Friday, September 24, 2010

Shibuya Review

Shibuya is the first iOS game from Never Center, the developers behind the App Store entry, CameraBag. The team is no stranger to the platform, which explains the fact that their first foray into mobile gaming is so well-suited to the strengths of the iPhone. Shibuya is a color-matching tile puzzle game. The idea will be familiar to anybody who has played Tetris, Lumines, or Meteos but Shibuya introduces some twists to that style of gameplay which will have even the most seasoned puzzle gamers scratching their heads.

Tiles of various colors will fall from the top of the screen in random order. Players must match up two or more colors in order to clear them away. By tapping on a tile, players can choose the order in which the blocks fall to the bottom. This allows for not only some serious combo opportunities, it soon twists your mind as you frantically race to tap colors into place. Players must think ahead, planning out the order of the colors while the music plays and the timer slowly clicks.

Shibuya can seem a little daunting your first play-through but don’t worry. While you get used to the idea of strategizing your tile order, the game makes things as easy as possible, generously offering a Slow mode to help get you started. Players will quickly master the easier settings, grasping the key concepts, as the game’s addictive qualities make their way into your subconscious.

The game is made up of two modes; Quickplay for two-minute rounds on-the-go and Endless where players see just how long they can last. In-game achievements with OpenFeint integration will keep the most-dedicated players testing their limits for a long time. Personally, I would have liked to see the game support the newly released GameCenter system but Never Center tells me they’re currently looking into it.

Shibuya’s great mechanics are reenforced by a charming, though sometimes sparse, art style and incredible soundtrack. Inspired by the Shibuya district in Tokyo, the game’s visual design mimics the neon lights, bright colors, verticality, and overall kinetic atmosphere of the neighborhood. After playing the game for so long, I did tire of seeing the same static background, wishing there were at least some options to mix up the look but the game’s edited approach to design keeps what really matters, the puzzling itself, front and center. It’s a testament to the design of Shibuya that it’s actually able to convey a sense of time and place in a small puzzle game. The licensed music from Millionyoung is not only a joy to listen to but really helps set the overall tone of the experience. The app thankfully provides a direct link to purchase the music direct from the iTunes Music Store, I highly suggest giving it a listen.

I would have liked to see more game modes and options, whether it’s a mode in which players must clear out a few blocks already placed at the bottom before moving on, or otherwise. In addition, as much as I love the soundtrack, I eventually wished I could play music from my iTunes library. After all, there are only five licensed tracks and the most addicted Shibuya players are likely to hear them many times. However, these are minor issues that come only from spending several hours with the game and, well, it’s tough to fault a developer for making a game I can’t stop playing.

As it stands, Shibuya is a touch-controlled narcotic with a beautiful art style, amazing soundtrack, and clever puzzle mechanic. I’m hesitant to bring up the issue of pricing because iPhone owners should simply try it regardless. However, at $1.99 it’s downright inexcusable not to get it considering how many hours I’ve spent in Shibuya knowing I’ve paid more for Vitamin Water. Put your headphones on, crack your knuckles, and enjoy.

Buy Shibuya here

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Mirrors Edge (iOS) Review

There’s no denying I was a huge fan of the original Mirror’s Edge when it debuted for the PS3 and Xbox 360 back in 2008. The game represented a substantial leap forward in game design through the first-person perspective. Exploring the dystopian city through the eyes of Faith was breathtaking and the acrobatic parkour, while tricky at times, was incredibly rewarding.

Faith is a Runner, a courier of the future, relaying secret messages under the watchful eye of the government. Runners must leap, slide, and roll across the rooftops of the city, avoiding security forces.

While the first game was innovative, it was not without its flaws; most notably the combat and show-stopping bouts of trial and error. Mirror’s Edge for the iPhone tries to remedy some of the problems by shifting the action to a 2-D side-scrolling perspective, avoiding much of the complexity. Despite being a more bite-sized experience than its console predecessor, Mirror’s Edge manages to retain the overall essence of the franchise while bringing its own unique twist to the core mechanics.

The controls have been replaced by a much simpler series of touch-based gestures. Faith’s forward movement is set by a swipe either to the left or the right, swipe up to jump, swipe down to slide, and mid-air swipes will enable context-sensitive actions such as wall jumps or rolling for soft landings. It’s a good system which works almost all of the time. I had trouble getting Faith to stand up after a slide which usually screwed up my momentum.

The game draws several comparisons to Canabalt, another iPhone favorite, racing players along rooftops, gaining speed as they successfully overcome obstacles. Mirror’s Edge adds a layer of depth to the experience equipping Faith with her trademark abilities.

The production values are incredibly high and really take advantage of the iOS devices. The original art style is vibrant and remains intact as the city flies by without a hint of stuttering. Faith’s model can look a tad strange but EA has delivered a great-looking game which really pops on the new Retina Display. There’s smart, limited use of motion controls that are almost entirely optional. I would have enjoyed a little bit of voice work, especially for Faith, but considering this is on a mobile device I suppose it can’t be helped. However, developers looking to push for such a cinematic experience should remember all parts of the equation, including a voice for the main character if only in small doses. That being said, the soundtrack is spectacular. A remix of the theme “Still Alive” is the highlight of the game’s musical offering while the ability to play your own library is a welcomed addition. The game is extremely rhythmic. Players soon get into a groove, swiping against the beat of the music, sending Faith higher and higher.

The weakest moments come when Faith is constrained to an indoor environment. Without the city buzzing by in the background, the sense of speed gets lost and the indoor levels tend to include some of the more frustrating moments. It’s easy to get tripped up by the armed guards and making mistakes is costly as they riddle Faith with bullets while she has very limited means of defending herself. There are some takedown moves at her disposal and these work well, for the most part, but they occasionally let me down when I needed them most. Thankfully, a generous checkpoint system keeps these issues to a minimum.

The game is rather short, an initial play-through can be done in less than an hour. But the brevity is mostly understandable considering how fast you’re going through these levels. Faith runs at break-neck speed across the cityscape. In addition, the hidden courier bags and speed-run challenges will keep dedicated players coming back for more, ensuring more bang for your buck. Fans of the original who fear all of the intricacies have been taken out should take note there is still plenty of fun to be had for even the most seasoned Runners out there.

Some may be thrown by Mirror’s Edge and its $4.99 price tag but I look at it as if I were going out for something to eat. Sure, you can get something at McDonald’s for 99 cents but sometimes its worth going elsewhere and splurging on that $10 burger knowing a little more care went into making it. Mirror’s Edge uses the iPhone platform to its strengths. The visuals are gorgeous on the new Retina Display, the soundtrack is incredible, the touch controls work well, and the use of motion is not over-done. It might not be priced at the usual impulse snack-sized level iOS gamers have come to expect but it’s certainly a welcomed addition to the App Store and a must-have for anybody looking to show off what the iPhone can do.

Buy the game now on iTunes: Mirror's Edge

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days Review

Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days is a dirty, lens-flared romp through the neon-streaked streets of Shanghai. Set a few years after the first game, Dog Days reunites the two foul-mouth protagonists for one last “job” before both can retire for good. It’s a plot we’ve seen dozens of times and while the story of Kane & Lynch 2 isn’t going to win any awards, the visual design manages to set the overall experience a notch above some of the game’s weak spots.

Kane arrives in Shanghai where he’s greeted by Lynch who, since we last saw him, has moved to China, met a girl, and made some connections with various crime bosses of the underworld. The deal is all set but things quickly turn to hell and the duo have to shoot their way through a seemingly endless stream of thugs.

The gameplay of Dog Days is a typical third-person shooter with cover mechanics. Cover points are graciously thrown throughout environments and the mechanic works well enough. The problem with the gameplay is that, in 2010, it’s nothing we haven’t already seen many times before. As a result, the shooting feels mediocre, almost aggressively so. Kane and Lynch make their way through city streets, parking garages, nondescript high-rises, and more, taking cover behind all-too conveniently placed columns, pillars, crates, and boxes. The setting, however, is one of the game’s strongest elements. The streets of Shanghai are gritty and, through the game’s bold visual style, give the world a unique authenticity. In fact, the look of Kane & Lynch 2 is perhaps the game’s most pronounced saving grace.

Dog Days does striking things with visual design. The whole game looks as though it’s being filmed by a cheap hand-held camera. Think: YouTube. There’s digital artifacts on the video, bright lights cause lens flares, large explosions cause a buffering/stuttering to occur. The designers intentionally made something less-than beautiful and it works wonders for the overall experience. It’s a smart use of contemporary influences that never feels forced or out of place. In fact, I can’t imagine playing the game without it. The hand-held motif does include a shaky camera effect which follows the game’s protagonists. During my time with the game, I did note some pretty bad motion sickness, a problem I’ve never had before with games. There is, thankfully, a setting which turns on a steady-cam option so the shakiness goes away without sacrificing the game’s other visual elements.

There’s nothing about Kane & Lynch 2 that’s downright terrible but I often found myself wishing the visual style existed in a better game. It just refuses to evolve from a gameplay perspective. The reliance on cover-based shooting even takes a negative toll on the level design. The environments really begin to show their seems when you’ve entered yet another warehouse filled with a surprising amount of crates. It telegraphs the upcoming actions. If you enter a room with lots of cover, prepare for a fight. It’s indicative of the larger problem with Dog Days, it all feels like a huge waste of potential. Despite the visuals, the world feels vapid and empty. For instance, at one point the duo are shooting their way through an old train yard. But the level is static. How great it would have been to take cover behind moving trains, timing your progress forward to the movement of the incoming train-cars. I don’t want to stray too far into backseat game development but I would like to say, to me, it isn’t enough to simply be shooting in a train yard when, in terms of the level’s geometry, it’s exactly like the warehouse from before.

There is a short sequence later in the game where players shoot from a helicopter into the windows of a skyscraper but the gameplay is essentially the same thing as before: take cover, pop out when you can, shoot, repeat. Still, it was an attempt at changing the pace. That being said, the game barely has a chance of over-staying its welcome. The main campaign can be finished in under four hours. That’s right, four hours. Playing through the game with a buddy in co-op mode could offer some replay value but the levels don’t really offer anything that seems designed specifically for co-op. In many of the best co-op experiences, the game features elements built into the level to take direct advantage of the two-player feature. In Dog Days, a co-op buddy is just another gun. Again, I felt this was a missed opportunity. I was hoping to see some more parts of the game take advantage of co-op but mostly we just opened doors together at various checkpoints.

Multiplayer mode really shines with some clever twists on common game-types. The two most notable include “Fragile Alliance” where a team of criminals must work together to complete a heist and escape from the AI-controlled police force. The catch being that, at any time, your online buddies can turn on you, attempting to take more of the cash for themselves. There’s a risk vs. reward behind your decision to turn on your teammates and makes for some pretty tense sessions. The most fun I had online was with the “Undercover Cop” mode which is not unlike “Fragile Alliance” but with the added touch of one of the players being the titular rat. When the round begins, one of the criminals on your team is told they are the undercover cop and it’s up to them to eliminate the criminal team one-by-one without being detected. I enjoyed these modes but, again, couldn’t help feeling somewhat disappointed they were in a game that, often, felt so average.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time with the game, far from it. Despite offering gameplay we’ve seen before, Kane & Lynch 2 still manages to be a fun experience, most of the time. It isn’t anything revolutionary but it’s simple brainless shooting fun and that could be enough for a lot of people.  The game does significant things in terms of  visual design which is why I think people should at least play through the game once. Just rent it, set it to easy, and blast through it over the weekend.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Loco Motion: Move vs. Kinect

This article was originally published in Tek Lado Magazine

This fall, Sony and Microsoft are placing a huge bet on motion control. Following the success of the Nintendo Wii, the two gaming Goliaths are set to debut their answer to the Wii Sports craze. Sony’s Playstation Move, which uses a combination of controllers and the Playstation Eye camera, along with Microsoft’s controller-free Kinect system are offering unique experiences as each company tries to up the motion ante. But will this gamble pay off or will gamers be unwilling to invest in a new motion control experience?

When it was first announced at last year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo, Sony’s Playstation Move didn’t exactly set the world on fire. A series of tech demos showed what the Move was capable of but the reception among many gamers was lukewarm. The product didn’t have a name, a release date or even an actual game to demonstrate its full potential.

What a difference a year makes. Sony has been busy developing the controller, along with several games, and pushed the Move front and center at this year’s E3.

Playstation Move works together with a few pieces of tech. The Move itself, a wandlike controller, isn’t a far cry from a Nintendo Wii Remote. It’s fitted with a lighted bulb at the end which can be tracked by the Playstation Eye camera. This tracking occurs in true one-to-one fashion. Swing your arm in real life and the motion is mirrored by the game in real time. Sensors inside the Move including accelerometers, a magnetometer, and a few more for good measure, increase the precision. (Think the Nintendo Wii on steroids and in high-definition.) But when it comes to the games, Sony is going after the mainstream Wii crowd and beyond.

The games for Move’s big debut are a blend of casual cash-ins, party games and efforts to appease the hardcore. Sony announced their answer to Wii Sports, a collection of events including archery, gladiator dueling, volleyball and more called Sports Champions. Sony thinks the improved visuals and added precision will make this a no-brainer impulse buy. But the real ace up its sleeve is Sony’s push for augmented reality.

Since the Playstation Eye camera is already pointed at the player, it can easily project gamers onto the screen, surrounding them with objects from the game. Upcoming titles such as EyePet and Start the Partymake good use of this. EyePet is like the Tamagotchi for the new generation. Gamers can feed it, groom it, and play with it as the cuddly little guy bounces around the living room. Start the Party is a collection of mini-games which project players on-screen and incorporates them into the action. Augmented reality is an exciting twist for Playstation Move that Sony should continue to explore.

Playstation Move launched in North America on September 17th. Players can purchase the Move system piece by piece or bundled in a number of packages. Playstation Eye owners can add a Move controller for $49.99 while the Navigation controller, Sony’s answer to the Wii Nunchuck, will run you another $29.99. A Sports Champions Bundle is also in the works which will include a Move, Playstation Eye and a copy of the game for $99.99. But some games require two Move controllers creating a larger gap in what could become a fragmented environment. The pricing and inconsistency of using two wand controllers is the system’s Achilles’ heel and Sony needs to fix the situation.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been busy wiping the slate clean with Kinect. Kinect uses a series of cameras to track a player’s movements. No controller required. Three cameras coordinate incoming data and relay motions in real time. Players move their bodies and their on-screen versions mirror the real-world gestures. At last year’s E3, Microsoft stole the show after debuting Kinect, then known as Project Natal. A year later, new details have finally emerged as Microsoft announced a release date of November 4, 2010, and developers touted their upcoming games. Like Sony, Microsoft is planting a flag in Nintendo’s backyard, targeting many of the upcoming Kinect titles at the Wii’s audience.

Games like Kinect Adventures and Kinect Sports are a good introduction to the system. In Kinect Adventures players compete in several mini-games including a rafting ride down a raging river. Jump, lean, and stretch your arms to avoid obstacles, collect points, and pose for the camera. If it sounds tiring, it is. Kinect encourages players to get up and get moving. Kinect Sports is your typical mix of bowling, soccer, and other games. Kick, roll and throw the ball in the game world while you mime the actions in the living room.

From Harmonix, the makers of Rock Band, comes Dance Central. A game which finally gives players without a scrap of rhythm a chance to hit the dance floor. On-screen prompts show the next move as you mirror the action. The better you dance, the better it gets. In Ubisoft‘s Your Shape: Fitness Evolved players are projected into the game as they interact with virtual environments, burning calories along the way. But Kinect isn’t all dance parties and yoga classes. Described as a spiritual successor to Rez, Ubisoft’s Child of Eden is an electronic rhythm-based rail shooter. Beautiful visuals, an intense soundtrack and intelligent use of Kinect’s motion controls might make this the sleeper hit of the system.

Kinect also brings video chatting and voice recognition to the Xbox 360. Navigate the Dashboard with your hands (think Minority Report) and select a movie to watch. Pause the film by saying “Xbox pause” without the need to pry the remote from the couch cushions. The implications of combining voice recognition with Kinect’s motion-tracking could be huge for developers.

Microsoft has announced several ways to get in on the frenetic fervor. This holiday season, the Kinect sensor will come with a copy of Kinect Adventures for $149.99. In addition, they’re going to offer a console bundle with the newly refreshed 4GB model of the Xbox 360 for $299.99.

With Move and Kinect launching this fall, the two companies are using the opportunity to breathe new life into their consoles. Bucking the trend of a typical console cycle, both systems are getting a new start with peripherals rather than a complete hardware refresh. Whether or not the gamble will pay off is unclear but gamers looking to experience a new take on motion controls should double-down on Move and Kinect.