Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Top 8 of 2008: #3 WipeOut HD

Anyone who remembers the original Sony PlayStation can appreciate the revival of the WipeOut franchise in 2008. In 1995, Wipeout delivered on the promise of futuristic 3-D racing experiences and we were all sufficiently wowed by its beautiful urban landscape, and sleek twists and turns. WipeOut was quite the accomplishment then, and it seemingly grabbed our attention and never really let go.

Fast-forward and WipeOut HD represents a new promise to this generation of gaming: the delivery of high quality, high-definition full games via download. For only $20 gamers invested in a superior audio visual experience that combines the tracks of both previous PSP iterations of WipeOut. Yes, both portable games admiringly retained the classic WipeOut charm, but in HD the experience received a sizable high-resolution boost to full 1080p HD.

Although the controls here are tight and the online play is solid, it seems that any potential future for the series has been left to us, ironically. As of this writing, we here at Systemic have no idea how well the game has sold online (it didn't make the top 10 list, though) or when new tracks will be released online, but it would be a waste if Sony sits on their laurels and won't support this model since downloadable games are the future of this industry.

If you're a complete novice or a fan, give WipeOut HD a try. It's got friendly race assist options designed to help new players ease into the series (because no on likes running into walls the first time they play an unfamiliar racing game). The included tracks are some of the best of the last two games with more on the way (at least we hope), and Zone mode is a great way to help you hone your skills for online play. And the price barrier to entry here is a welcome one. At $20 bucks, there really wasn't an equal racing experience last year that could compete.

Monday, January 5, 2009

My Top 8 of 2008: #2 Bionic Commando Rearmed

The idea of remakes has always had a negative effect on me. I mean, really, why bother recreating something that was good 10 or 20 years ago when more effort could be spent on making something new and, perhaps, more interesting. At least, that what I used to think as soon as my eyes finished rolling at the sound of the word "remakes". I guess it just always felt like cheating to me. A game idea that was good 20 years ago might not be so good today, and increased visual fidelity means other parts of the game need proper retuning and correction.

The fact that Grin, the developers of the next-gen "Bionic Commando" and "BC Rearmed", came along and changed everything I thought remakes could be needs to be noted. BCR was a treat on so many different levels. The graphics were stylized in a manner that still homages the original work of the 2-D game, and the music, composed by Simon Viklund, is a work of genius that modernizes classic 8-bit music in astounding ways. Rather than sit on their laurels, the development team at Grin added new bosses that all required skilled use with the bionic arm, and replaced the only real flaw of the original game. Extra modes like co-op, versus, and 50 + challenge rooms added to the overall value, and were solid inclusions for the game's solid swing-or-die framework.

A game that focuses on a grapple and swing mechanic certainly doesn't seem modern by today's standard, but the job done here by this studio is truly remarkable, and I can only hope that more "remakes" are treated the same with as much reverence to the source material. If you're looking for a downloadable treat from 2008, look no further than Bionic Commando Rearmed to enjoy vintage play mechanics spruced up to today's modern standards.

Friday, January 2, 2009

My Top 8 of 2008: #1 The World Ends With You

I'm a big believer of personal preference, and since 2008 has ended, its high time to look back at the year and point out the games that grabbed my attention the most. Truthfully, I should be honest and say that I wasn't expecting much out of the games of 2008, but was I wrong or what. Sure, 2007 had "BioShock" and "Portal", heck it even had "Super Mario Galaxy" and "Halo 3", and these are all games that had incredible design, high production quality, and unique input to their respective genres, but 2008 was just as endearing in terms of quality, even if quite a few of my most anticipated were disappointing (more on that in a future blog, trust me).

So lets get this Top 8 of 2008 list started with Square Enix's "The World Ends With You".

"The World Ends With You" is a hip contemporary Japanese role playing game for the Nintendo DS that was released in the US on April 22, 2008. It follows a small group of kids (designed by "the main man" over at Square, Tetsuya Nomura) that are participating in a deadly game through the streets of a hyper stylized Shibuya shopping district in Tokyo. The group is given challenges they must complete over seven days by a mysterious group named the reapers. The story here is very well written and delivers enough surprising moments to keep you engaged, but the battle and equipment systems are where this game really shines..

In TWEWY players control two characters at once, which would seem like a small task except the developers chose to take advantage of the DS hardware by placing them on separate screens. The character on the bottom is controlled via the stylus while the character on the top is controlled using the D-pad. Two characters on different screens may seem like sheer chaos on a handheld (or a sad way to end up cross-eyed), but its actually quite manageable, and there is a setting to let the top screen be AI controlled, which helps. Equipping different pins gives your stylus character a variety of different attacks and abilities, from scorching pyro-kinetics, physical attacks, and projectile based ones as well. Each pin has its own leveling system and initial value for trade ins.

To TWEWY’s credit, the developers managed to add some unique zest to the often-rote formula of JRPs by allowing the player to up the stakes of enemy encounters. Yes, it means facing tougher enemies outside your level bracket, but the results are better items and currency, a plus given so much of this game is centered around buying decisions. This 'commerce' portion of the game is driven by brand names, just like in real life. Different neighborhoods of the Shibuya support different brands of clothes and equipment. Following the in-game neighborhood trends gives you a distinct advantage in combat with stronger resistance to attacks, or the ability to dole out more damage to enemies. If you chose to ignore the trendy consumers of Shibuya, that's fine too, and the game isn't too difficult on you if you don't. Instead, you'll influence the trend yourself by boosting the performance abilities of the brand that you're currently wearing over time, eventually making them stronger and more popular. On a whole, the entire experience in TWEWY is very user friendly and customizable.

Up until this point, I've almost given up on the JRPG genre. Clearly I haven't been interested in enough games of this type for portable systems like the DS: I tried playing the Final Fantasy Tactics Advance a while back and failed miserably to appreciate it. Crisis Core was the same problem again, only on the PSP. A great game should be driven by strong visuals, narrative, and a intricate battle system, that while nuanced, still manages to be engaging for the player and doesn't risk becoming a chore. TWEWY was an amazing experience for me in 2008 from a genre where I expected little change. Give it a go, and prepare for unique experience that manages to shake up the RPG formula in 2008.