Monday, October 12, 2009

Pollen on the Brain (A Plants vs. Zombies Review)

Unfortunately in the world of gaming, the recycling of old and unoriginal gaming ideas is a viable and highly profitable business. It’s not often that a developer like Pop Cap (being the kings of recycling themselves) makes something new, yes they create newer games, but those games are basically re-skinned versions of their older ones and as such, are not really new in a sense. But winds of change seem to be blowing, because unbelievably, they made not only a new game, but one that involved every gamer’s favourite mascot, the zombie. Naturally, I was quite excited, although I must admit I still had my reservations; once I had played the game however, those reservations quickly became null and void as I found myself playing an incredibly fun game.

Plants vs. Zombies is basic in its formula but very big in its result. By taking influences from the tower defence maps of Warcraft 3, and building upon that simple premise, the player must prevent zombies from munching on the brains (which they oh so lovingly do) of the houses owner. It’s simple yet deceptively fun. Zombies, being the nuisance they are, spawn in continuous waves on the right side of a garden, their goal, is simply to get to the left side where the owners house is located. Your job as the player is to strategically place plants in an effort to prevent the zombies from accomplishing their goal; which as you would expect, becomes progressively more difficult each level. In order to successfully defend your garden, and through the various methods available to you, the player must collect enough sun power with which you can plant your vegetable army. How these photo synthesisers of doom manage to impede such zombie masses? Well I’m not exactly sure, but what I do know, is that by acting as either defensive obstacles or offensive attackers, they get the job done with satisfying effect.

These satisfying ingredients make up a majority of the game, but between every few levels, and after completing the game however, a series of enjoyable mini-games present themselves. These mini-games allow for a variation of play styles, this successfully manages to keep the game fresh and fun; ranging from the bowling over of zombies with walnuts, to playing a bejewelled style game with a twist.

As important as gameplay may be, there are many other elements to which comprise a game. For example, both the graphical style and audio track lend themselves brilliantly to the game and its accommodating themes. In fact, they do more than that, because they help to complete the game. Without these specific design choices, the game would seem less like a retail product and more like a mini browsing game. Over and above everything else I have mentioned, it’s the polish that most astounds me. The game is well balanced, almost completely bug free and not to mention incredibly addictive. Not only has Plants vs. Zombies been polished to an absolute T, but the game reeks of character, to a point you’d think it was the stilton of gaming. So what am I trying to say? Well it’s quite simple really, play Plants vs. Zombies. It really is a fine game, and if anything to go by, I see better days to come from Pop Cap.

It's a great game, its only real failing is its short length. gr33n_FIEND

One Small Piece of Anime Heaven

One Piece, it was almost assuredly love at first sight. Not only is it my most beloved and cherished of anime series, but for me and many others;it defines what an anime series should be. To such an extent in fact, One Piece has become an epic in its own right. Ok, so that’s more than enough fan speak for now, I don’t want you to get tired of me before you finish reading this post. So let me cut out all the unnecessary fat, and let’s get down to business. Yes, I believe One Piece to be worthy of praise, and yes, I am writing this post in the hopes of convincing, if only a few of you, to watch One Piece. But I’m not naive, and I’m most certainly not stupid, well at least I hope I’m not. I also know that not everyone reading this post is a fan of anime, moreover, I know that every anime fan that is reading this post, already has a favourite anime. So in the attempts of not angering anyone, and therefore losing my cause, I am going to try and motivate my point.

One Piece is story which revolves around the exploits and characters of the Straw Hat Pirates. Pirate anime, originality from the get go. The Straw Hat Pirates are a crew 9, who consist of:

Luffy (Captain)
Zoro (Swordfighter)
Nami (Navigator)
Usopp (Sniper I guess)
Sanji (Cook)
Chopper (Docter)
Robin (Archaeologist)
Franky (Shipwright)
Brook (Musician)

A normal enough crew name wise, but as you can see, there is clearly nothing ordinary about them. Before I make an attempt at explaining what makes this particular crew or any other character in One Piece, unique; it would probably be wise of me to explain the setting of which this anime finds itself. One Piece is set in a world of fantasy, where the King of Pirates, Gold Roger has been captured and executed. But before his death, he had announced to the world that all the wealth and power he had obtained, a treasure of epic proportions, could belong to anyone who finds One Piece. And while the anime still has not alluded to what One Piece is, many fans have put forward their own hypothesis as to what it is. Now as you can imagine, this announcement had not only set off a chain reaction of interest and desire for One Piece, but started the age of pirates. The story is based upon a tiered plot system, where not to be too confusing, many different sub-plots, story arks and characters are involved in their own individual events/circumstances, while still maintaining relevance with the story as a whole.

A majority of the story takes place in the Grand Line, a mystical strip of ocean running along the equatorial centre of the world. In this ocean, and owing to its mysterious nature, each individual island can consists of its own unique climate, environment and mystery. For example, one may be under continuous winter and populated almost exclusively with people; while another may contain a jungle environment, populated with giant animals and a more advanced civilisation. Baring in mind of course, these islands could be considerably close to each other, while never actually influencing one other at the same time. Now of course, without a conflict of forces, the effectiveness of the story would quickly be rendered mute. And in One Piece, there are two forces at play; the pirates searching and battling for One Piece, and the second force is the World Government trying to end the age of pirates, making them the counter balance to the equation.

This being shonen, you’d expect some type of special powers or abilities with which this anime may individualise itself. And of course, you’d be right. In One Piece there are fruit known as Devil Fruit, these fruit have the ability to grant a unique power to anyone who consumes one; and although that person loses the ability to swim in water, it usually makes that individual superior to anyone without an ability. As you would expect, a few of the Straw Hat Pirates have Devil Fruit powers which I would love to explain. But for reasons of respect for the show, and that I don’t believe I could properly do the crew justice in so short a post; I will leave that up to discovery.

So, what makes the Straw Hat Pirates so unique? I don’t think I could do that question as much justice as watching the series could. What makes One Piece such a great anime? Now this is an answer I think I could do justice, and without the worry of introducing any spoilers. There is no simple answer as to why One Piece is so loved, for one thing, it has unrivalled originality in its setting and characters. Of the hundreds of characters that have been introduced, each one is almost completely unique in both appearance and personality. Not only is the story is great, but the setting that is the Grand Line owes itself to completely new experiences and stories every few episodes. The characters have a real strength behind them; you easily believe their motivations, emotions and ambitions. But all this is trivial compared to the real reason to love this anime. And that is the emotions you experience when watching it; I have cried, laughed, got angry and sad while watching One Piece. You don’t watch One Piece, you live it.

Hopefully I’ve enticed you enough to give One Piece a try, you won’t go wrong. And even if you’ve never watched an anime series before, or more than that, you’re completely new to the whole idea of anime. I say to you, no, I plea to you; give One Piece a try; because you can’t go wrong when the first anime you watch may just happen to be your favourite. gr33n_FIEND

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Overpowered Anime Characters

I can already see it now from the early prospects of this post's title. In fact I predict a thick and coagulated batch of controversy. So far though, it doesn't seem to be all that bad because it’s starting to smell a bit like liquorice. In order to stem the predicted tide of complaints, I’m going to address this problem right here, right now. I agree that modern electronic mediums like gaming encourages everyone to hold their own subjective (whether ill-considered or not) opinion. So as is the nature of things, what I deem to be an unbalanced or overpowered anime character may very well be seen as entirely the opposite or anywhere in between for everyone else. In order to better illustrate my point, and as common sense would dictate, I’m going to give a brief description into what I believe makes a character overpowered or unbalanced.

In an attempt to look slightly intelligent and for the sake of this post, I have invented the Superman rule. Superman Rule: An anime character is eligible for the term ‘overpowered’ and/or ‘unbalanced’ when they exceed or have equivalencies to/with the relative power of the DC character ‘Superman’. Power does not refer to the specific powers of Superman within or outside of his universe but instead equates to his strength of ability within his own contextual universe. Since Superman’s ability, while entirely strong in his own contextual universe, may not be exceedingly strong in another contextual universe. We must refer to the relative scale at which he can achieve his ends within his own universe. Simply put, a character is overbalanced when in the context of his/her/its own specific fictional (and equally awesome) universe; he/she/it can overcome their goals with the same achievability as Superman. Even more so if the character seems too strong to be suppressed by any naturally occurring elements of the contextual universe.

After reading, considering and attempting to apply my definition of an overpowered anime character; you’d be perfectly justified in questioning the relevancy of my ‘Superman rule’. This is especially the case when we consider how many characters would in fact equal or exceed Superman in strength. While the ‘Superman rule’, I admit, is undoubtedly on shaky grounds. By being able to question anime characters to some extent, it must maintain some iota of usefulness. Another question I must consider is why does this even matter? An important question to be sure, especially when considering that no matter the circumstances that may confront me; I am and always will be an anime fan. My only problem with anime should now be as clear as day, obvious in fact. I really dislike the idea and practice of using overbalanced characters. Yes they have an uncanny ability to fill most plot holes in anime, and I’ll grant that the way in which they present their abilities is usually a sight to behold (a.k.a. epic). But they degrade the story, introduce story warps and worst of all, they have an annoying ability to render many of the other characters irrelevant. Even if one were to assume that power/ ability played no prominent role in a specific sub-plot, arc or story; they represent the lack in other characters, and such is the nature of anime that with this lack, a character starts to subside in our minds.

I think it would be appropriate to briefly explain what a story warp is. To me a story warp can be most simply defined as continuous plot corrections or vacancies causing accumulated unbalance. When a writer introduces an overpowered anime character, for whatever reason, they must then introduce some way in which to suppress this power. Moreover, so to allow for a more acceptable story, more and more extravagant plot devices are introduced so to explain the imbalance of a character. This can become so prevalent that if the plot isn’t reigned in or carefully reworked; it sooner or later becomes too much for fans to accept. Another aspect of an overpowered character is that they can generate a definitive lack of interest in an anime series. If we are to imagine a situation in which an overbalanced character provides the protagonist foundation for most of the power in a series. Other characters must usually then rely upon this character constantly to proceed. So much so that the effectiveness of story and its characters begin to dilute and wane. These are the problems among many others.

I love anime. It's because of this reason that I won't pick on a specific anime series. Some of them even accomodate overpowered (or close to that overpowered) characters; yet maintain the status quo through well written means. Despite my accusations, anime writers do tend to avoid some of the holes I have mentioned. More than anything else, Im using this post to creatively and constructively vent my frustration. I do this so that I may continue to enjoy a favourite pastime of mine. Anime I am grateful for your existence. green_FIEND

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Patch Me Up Scotty

Patching is great, I love patching, no seriously, I do. In fact, just the mere thought of some new content in an enjoyable game makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And before anyone reading this objects to my disproportionate attitude toward patches, and as understandable as these objections may be, considering that they can usually signify a lazy programmer or tester. It is often at times all that’s needed in resuscitating a broken but potentially great game; let us not forget the introduction of inspired content or some desperately needed stability that a patch may promise. I’d say that as much as a patch can indicate laziness, it can equally indicate a dedicated and passionate team.

In the land of patches; there are the good, the bad and the ugly. The good introduce inspired content (either through a developers own devices or just as often it may be inspired by a true fan ranting on a forum), improve performance and features, offer compatibility, modding and a number of other great aspects. An example of a patch would be the COD 5 patches, famous for their new zombie mod maps which I especially love so very much. A good patch may also fix bugs, now I know what you may be thinking, how can a patch that counteracts bad programming be classified as a good patch? Well its simple really, no one is perfect and as such, people make mistakes in game design and creation. It’s just the nature of coding, there are too many variables to completely account for, and in fact, if a developer had to attempt to find and fix every bug that existed in a fairly complex game, it would not only never get released but would put our favourite companies out of business. And sometimes, through mostly unfortunate and unexpected circumstances, a developer may go under. When (and if) a new developer takes over, they then may find and fix bugs; alternatively however, they may also add content that the old developer may have never even considered. On the top of modding, without the developers constant reworking of a gaming engine through patches, we may never have seen some of the many great patches that now exist.

The faculties of a bad patch are often far less a reason to get overjoyed, yet they aren’t without their gains. Yes some of these patches are annoyingly large, and yes, it’s not unreasonable to assume that many of these patches could have been avoided with a little more work on the developer’s side. But I for one completely embrace and relish their existence; for one thing, without these annoying patches, there would be far more annoying bugs in one of my absolute favourite pc games, Fallout 3. Another thing that constitutes a bad patch, and I’m sure you’ll all agree; is the patches that change or remove features or tech that we otherwise wanted or enjoyed. A great example of this would be found in the game Assassin’s Creed, you see were I’m going with this don’t you? Let me explain, Assassin’s Creed originally shipped with DirectX 10.1 support, something that at the time could only be utilised by ATI graphics cards. Unfortunately, and to the annoyance of ATI (and especially HD4xxx series card owners) supporters, through bribery from the ever so greedy Nvidia, DX10.1 support was removed. But what constitutes these patches as bad and not ugly I here you say? Because as troubling as they are, I move on, by that I mean; while I may throw a bit of slander around, express something on a forum or heckle a supporter of the patch. Over time I get over it, start embracing the changes and attempt to enjoy the somewhat new experience. What we find in the belly of an ugly patch is far more deranged and demonic.

These patches are the stuff of nightmares, not only do they strike fear in the hearts of gamers, but they cause me so much pain in speaking about them that I’m going to make this as brief as possible. Ugly patches barely work; in that they never correctly detect games, registries, executables and the like. And when they do work they do nothing but make the game worse. Ok, granted that not all patches make a game worse, but they don’t do what you want either. Here is an example; you’re playing a game that is way to buggy for words, this of course indicates the pure money grubbing laziness of the developers and/or its publishers. So you decide to search online for a patch or two, fair enough, only to discover however, a multiple of ridiculously large patches which would destroy your cap in any vain attempt to download them. Fortunately you’re an avid reader of a pc gaming magazine and they have generously answered your call by supplying the patches on disc. Hooray, great, ready for a new shot at the game. Wait, hold on, something’s wrong. Because of course the patch fixes almost nothing and you’re still encountering the same stupid bugs you are originally. That is what I call an ugly patch.

Whether you decide to disagree or agree, that is up to you. But patches are here to stay; I just hope it’s a lot more of the good, rather than the bad and the ugly. From my first two posts you may assume I’m an angry gamer. I’m really not, I just get frustrated when things tamper with my most favourite of past times, and this my friends is seeming goal of most quintessential patches. gr33n_FIEND

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

X-Blades... It's a shame really :(

Elite, noob or casual, no matter the gamer, no matter the age, if I were to ask the simple question, what would you get if you mixed ‘Devil May Cry’ with ‘Serious Sam’? Without a shadow of doubt, the answer would be one of two things; a short and approving “epic” or a freakishly high pitched scream of joy. Unfortunately, when it comes to the game X-Blades, the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” comes to mind. X-Blades was developed by Gaijin Entertainment and published by both South Peak Interactive and Top Ware Interactive. It starts with its good foot first, but it must’ve stubbed its toe on the way in because the game not only starts to make a distinct growling noise, but seems to refuse to allow the player have almost any fun at all.

Sure it has some nifty cel-shaded graphics, it also closely resembles the anime look it was so obviously inspired by. But like the many games before it and almost certainly the games to follow, graphics will never be the be all and end all of a game. I should probably tell you a little about it, it’s a hack and slash adventure game; the player assumes the role of Ayumi, a sword wielding, gun slinging Dante wanabe. Her fighting style is very similar in essence to Dante’s (the lead character of Devil May Cry), while Dante has an absolutely absurd amount melee and ranged attacks, enough in fact to put even Kratos to shame. Ayumi has the same repetitive melee and ranged attack throughout the entire game. She can also gain a variety of new abilities, this is achieved by collecting souls found within each of the levels, the player does this by both attacking and defeating the many enemies, and/or collecting soul pieces placed throughout each level. When it comes to fighting these so called enemies however, it is an endeavour similar to that of a Serious Sam game; in each level there is a succession of progress blockers, once the player reaches these areas, a series of fixed generic monsters and monster generators spawn in, in order to proceed the player must defeat all of these opponents. Unfortunately for the player, the monsters seem to be nothing but re-skinned, recycled and atrociously dim A.I.

Things aren’t going great for X-Blades are they. I’m not going to beat around the bush, the screenshots of X-Blades sold me, and I really did believe I would enjoy it. The problem with the game is not its founding idea, that’s solid and settled. But its severe lack of polish in areas like; delayed movement controls, repetitive game play mechanics, abilities that add almost no advantage to combat and a tiresome soundtrack. The story just has no motivation behind it; its gaping plot holes, failure in tying levels together and poor dialogue they all pull away at the games core. Endless as this list may be, I wouldn’t give in so easily and was determined to finish it. No game should be this hard to enjoy, it just isn’t any fun for any extended amount of time. And when you consider the amount we pay for games nowadays, any charm or potential this game originally had, quickly and regrettably became obsolete.
Im sorry to say, but it gets a lowly score from me. gr33n_FIEND