Monday, July 22, 2013

Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires (PS3)

Reviewed on PS3, available on PS3 (PSN Exclusive)

The Dynasty Warriors series is famous (or perhaps infamous) for it's grinding hack-and-slash gameplay that has changed little over the generations. Traditionally, the games take place during the "Romance of the Three Kingdoms" era in Chinese history. From here, players select their character from a massive roster, and jump into the battlefield to clash against their foes. The "Empires" series takes this familiar and 1-dimensional game and adds a new element of strategic management into the mix.

In Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires, the game introduces managing territories and resources, in addition to the standard battlefield gameplay. During setup, players may choose from pre-built scenarios which dictate the starting forces and resources, or they may choose a clean slate to manually (or randomly) populate the map. Even further still, players can then choose to play as a leader, officer, or roaming mercenary with no allegiance yet. Once the starting conditions are set, the player is free to begin their conquest.

A leader discussing with his officers their next course of action.

From the strategic map, players will manage four different types of resource: Food, info, gold, and a new resource called "fame". Food is used to heal and train your soldiers, info is used to invest and for diplomacy, and gold is for purchasing equipment. Fame is broken down further into six categories: Brave, Wise, Kind, Orderly, Affluent, and Evil. The higher your fame is in a particular category, the more abilities you unlock of that type. For example, a player with high orderly fame can summon elite cavalry, while a player with high evil fame can pillage enemy bases. Any abilities you earn can be selected and used anytime in the battlefield, and add a very interesting and fun aspect to the game. The game is interrupted with a cut scene every time you use an ability; which is highly annoying in multiplayer or even after an extended play.

Despite having all these different resources to acquire, the strategy portion falls flat very quickly due to no significant depth. Unlocking new abilities can be fun, but the usefulness of the early abilities compared to later ones ruins the incentive. Improving your army is borderline meaningless, and the only worthwhile investment is buying items to buff the player himself. Diplomacy is also painfully shallow, as it is impossible to have long-term friendly relations with another faction. You can make a temporary alliance, but the moment it expires, former friends will be marching on your lands without hesitation.

Defeating thousands of enemies takes little effort.

Once the player has reached the battlefield, they must navigate capturing (and defending) bases to create a path to the enemy's main camp. Enemy soldiers and officers will engage you, but serve no purpose other than to stand in your way, and are quickly dispatched after a few well-placed combos or musou attack. Friendly officers have improved A.I. over previous games, and are capable of pushing and even capturing the main base. Fame abilities (called strategems) are by far the most interesting part of the battle, allowing you or any officer to place ambushes or set bases on fire. Unfortunately, strategems are far from critical, and rarely change anything significant.

Perhaps the most redeeming feature Dynasty Warriors 7 Empires has to offer is it's detailed custom character creation. Complete with sliders, tons of outfits, and ridiculously large weapon selection, it's very easy to make tons of unique and interesting characters. Even further still, you can choose to have your custom character replace a particular officer in game, allowing the player to replace all the generic officers with characters they have made. Players can also download custom characters from PSN, or choose to have PSN automatically push random custom characters seamlessly into the game instead of generic officers.

The custom character screen will entice you for hours.

Gameplay - 4/10
There is nothing new to be had here in terms of gameplay, aside from a strategy mode that adds little to nothing (even compared to previous Empires titles). Combat is fun at first, but dries out quickly once you figure out the formula to win even against powerful enemies. The strategems are a step in the right direction, but need a lot of work to become worthwhile.

Design - 6/10
The visuals are high quality on characters, but the environments are plain and barren. Strategy map interface is pretty bland and generally uninteresting. Occasionally, there's a cool cut scene where your character interacts with another character during the battle, which adds a lot to the feel. Most points are given here for the excellent custom character creation.

Replay - 8/10
Playing with different fame types and custom characters greatly improved the replay value of this game. This game gets excellent replay points for the return of split screen, which is becoming a rarity these days. Different scenarios and a few unlockable features after beating the game. There's also the ability to jump into another player's game via PSN, but its only for a single battle and takes a long time to match.

Final - 18/30 Poor
With this many games in the Dynasty Warriors series (as well as the Empires series) you would expect to see some ground-breaking improvements of some sort. Unfortunately there is little satisfaction to be had, aside from the custom character creation. If you are a die-hard fan who lives for this franchise, then grab a friend and create custom characters to greatly improve the experience.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 30$

Monday, July 8, 2013

XCOM: Enemy Unknown (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC

XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a turn-based strategy game, based off of the classic XCOM: UFO Defense, and developed by Firaxis (popular for its addicting Civilizations series). In this game, the player leads a small force of specialized soldiers against the alien threat attacking various countries. The enemies are stronger, smarter, and in greater number, but can XCOM rise to the challenge? It should be noted, this game is fairly violent, despite it's appearance.

The goal of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is to defeat the alien menace while defending various countries in the world. The combined countries make up a mysterious group, known as "The Council", who funds the player and provides objectives. If a country is frequently attacked and XCOM fails to defend it, the country will drop out of the XCOM project, and cease to fund the player. If too many countries drop out, the game is over. The catch here is that multiple countries are always invaded at the same time, and its only possible to defend one, so managing defense can be frustrating and require significant planning.

Soldiers are highly customize-able, and level up by killing enemies.

At your disposal initially are basic soldiers, equipped with your standard body armor and assault rifle. After a mission or so, they will choose a specialization and become either a Sniper, Heavy, Assault, or Support class. Their stats will gradually increase, and players can choose which talents to unlock with each soldier's individual talent tree. This is all possible only if your soldiers survive, since death is permanent and frequent on harder difficulties. Your enemies will have stronger weapons from the start, and it becomes apparent when your favorite troop's face is melted by a plasma rifle.

Enemies are various and very, very powerful on the game's intended difficulties. One true aspect of the game is how desperate the fights will feel, and how conflicted players will be gambling on the lives of soldiers they have invested in. Your soldiers will feel the pressure too, and if things start to go badly, they will panic and attempt to flee or open fire without orders. No matter how perfect you play, some losses will be unavoidable, which is a very praise-worthy piece of the game. This is war, after all.

Enemies are wide in variety, with different strengths and weaknesses.

In order to improve your chances against the alien threat, the player must choose to research gathered materials from the enemy. In time, the player can unlock some impressive technology, including new weapons, armor, robots, and even aircraft. The catch is that research is painfully slow, and only one research project can be done at a time. Would you rather improve your soldier's weapons and ability to fight, or your soldier's armor and ability to survive?

Visually, the game looks fantastic with an excellent color palette. Structures and forests are detailed, inside and out. Alien ships are well designed, and feel mysterious and threatening from the inside. Walls will crumble under fire and cars will explode, as nearly everything is destructible in this game. Finishing shots will bring the player's camera into a kill-cam view, bringing great satisfaction (or great disappointment depending). The sound effects are top notch all around, with the exception of some absolutely terrible voice acting during randomized escort missions.

Foes will maneuver to get the best shot on you, while keeping themselves protected.

Gameplay - 8/10
The combat is highly entertaining, while also being highly frustrating. Research and development is exciting, and customizing your troops is satisfying. Enemies are smart and challenging, with excellent AI. The global and base management elements of the game are great, but felt like there could have been a lot more to do. Mission variety is a little stale after a while.

Design - 7/10
Visually, the game is high quality, but stages are recycled too frequently. In a full game, a player may play the same stage 3-4 times. Missions in different countries do not differ from each other, and always resemble an English-speaking city. Similarly, troops from different countries speak perfect English with no accents whatsoever, which hurts the immersion. Voice acting is notably bad by escorted NPCs, and they honestly sound like they were done by random people with no acting experience.

Replay - 8/10
With the popular Second Wave features unlocked (various select-able changes) this game has greatly improved replay value. Harder difficulties will challenge the player significantly, but only add so much. An additional point is granted for the optional "Iron Man" mode, which auto saves the game and prevents the player from reloading to provide them a better outcome. Multiplayer is 1v1 versus only, which is a significant oversight. Mod support is surprisingly poor as well.

Final - 23/30 Good
There is a great experience to be had playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown; especially now that the price has dropped a bit. The gameplay is smooth and satisfying for strategy fans, but may leave players wanting at the end of the day. If you are on the ropes about this game, try the demo and see how it feels. Although I personally enjoyed it, this game is not for everyone.

Recommended Buying Price: No more than 40$

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Cube World (PC, Alpha)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC, possibly consoles in the future.

Before I get into any depth with this review, allow me start by saying Cube World is NOT a Minecraft clone. It's a common mistake to associate this game with Minecraft, simply because it also shares the block world style. While Minecraft has large focus on building, Cube World has its own flavor with roots strongly in the RPG genre, and is a great experience even currently in its alpha stage.

Cube World is an open adventure RPG that generates the world based on a user-input seed (similar to Minecraft here as well). Fans of Minecraft will notice vast improvements in terms of the in-depth character customization and classes. Currently there are 8 different races (which only change the character aesthetically) and 4 different classes. After choosing your character, you can play either locally or connect to a server for multiplayer.

There are some interesting races to choose from, in addition to the casuals.

Visually, the game is impressive for an alpha stage. Within the dense forests, open lakes, or undead-infested dungeons, there is immense effort put into making the world. Although the land is randomly generated, it doesn't feel oddly pieced together. Cities full of NPCs, shops, and class trainers also spawn randomly.

Mobs and NPCs appear in the wilderness in a realistic manner, instead of spawning in plain sight like in Minecraft. Players will frequently run into groups of adventurers, both friendly and hostile, wandering the country side. The variety of creatures is also a high mark, and although I am uncertain of the exact number, there seems to be at least 40 different types of creatures. There are also boss enemies that appear throughout the land.

Places of interest show up on the map, with color coded names for difficulty.

Combat is fun and surprisingly intense for a game of this genre. The character classes are designed to keep the player alternating between abilities, and use items quite frequently. Warriors, rogues, and rangers build up MP through combat to unleash their stronger abilities. Mages start with full MP and it gradually decreases through spell casting. All classes also have a stamina bar, which is used for dodge rolling, climbing, and hang gliding.

The inventory and crafting system are effective, although still in their early stages. Players can craft equipment from materials gathered; provided they have the required stats to wear them. There are very few crafting choices initially, but more recipes are found dropped by enemies or purchased from shops. There are plans to implement the ability to build, but at this time, players cannot build structures of their own.

NPCs offer minor dialogue, but can show the location of places and reveal how to tame certain pets.

Gameplay - 9/10
Cube World is a great game that's fun to play, and even more fun to play with friends. This game takes the formulas from many successful games and merges them into an addicting product with a bright future ahead of it. There is still more to come, and in future reviews, this score may change based on the added content.

Design - 8/10
The design choice is a brilliant take on the block art style. Despite looking similar to Minecraft, players will immediately notice that everything is much more fluid and natural. Points are lost for an incomplete user interface, and some incomplete aspects of the environment. Again, there is more to come in the future, and this score will likely change.

Replay - 10/10
There is no level limit, so players can continually play and reach higher levels. Four different classes, with different move sets for the weapons equipped. Tons of items to craft, dungeons to explore, and bosses to defeat. With more additions on the horizon, there will be tons and tons of reasons to play this game regularly.

Final - 27/30 Amazing
If you can manage to buy and download a copy of Cube World, you are in for a treat. There's a bit of a learning curve, and still lots of incomplete parts of the game, but still easily worth the $20 price tag. This game is best with some friends, so convince a few to join you, and support this awesome indie upstart.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Hotline: Miami (PC)

Reviewed on PC, available on PC

In Hotline: Miami, you take the role of a mysterious character (known by the community as "Jacket") as you are given discreet jobs to kill people. Not much is known or revealed about Jacket, but it becomes clear that he has serious psychological problems. Reality frequently distorts, and the game often keeps you guessing about what is really happening, and who is giving Jacket the jobs. I'll admit, I wasn't quite sure what to think of Hotline: Miami at first look, but it's really an interesting play.

Gameplay wise, Hotline: Miami sticks to a simple style reminiscent of ye old arcade games. The action is lightning fast, and player deaths occur after a single hit by any enemy. Upon death, the player can restart the area instantly by pressing the 'R' key and try it again. There are a large variety of weapons with slight strengths, and more are unlocked as stages are completed.

This game is a straight-up murder simulator. No, seriously.

Enemies are very basic, and don't offer much challenge except when you are taken off guard. Loud weapons, such as firearms, will cause all nearby enemies to rush you from any direction (which frequently results in death). Silent weapons, such as melee weapons, will neutralize most enemies without making noise, but are still a risk to use. Keep in mind you will die in a single hit from gun or melee, so choose your approach carefully.

Before each stage, you are given the choice of which mask you wear. In addition to changing your appearance slightly, you are given a boost depending on your mask. Masks are unlocked by completing stages, and an additional mask can be unlocked by getting a high score on certain stages. Unfortunately, some of these masks have bonuses that are very circumstantial, so you will find yourself using only a handful of different masks from the large selection.

There's a good selection of masks, each with their own name.

With the mask being the only thing truly customize-able about your character, I couldn't help but feel like there could have been more. Unless you pick a mask that specifically gives you a weapon, you will always start the stage empty handed. Why would a hit man show up to a job with no weapon, when there are numerous targets involved? It seemed like an oversight, but doesn't take much away from the game.

At the end of each stage you are given a score and a rating. Surprisingly, the game tends to reward the Leroy Jenkins approach, and will give low scores for cautiously killing your targets. If you want a high score (which yields more masks), you will want to charge through as quickly as possible and rack up as many multi-kills as you can. This can be a little frustrating, as you will die a lot from that random guy who walks out and shoots you from behind.

A cautious approach will label you "Generic" and yield a poor score.

Gameplay - 8/10
The game is fun, although a little repetitive. Combat is simple, but jumping onto a downed enemy and smashing his head into the floor does satisfy. There are some moments in between stages that qualify as the game's cut scenes, which help balance out the adrenaline-fueled kill fest from moments before. 

Design - 7/10
The visuals are simple, but get the job done. I would go as far to say they add their own flavor to the game, rather than detract. Watching Jacket gradually lose his sanity is a high mark, and personally drove me to complete the game. The story will seem very confusing the entire game, and only truly makes sense after completing the bonus missions. 

Replay - 8/10
There's a ton of stages, each with a reason to replay them. A high rating will unlock new masks with different perks, and your cumulative scores will unlock different weapons that appear in all stages. Unfortunately, there aren't different difficulty levels, so you cannot replay Stage 1 on hard to adjust for your new strong unlocks.

Final - 25/30 Great Game
It's a dark game with a lot of frustration to be had, but highly satisfying. The beginning is arguably slow story-wise, but definitely picks up and finishes with a bang during the bonus missions. Mask selection also satisfies, and gives an incentive to do better. If you enjoy playing a protagonist with questionable morality and psychological problems, then this game is up your alley.