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Shadow of the Colossus Review

(Again, this is based on the HD re-release , and again, they haven’t touched anything other than the graphics and the framerate… thankfully).

Alright, I had a couple of major gripes with ICO, but I still can’t find myself calling it anything other than a good game. Regardless, I was starting to get the feeling that these games had been overhyped and had been recommended to me by people who had nostalgia goggles permanently glued to the face. So I drastically lowered my expectations for Shadow of the Colossus before playing it, and I’m glad I did. Not because it turned out to be overrated, but because it blew me away far more than it would’ve if I hadn’t adjusted my anticipation.  Let me put it this way: The ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection has a retail price of 40$, so supposedly each game in it is worth 20$. As far as I’m concerned, they could’ve completely dropped ICO and charged me 40$ for Shadow of the Colossus alone, and I would’ve been perfectly content. Hell, they could’ve charged me 100$ for this 2005, PS2 game and I still wouldn’t have minded. But I’m getting somewhat ahead of myself, so let me drag myself back to Earth and explain.

THIS. FOR FORTY BUCKS. YOU ARE A MONSTER FOR NOT GETTING IT.

The plot of the game is, at surface level, even more basic than that of ICO’s. A young man named Wander drags the corpse of a girl named Mono into a forbidden land, and makes a deal with some sort of spirit: if Wander manages to kill 16 Colossi spread across the land, the spirit will bring Mono back to life. That’s it. We’re never told anything about these characters; we don’t even know if they’re necessarily ‘good’ in the first place. We have no idea why the spirit wants those Colossi dead; there’s absolutely no one else in this land, and you always find the Colossi asleep; I had imagined them terrorizing villages, kidnapping maidens and blowing raspberries at the children. But nope, there’s nothing here and the Colossi don’t seem violent at all, at least not until you’re stuffing arrows into their faces. Normally I’d be all over this incredibly sloppy set-up, but while playing I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was deliberate, that we’re supposed to draw our own conclusions about the characters. We get a clue that what Wander is doing isn’t entirely ethical whenever he kills a Colossus; it releases some black vapor, which is immediately absorbed into Wander’s body. Every time this happens, Wander’s body becomes progressively darker and more evil-looking. You approach the end-game looking like a bloody Final Fantasy villain, and while there’s no way that the spirit dude didn’t know about these consequences, I can’t figure out whether or not Wander expected them. Most people immediately assume that Mono is Wander’s girlfriend or spouse; she could just as easily be an evil queen that was bent on world domination, who was righteously killed before her ambitions could be fulfilled. Everything in this game left to the player’s analysis, and quite a few characters have analyzed it. You can take a look at a few interesting theories here, though an understanding of ICO’s plot is necessary before reading all that gibberish.

He stops looking this good halfway through the game.

A lot of games have presented moral dilemmas, ever since Mass Effect made moral choice systems popular. This game is on a whole other level, though. Firstly, you can’t actually refuse to kill the Colossi, unless you chuck the game in a bin, a decision I’d chuck you in a bin for. Secondly, every game that employs a moral choice system clearly states what’s evil and what’s good, while this game keeps everything ambiguous. It makes you consider every possibility, whether you’re really the good guy or just a Colossus killing asshole, killing them to uphold you’re end of a bargain with a potentially malevolent entity. And who knows what will happen when you do so, anyway? How are we supposed to know what killing the Colossi achieves for him, so what if he laughs at you when you’re done with your killing spree before destroying the world? Who knows? The land you travel in is completely empty, reinforcing the concept that you’re alone, you have no one you can consult for advice, and Wander’s decision is something completely of his own choosing. The land itself is incredibly atmospheric; there’s no music here, just you travelling through a grassy wasteland (that sounds a bit contradictory, doesn’t it), contemplating the plot and your most recent kill. The game employs the same soft color palette that ICO used, making everything look simultaneously beautiful and foreboding. It all comes to a head in the ending , which while answering a couple of question regarding the spirit, creates a bazillion other questions, and let me say, without spoiling anything, that the ending completely blew my mind and caused the game to remain at the forefront of my mind long after completing it. My last review’s definition of ‘Art’, when the term is applied to video games, was “Saying much with little”. I’d like to amend that definition with “Something that causes you to think of it long after leaving it”, because I think that’s what really turns a game into a classic, or indeed, anything into a classic.

Alright, the textures are a bit dated, but the game still feels phenomenal.

But enough of the bloody story and atmosphere. ICO did those exceptionally well, but failed rather miserably in the game aspect of it, the arguably more important aspect. Shadow of the Colossus, on the other hand, pull both of them near flawlessly. The gameplay is divided into two major categories: Exploration and Colossi battles. There actually isn’t much to say about the exploration segments; you’re armed with a sword, which points you in the direction you need to go to find your next Colossus by raising it to reflect the sun’s rays. You have a horse that you can mount to get there, and unless you want to spend a couple of centuries running to the battle site, riding it is mandatory. I’ll admit, controlling the thing at first felt unintuitive, as you need to constantly pound the Triangle button to move at full speed, and trying to do so while consulting your sword for directions may permanently damage your thumbs. There’s no way to properly control your turns; I had a hard time trying to get it to gradually turn. As I progressed through the game, though, I realized there wasn’t any need for slow turns; the game world is huge and extremely spacious, save when you’re navigating through a canyon. Other than riding your horse to battle, that’s actually nothing else you can do in the hub; no battles, no puzzles. Alright, you can take out lizards with your bow and arrow to increase your grip gauge, a feature that I’ll explain later, but that’s optional and honestly, extremely arbitrary. How does shooting lizards affect how well I can grip something? No, the point of the hub-world is to A) provide time to contemplate the game’s plot, B) space out the Colossus battles, which simultaneously gives you a breather and builds up anticipation for your next battle, and C) Slack your jaw because of how huge and beautiful this world is. While it’s entirely possible to head directly to your next fight and ignore most of the map, you can spend hours exploring, finding landmarks and beautiful scenery. If you’re only here for the battles, though, because you have the attention span of, well, an American, than you’re never forced to be in the hub-world for longer than necessary.

You can explore ALL OF THIS. Its... larger than it looks here.

The serenity and beauty of the hub-world actually provides a very welcome contrast to the intense and dramatic Colossi battles. When you find a Colossi, you first have to draw its attention, either by yelling at it or shooting arrows at it. When it sees you, that’s where you have to switch your brain on. See, I was incredibly wrong to think that these things might’ve been terrorizing villages, because no village that isn’t armed with nuclear weapons could stand up to these things for longer than a couple of nanoseconds. These guys are ENOURMOUS, and no amount of emphasis can be enough for that word. Your arrows don’t even register as dust to these things, and when I first encountered one, I was at a complete loss as to what to do. Turns out, these things are rather hairy, and they have a couple of glowing weak spots. Ergo, you have to climb their hair to their weak points. Getting onto them, however, is the question. The Colossi have identifiable patterns, and you have to find a way to exploit those patterns in order to get to where you can start climbing them. If their patterns don’t involve anything other than turning you into a pile of bones and strawberry jam, than the structure of your battlefield is the key to getting ahold of them. The solutions are never too obtuse that you can’t figure them out, while never being shoved in your face.  The effort of trying to figure out how to stab the thing while having to avoid the lumbering giant’s effort into reducing you into ooze  creates a nerve-wracking yet exhilarating sensation that I’ve never felt while playing a video game, or indeed felt, period. I wish I could go into more detail about how utterly brilliant these puzzles are set-up, but I don’t want to give away spoilers, so suffice it to say that figuring out how to grab onto these things and successfully grabbing their armpit hair gave me a feeling of accomplishment no amount of aced tests could ever give me.

Yeah, YOU'RE that guy down there. Good luck.

Once you manage to get onto them, the gameplay shifts to climbing and platforming. This is where the grip gauge comes into play; you have to hold R1 to cling to the behemoth and try to climb up it. They quite often try to get you to stop tickling them by thrashing around, forcing you to stop and hold on for dear life; if your gauge becomes empty before you have to refill it (which is accomplished by standing on solid ground), you’ll fall and break your everything. Not really, though, because your life bar is rather generous and falling a skyscraper’s worth of heights doesn’t do as much of a number on your life bar as you might expect. Regardless, the point is to climb and stab the thing’s weak spot. Oft times, these things are so ridiculously huge that they have rock platforms attached to them, and this is where you do a bit of standard running and jumping. The enemy is constantly on the move, though, so you always have to be careful about your timing and accuracy. This standard platforming is often combined with the climbing so things never, ever feel repetitive or standard. Occasionally, you’re called to do some of this platforming as part of a puzzle, in which case it feels like ICO’s formula, except much more sped up and intuitive. Let me tell you this: wracking your brain and gaming abilities in order to beat a Colossus, and watching the thing collapse to the ground, shattering the earth underneath it, is a feeling of accomplishment and victory that is paralleled by absolutely nothing, provided you aren’t drafted in the army. This feeling is tempered, though, by the fact that these things actually seemed peaceful before you started shoving arrows up their asses, and that black vapor that their corpses release and your body absorbs brings the whole moral dilemma thing crashing back down, creating a feeling akin to sorrow or pity. Like I said before, I appreciate the hub so much because it gives you time to calm down and think about the whole deal.

Pray that he doesn't decide to start dancing like a tart.

Perhaps the most important part about this game when developing was trying to make the fights diverse and unique; there are sixteen of these fights throughout the entire game, and it’s incredibly important to make sure they don’t feel repetitive. Rest assured, they are not, and part of this is thanks to the Colossi’s designs. Some of them look phenomenal, and look so unique and have such varying attributes that you can never rely on the same tactic twice. Some fly, some swim, some fly and swim, and some travel through sand. They take on the apperance of birds, fish, snakes, and other things I won’t spoil. You have to constantly adapt to your enemies, and in the instance that a Colossus design is somewhat recycled, your arena is so different and its patterns so unfamiliar that it might as well be a fresh design. A couple of them let me down, though, on account of not being colossal. In a game called Shadow of the Colossus, that’s a pretty damning flaw. They’re only the size of an inflated bull, and the two look exactly alike. Like I said, your battlefield is completely different, but I don’t appreciate the fact that the blandest design in the game was the one they decided to use twice. Your first encounter with the thing is also pathetically simple and easy to figure out, too, so I can’t help but feel that this fight should’ve been cut altogether.

Oh, sure, he looks big, but he isn't the size of some of the other colossi's testicles.

I can imagine most of the people reading this questioning my sanity. “How does a VIDEO GAME create a moral dilemma in your mind? It’s just a game!”, I see them sneering. Well, fool, video games have more potential to be philosophical than any book or movie, on account of being interactive. I doubt I’d have cared as much about the morality of the Wander’s motives if I hadn’t been the one fulfilling them. I wouldn’t have found the interaction between Yorda and Ico compelling if I hadn’t been the one holding her hand and fighting to protect her. This is why I despise the term ‘video game’, because unless the word ‘game’ is preceded by the world ‘drinking’, it’s always linked to something childish, something one dabbles with without a second thought. The two games in the ICO and Shadow of the Colossus prove that video game are a viable art form, but this is an issue I feel like dwelling on in a different article. As for Shadow of the Colossus, its easily the greatest PS2 I’ve ever played, the most compelling, well-balanced, and unique gaming experience I’ve been exposed to. I hesitate to call it the ‘best game ever’, but it certainly sits in my top five. It’s a game I recommend EVERYONE to play, by any *legal* means necessary. I know that the majority of ‘gamers’ prefer headshoting noobs in Call of Duty, but those people can screw right off. This game is something that needs to be played by everyone, as proof that video games can be so much more than bloody, online, brown, and pointless shooter messes. It’s great, amazing, spectacular, awesome, fantastic, wonderful, terrific, and I’m running out of synonyms for ‘good’, so I’ll stop now.

Seriously, WHO THE HELL ARE YOU TWO?!

ICO Review

(In case anyone was wondering, yes, my review is based on the recent HD re-release of this game, though I honestly don’t suppose that besides minor graphical updates, anything within the game itself was touched… unfortunately).

Games with relatively small cult followings are the ones I end up hearing about the most, which I suppose I should expect, considering the corners of the Internet I hang out at. After being yelled at by several extremely impolite but convincing people to play ICO (developed by Team ICO and starring Ico), I did so, and I’m left wondering how this game can honestly be considered one of the best of all time.

The story is bare-bones: the main character, Ico, is locked in a castle and is supposed to be sacrificed because he has horns sticking out of his head, and the authorities are concerned about him accidently gutting a few suckers while playing basketball or something. Not really, though; we’re never told why having horns is considered a bad thing. Sure, they look stupid, and he’d probably be bullied every day after-school for his entire life, but I don’t think killing the poor bastard is going to improve that situation. While locked in a cell, an earthquake occurs, which busts open the door and allows him to leave. The only way that that could’ve been more contrived and arbitrary was if he secretly had a fairy Godmother all along, but whatever, its plot convenience. While exploring the castle, he sees a girl named Yorda, who should really consider tanning, locked in a cage. He busts her out, but apparently, they don’t speak the same language (for the record, all the languages in this game are made-up, but while Ico’s dialogue is subtitled in English, Yorda’s isn’t). Regardless, he drags her along and tries to escape the castle. After that, the story takes a backseat in the sense that it might as well be stuffed in the trunk. We learn some time in that apparently, Yorda’s mother is the Queen of the castle, and that she wants to use Yorda for something or another, but beyond that, we know nothing and learn nothing throughout the whole game.

Here's your story: GET YOUR ASSES OUT OF THERE!

That sounds incredibly basic, but the one gold star I’ll give this game is that it’s very atmospheric and lets you develop your own bonds with the characters. They never speak, but Ico (you, actually) is always looking after Yorda, making sure she’s able to reach where you are, clutching her hand to make sure she’s safe. While romance may be a strong word here (Ico can’t be more than 10 years old), the trusting bond the two develop is appropriately gradual and meaningful, which is very rare in the gaming industry, whose ordinary approach to romance is to shove it onto the main character to give him an objective when his girlfriend is inevitably kidnapped, and not only is it a very retarded and sexist set-up to being with, but its been done so many times that you simply don’t care. Princess Peach doesn’t even have a bloody personality, so for all we care, Mario might as well be looking for his car keys which he forget at Bower’s place, to cite the most popular example. At least keys are somewhat useful, unless you consider a cake every 5 years to be worth a galaxy-spanning adventure. Yorda herself doesn’t have a character either, but you can attribute that to A) Us not knowing what the hell she’s saying when she does speak and B) She actually doesn’t need one. You’re always looking after her, and you can’t help but care for her as time passes. There is absolutely no other human in the castle, so you’re the only one she can rely on, and it starts to become a big brother instinct to protect her. From a gameplay perspective, you need her to open doors for you, which she does through… magic, or something. That isn’t explained either. While you’ll certainly grow to care for her, though, you’ll also come to want to bloody kill her with the nearest blunt object, but that’s for later.

Its impossible to imagine these two alone, and not holding hands.

The gameplay centers mostly around platforming and puzzle solving to advance through castle, but both are basic to the extreme. The kind of platforming we’re talking about here is the Tomb Raider variety, mostly centering on jumping from ledge to ledge. It’s nothing special, but there’s a few frustrations to be dealt with. It’s often not clear what is a climbable ledge and what isn’t, and it’s hard to register if there is a ledge on a wall because of the damned camera, which is almost never at an optimal view-point and can’t be controlled to any meaningful extent. Sure, you can swerve it around, but that might as be equivalent to trying to remove a dirt patch from your shirt by spitting on it; for all the good you thought it might do, it isn’t going to make much of a difference. Even if the camera respected you, though, the ledges blend in so well with the rest of the wall that they’re still hard to see. I’m not asking for the ledges to be painted hot pink or something, like what Uncharted does, but at least make it obvious that I can climb it. There’s also an issue with Ico’s speed while navigating horizontal ledges: he’s just too bloody slow. I realize he’s a little boy and can’t reasonably be expected to be the equivalent of Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, but sacrificing gameplay to make that sort of statement is the point you’ve become TOO pretentious. Falling off and having to start all over again wouldn’t have been so painful if Ico would hurry his ass up a bit. It’s just bland overall, serving to connect the puzzles.

That's a good way to get yourself killed.

Now, when I say puzzles, don’t go in expecting something particularly challenging, like you might from Zelda. Its block pushing and torch lighting, just like those games, but it always obvious where to push blocks, and you’re never wanting for fire when you need it. The main challenge here is figuring out what does what… sometimes. You push a block onto a panel, a door opens. You pull a lever, and the camera swings to show the effects. Some puzzles are indeed fun and rewarding to accomplish, usually when they’re spread out across a large area, but this rarely occurs. There is one in particular I want to mention, though, because there’s no way the developers could’ve expected us to figure this out without a guide of some sort. It’s completely optional, but extremely worth it to make the combat less horrendous. There’s a point where you walk out of a room and find a tree outside. There’s no indication that its special, but smacking it with your sword causes it to drop a stone ball, and I refuse to believe something that heavy and of that shape can be sitting on a tree branch. You have to carry it into the room you just left, and push a wall that has no indication that it CAN be pushed, causing it to revolve. You carry the ball in and have to throw it into some sort of giant stone basket. You don’t throw often, thankfully, but the throwing mechanics in the game are ridiculously wonky, and thanks to the camera you can’t get a clear shot. After wasting 15 minutes trying to get the damn thing in, I managed to, and a goddamn MACE comes flying through the window and landing in front of me, destroying the immersion the game had created with its beautiful aesthetics and the characters’ relationship. And during a second playthrough, the weapon that flies in is, brace yourselves, A LIGHTSABER. In case the screenshots didn’t tip you off, this is supposed to be a medieval society at most, and in comes a lightsaber. I spent the next 5 minutes smashing my face against a wall. I bring all this up is because it’s the one really memorable puzzle in the entire game, and only then because it’s so damned obtuse.

If you squint your eyes really hard, you can almost pretend like you're playing No More Heroes... with crappier combat.

The game also has combat sections that occur rather frequently, and rewind 255 words, and you’ll see I described it as ‘horrendous’. You’re pit against about 5-12 shadowy… things at a time and have to vanquish them. What’s unique is that you yourself don’t have any sort of life bar and can’t possibly die during these encounters, but the enemies aren’t concerned about you; they’re after Yorda, and drag her into a dark pit of darkness if they manage to grab her. This does help reinforce that relationship business I was banging on about earlier, but that bit about wanting to kill Yorda yourself partly comes into play here: she refuses to bloody run away or escape. Ok, she can’t defend herself, fine; she looks as though she’s made out of tooth picks and liquid glue anyway. Yes, making her able to run away would make things too easy, but there’s absolutely nothing more frustrating than you dropping Yorda’s hand for a couple of seconds to thwack at a monster only to have her kidnapped by one that was flying overhead that you didn’t see because of the bloody camera. It isn’t too hard to get her back, though; a single attack will cause the monster to drop her, and even if it did manage to get her to the dark pit of darkness, there’s enough time for you to grab her hand before you’re handed a Game Over screen. No, what makes the combat ‘horrendous’ is the fact that it’s boring as hell. Ico can’t do more than swing his weapon for a 3-hit combo; the fanciest you can get in this game is a jump attack. Again, I know he isn’t meant to be a powerhouse, but also again, the moment you drop ‘fun’ to make an artistic statement is the moment you need to be beat with the humility stick  a few times before being dragged to Confucius to be sternly lectured about hubris. The fights are never challenging, since the most anyone can do to you is knock you down for several seconds (which IS incredibly annoying, because that’s their chance to grab Yorda), and you can’t do more than smash the Square button. Attacking them with you’re starting weapon, a stick, is like trying to take out an unmanned tank with a pistol; it can’t do much to you, but it still takes too long, and you’ll probably stop caring halfway through. I wouldn’t mind THAT much if the game didn’t insist on forcing you into combat every 5 minutes, so you’re taking on an ARMY of unmanned tanks with a pistol. You can immediately vaporize all enemies by taking Yorda to a gate, but there aren’t enough opportunities to do this. It got so boring that I actually started to feel dread when I heard the combat chime kick in. The platforming and puzzling are passable, but the combat starts bland, becomes boring, and finally makes you want to pull your teeth out.

Oh, PISSING HELL!!

Finally, there’s Yorda’s AI. I mentioned that she does nothing at all during fights, but that’s the least of the problems you’ll have with her. When you’re not holding her hand, she just wanders about, like a puppy distracted by a butterfly. You can call out for her to join you, but some situations can’t be fixed by this. Sometimes you need her to stand on a switch to keep a door open, but once you drag her to it, she sometimes immediately walks off it, forcing you to go back and forth and pray she sits tight long enough that you can walk through the door. Sometimes you call to her to climb down a ladder, but just as she reaches the ground, she perplexingly starts climbing up again, and won’t stop till she reaches the top. And some of the ladders in this game are bloody tall, which leads to moments of me smashing the R1 button, calling to her to get her stupid ass down. These are minor issues overall, but it really brings me out of the connection I was feeling to the girl.

Which is sad, because I really did grow to care for her...

Heavily criticizing a cult classic is a dangerous job, and I’ve done a thorough enough job ripping this game apart. Before ICO fans try to figure out what weapon would be best suited to caving my head in, though, I’d like to say that regardless of the incredibly average gameplay experience, I still genuinely enjoyed ICO. I’m still not entirely sure what exactly ‘Art’ is when the term is applied to video games and movies, but the closest I’ve gotten to a concrete answer is, “Saying much with little”. ICO certainly does that; for a game with a basic set-up and very few cutscenes, I got so connected to the characters and the setting that I was willing to drag myself through the game just to see Ico and Yorda succeed. I’d be a bloody liar if I said I didn’t well up a bit during the ending, something that has happened about never during my gaming experience. It’s a game I’d recommend getting if you feel like emotionally connecting to a game, something you can actually care about. The interactivity part of video games is what will always put them ahead of movies in terms of immersion, and that immersion has the potential to make you seriously care. A game sacrificing fun for an artistic point is something I will always frown upon, but I really don’t remember much about the bad points of the game when I think about it; I remember protecting Yorda and holding her hand to make sure she was alright. It’s something I’d recommend everyone try; there’s nothing quite like it. As much as I enjoyed it, though, this isn’t the star of the ICO & Shadow of the Colossus Collection; the latter is where you’re getting your money’s worth here.

Sonic Generations Review

Funny how the first two games I decided to review for this site were released on November 1st. Perhaps this symbolizes something.  Maybe November 1st is the day I establish myself as a millionaire, swimming in pools of money and sticking my nose up at anyone who doesn’t own several mansions. Or maybe November 1st is the day I die via explosives strapped to my ass. Huh…

Either way, Sonic Generations is the first Sonic game since 1994 that I can say I liked without saying, “But…”, and listing several hundred glitches, control issues, and a story that  makes me seriously consider building a memory-erasing machine for the sole purpose of making me forget it. Appropriate enough, I suppose: Sonic Generations was created specifically to celebrate 20 years of Sonic, and I’m sure the entire gaming industry would have a field day if that celeberation turned out to be crap, as unironic as it would’ve been. That it isn’t the case, thankfully, though that’s not to say this game is perfect.

After jarringly being thrown into gameplay seconds after pressing the Start button and having to complete a stage before even being told what the hell was going on, the story kicks in, if very briefly. Sonic and his friends are celebrating Sonic’s birthday, when Barney the Dinosaur’s evil and dimension-spanning second cousin rips a hole through space and time, sucking Sonic’s friends through various times and places that all very conveniently correspond to ones Sonic has visited in his past, and its up to Sonic to save them. All this screwing around with time causes some sort of paradox, and the present-day Sonic meets his past self, who he teams up with to save his friends and make time right. Not that saving you’re friends seems to have any real benefit, with the exception of Tails: You rescue them, they give you a 10-second pep talk, and they spend the rest of the game flicking their ears. Actually, they do have a role in some missions, but we’ll get to that a bit later. The Sonics also need to retrieve the Chaos Emeralds to fix time and space, though at this point, the Chaos Emeralds are Sonic’s solution to everything. “Ah, hell, my tea’s gone cold! I know, I’ll go get the Chaos Emeralds to make it all better!”.

Remember to share, kids. Share DEATH!

Now, it’s best to keep a time-travel plot as simple as possible, lest someone spontaneously combust trying to figure out how it all works and what rules are being applied. It’s especially important to keep time-travel plots involving Sonic the Hedgehog simple, because A) Sonic ’06 and B) Sonic stories need to be kept simple anyway. Trying to write a serious plot when your main character is a super-fast rat is a good way to get laughed at. The game thankfully keeps the plot at an absolute minimum, but it also skips out on dialogue, which is incredibly disappointing.

See, you progress through the game by playing through a level selected from 9 different Sonic games released throughout the years, and I was under the impression the writers were going to have Sonic and Tails comment on the level you just completed, make a few in-jokes, and even take a few jabs at the game it was originally from; Sonic Colors has proven that they have absolutely no problem doing that. Hell, the game itself supported that impression, as Sonic and Tails do exactly that for the first two levels, but it never happens again. I thought it was a good opportunity to let out a bit of Sonic history and laugh at a few bad past decisions the team made with the series, which are quite a few. I mean, I thought that the only way SEGA could’ve slipped in a level from Sonic ’06 was if they beat the crap out of that game in a cutscene or something, but without that, its inclusion is jarring. It stinks of a game that was rushed, since as mentioned, these sort of cutscenes occur twice in the beginning, and I assume it was intended to continue for the rest of the game. But you know what, fine. If you have to skip out on something due to deadlines, skip the story, not the gameplay. Good Sonic games have never been heavy on story, and this is no exception; I wasn’t looking for a drama or a thriller starring a hedgehog. I really do wish Sonic Team had learned that lesson before starting on Sonic ’06.

Those lovely pre-rendered cutscenes that were in the trailers are also nowhere to be found. There are no words for the disappointment.

The game is tied together with a neat little hub world, which connects the various levels and their corresponding missions, and is split in 3 Eras: ‘Classic’, ‘Dreamcast’, and ‘Modern’. The Sonic series has done hub worlds with very limited degrees of success, but this is easily the best, because its damn near inconsequential. It’s a couple of seconds between each stage, and while the missions do require some platforming to get to, it’s very rudimentary. Except in the Modern Era, where a specific set of missions is bloody impossible to get to without screwing around for a couple of minutes, every single time. Regardless, its nothing like Sonic ’06s harrowing 5 minute runs around a stupidly big, bland, lifeless city, or suffering through 8 billion load times in Sonic Unleashed to get to the stage you wanted. Interesting how this hub-world’s completely white background feels more lively than Sonic ’06’s cities. You can visit a shop to buy skills and equip them to customizable sets, but unlike Sonic and the Secret Rings, which shoved this system in your face before every single damned mission, it’s completely optional here. For some reason, though, these abilities only seem to work in the main stages, not in the missions, where I think they would’ve actually been useful.

Yes, this here feels more lively than the populated cities in Sonic '06.

The main gameplay is split into two styles, Classic and Modern, and might as well start with the one fans have been begging for for the past 15 years. The Classic Sonic stages are completely restricted to a 2D plane, though it does often take you into the foreground and background, something that it really benefits from; if you’re going to bring Genesis gameplay onto the PS3, you might as well tweak it to take advantage of the new hardware. The stages are purely platforming here: you jump from platform to platform, be they swinging, descending or ascending, and all those wonderful things completely unsupported platforms can do in video games. There were two factors that always put the Genesis games’ platforming on top of any other games’, one being the physics. You could be running down a hill and suddenly jump, or leap onto an enemy and keep jumping on other ones to keep the flow going. I’m incredibly relieved to say that all that’s intact, as well as Classic Sonic’s momentum. SEGA’s last attempt at replicating this gameplay, Sonic 4, had as much with common with the Genesis titles as McDonalds has with decent food. Sonic controls near perfectly here, if having a somewhat stiff jump when stationary. The other factor was the alternate paths; there were so many branching paths that you could explore in those games that I’m still finding completely new ones to this day. This, too, was kept intact in this game, but is more reflex and/or memorization based than the classic titles. I’m not sure I’m a fan of this, because it means that you have to already know where it is you have to jump onto an unseen platform, or leap off a hill while descending it, rather than finding new paths through exploration. Either way, it’s definitely going to keep me playing the game long after completing it.

TROOOOOOOOLLLLLLLNAAAAAAAAAAAAAAADOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!

Modern Sonic’s gameplay system is exactly what is was in Sonic Unleashed: you’re running at top speed on both 3D and 2D planes, gathering rings to fill a boost gauge which causes you to run even faster, a feature that you’ll almost always keep active. You can perform the homing attack by pressing X twice, allowing you to target and destroy an enemy in an instant; a quick step by hitting the R1 and L1 buttons, which lets you quickly witch lanes, and a crouch maneuver by pressing O, which lets you drop whenever you want, at whatever speed, though I can’t imagine the kind of damage done to Sonic’s ass when doing so at 500 MPH. It’s still fun as ever to be zipping by at lightning speed through beautiful environments, but what shocked me was the amount of platforming included in these sections. Unleashed focused almost completely on you just running fast and quick stepping to get through the stages, but this game completely wrecked that system in favor of some decent platforming. This delighted me, really, because we haven’t had honest-to-God 3D platforming since Sonic Adventure 2. Its not as physics and momentum based as Classic Sonic’s, though; its mostly run and jump style, but its done well enough that I really don’t mind. Another thing that was completely absent from every single 3D title were those alternate paths that I mentioned, but Generations gives Modern Sonic so many that I’m left astounded by how much effort they put into these levels. You have to remember that all those beautiful environments cost a lot of money to make, and having to make levels long enough for Sonic to zip through without them lasting 20 seconds must really hurt the developers’ wallets. And now, not only do you have ONE lovingly rendered paths to blast through, you have MANY of them, a lot cleverly hidden, which, along with Classic Sonic’s level design, boosts this game’s replayablility to astronomical levels. If there is one problem here, though, it’s that Sonic still controls like he’s skating on ice with shoes made out of butter when not boosting, and while the platforms are generally large enough that they compensate for that, sometimes the game demands precision platforming, and you’d have an easier time finding a needle in a stack made out of other needles that’s slowly being filled with posionous gas than getting Sonic onto those platforms. And while this isn’t necessarily a problem, I have to question the redundancy of having Modern Sonic have 2D sections, when Classic Sonic was supposedly the one who should handle them. If nothing else, Sonic is certainly a lot easier to control in 2D.

And you do get to use that ever classic board in a couple of levels. A couple.

The selection of levels in this game is actually really good, and they did an amazing job bringing those 16-bit levels onto current generation hardware. Not everyone can be pleased though, and some will definitely be angry that their favorite level from any specific game not making it. My problem, though, is the overabundance of city levels. Of the nine levels, FOUR are city levels, and while each is completely unique from the other (one is in a post-apocalyptic setting, for crying rather softly), it would’ve been better to have some more unique aesthetics, which the Sonic series is well known for. You also have to consider that the series is very fantastical in its setting; it would’ve been much more appropriate to have the more out-there levels to represent the series’ history than what look like real life locales. What infuriates me to the point of wanting to amputate my own leg with a chainsaw, though, is that the game features both Green Hill Zone from Sonic 1 and Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes. Both these stages, besides some differences, are atheistically exactly the same. I don’t care about fan demand, having two stages virtually identical is NOT a good way to represent the franchise’s history. I know Green Hill Zone is a prerequisite for this kind of game, but Sonic Heroes had that really surreal haunted castle. That would’ve made a perfect fit and given the level selection some variety, not to mention that it was a level I really would’ve liked to play with functional controls. I still appreciate the stages on display, though, and they’re all designed very well. Sonic Colors’s stage really makes a strong argument that the game should be released on HD consoles; it looks absolutely gorgeous.

I'd have really liked to play Colors with visuals like this the whole way through. A bit lazy, are we, SEGA?

Each Era ends with a battle with a boss, each from the corresponding era. You fight the Egg Robo (that thing will always be the Eggsterminator to me) from Sonic 2, Perfect Chaos from Sonic Adventure, and the Egg Dragoon from Sonic Unleashed. The point of fighting them is to retrieve their respective Chaos Emerald, but this raises the question of how Perfect Chaos even manages to exist. Chaos becomes perfect after having all 7 Emeralds, but he doesn’t here, so how… forget it. They managed to screw up the time travel plot with that. Nice going. Other than these fights, there’s also a fight against a ‘Rival’ in each era, repectively Metal Sonic, Shadow, and Silver, who also have Chaos Emeralds. Metal Sonic is evil and all, which is enough incentive to fight him, but the Shadow and Silver fights completely lack context. They’re all supposed to be friends, or at least allies at this point. Their pre-battle dialogue goes a bit like, “Grr, Sonic! GRRRR!!!”. Um, guys, I understand we have a friendly rivalry going on, but I think that can wait until we’ve eliminated the creature that’s detroying the very fabric of space and time. And how the hell did any of them get a Chaos Emerald, anyway? This whole Chaos Emerald deal really makes my brain melt; thankfully the game doesn’t focus on it, so I guess we’re not meant to take it seriously. That isn’t a good excuse, however, but again, the less plot in a time-travelling story featuring Sonic, the better.  Despite being completely arbitrary, all the bosses are rather enjoyable and completely unique, which I suppose is enough reason for them to exist. My inner plot whore rages against the set-up, but the story is simple enough anyway, so I guess I’ll let it slide.

Although Dr. Eggman definitely has reasons to want you dead.

The main problem about this game, though, is that in terms of story length, its barely four hours. This can very easily be overlooked by the fact that those alternate paths that I love bringing up will keep me coming back to the game for years to come, if the Genesis titles are any indication, but a game being sold at $50 needs more than that for those instant gratification twats. Thankfully, each stage comes with 10 missions, 5 for each Sonic, boosting the game’s length to about 7 hours. I was always lukewarm about Sonic Unleashed’s side missions, and Sonic ’06’s can burn in hell, but they actually put a lot of effort into these missions. You always have some sort of requirement to fulfill while in them, and they can generally be expected to support the fast and flowing gameplay. The level design for most missions is completely different than those of the main stages, and if the mission requirements didn’t exist, they could qualify as Act 3s and 4s. Some do recycle the main stages, though, but it never really bothered me too much. Until I was forced to play the doppelganger missions that every level has for each Sonic: you have to replay the main stage while racing against a doppelganger, which will never, ever catch up to you. These missions were the absolute worst, the least creative, and simple weren’t necessary. I didn’t need extra incentive to play those stages, you clots, you didn’t need to waste an entire mission forcing me to. That’s not to say they’re the only stinkers; some require you to team up with Sonic’s friends, or battle them in some manner, and these are usually boring, uninteresting, frustrating, or all three. Not always, but enough to make me wish I kept those bastards locked away. The missions can still be expected to be fun, if not very long, and you are always rewarded with either interesting artwork or music from previous Sonic games you can play over any stage or mission, and if you know anything about the franchise’s soundtrack quality, you’ll want to pick them up. What I don’t like is how you’re graded for these sections: your grade is based completely on your TIME, rather than how well you completed the mission. Say, for example, you have to rescue a certain amount of Chao. You’d think that the more you saved, the better your score would be, but no, you have a set amount that you must save, and then you have to haul ass to the goal. That’s like entering a spelling bee and being disqualified because you have a funny accent. And sometimes, especially during the doppleganger missions, they’ll give you a generous amount of time to get the highest grade, but fail to reach the goal, and it IMMEDIATELY drops to the worst. So now its like getting shot while spelling something the moment your accent is noticed.

You get this pinball game if you pre-ordered the game, and, well... its pinball. Nothing you haven't seen before.

Ever since Sonic moved from 2D to 3D in 1998, his games have ranged from decent to unplayable, and the franchise as a whole has been ridiculed as an artifact of a bygone era, irrelevant in today’s market. Sonic Generations completely turns the tables: I honestly haven’t had this much fun with any other game this year, maybe because I’m a hardcore Sonic fan, but being one hasn’t kept me from wanting to burn several of his previous games. For once, a Sonic game isn’t riddled with technical issues, a terrible plot (just a nonexistant one in this case), or just being boring. I can’t award the game points for originality, since it takes concepts and stages from previous games, but for this kind of celebration, I wouldn’t have it any other way. If you’re a Sonic fan, chances are you’ve already purchased the game and beaten it, but if you haven’t, do so immediately; this game was made for you. If you’re looking to get into the series, this is probably the greatest starting point, encompassing the franchise’s history. Hell, you can even unlock and play Sonic 1, which is still fantastic 20 years later; you couldn’t ask for a better starting point. Yes, its short, but there’s so much potential replayablility that you’ll probably be returning to this game long after everything’s been said and done. Its just an overall great game, and SEGA should be proud of themselves for making should a fitting tribute to its star character. Its the best Sonic game that’s come out since 1994, which isn’t saying much, honestly; that’s like saying you’re the most decent woman in a city named Whoresville. But for its worth, it is. That said, return to shoddy quality for your future games, SEGA, and I’ll have my chainsaw ready.

You couldn't ask for a better celeberation package than the latest and oldest Sonic games on one disc.

Uncharted 3 Review

If you’ve read the opinions of most of the mainstream media, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the lead developer of Uncharted 3 was Christ himself. “Gorgeous graphics! Unforgettable story! Amazing characters! Innovative gameplay!”, they all shriek. It’s my sad (read: incredibly joyful) duty to inform you all that other than that first claim, all of that shrieking is complete bollocks. Maybe they all received a completely different game, one that was indeed all of that. I, though, got something that although fun to play, was incredibly lackluster when it came to fulfilling its lofty goals.

The story is as follows: the hero, Nathan Drake, wants to get to some sort of very badly defined treasure before someone else does. He’s aided by his mentor, Victor Sullivan, and his love interest from the previous games who always seems to break up with Drake off-screen in-between games, Elena. Earlier in the game, two other people, a British man named Cutter and a British woman named Chloe, also tag along, but they’re both very ill-developed and kicked out of the story 3 hours in, presumably because they’re British, and nobody likes those guys. Actually, that’s something of a lie, Chloe was in the lime light for quite a while in the second game, and was the only person in the plot who seemed to have any depth, no matter how little. Because of this, I’m absolutely baffled by her having absolutely no consequence to the plot of this game what so ever, and could’ve easily been replaced by a balloon animal that spoke in a sexy British accent.

May you please explain why the hell are you here, Chloe? Other than to look good next to the dirty men?

Drake needs to traverse the world, again, trying to figure out the puzzle left by his predecessor, Sir Francis Drake, as to how to get to this treasure, located in Ubar, Iram of the Pillars somewhere in the Rub-Khali Desert. He visits several different countries gathering clues, and the puzzles guarding these clues leave me to wonder how one man could set up such an elaborate riddle without a diligent construction crew. And moreover, why he would do so. We learn late in the game that Ubar hosts evil spirits or something along those lines, and that Francis Drake was aware of this, and preferred to turn back and leave the treasure rather than unleash them. So, I ask, why would he leave any evidence that the place even existed at all, let alone where it lay?

I guess the developers wanted to stretch their muscles by making a desert area, but Sir Francis couldn't have known THAT.

In any case, you read that I mentioned professional critics kept jabbering about “Amazing Characters!”, and I certainly would’ve hoped so, considering the incredibly weak plot set-up. Good characters are enough to carry a story, I suppose, but thing is, these AREN’T good characters. People keep bringing up Indiana Jones when describing Drake; Both are adventurers seeking lost treasure without any sort of government aid and permission. But Indy had actual motives, and was a relatable character whose personal life we occasionally glimpsed into so we knew what he was fighting and adventuring for, and most importantly, that he was reluctant about fighting and adventuring, meaning that we could somewhat overlook his murder of Nazis, who nobody minds dead anyway. Drake has none of this, in any of the games. We have no idea what his personal life is like, we know very little of his backstory, and we have no idea what his motivation is. It’s presumably becoming filthy rich, but he never says that, even when asked straight up by several characters. And I think I know why: On the course of his adventures, he’s killed enough blameless mercenaries to cover the surface of the moon with, and nothing he says could justify that. But regardless, the game constantly makes him out as a hero who has moral superiority, but absolutely nothing he says or does verifies this. The villains threaten his friends with death, sure, but Drake has already killed hundreds of their goons, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re justified doing so. He never even feels remorse, and indeed, the entirety of what I’d reluctantly call his personality is based on him tossing out horrible wisecracks, before, during, and after a bloody battle that results in dozens of deaths he caused. This isn’t a hero, this is a bloody physcopath who is actually worse than the villains, the people we’re supposed to hate. I wouldn’t mind so much if the game didn’t feel the need to glorify him at every turn, with every character following in his wake. Sure, we learn that the villains want to harness the power of those evil spirits I mentioned , but Drake learns of this while already sitting on a mountain of corpses; metaphorically, of course, he isn’t Kratos. (That sounds like a spoiler, but if you’ve played the previous games and couldn’t figure that out before you even put the disc in, please go dust off your brain).

That mercenary probably just wanted to feed his wife and two beautiful children, you asswipe.

What infuriates me, though, is that the game has several moments where they could’ve made Drake somewhat sympathetic, but completely screws them up with a tactical nuclear strike. Its implied that Drake and Elena were married after Uncharted 2 but broke up before this game, and being able to glimpse into their marriage would’ve given some much needed insight into Drake’s personality and activities when he isn’t drinking the blood of his victims (again, metaphorically). This doesn’t happen of course; we’re not even given a passing mention as to why they seperated. There’s a segment early in the game where we see Drake in his youth, but we don’t see him transition from a normal boy into a thief and killer: we play with him when he’s already become one, so apparently he’s always been a smug prick. The big bad, a woman named Marlowe, has a chat with him later in the game, bringing up the suicide of his mother and being abandoned by his father, which I thought was interesting and could’ve been used to justify his passively homicidal nature (not that the game will admit that he has one), but beyond this incredibly quick mention, it’s never, ever brought up again. The person who wrote that into the script and immediately forgot about it deserves to be pit against Drake himself. Let’s see if he can like his character while Drake bashes his brains in for no reason other than the fact he’s wearing an enemy uniform.

Alright, perhaps that's a bit much, but you get the idea.

I usually wouldn’t spend this much time beating the hell out of the main character, but this is a character driven plot, and the plot being driven in this case is a beat-up car commandeered by a drunken retard, who only reaches his destination after slamming into countless pedestrians whose only fault was walking on the sidewalk, and then crashing the car when he arrives. The passengers are all pretty bland, too: Sully is a cookie cutter mentor, whose only purpose is to tease Drake and occasionally give him a pep talk, and Elena is the love interest whose love for the protagonist is not only contrived, but implausible, considering all of their screen time together involves blowing people up while Drake wise cracks all the way. The villains being chased aren’t fleshed out in the least bit, whose motivations are as nonexistent as Drake’s. “I NEED THAT TREASURE!” Marlowe cries, while sitting in her gold filled library, surrounded by suit-wearing bodyguards and backed up by a mecenary force that would shame several African countries. Again, we learn her true intentions much, much later, but it honestly feels like a last-ditch attempt at making her seem evil, which fails at doing even that much, because we have no idea what exactly she wants to do with the spirits. For all we know, she wants to challenge them in a game of tennis. Bottom line is, the story is paper thin, paper that fails to wipe the filth that is the lead characters from the writer’s ass.

Aw, look, they love each other. And killing, of course.

Again, usually I don’t spend so much time with the plot, but I wanted to break down some notions that this game is some sort of pinnacle of story and character development. The gameplay here is infinitely stronger. It consists of equal parts climbing many different interpretations of a wall and mercilessly gunning down enemy mercenaries. Thankfully, this is all still very fun, if identical to Uncharted 2’s gameplay. The one thing that puts Uncharted 3’s gunplay over most shooters is that there are multiple points you can approach a firefight from, and you’re free to take up any position you want, and the battle areas are usually big enough that this actually matters. You’re never forced to fight for too long, and enemies take a reasonable amount of damage, although it mystifies me how the enemies can run, gun, and swallow your bullets in suits. You can’t swallow much yourself, though, and are forced to take cover and shoot from behind it. It can be exhilarating, running from cover to cover taking potshots at everyone, but disengaging Drake from cover is like trying to disengage an American father from his couch. Occasionally a big guy with a shot gun lumbers toward you, swallowing your bullets as though you were firing peas, and oft times he manages to get behind you before you can get Drake to move his stupid ass from his current cover and blows you a couple of new eye sockets on the back of our head. Its never too frustrating, but it’s especially annoying in tight corridors, where guys will flank you before you can get up. Generally, though, the shootouts are fun and flow very well.

I'll admit, it IS pretty fun having a shoot-out in the middle of a crashing plane.

The important thing is the pacing, though. Just when you might be sick of shooting, you’re faced with a climbing section to relieve the tension and allow you to admire the game’s gorgeous visuals. The climbing is very easy, in contrast with some of the more hectic firefights: you have to make your way up ledges and poles, tapping the X button and pointing in the direction you want to leap. It’s never hard to figure out what ledge you want to jump onto while climbing, because Drake can only go so far before gravity smashes his smug face against the floor, and the only difficulty is figuring out where to begin…. supposedly. The game squashes that notion by having most of the starting ledges brightly colored , contrasting from the rest of the environment, so the climbing overall is more of a sight-seeing tour rather than an actual test of agility and reflexes, like Assassin’s Creed and Prince of Persia. There are times when the gunning and climbing meld, though, forcing you to leap from cover wall to cover wall while climbing up a vertical wall, which is probably the only time you’re ever going to actually be awake during climbing sections.

Oh SURE, this looks hard, but it isn't. Really.

Thing is, all of this, while functional, is still very generic, nothing that hasn’t been done before, and usually better. Hell, the mechanics themselves are virtually unchanged from Uncharted 2. What makes them special in Uncharted 3 is that they’re usually combined with cinematic set-pieces. You could be climbing through a burning mansion, shooting through a falling airplane, or climbing AND shooting through a crumbling city (which is crumbling because of Drake, by the way). It really does make the game a whole lot more action packed than most others, and is the perfect example of how to do combine movie set pieces with gameplay correctly, and is where action games should be going as part of their evolution. About half of Uncharted 3’s game time would’ve been relegated to cutscene in lesser games, or done completely WRONG in games like Heavy Rain, whose idea of cinematic gameplay involved you pressing a button every so often during a cutscene, making the game feel more like a movie where you occasionally had to fiddle with the remote. Uncharted 3 finds the perfect mix, always keeping the player in control during scripted sequences and therefore making them feel like they’re actually contributing to the game. Uncharted 2 did this, mind, but the cinematics play out much differently here, so one can’t call them rehashed. It should be applauded for this effort, and moreso for doing it well, but only after I’m done ripping it apart.

You're expected to climb up to this thing. While its in motion. You never see LARA CROFT doing these things.

The game features several puzzles, a couple more than the second game had, but once again, opening your journal tells you exactly what to do, so I have to question why the bloody hell there are puzzles here to begin with. But unlike the second game, where the puzzles popped up in between huge firefights to give the players a breather, here, a pair is always stuck 5 minutes away from each other(and there are only 2 pairs) so the only feasible reason for these puzzles (pacing) has been destroyed. They’re not even complex, whether or not you had a journal with you. Its never more complicated than placing gears in the correct spot, or turning statues around. At least Uncharted 2’s puzzles involved some climbing to keep your mind from vegetating.

This here is much harder than any of the puzzles in Uncharted 3.

There’s also been an increased emphasis on hand to hand combat; while in the previous games it was just a convenient way to get rid of nearby enemies that required no finesse, this game seems to be desperately trying to channel the Batman: Arkham games and failing miserably. You can quickly switch from one enemy to the other, countering their blows, but where it fails is that the animations are so repetitive. There’s about 2 or 3 counters I’ve seen, which I’ve had to use against a hundred bloody enemies. You can use pieces of the scenery against enemies, which is a nice touch and helps make the combat bearable, but oft times there isn’t anything to use, especially during larger fights. It’s like baking a cake for a soldier every time he comes back home, wounded and bandaged, but forgetting to do so when he’s hit by grenade shrapnel. The worst offense, though, is that taking down one enemy just takes too bloody long, and you don’t have time in the middle of a firefight to punch them down, but the game always throws enemies at you that initiate the combat themselves, something that Uncharted 2 never did. There’s even areas where you’re thrown into a room full on enemies, unarmed, and you’re only choice is to tediously knock them down with your fist. I realize they had to try something new, because the shooting and climbing mechanics were recycled, but I feel the game would’ve done a lot better by throwing the whole idea in the bin.

Not pictured here: you punching this guy for 15 seconds while someone behind you is ready to get busy with a shotgun.

If this is the first review of Uncharted 3 you’ve read, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the lead developer behind the game was Satan himself. As negative as this all sounds, though, I have to admit that the game is still really fun to play. The cinematic nature of the gameplay ensures it never gets boring and helps it stand out among the rest of the crowd, and if you’re one whose always ignored the dialogue and story of a game and was just there for the shooting and the explosions, punch yourself in the face for being so narrow-minded and shallow,  but feel rewarded when you play Uncharted 3, because you’ll have a better time than I did. The game is still pretty short, though, clocking in at 8 hours, so I wouldn’t recommend running to get it at full price. Get it cheap, or rent it; that’s as much as I’ll recommend.

If you haven't played it, though, get Uncharted 2 instead. It's much better, but all that's for another day.

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