy cannon capable of destroying almost anything in a single shot…as well as anything next to it. All of the weapons in Doomguy’s arsenal have different properties that make them suited for different situations (except the Pistol, which I don’t know why the game doesn’t just drop from your inventory once you get the Chaingun).

For example, the Shotgun is powerful and fires a spread of shots, but has a slow rate of fire because it needs to be cocked after every shot, while the Chaingun’s shots are individually weak, but it has a high rate of fire and can cause enemies to flinch when they’re caught in a stream of bullets, preventing them from fighting back. These tactical choices are also important because certain weapons share ammo; when each BFG shot is worth 40 Plasma Rifle shots, you need to carefully consider your choices when using either weapon.

There are also items located throughout the game’s levels to help the player. There are health and armor power-ups to replenish lost health and reduce damage, respectively. And one unique aspect to Doom is the ability of the player to increase his health and armor levels above 100%, with the correct items, which makes the game’s harder levels more survivable. There are also temporary power-ups such as partial invisibility (causes enemy shots to miss the player), radiation suits (protects from damaging floor hazards), berserk packs (increases the damage of the player’s punches) and invulnerability (duh).

And you’ll need every bit of help you can get to deal with the hordes of hellspawn, ranging from zombified marines and fire-ball chucking Imps to hulking “pinky” Demons (and their invisible brothers, the Specters), to flying Cacodemons and the minotaur-like Barons of Hell. Additionally, each of the game’s four episodes is capped off by a boss fight against an extremely powerful demon, like the rocket-launching Cyberdemon, or the aforementioned Krang-like Spiderdemon.

Try typing “demon” that many times in a row. It’s fun.

YOU CALLED?

YOU CALLED?

Doom has something of a reputation for being the quintessential brainless action game, but frankly, that’s doing it a disservice. While it’s true that few of the game’s puzzles are likely to break your brain (the most challenging among them generally involve finding a well-hidden switch or key), Doom doesn’t reward players who go in guns blazing. While the game doesn’t starve players of ammunition, anybody who doesn’t place their shots carefully and use the right tool for the job will quickly find themselves running from a huge horde of demons and scrambling for any ammo they can find.

Tactical decision-making is a huge part of the game, and those decisions frequently need to be made in a hurry. One of Doom’s favorite tricks to pull is to place a vital objective like a switch or a key in an unpopulated room…only to open several well-hidden compartments and fill the area with demons once the player makes a grab for said object, throwing the player into a fight where they must act quickly and correctly, or die just as fast.

While Doom isn’t a horror game in the strictest of senses, it’s honestly pretty frightening the first time you run and grab a key, only to hear several doors that you didn’t open slide up right behind you, followed by the roars of a dozen pissed-off monsters. As the game continues and you get used to these tricks, you’ll often learn to see these ambushes coming, and the fear and surprise is replaced by a feeling of tension and dread as you steel yourself to spring a trap, and try to pick the best weapon to deal with what you think lies on the other side.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

For example, here your best option is trying not to crap your pants.

Sometimes the game will throw other curveballs as well, such as forcing the player to make a run across a hazardous floor without a suit to a vital objective while contending with demons, or to go into a poorly lit room and fight the monsters inside by the intermittent flashes of light. Doom is an intense, harrowing experience, even today and even for veteran gamers.

Admittedly, some of the game’s difficulty is artificial due to its episodic structure, a holdover from its days as shareware. You see, once you’ve completed an episode and start the next one, the game treats it as though you’re starting over fresh (in fact, it’s entirely possible to play the episodes out of order, if you so choose). This means that you don’t carry over any of your equipment or ammo from episode to episode; each time you start a new one, you do so with a pistol and 50 bullets, and that’s it.

This makes Episodes 3 and 4 extremely challenging, due to the difficulty of facing the early levels with limited resources. In fact, I couldn’t even clear Episode 4 on anything but the lowest difficulty due to this early-level resource starvation, and I’m not entirely sure how the designers expected anybody to be able to clear the first level with starting equipment on the higher difficulties (for the record, I did beat episodes 1-3 on “Hurt Me Plenty,” the normal difficulty). If you’ve managed it, you’re clearly a better Doom player than I.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy's pet bunny. Seriously.

Though at least I avenged Doomguy’s pet bunny, Daisy.

The game also forces you to start a level from the beginning if you die, with only the starting pistol and ammo; there are no checkpoints. Luckily, the game does allow you to save anywhere and at any time, so as long as you’re judicious about saving early and often, this won’t pose too much of a problem, though it does make me wish the game (I played the version included in the PS3 version of Doom 3: BFG Edition) had a quick-save feature.

On the subject of gameplay features, it’s interesting to look back at Doom and see how many features that we currently associate with FPS titles that it doesn’t have. Due to the way the engine is designed, treating the entire vertical axis as being part of the same plane, Doom has no vertical aiming or jumping; the game auto-aims at enemies that are higher up or lower than the player. This mostly works…although the game can be finicky when it decides whether or not you’re aiming at an enemy over long distances when they’re on another level, which makes sniping difficult.

Also, there are no magazines for the guns; each weapon fires from its pool of ammo with no need to ever reload. Apparently Doomguy’s guns operate on 80’s action hero rules.

Although the visuals are primitive by today’s standards, I find they have a certain charm that helps them hold up well today. Sure, the characters and effects are all heavily pixelated sprites with few frames of animation, and the levels all look like what you might get if you had H.R. Giger and Heironymus Bosch build you a movie set out of Legos, but there’s a coherency of design that manages to transcend the technical limitations of the time.

Satan's got one hell of an interior decorator.

Satan’s got one hell of an interior decorator.

The environments make sense and are easy to interpret, and the strong aesthetic, particularly as you progress through the game and the space-age technological environments gradually give way to the gothic look of Hell, really draws the player in. Additionally, I think the simplicity of the visuals helps make the “gamey” elements easier to swallow, like the open pools of toxic waste in a science facility and the abundance of shotgun shells and rockets in Hell.

The game’s violence, which was once the cause of much harrumphing, is actually pretty quaint by today’s standards. Dead enemies just turn into a pile of bloody pixels. Compared to the last two games I’ve reviewed, Doom is almost an exceptionally violent Looney Tune. Honestly, the part of the game that still comes off as kind of shocking to me is some of the scenery that you begin to see as you approach Hell. Objects like still-beating hearts atop altars, impaled (and writhing) zombies, piles of skulls topped with candles and flayed torsos hanging from chains begin to populate the environments, and those did give me pause.

The sound design is very good; the demons all have unique identifying cries, allowing you to easily tell what kind of demon is approaching you and from what side. The gun effects are loud and viscerally satisfying, and the music is excellent, starting off with a catchy heavy metal style, and gradually giving way to gothic, atmospheric pieces as the game goes on. When the topic of classic games with great soundtracks comes up, few people mention Doom, and I think that’s doing the game’s score a major disservice. For me, it passes the “hum test,” and that’s the highest praise I can give it.

The last aspect to discuss, and perhaps the most important, as it’s one of the elements of the modern FPS that Doom helped firmly establish, is the multiplayer. Now unfortunately, the online scene for Doom 3: BFG Edition and all its included games is completely dead at the time of this writing; I waited 30 minutes to find a match without ever locating a single partner. Luckily, though, Doom allows for split-screen multiplayer, so I was able to play a few deathmatches against my brother.

So much carnage in such a tiny space...

So much carnage in such a tiny space…

Doom’s multiplayer holds up remarkably well. The action is fast-paced and satisfying, the catchy soundtrack puts you in the mood, and there’s a manic energy to it that modern shooters seem to lack. The session was punctuated by some truly memorable, crazy moments, like our protracted rocket launcher duel in the Tower of Babel, or me fighting to remove him from the BFG spawn point after he was stranded there by lava, or him sneaking past my line of fire and smearing me with a single berserker punch.

The game also allows you to play multiplayer on every single-player map (there are no multiplayer-only stages) which, while it can lead to some incredibly unbalanced moments and some primo camping opportunities, allows for a ton of variety. I suspect Doom (and Doom II, in all likelihood) will become prime choices for game nights at my house from now on.

All in all, Doom is a great game. It’s a tightly-designed, well-thought-out experience through and through. The designers knew what they wanted it to be and went for it, honing it until they got it just right, and it shows. It’s not hard at all to see why Doom became one of the most influential games of all time. If you haven’t played it, I’d definitely suggest picking it up in one of its many forms and seeing what all the fuss is about.

Now, I mentioned that I also have Doom II, and I plan to play it as well, but I doubt I’ll review it for the simple reason that very little has changed from the original. It uses the same engine, and aside from a few additional items and enemies, and some larger levels, it’s basically an expansion on the original game. It should be a blast and I look forward to playing it, but a review would basically boil down to me saying “This is just like Doom, which is awesome” over and over again.

Now Doom 3, on the other hand, is a Cyberdemon of a different color…but for now, I have other business to attend to. Monkey business, that is…

Be well!

Fashionably Late: Shadows of the Damned

SotD 1

Just so you know: Shadows of the Damned marks the first M-rated title I’ve reviewed on Fashionably Late, and it makes the most of that rating. SotD isn’t an “oh, those aliens squirt a little too much blue blood when the space marine shoots them with his assault rifle” kind of “M”–it’s packed full of graphic violence, profanity, disturbing imagery, nudity, sexual humor and lots of alcohol (ab)use. It’s so over-the-top with its adult content that I’m simply not going to be able to describe the game to you without a fair amount (possibly) offensive content, so be warned.

I briefly talked about Suda51 in my last E3 writeup, but I don’t think my brief mention of the man and his work, and that of his studio, Grasshopper Manufacture, quite conveyed the sheer insanity of their catalog of games. Therefore, to properly do them justice, I’ve provided a list of a few of their key games below, along with a brief summary of each one. Please note, all of the descriptions below are accurate, and in no way exaggerated:

  • Killer7: A wheelchair-bound assassin uses his seven split-personalities, including a gangster, a barefoot woman and a luchador, to fight an evil bio-terrorist and his minions on behalf of the U.S. government, all while receiving advice from a man in a red gimp suit suspended from the ceiling who speaks like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon.
  • No More Heroes: A nerd named Travis Touchdown buys a lightsaber off of eBay and fights in a death-match tournament to become the best assassin in the world…when he isn’t shopping for new outfits, training with his ghostly sensei, recovering hidden red balls for a drunk Russian, playing with his kitten, renting VHS tapes to learn wrestling moves, or saving his game by using the toilet.
  • Lollipop Chainsaw: A zombie-hunting cheerleader fights an evil goth mastermind and his army of musically-themed super-zombies with cheerleading moves, a sparkling, rainbow chainsaw and the still-living severed head of her boyfriend, who hangs from her belt like a fanny-pack.
  • Liberation Maiden: The President of Japan (who is a teenage girl) fights an invading empire seeking to plunder Japan’s natural resources from the back of a giant flying robot, all while receiving updates on her approval rating in real-time.

So when I tell you that Shadows of the Damned is about a Mexican demon-hunter named Garcia Hotspur who, aided by a perverted, flying British skull named Johnson (who can transform into guns and motorcycles), travels to Hell, heals his wounds by drinking absinthe and feeds brains to baby-faced door knockers, all to rescue his girlfriend from the Lord of the Underworld (named Fleming), you know that the preceding sentence was not a joke.

Oh so much graphic violence...

Oh so much graphic violence…

SotD kind of feels like a movie Robert Rodriguez might make if he teamed up with Guillermo Del Toro and the two of them spent the pre-production phase playing Super Mario Bros. and dropping mescaline. And comparing the game to an R-rated Mario is neither inaccurate nor a disservice.

The story revolves around the protagonist, the aforementioned Garcia Hotspur (whose middle name may or may not actually be “Fucking”– it’s hard to tell), a Mexican demon hunter who manages to kill so many demons that the Lord of the Underworld, a gargantuan six-eyed demon named Fleming, kidnaps Garcia’s girlfriend Paula and drags her down to hell, where he plans to torture, maim and kill her for all eternity as retribution for Garcia’s interference.

Garcia (who at one point actually does borrow Rodriguez’s “I’m a MexiCAN, not a MexiCAN’T” line) is having none of it, and travels to Hell with his partner, the reformed demon Johnson, as his guide, fighting his way through legions of demons to defeat Fleming and save the woman he loves. The plot seems like a pretty straight-forward retelling of the “knight saves princess from dragon” story, but it’s actually more of a subversion, as the game builds up to a nice and well-earned twist at the end that I won’t spoil for you here. The game’s ending didn’t blow my mind, but it did leave me thinking, “OK, well-played.”

The characters themselves aren’t very fleshed-out, since most of the game’s running time is devoted to Garcia and Johnson’s trek through the underworld. Nevertheless, they certainly are memorable, in large part thanks to some dynamite voice acting and funny writing. Garcia and Johnson’s buddy-cop-esque relationship forms the cornerstone of the game, and it works fantastically.

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Step aside, Murtaugh and Riggs!

Garcia is a pretty typical Suda51 protagonist; he’s an awesome, tough, over-the-top and occasionally comical action hero, but is given moments of genuine pathos where the fate of Paula is concerned. He’s helped a lot by an excellent vocal performance from Steve Blum, whom most people will know as Spike from Cowboy Bebop, but I remember most fondly as Jamie from the too-good-for-this-cruel-world series Megas XLR. It’s kind of odd to realize that’s the same guy putting on a heavy Mexican accent, but he does it well and the character definitely isn’t an offensive stereotype, so it doesn’t really bother me.

Johnson, on the other hand, is almost a carbon copy of Bob from The Dresden Files…which is fine by me, because Bob is freaking hilarious. Johnson’s a little less lecherous than Bob, but he has the same dry British wit and the same know-it-all function in the plot as he guides Garcia through the underworld and its bizarre twists and turns.

Johnson has a leg up (so to speak–he’s just a talking skull, after all) in that beyond simply dispensing advice, Johnson acts as Garcia’s partner in battle, transforming into a torch, various guns, and even a motorcycle. As Garcia puts it, Johnson is the right tool for every job, which cements his position as one of my favorite sidekicks in video game history.

The villains of the piece don’t get much characterization, but they’re so ridiculous they’re memorable regardless; from the foul-mouthed flying demon Stinky Crow (whose only line of dialogue is screeching “FUCK YOU!” at the top of his lungs) to opera singer Justine to Fleming himself; they all stand out as worthy, memorable antagonists through style and presentation alone.

The only real problem member of the cast is Paula herself, who is the definition of objectified in this game. She’s reduced to a plaything for the demons (being graphically murdered on screen more times than I care to count), and a trophy for Garcia to rescue, though it’s clear Garcia genuinely does love her.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? 'Cause she does.

Did I mention Paula dies a lot? ‘Cause she does.

Still, I have to think that Grasshopper knew exactly what they were doing with their portrayal of Paula, given that they flipped the gender roles in their next game, Lollipop Chainsaw, by having protagonist Juliet using her helpless boyfriend Nick as a literal object for solving puzzles. It feels more like Grasshopper is deliberately playing with tropes here, rather than playing into them.

This notion is cemented later on in SotD when Paula becomes homicidally furious at Garcia, both for his failure to save her from being butchered over and over and for putting her in such a horrific position in the first place. As such, it almost feels like a deconstruction and commentary on gender relations in video games…once you look past the weirdness, psychological horror and lewd jokes, anyway.

Shadows of the Damned is a really interesting game from a design standpoint, in that it’s the brainchild of three prominent developers with their own unique styles. On the one hand, you’ve got Suda51, but on the other hand, you have Shinji Mikami, best known for his work on the Resident Evil games, and on a third, mutant hand, you’ve got Akira Yamaoka (most famous for his work on Silent Hill) doing the sound design.

So here you have a developer known for zany action games working with two of the biggest icons of horror gaming on a single project. You’d expect the result to be a disjointed mess, but oddly enough, SotD may be the most cohesive, polished title Suda and Grasshopper Manufacture have produced.

"Polished" here being a relative term.

“Polished” here being a relative term.

The core gameplay borrows very heavily from one of Mikami’s most beloved games, Resident Evil 4, copying its third-person over-the-shoulder camera view and shooting mechanics very closely. Like RE4, SotD has the player moving Garcia with the left analog stick, moving the camera and aiming with the right stick, readying his gun with one shoulder trigger and firing with another. It even uses the sprint button, dodge roll and melee mechanics popularized by RE4.

Now, I’ve gone on record as saying I do not like the Resident Evil series, for a variety of reasons. And yet, even though the controls are virtually identical, I like the control scheme so much better in SotD than I do in its predecessor. I think it works much better here; SotD isn’t nearly as stingy with ammunition as RE4 (the only times I ever ran out were during a few protracted boss fights) and the aiming is much more accurate (it helps that Johnson projects a laser sight in all of his gun forms).

Combat in SotD is based almost entirely on gunplay; Garcia does have a melee attack where he can use Johnson (in his torch form) to bash enemies if they get too close, but it does no real damage. Demons need to be dispatched using Johnson’s gun forms, either by riddling them with ammunition (which comes in the form of demon bones, teeth and skulls, rather than bullets), dropping them to the ground by shooting their limbs off and then finishing them off with a stomp attack, or by shooting them in the head. The melee attack is only used for pushing enemies back if they get too close (it’s surprisingly difficult to shoot the demons at point-blank range), or to rid them of a protective coating of Darkness.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

This stuff? Better than body armor.

Similar to Allen Wake and a few other games, SotD has a Light and Darkness mechanic, where demons will sometimes be coated in the Darkness of the Underworld. Demons coated in Darkness are invincible, and their protective shield must be stripped before they can be damaged. This is accomplished in one of two ways, either by hitting the enemies with Johnson, or by shooting them with a Light Shot from Johnson’s gun forms.

There are also times when an area will be flooded with Darkness, which not only makes the demons invincible, but also will begin to drain Garcia’s life after a short time. Sometimes Garcia simply has to run through a Darkness-filled corridor before it kills him, but other times he’ll have to dispel the Darkness by using his Light Shot to shoot a mounted goat head (per Johnson, goats are a natural source of Light).

Of course, demons don’t like Light very much even when they’re not coated in Darkness; a Light Shot will stun them temporarily for easy dispatch (some enemies can only be killed this way), and demons will often store Light in conveniently placed, highly unstable barrels, which will explode and severely damage nearby demons when shot. The Light Shot can also activate lanterns to improve visibility, and prompt land-bound angler fish to guide Garcia through darkened areas.

Again, I am so not kidding.

Again, I am so not kidding.

As previously mentioned, Garcia only has Johnson and his own wits at his disposal to fight the hordes of the underworld, but luckily, that’s all he needs. Johnson has three gun forms he can take, a pistol that fires demon bones (called, appropriately enough, the Boner), a shotgun-like form that fires demon skulls, and a machine gun form that fires demon teeth. The guns and their respective boxes of ammo are color coded (red for pistol, green for shotgun and blue for machine gun), allowing the player to easily tell what gun they have equipped and what ammo just dropped in a hectic firefight. It’s a bit “gamey,” but it works well.

Johnson’s gun forms can be upgraded as the game goes on by acquiring blue gems from boss demons, with each upgrade unlocking new functions and increasing firepower (the Boner upgrades to a Hot Boner, and subsequently, a Big Boner), and the guns’ parameters, as well as Garcia’s health, can be upgraded with red gems (“Performance enhancers! Very illegal!”) found in the environment or purchased from the game’s half-demon merchant, Christopher, using the game’s currency of white gems. Christopher also sells ammunition and drinks, the health recovery items of the game, though you can also find booze in the environment or purchase it from vending machines.

SotD settles into a pretty comfortable rhythm of moving from fight to fight while solving any puzzles that get in the way, though it’ll occasionally throw the player a curve in the form of a side-scrolling shooter level, turret level (shooting at giant demons with the aforementioned Big Boner), or demon bowling or pachinko, which are pretty typical of Suda51 titles.

Grasshopper tends to have an “everything and the kitchen sink” approach to game design, where if they have a cool idea for a level or a sequence, they’ll stick it in regardless of how well it meshes with the game overall. Sometimes this can lead to a disjointed (if fun) experience, but in SotD it feels very cohesive and fits well in the game’s oddball vision of Hell.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

It may be Hell, but at least you have the chance to work on your bowling technique.

This is still a game about Hell, though, so it’s not all a barrel of laughs. In between the zany non-sequiturs, dirty jokes and references to movies like Evil Dead and Ghostbusters, there’s some genuinely unsettling imagery and horror to be found, usually in the form of something gruesome happening to Paula, who is repeatedly killed off in ways that wouldn’t be out of place in a Nightmare on Elm Street movie. The violence, gore, and dark, cloying atmosphere serve to make SotD as effective at horror as it is at humor.

From a visual standpoint the game is dark, gothic, and makes effective use of the light and shadow motifs. The character and monster designs are all visually interesting and well-rendered. It’s worth mentioning that the game was made using Unreal Engine 3, which is the kind of thing that ordinarily makes me roll my eyes–UE3 was a plague on the last console generation, giving us a ton of games full of texture pop-in, dodgy framerates, physics glitches and screen-tearing. But Shadows of the Damned lacks most of the hallmarks of a UE3 game; in fact, I dare say it’s probably the best-looking UE3 title I’ve seen on the PS3. So I really have to give Grasshopper props for using the engine well when so many other studios didn’t.

I’ve already touched on the voice acting, but the rest of the sound design is equally impressive. The score by Akira Yamaoka is haunting and evocative, blending a wide range of styles and genres that seem like they shouldn’t belong together but somehow fit the game perfectly. The sound effects are top notch, and the whole arrangement works wonderfully on a surround sound system, enabling you to hear demons sneaking up from behind or objects like goats or baby locks needed for solving puzzles. It’s extremely immersive and really helps tie the game together.

Though it's not recommended as a feeding "how to" for new parents.

Though it’s not recommended as a feeding “how to” for new parents.

In summary, Shadows of the Damned is a truly unique game. In a crowded field of same-y shooters and zombie games, it brings some unique, polished gameplay, fun and horrifying writing and a truly memorable game world to the table. I can honestly say I’ve never played anything quite like it, and that’s not something I get the chance to say very often (unless I’m reviewing a game about dolphins).

Well, October’s not even halfway over yet, and I’ve already gone through Hell. I guess next I’ll have to go somewhere even worse. Join me next time as I take a trip to a little resort town on Toluca Lake…

Fashionably Late: Back to the Future: The Game

BttF 1

Video games based on licenses from other media have long had a reputation for being extremely bad, and that reputation is definitely not undeserved. I remember many a frustrating weekend as a child where, for my weekly rental from the video store, I succumbed to my naiveté and picked out a game based on my favorite TV show or movie du jour, only to find myself stuck playing a subpar piece of crap for the next two days.

These games were typically made by toy companies who bought the rights to make a game the way they would buy the rights to make action figures, then handed the project off to a no-name developer, gave them a strict deadline and told them to have it ready to release on that date, whatever it took. In the case of movie-based games, that deadline often coincided with the release of the film in question, which meant that developers typically had less than a year to make something playable.

OK, "playable" might be a bit of a stretch...

OK, “playable” might be a bit of a stretch…

These titles weren’t all bad, mind you; there were exceptions. Most of the games based on Disney licenses were pretty solid, being developed first by Capcom (of Mega Man and Street Fighter fame), and later by Virgin Interactive. Konami made a few really good games based on Warner Bros. cartoons like Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs and Looney Tunes, and some great Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games.

Anything Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related was developed by LucasArts, so it was bound to be good. But for the most part, if a game was based on a TV show or movie, and it had any other publisher or developer’s logo on the box, it was in your best interest to stay far, far away.

These days licensed games have been making something of a comeback. Thankfully, this time around, parent companies seem to have realized that making a good game takes time–often as much time as making a movie, if not more–resulting in longer development times.

The projects themselves tend to be going to much more competent developers, as well. And with the advent of smartphone games, companies looking to use a game as advertisement for a movie are much more likely to hire a developer to make a cheap mobile title, cloning another successful game, than they are to crowd the console and PC market with low-quality material.

Additionally, now there are companies who are buying the licenses to old films and making strong games for the fans of these enduring franchises. Granted, some of these are still ill-advised cash-ins (the recent Rambo and Aliens games come to mind), but most are labors of love, developed by fans of the source material for fans of the source material, often featuring voice talent from the original cast or even original writers contributing to the story.

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands...

Just think of this the next time you fire up Borderlands…

Telltale Games’ Back to the Future: The Game thankfully falls into the latter category. When the Back to the Future films were originally released, they received very poor treatment on the video game front; if you want more details on those abominations, James Rolfe (as his Angry Video Game Nerd character) released a video covering them in far greater detail than I could here.

But a few years ago, Telltale announced that they were partnering with Universal to adapt some of their classic movie properties into games, and one of these titles was Back to the Future. This was honestly some of the most exciting video game news I’d heard that year.

Telltale, for those who don’t know, is a company that’s sort of been acting as a spiritual successor to LucasArts’ old adventure game division. They’ve made new installments to both the Sam and Max and Monkey Island series, made a hilarious game based on the long-dormant Homestar Runner web cartoon, and recently they’ve been working on more serious fare with The Walking Dead (based on the awesome comic book, not the mediocre TV show) and Fables.

They are the company for graphic adventure games, or at the very least they’re neck-and-neck with Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, so they were a great choice to make this game.

As excited as I was to play this title (I bought the season pass as soon as it was released), I ended up getting side-tracked from it for a few years, mostly, I think, due to the episodic nature of its release. Telltale has this habit of releasing its games in downloadable form, through a series of episodes. All of the previous Telltale titles I played, I bought and played all the episodes at once. Back to the Future was the first one I started following from its release, and I quickly discovered that this format only served to allow me to be distracted by other games in between releases.

And that’s how it took me almost three years to play through one of my most anticipated games of 2010; from here on in, I think I’ll just stick to waiting on Telltale titles until all the episodes are released, then shotgunning them at one go. Hell, it works for Netflix, why mess with a good thing?

BttF 4

I suppose I could just take the DeLorean ahead a few months…

The story begins on a rather depressing note 7 months after the end of Back to the Future Part III. Doc Brown hasn’t been seen in Hill Valley since that time, and the bank is selling off his estate to cover his debts.

Marty, who is desperately trying to convince people that Doc is still alive, is surprised when another DeLorean time machine, identical to the destroyed original, arrives outside Doc’s house with Einstein (Doc’s dog) in tow. Inside the DeLorean, Marty finds a recorded message from Doc, saying that he’s stuck somewhere in the past, and that the new DeLorean’s auto-retrieval function sent it to seek out Marty for a rescue.

Marty must travel back to 1931, where Doc has been mistaken for the arsonist who burned down a speakeasy, and enlist Doc’s 1931 counterpart to help break Doc out of jail and save him from lethal reprisal at the hands of Biff’s gangster father, Kid Tannen. However, this series of events alters the timeline, forcing Marty and Doc to fix the damage they’ve done in order to prevent a horrible future and the destruction of Hill Valley itself.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

And yes, young Doc is every bit as funny as you think he is.

It’s a fantastic story that feels right at home with the original trilogy (no doubt thanks to the involvement of trilogy screenwriter Bob Gale) and plays with the alternate timeline elements I love so much in Part II. The new characters introduced by the game feel like they belong with the returning ones, and the game is packed with the all the humor, witty writing and Easter eggs you’d expect from a Telltale game.

The gameplay is that of a classic graphic adventure title. Players control Marty, move him through the environment, and click on objects to examine them, collect them, and solve puzzles with them, or to talk to other characters.

To advance the plot, the player must solve puzzles, which usually involves some combination of talking to the right characters, using the right combination of items and working with simple logic. Most of the puzzles make enough sense that an experienced player can solve them easily, but a few of them are more tricky and could easily obstruct game progress.

Trust me, it's more exciting than it sounds.

Trust me, it’s more exciting than it sounds.

Fortunately, Telltale built in a hint system, which progressively gives more information on how to solve the current puzzle each time it’s used, before finally telling the player the answer if they’re truly stumped. Of course, a few of the puzzles are difficult not because the solution is hard to guess at, but because it’s hard to implement, requiring a series of specific actions in a row or requiring fairly precise timing to pull off, so the hint system is far from being a “win button.”

The controls, while generally simple and solid, do occasionally cause problems. A few puzzles in particular are difficult to solve on a console version of the game (I played it on my PS3), because of the game’s tendency to try to correct for the imprecision of using an analog stick (rather than a mouse) by having the selector automatically target items in the environment as Marty moves past them.

This auto-selection can result in you accidentally clicking an object you didn’t mean to click on, which presents a problem in some puzzles where the goal is to click a particular object at a particular time. Fortunately, there aren’t very many of these puzzles throughout the game, so the frustration level is pretty minimal, but it is still a minor issue that needs to be addressed.

Next I’ll talk about the graphics and sound design, but before that, I need to get something off my chest; I love Telltale’s games, but I really loathe the Telltale Tool engine they use to make them. I have never played a single game from Telltale that was without issues. Their games are, on balance, very simple both graphically and in terms of design, but you wouldn’t know that from the way the Telltale Tool struggles with them.

Framerates are wildly inconsistent regardless of the platform, which can cause cheap deaths in a few of their titles, and some of their games are very crash-prone; I still haven’t finished their Monkey Island game because it’s so prone to crashing on my PS3. Back to the Future is one of their more stable titles, but it still suffers from graphical hiccups and lag.

Someday, Guybrush...someday. *Sigh*

Someday, Guybrush…someday. *Sigh*

All that being said, I like the visual design of the game. Rather than try to make the game photorealistic (I shudder to imagine the uncanny valley versions of Marty and Doc), the game uses a caricature-like style to render its characters, and the environments are similarly colorful and cartoony. The graphics are simple, but they work, and aside from the aforementioned framerate issues, they’re quite pleasing to the eye. Nothing to write home about, but perfectly serviceable.

The sound design, on the other hand, is excellent. The soundtrack features several pieces from the films, including Alan Silvestri’s orchestral theme and “Back in Time” by Huey Lewis and the News, as well as some original compositions that, while not quite up to Silvestri’s standard of excellence, fit in unobtrusively with the rest of the score. The sound effects are likewise very good, and feature all the effects you’ll remember from the movies.

But perhaps the best aspect is the voice acting. The voice acting in Telltale’s games is always excellent, and while they had to bring in a number of sound-alikes to voice some of the returning characters, they did manage to get some key talent to reprise their original roles.

The biggest of these is Christopher Lloyd, returning to voice Doc Brown, and I’ve got to say, hearing Lloyd play Doc again makes the entire game worthwhile for me, and I looked forward to every interaction I had with Doc as a result of it. Claudia Wells, the original actress who played Jennifer Parker, also reprises her role, and does an excellent job of it.

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around...

Though she is a bit, uh, different this time around…

Regrettably, Michael J. Fox apparently wasn’t available to reprise the role of Marty when production began on the game, but Telltale found an absolutely amazing sound-alike in A.J. LoCasio. He’s a dead ringer for how Fox sounded at that age, and it’s incredibly easy to forget that it’s not Fox voicing the character. But they were able to bring Fox in during the final episode to make a couple of fun voice cameos that I won’t spoil for you here; suffice it to say that if you are a fan of the films, you’re in for a real treat.

And really, that’s the best way to summarize this review; if you’re a fan of the Back to the Future trilogy, then this game was tailor-made for you. For all its flaws, there’s so much heart, wit and love for the source material on display that you just can’t stay mad at this game, even at its most annoying moments.

Developers take note; if you’re going to make a game based on a beloved film property, this is the way you should do it. My only real complaint is that, after the game’s (slight) cliffhanger ending, there is no firm word of a Season 2 yet. Maybe once Telltale is done with The Walking Dead or Fables, we might hear something. But still, if this is all we get, I think I’m satisfied.

Well, Halloween is fast approaching, and in the spirit of the season, I’m playing through a horror game. Join me next time for my own road movie through Hell…

Fashionably Late: Final Fantasy IV: The After Years

After Years 1

Final Fantasy used to be my favorite video game series of all time, and several Final Fantasy games still rank among some of my favorites ever made. Almost every one of these games Square released was a mega-hit that surpassed the one that came before it, and even the ones that weren’t were interesting experiments. Final Fantasy, for a time, was the opus of Square’s catalog.

Now, I’ve briefly mentioned Square-Enix in this blog before and my distaste for the way they’ve handled some of their recent titles, specifically in the Final Fantasy series. Back in the 1990s, Square (pre-Enix; that merger wouldn’t happen until the early 2000s) was the developer for RPGs on consoles. But right around the time of the merger with Enix, Final Fantasy began to unravel.

The series’ budget had been ballooning for a while, but it really began to skyrocket starting with Final Fantasy X, and along with that increasing budget came a sense that Square was more interested in making a game that was marketable than a game that was good.

The stories and characters started to feel focus-tested for a teenage Japanese audience, and the gameplay became steadily less and less complex (though it’s worth noting that FFX’s combat system was probably the best in the series).

This trend culminated with the Final Fantasy XIII “trilogy” (yes, they made two sequels to one numbered sequel; I’ll get back to that in a minute), which dumbed the gameplay down to the point where the game barely demands (or seems to want) player input, and paired it with stories that are literally among the worst pieces of fiction I have ever encountered.

Each FFXIII game has seen steadily worsening sales, which has reportedly prompted Square-Enix to reconsider the path they’re taking with Final Fantasy. I sincerely hope this is the case, but given what has become of the series, I won’t be holding my breath.

However, in between FFX and the present, Square, desperate to stay afloat after the disastrous bomb that was Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within destroyed the newly-formed Square Pictures and left the studio teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, accepted a loan from Sony and merged with long-time rival RPG maker Enix to stay afloat. Yet, this was still not enough to return the studio to profitability, and so they broke with long-standing tradition and decided to make a direct sequel to FFX.

Prior to this decision, each Final Fantasy game had been unrelated, plot-wise, to the previous installments. Though they shared common gameplay elements and the same creative team, each game had a different cast, world and story. However, hard-up for cash, Square-Enix decided to make a sequel to their mega-hit, Final Fantasy X, and thus Final Fantasy X-2 came to be, and opened the door for other direct sequels.

Never forget...oh, God, I wish I could forget...

Never forget…oh, God, I wish I could forget…

And like most sequels, the majority of these were terrible. FFX-2 was the first Final Fantasy that was almost universally agreed to be a genuinely bad game; it basically threw everything that was remotely good about the original game out the window and replaced it with fanservice, bad J-Pop, tedious mini-games and side-quests, and (somehow) an even worse localization.

But, riding on the hype of FFX and combined with the fact that the game re-used so many assets from FFX that it cost a fraction of what the first game did, FFX-2 was massively profitable for the newly-formed Square-Enix. As a result, almost all other FF sequels have followed suit.

That being said, there is one notable exception to this trend, and that is Final Fantasy IV: The After Years.

Originally released as a cell phone game before the iPhone made cell phone gaming an actual market with some viability, After Years eventually received a US release on the Wii as a downloadable title, and has since been ported to the PSP, iPhone and Android platforms.

And it’s no surprise that the game has performed well, selling more than 3 million downloads as of 2009; out of all the direct Final Fantasy sequels, After Years is the only one that somehow manages to truly capture the spirit of its predecessor; it feels as though it was written and designed by people who played and loved the original game just as much as fans did.

In brief, Final Fantasy IV (original released as Final Fantasy II in the US, due to the actual II and III not seeing localizations until the 2000’s) was Square’s first project on the Super Nintendo, and it also marked a substantial departure from the three games that came before it.

Final Fantasies I through III were among the earliest console-style RPGs, and told rather simplistic stories where the characters had little to no identity or personality. The characters in those titles were fully customizable; you got to choose their names and their roles in the party according to how you wanted to play the game. They were games more focused around the battle system and exploring dungeons than they were on telling an overarching narrative.

By contrast, Final Fantasy IV marked Square’s first foray into making a truly story-centric title. Its characters are non-customizable and have names and defined personalities and backgrounds and the plot is driven as much by the characters and their personalities as events.

Granted, its story is still rather simplistic and wouldn’t have been out of place in a typical Saturday morning cartoon at the time, and the original localization wasn’t much better than just running the game’s script through Babelfish, but that was still more ambitious than anything most other video games had attempted at that point. As a result, it had a tremendous impact on a generation of young gamers, and is still a beloved classic to this day.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

Truly, the most quotable game since Super Mario Bros.

So, Square-Enix and Matrix Software (After Years’ co-developer) had a lot to live up to in making a sequel. And surprisingly, rather than mess with a winning formula, they opted to make the sequel as much like FFIV as possible. In terms of visuals, gameplay, music, and even story structure, After Years borrows as much from its predecessor as it possibly can. And after having lived through the harrowing experience of popping a Final Fantasy X sequel in, only to be greeted by this:

I can’t adequately express how grateful I am that Square-Enix declined to re-invent the FFIV wheel and ruin it in the process.

The gameplay is almost identical to that of FFIV: you command a party of up to 5 adventurers, exploring an overworld map, towns and dungeons on your way to your next objective to advance the story. Along the way, you’ll be confronted by random monster encounters, as well as planned boss battles at the end of most areas. You issue orders to your party in turn-based battles, taking advantage of their unique abilities to formulate a strategy that will allow you to win.

The flow of the game is very basic, and the battle system is virtually identical to that of FFIV, save for a few key tweaks.

Memoriiiies...like the corners of my miiiind...

Memoriiiies…like the corners of my miiiind…

The Active Time Battle (ATB) bars that dictate when your characters go are now visible, much like they were in all subsequent FF titles that used that system, so it’s easy to tell when your characters will get their next turn. You can also see a visual representation of how long it will take a particular character to execute a command, which takes the guesswork out of planning around the casting of a particular spell or ability.

Another change is the Moon Phase system. As you play the game, the moon shifts through different phases; a shift will happen after enough time passes, or any time your party sleeps in a Tent, Cottage or Inn. Depending on what phase the moon is in, one kind of battle command with be strengthened, and another will be weakened; for example, under a Full Moon, physical attacks will be weakened, but Black Magic will become more potent.

The Moon Phase system adds an additional level of strategy to the game, as each party member will be more effective in particular phases, and players must plan around the phases to maximize their characters’ strengths. Also, monsters are subject to the phases of the moon as well, so a skilled player can weaken a tough boss monster and strengthen their own characters by fighting it during the correct phase.

I think the Moon Phase system adds a great deal of depth to the game, but it can be annoying having to waste Tents just to advance the moon to an advantageous phase, especially in the portions of the game where you’re stuck with a fixed party of characters.

The final major change to combat is the Band system. Anybody who’s played Chrono Trigger will be instantly familiar with this concept; the Band system allows characters to perform powerful team attacks, provided that all characters involved have enough Magic Points and are able to act.

Unlike Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs, however, characters won’t instantly learn Bands simply by being in a party together and knowing the requisite skills; players have to manually try to discover Bands with those characters in a party together. On the one hand, I like the feeling of experimentation that this encourages.

On the other hand, pretty much anybody who picks this game up is just going to look up a list of Bands online, so the manual search aspect just becomes pointless busywork. Either way, I do enjoy the depth of strategy this opens up, especially once you’re able to choose your party members towards the end of the game and can decide how important Bands are to you when forming a team.

...Misty watercolor memoriiiies...of the way we weeere...

…Misty watercolor memoriiiies…of the way we weeere…

The graphics, sound and music are almost completely identical to FFIV’s as well. The character sprites have been completely redone (they look more akin to FFVI characters than FFIV), but the monster sprites, spell effects, towns and dungeons are almost all recycled from FFIV with minor tweaks and smoothing, and a few new locations and creatures added for good measure. The sound effects and music are also mostly recycled, with a few original melodies here and there.

I know that sounds incredibly lazy, and to be completely honest, it kind of is, but it actually does work with this game. After Years is all about revisiting the past, finding out where these characters have come in the intervening years, and having them revisit familiar locations and experience familiar sights and sounds is appropriate and feels right here.

And this game is very much a retro trip; when I say it plays almost exactly like FFIV, I mean it, including the high level of difficulty. The random encounter rates are through the roof, battles will wear your characters down and wipe them out if you don’t take the time to grind for experience and money every so often, and boss battles (as well as late-game regular battles) will quickly wipe the floor with you if you don’t react fast and with the appropriate strategy. In short, it’s very much an old-school RPG, and you’ll either like that or you won’t. Personally, I found it to be a welcome return to form.

While the game has a lot going for it, the one thing that really doesn’t work is the pricing. You see, the game is broken up into several chapters that must be bought piecemeal, each one dealing with a particular group of characters and telling their portion of the story. 

The WiiWare version of the game costs about $8.00, and that includes the first two chapters. Each subsequent chapter has to be purchased for an additional fee, adding up to a grand total of $37.00 for the whole game, which, for a title that’s essentially a glorified ROM-hack of FFIV (albeit an excellent one) is borderline extortion.

Frankly, I’d recommend picking up one of the other versions of the game over the Wii version if you’re interested; even the iOS version is a better deal at $15 (though I can’t vouch for how it controls with the touch-screen).

And it looks pretty good, too.

Hmm…22 bucks or touch controls…tough call.

You’ll notice that I haven’t talked much about the story so far. There’s a reason for that; namely, that it’s impossible to go too much into my thoughts about the story without revealing massive spoilers for both FFIV and After Years. And honestly, if I try to go too far into my thoughts on the story, I’d be writing this forever. I know because I started to do an analysis and it added roughly 3 pages to the review before I’d even begun to scratch the surface.

Suffice it to say that the story of After Years makes perfect sense in the context of where our characters were left 17 years prior with the end of FFIV. Everybody’s position and development in After Years fits their character perfectly. There are even some interesting reversals (Kain and Cecil, in particular, each end up in much the same position the other was during FFIV). And while the reveal of the game’s new villain is kind of odd and a bit cliche, ultimately I think it fits the story, and really, that’s the most important thing.

It's no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

It’s no weirder than Zeromus, at any rate.

These characters all feel like the same ones we fell in love with so many years ago, and the resolution to their stories feels satisfactory and more conclusive than the finale of FFIV did. And after suffering through sequels like FFX-2 and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children that completely butchered the characters whose stories they were supposed to be continuing, that’s incredibly welcome and refreshing.

If you’re a fan of Final Fantasy IV, definitely give this game a shot. It’s more of the same, and that’s a very good thing. If you aren’t a fan of Final Fantasy IV, then this won’t do anything to change your mind. If you haven’t played Final Fantasy IV…well, what are you waiting for? There are plenty of different re-mastered versions to choose from, so pick one up and play it!

Personally, I like the 2008 DS remake; it’s got the best localization, the best version of the combat system, and plenty of added secrets and side-quests to keep you busy. And if you don’t have a DS or 3DS, the 2008 version was recently released for iPhone and Android, so it’s easy to come by.

I’m still feeling nostalgic, so next time we’ll cover another game that’s a real blast from the past. Until next time!

Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker 1

Before I dive into this review, I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this write-up to my cats, Pepper and Panda, both of whom passed away recently while I was in the process of playing through Wind Waker. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent playing games with either Pepper or Panda warming my lap and feeding me purrs and positive vibes. Here’s to you, sweetie girls.

Pepper Panda

I briefly talked about my experience with Wind Waker in my review of Skyward Sword however, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the context of Wind Waker’s release. When Nintendo released the Gamecube, it was a huge step forward in terms of hardware power and visuals from its predecessor, the N64.

That increase had Nintendo fans excited for what their favorite franchises would look like on this new system, perhaps none more so than fans of The Legend of Zelda. Prior to the launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed a hardware demo reel featuring animated videos of Nintendo characters rendered on the Gamecube; not actual game footage, mind you, just canned video running on the hardware.

One of these clips was of Link sword-fighting with Ganondorf in a realistic style, similar to how the characters were conceived in Ocarina of Time. This was the world’s first look at what a Gamecube Zelda title might look like, and it got fans excited. Sure, it honestly looks kind of crappy now, but back when this footage was released, it was cutting-edge; just as Ocarina had taken Zelda into the realm of 3D games, this new (hypothetical) game promised to make a much greater leap into the realm of realism.

Cut to a year later, and at Space World in 2001, Nintendo revealed another demo, this time one rendered in a cartoony, cel-shaded style. Unlike in the previous demo, Link was once again rendered as a child, and the visuals were bright, sharp and colorful, unlike the darker, dare I say, grittier demo of the previous year. This demo turned out to be the one that actually represented the new Zelda sequel, Wind Waker.

The new art direction, to put it mildly, was…divisive. Some fans loved it, but others were taken aback that the series’ visuals appeared to be going in a less realistic direction…and to be honest, I fell into the latter camp.

After all, video games are serious business.

After all, video games are serious business.

Chalk it up to the ironically youthful impulse to resist anything squarely targeted at children, but I felt like a bright, cartoony game starring a child character was a step in the wrong direction. The visuals didn’t put me off enough to keep me from trying the game, but they certainly didn’t help my opinion of it. And while the game was critically-acclaimed and sold three million copies (low by Zelda standards, but good for the time), many fans would go on to proclaim it the worst game in the series to date.

In my last review, I touched on what I call the “Mario 3 Effect,” where new Nintendo games are considered “failures” because they fail to live up to the standards set by an earlier title in their series. There’s a corollary phenomenon known as the “Zelda Cycle,” where in each new Zelda title is considered, at least by a vocal faction of fans, to be the “worst Zelda ever.”

Inevitably, a few years after the game’s release, this faction starts to relent and admit that the game is, in reality, actually pretty good. Then, by the time the next game releases, the previously-vilified title is considered brilliant and the new game inherits the distinction of “worst Zelda ever,” and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Wind Waker could very well be the poster child for the Zelda Cycle, with fans now recognizing the brilliance of the game’s art direction and admiring how well it’s aged over the years, especially compared to other games of the time.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve changed my tune about “Celda.” The visuals of Wind Waker are one of the game’s strongest aspects. I played through the recently-released Wii U port of the game, Wind Waker HD, and it’s amazing to see how, with the addition of a few modern lighting effects and increased resolution, Wind Waker looks like a game that might have been developed one year ago instead of ten. There are some moments, when the light catches the scenery just right, where the game is truly breathtaking.

Wind Waker 3

Cartoon pigs never looked so good.

But as the age-old console gaming rallying cry goes, I don’t play pixels, I play games. The prettiest game in the world can still be terrible if the gameplay and story don’t hold up. So, enough about the visuals, how does Wind Waker hold up as a game?

I’ve written a brief primer on the Legend of Zelda series as part of my review of Skyward Sword, so if you missed that review, I’d suggest reading it over if you’re new to Zelda, because I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to bore you with repeated material.

Basically,  in the Zelda chronology, Wind Waker takes place after Ocarina of Time, in a branch of the timeline where Ganon escapes imprisonment and wreaks havoc on Hyrule with his armies. No incarnation of Link steps forward to fight Ganon, and in desperation the Goddesses of Hyrule (apparently being big fans of the Old Testament) instruct the people of the land to flee to the highest mountains and flood the world, sealing Ganon’s forces under the waves.

This naturally lasts just long enough for the descendants of the original survivors to completely forget about Hyrule and Ganon, at which point Ganon manages to break out of imprisonment anyway, bring his monsters to the surface and attempt to re-unite the pieces of the Triforce in order to give him absolute power.

Part of his evil quest involves a scheme to kidnap girls with pointed ears, in hopes of finding the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, who still carries the Triforce of Wisdom. This leads to a girl named Aryll being abducted, who just so happens to be the sister of Wind Waker’s incarnation of Link, who goes on a quest to rescue her.

After a miserably failed attempt to assault Ganon’s fortress and save his sister (which includes the aforementioned forced stealth section), Link is rescued from drowning by a talking boat called the King of Red Lions. The King agrees to help Link rescue Aryll, in the process guiding Link through the necessary hoops to allow him to recover the Master Sword and claim the power to defeat Ganon once and for all.

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though...

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though…

The story is certainly serviceable, and Link meets a variety of interesting characters during his journey. I’m not as fond of this cast as I am of the cast of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, but there are some stand-out characters like the spunky pirate queen Tetra and her crew, Link’s grandmother and sister (aside from A Link to the Past, this is the only Zelda title where any members of Link’s family are actually present in the game), and possibly my favorite side character in any Zelda title to date, the comically under-enthused carnival game operator Salvatore.

The story also offers a bizarre glimpse into what happened to the races of Hyrule following the flooding of the world. The childlike Kokiri from Ocarina of Time apparently evolved into the tiny, tree-like Korok and learned to fly around with giant leaves, while the water-faring fish-like Zora instead became land-dwellers and learned to fly, becoming the bird-like Rito.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

I will say that the game’s ending felt very weak to me; I’m still on the fence as to whether Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time has the worse finale, but neither of them really did anything for me (though to Wind Waker’s credit, the final battle with Ganon does end rather spectacularly).

As I discussed a while back in my post on the ending of Red Dead Redemption, a weak ending really undercuts the strength of the overall story, especially in the case of an epic fantasy tale like Wind Waker, so this is definitely one of my biggest problems with the game.

As for the gameplay, while the core overworld-to-dungeon flow of play mostly remains intact, it’s shaken up by a much greater emphasis on overworld exploration. As mentioned previously, Hyrule has become a series of islands on the ocean, and much of Wind Waker’s gameplay revolves around sailing the King of Red Lions from island to island, discovering new islands, filling in Link’s Sea Chart, and exploring these islands for hidden treasures.

There’s also a lengthy sidequest revolving around Link obtaining Treasure Charts, which show the locations of hidden treasures in the waters near these islands, which Link must salvage from the ocean floor. On paper it sounds rather tedious, but I actually found it to be the most exciting, enjoyable part of the game, charting the world, exploring strange new lands and hunting treasure. It’s one of the best open world concepts I’ve come across in a video game and it’s something I’d dearly love to see replicated in future Zelda titles, in spirit if nothing else.

Anybody else hear the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme? No? Just me, then?

Anybody else hear the “Pirates of the Carribean” theme? No? Just me, then?

As for the more traditional Zelda-style gameplay, it’s as satisfying as ever here. While the dungeon design and boss battles aren’t as brilliantly done as those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they’re still good and will put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. Sword combat is fleshed out a little more than it was in Ocarina of Time, but it’s still not up to what it would become in TP and SS. Defeating most enemies is more dependent on clever use of items than it is on swordplay.

Speaking of, the item selection is noteworthy in Wind Waker, in that it has one of the smallest inventories I’ve seen in a Zelda game, but each item has multiple applications and uses. For example, bombs function as on-foot demolitions and ammo for the King of Red Lions’ cannon, while the Grappling Hook is used for swinging and climbing through the environment, for stealing from enemies, and for treasure salvage.

It’s very thrifty from a game design standpoint, and it makes each item feel more important, unlike some Zelda titles where items are used in one particular dungeon and then almost never again (looking at you, Spinner).

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn't make tops cool, nothing can.

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn’t make tops cool, nothing can.

Also, the game has one useful feature that makes running through the dungeons less of a headache. One big problem that the Zelda games have always had was a limited number of continue points; when you save and quit your game in most Zelda titles, while it saves your progress, Link will only re-appear at a handful of overworld locations, or the entrance to the dungeon you were working on.

So unless you can take the time to go through a dungeon in one shot, you’re going to wind up doing some backtracking, which is a hassle. Skyward Sword finally introduced save points to the series, something that I hope they keep in the next installment, since it allowed you to save, quit, and return to a dungeon at the last point you left off.

Wind Waker still starts you over at the beginning of the dungeon when you load a save, but it makes a concession to people with lives beyond video games in the form of warp pots. These are a series of three pots that, as you progress through the dungeon, you can open up, with one at the beginning of the dungeon, one at the midpoint, and one right before the boss chamber. So, if you have to save and quit in the middle of a dungeon, you can jump into the warp pot near the entrance and end up much closer to where you left off. It’s a helpful feature, and one that’s curiously absent in the next game in the series,Twilight Princess.

The controls are very solid overall; from movement to combat to sailing, Link moves responsively and quickly. Having three mappable item buttons is nice (especially after playing through Skyward Sword, which only had one button for items), though I found myself having to change my item load-out very frequently. And playing Wind Waker after Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, I cannot emphasize enough how much having a controllable camera mapped to a thumbstick improves the Zelda experience.

There were a few context-sensitive commands that didn’t detect my movements as well as I would have liked and led to more than a few cheap falls and failures in the game’s forced stealth segment (which was, admittedly, easier than I remembered), but all in all, the controls and core gameplay are very solid. And the additions to the Wii U version, namely the touchscreen menus and gyroscopic aiming mechanics, worked beautifully and added a great deal to the overall experience.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

The sound design and music were strong, as always. There are some excellent renditions of classic Zelda tunes as well as some catchy new songs (I’m particularly fond of the theme from Dragon Roost Island). Much like its visuals, sound design is one area where Wind Waker stacks up very favorably against other Zelda titles I’ve played.

So, what’s my final verdict? I’d say that Wind Waker ranks fourth on my list of Zelda titles that I’ve finished, below Skyward Sword but ahead of Ocarina of Time. In terms of mechanics and story, I don’t like it quite as much as some of the other titles in the series.

However, with excellent visuals, a strong score, and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, Wind Waker is very much a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I’d heartily recommend it to any fans out there. It has its own special charm that makes it an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And for those who own a Wii U, I’d definitely recommend the HD edition.

Seeing as this is the third Nintendo game in a row I’ve reviewed, I think I’m going to take a break from the Big N for a little while and shift focus to another developer–one whose work dominated my youth with great games, but fell victim to bad game design and poor writing. I’m going to have to take a literal trip to the dark side of the moon to find another good game from them. See you soon!

Fashionably Late: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga

Mario & Luigi 1

Okay, I know I hinted in the last review that I would be reviewing The World Ends With You as my next Fashionably Late game. It’s a game that I got from my brother years ago as a Christmas present that I still haven’t finished (sorry, Jake), but I got sidetracked from that title.

I plan to come back to it, but in the meantime, I’m reviewing another game that my brother introduced me to years ago that I never finished until now; a game, appropriately enough, about two brothers: Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga.

It’s impossible for me to talk about Mario & Luigi without first talking about the title that kicked off Nintendo’s franchise of Mario role-playing games, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. Back in 1996, before they were alienated by Nintendo’s decision to stick with the cartridge format for games on the soon-to-be-released Nintendo 64, Squaresoft (now Square-Enix) released all their games on Nintendo systems.

Many people bought a Super Nintendo for such classic Square games as Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana, and Chrono Trigger just as much as they bought one to play Mario titles. Eventually, the two companies decided to do a collaboration, and the result was Super Mario RPG, a console-style RPG starring Mario characters.

SMRPG is one of my favorite video games of all time. It’s a charming game with excellent graphics, memorable characters, delightful music and exciting gameplay. But more than that, SMRPG was a hugely influential game for me. It introduced me to the genre of roleplaying games, which is still one of my favorite game genres.

Even the sewer level was fun!

Even the sewer level was fun!

Without SMRPG, I might never have played titles like Final Fantasy VII, Parasite Eve, Lost Odyssey, Xenoblade Chronicles, Radiant Historia,The Last Story, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic or Fallout 3. I might never have tried my hand at tabletop roleplaying. More than most other games, SMRPG had a huge impact on my life, so its successors had a lot to live up to.

This legacy, however, created its own set of problems. Nintendo is one of the oldest companies in the game industry, and it has some of the longest-running franchises in the history of video games. That’s impressive, especially in today’s climate where game franchises often don’t last for more than one console generation, but it does have its drawbacks. 

Once one of Nintendo’s franchises hits a high point, many people consider any sequels they release to be inferior to that early game. I call this the “Mario 3 Effect,” after Super Mario Bros. 3, which is generally considered to be the best Mario action title ever released (though “Mario 64 Effect” would also be applicable).

And the Mario RPG franchise definitely falls prey to this pattern, at least for me. Rather than team up with Square again and make another title in the vein of Super Mario RPG, Nintendo instead had Intelligent Systems, developers of Fire Emblem, do their own take on a Mario RPG. The result was Paper Mario, a game so named for its art style, which used flat, 2D sprites in a 3D polygonal environment, resulting in “paper” characters. 

Even Bowser is shocked they're re-hashing this plot again.

Even Bowser is shocked they’re re-hashing this plot again.

Now, Paper Mario was by no means a bad game; it’s certainly a fun title in its own right. But it dumbs down the already-simplified RPG elements from SMRPG, replaces the fairly complex plot from SMRPG with yet another variation on the “Bowser kidnaps the Princess” storyline, and portrays a world that, while charming and fun in its own way, lacks the grand scale and quirkiness of SMRPG’s world and its inhabitants. In short, while good, it underperformed my expectations.

The Paper Mario franchise would continue in 2004, with the release of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, which was an improvement on the original PM game with a much better story and a new land to explore, and later with Super Paper Mario and Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which, curiously, stripped down the RPG elements even further. But in the meantime, Nintendo, with developer Alpha Dreams, released a portable branch to the franchise for the Gameboy Advance in 2003, titled Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, which spawned its own series of sequels for the DS and 3DS.

I originally played M&L when it came out back in 2003, borrowing my brother’s copy of the game. I ended up putting it aside partway through and not returning to it until recently, when I played through it again as a re-release on the Wii U’s Virtual Console service. And playing it again, I can understand why I gave up on it at the time. Mario & Luigi is a very different game from its sister series, and this is both a good and a bad thing.

The plot centers around a (naturally) never-before mentioned neighboring nation to the Mushroom Kingdom called the Bean-Bean Kingdom. An ambassador from the Kingdom arrives in the Mushroom Kingdom, ostensibly on a goodwill mission to meet with Princess Peach. However, when the ambassador arrives, she reveals herself as the evil witch Cackletta (along with her malaprop-spewing sidekick, Fawful), and steals Peach’s voice, replacing it with a voice so hideously awful, Peach’s speech becomes literally explosive.

Princess Peach literally dropping F-bombs.

Princess Peach, dropping some F-bombs.

Naturally, it falls to Mario to pursue Cackletta back to the Bean-Bean Kingdom, thwart whatever designs she has for Peach’s voice, and fix the princess’ pipes (wakka-wakka!). Surprisingly, Bowser allies himself with Mario and agrees to give him a lift to Bean-Bean on his Doomship, on the grounds that if Bowser were to kidnap Peach in her current state, she could destroy his castle just by screaming. And Luigi, who initially plans to let his brother do the rescuing, gets mistaken for one of Bowser’s troops and dragged onto the Doomship, so he’s along for the ride, too.

I will say that the plot is actually one of M&L’s strong points; it starts off rather unpredictably and has a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing up until the final act. It’s not the most complex plot I’ve seen in a video game by any means, but it’s practically Inception by Mario standards.

Like Paper Mario, Mario & Luigi puts you in control of two party members, the titular Mario Brothers. However, while Paper Mario had a large cast of party members who joined Mario in his quest, Mario only has his green-garbed brother to rely on in M&L. And the entire game is designed around the concept of the brothers working as a team.

For starters, the player controls both brothers simultaneously; on the world map, Mario and Luigi move around in a short conga line, with either brother able to be swapped into the lead position, and the A and B buttons each controlling one of the brothers’ actions. At the beginning of the game, Mario and Luigi only have their trademark jumping abilities at their disposal, but as their quest progresses, they get access to progressively stronger hammers, as well as elemental “hand” powers, with Mario getting to shoot fire from his hand and Luigi mastering lightning.

These abilities are used to solve environmental puzzles, with jumps being used to traverse platforms and hit switch blocks, hammers being used to shatter boulders and hit wall switches, and the “hand” powers lighting torches and powering dynamos. Additionally, Mario and Luigi learn to use these abilities as a team, which expands the puzzle-solving out even further.

Trust me, Luigi's not just working out years of frustration here...

Trust me, Luigi’s not just working out decades of frustration here…

For example, Mario can team up with Luigi to spin like a helicopter and take a flying jump over large gaps, while Luigi can bounce on Mario and reach higher ledges. Mario can hit Luigi with a hammer to pound him into the ground and let him pass under obstacles, while Luigi can squish Mario down with his hammer and let him enter small gaps. These “Bro Techniques” become a means of opening up the world map even further and exploring previously unreachable places, as well as solving some nasty puzzles.

All of this carries over into the combat as well; whenever Mario and Luigi enter battle against an enemy (who are visible on the world map and can be preemptively struck, just like in Paper Mario), the player controls Mario with the A button and Luigi with the B button. Combat is turn-based, and each brother’s menu is controlled with their respective button.

Mario and Luigi each have access to all the abilities they have available on the field, including their jump, hammer and hand abilities (each enemy in the game being vulnerable to specific types of damage), as well as their Bro Techniques, which allow Mario and Luigi to double-team an enemy for extra damage and special effects, similar to Chrono Trigger’s Dual and Triple Techs.

The Bros Attacks can look...awkward out of context.

The Bros Attacks can look…awkward out of context.

The combat system also retains the “action commands” which have long been a staple of the Mario RPGs. In essence, this means that by performing a specific action at the right time, Mario or Luigi can increase the damage of their attacks, or by jumping an attack or parrying it with a hammer, they can avoid taking damage or even counter-attack.

Again, Mario and Luigi’s action commands are each controlled with their respective button, so the player needs to learn to read enemy movements and correctly command Mario or Luigi (or sometimes both at once) to avoid attacks to prevent them from taking damage. It’s a system I’ve always liked, because it keeps battles engaging where they can often become a tedious chore in RPGs, and Mario & Luigi takes it even further.

Visually, M&L is a gorgeous game. The sprites are bright, colorful and well-animated. Mario and Luigi never speak a word of dialogue (well, Luigi actually does speak, but he’s disguised as somebody else at the time, so that doesn’t really count), but their expressions convey enough personality and emotion that it doesn’t really matter.

The environments are creatively designed and the other characters are interesting to look at; in particular, the Koopalings have some surprisingly well-designed sprites, considering that this was their first game appearance in more than 10 years (though strangely, they don’t have a single line of dialogue).

Looking good, kids!

Looking good, kids!

The music, however, is rather disappointing…which is surprising, because it’s composed by Super Mario RPG composer and video game music powerhouse Yoko Shimomura, who ranks alongside such luminaries as Nobuo Uematsu and Yasunori Mitsuda as one of my favorite game composers. The issue isn’t that Shimomura’s tunes are bad; they’re certainly serviceable, even if they don’t measure up to some of her other work, and certain pieces, like the battle music and boss battle themes, are certainly catchy.

I think the main issue is that these pieces are short and loop a lot…though I’m not sure why, as there are plenty of other titles on the Gameboy Advance that have many lengthy BGMs. The short, repetitive nature of a lot of the tunes got on my nerves at times, which didn’t help my enjoyment of the game.

Story-wise, the game is a mixed bag for me. On one hand, as I said, the story is much more complex and involved than other entries in the series. On the other, there aren’t as many memorable, interesting characters as there have been in other Mario RPG titles. There are stand-out characters such as the noble Prince Peasley, villains Cackletta and Fawful, and comic-relief villain Popple, but the cast pales in comparison to games like SMRPG and Thousand-Year Door, with the memorable characters they introduced in almost every location you went to.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call 'em like I see 'em.

Sorry, Fawful, but I call ’em like I see ’em.

On the subject of locations, while the ones that appear in M&L are pretty interesting, there aren’t many of them, and you’ll be backtracking to locations to re-visit them frequently, which makes the game feel very small in scope. I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair of me to pick on the game on that last point since it is a portable game, but it is what it is.

Another thing that bothered me about this game, plot-wise, is how it treats the character of Luigi. Now, up until recently (as of the time of the game’s release), Luigi hadn’t been playable in a main Mario title for several years, and this was his first appearance in a Mario RPG as a main character. But the way the developers decided to deal with him was by treating him as cowardly comic relief. This sort of expands on Luigi’s characterization in his first solo game, Luigi’s Mansion, where he spent most of his time scared out of his mind…because he was in a haunted mansion! There, the portrayal of Luigi as a scaredy-cat made sense.

But here, the developers decided to expand that schtick further to the point where Luigi is afraid of everything, and would be more than happy to ignore the call to adventure and let Mario handle dangers for himself if circumstances permitted. Sadly, this seems to be the interpretation of the character that Nintendo has stuck with over the years, turning Luigi into an overlooked, under-appreciated joke. It just rubs me the wrong way with its mean-spiritedness, even if it can be funny at times.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan.

As you can see, I’m a bit of a fan.

And while I praised the game design earlier, I have to contradict myself a bit when I say that this game becomes something of a chore to play towards the end. The last few dungeons of the game become massive marathons of tricky puzzles and battles that can easily party-wipe you if you’re not an expert at dodging attacks and well-stocked with healing items. Now, I’m not one to complain about difficulty in a game, provided the difficulty curve is well handled, but in M&L, the difficulty spikes so sharply towards the end of the game that it’s astounding.

This difficulty spike is compounded by the fact that, like later Paper Mario games, M&L eliminates or downplays a lot of RPG elements. Presumably this is done in an effort to simplify the game and appeal to a wider audience, but a lot of times this streamlining leaves the game with features that feel more vestigial than functional.

For example, there are only a few equipment and item shops in the game, to the point where I almost wonder why they bothered to keep equipment in the game at all, since the scaling of power is minimal and you can go for hours of game time without ever upgrading your armor or badges.

This issue is also exacerbated by the fact that one of the brothers’ core statistics, the ‘Stache attribute, gives Mario and Luigi a discount at shops…which is great, until you realize that there’s not a lot of shopping to do in the game and you’ll rarely be short on money, even with a lower ‘Stache score.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck's Stache score is 255.

Fun fact: Tom Selleck’s Stache score is 255.

There are also no inns to rest up at and restore your health and Bros Points (the resource that powers your Bro Techniques in battle), which discourages the player from using special techniques regularly and leveling them up, removing a lot of depth from combat. This shortcoming, combined with the emphasis on timed attacks and dodges, results in a combat system that rewards fast reflexes and timing more than planning and strategy, which may be preferable for some people, but left me wanting something a bit more cerebral.

All in all, Mario & Luigi is a solid game, certainly good enough for me to want to play its sequels when I get the chance. But it still pales in comparison to the game that started it all, Super Mario RPG, and leaves me wondering if one of my favorite games of all time will ever get a truly worthy successor. Unfortunately, at this point it seems like no amount of wishing on a star will ever make that dream come true.