Latest Game and Movie Reviews (Live Update)

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DS Tokyo Beat Down 7.1
Xbox 360 Fracture 8.0
MOVIE The Unborn 0
PC Left 4 Dead 8.7
Xbox 360 Mirror's Edge 8.5
MOVIE Dead Space Downfall 3.5
MOVIE The Day the Earth Stood Still 0.5
PSP Super Stardust Portable 9.7  CHOICE PICK
PSP Need for Speed Undercover 2.8
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Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Game Review: Need for Speed Undercover

Need for a hammer to smash this up.



The Good:
All Points, Scramble, Hot Car and Getaway are genuiely fun race modes * Suitable music * Local wireless play and online multiplayer extend replayability

The Bad:
Straightforward and predictable story * Poor vehicle physics * Short draw distance * City seems too empty * Car models look terrible (square wheels included!) * Cheating A.I.

Firebrand Games seems to be the go-to developer for DS racing games, having already accomplished Cartoon Network Racing, Race Driver: Create and Race, Ferrari Challenge, Race Driver: GRID and TrackMania DS. Its latest project is Need for Speed Undercover, the most recent in EA’s long-running franchise.

It remains a mystery, however, why a developer with such vast experience in producing DS racing games has works with varying (often questionable) degrees of quality. Race Driver: Create and Race was a great racer – if you can forgive the slightly undesirable visuals, but Race Driver: GRID was an absolute nightmare to play, partly due to its virtually non-existent vehicle physics. TrackMania DS, one of the more recent Firebrand titles, was ridiculed with draw distances so short that it’s practically impossible to win on more winding tracks later in the game. This is a developer which produces a good game one moment, yet produces a pile of nonsense the next. Where does Need for Speed Undercover stand then?

While Undercover certainly has its share of positives, its shortcomings more than overwhelm any glimmer of hope that the few fun parts of this game present. The previous Need for Speed game for DS, Pro Street, was an achievement to behold: Excellent visuals, realistic simulation-like handling and an impressive variety of modes. Undercover throws out those achievements (though it retains the wide array of race modes) and adds in a few additional rotten tomatoes of its own and the result is a game that stinks more than it smells.

Unlike the console editions, Undercover for DS doesn’t feature an entirely open-world racing element. What you have here is a basic event-based gameplay – complete a certain number of events and more events get unlocked. But for certain race types like Hot car or Getaway (where you need to evade the police) and All Points and Scramble (where you are the cop and need to nab criminals), there are no barriers and you are allowed to drive around the city freely. That’s fine – especially after putting into consideration the limited technical power of the DS. It’s also perfectly alright that the cut-scenes from all the other versions of the game (including the PSP edition of Undercover) get translated to a load of strategically-taken still shots and text since the story still gets conveyed across really well. Speaking of the story, it’s a pretty straightforward and predictable one – save for a wicked twist towards the end, but otherwise, it’s merely a bland excuse to get you moving from event to event.

What’s not fine, however, are the poor vehicle physics. It’s not as bad as the one present (or absent from) Race Driver: GRID for DS, but the fact that each of the vehicles doesn’t really have any ‘weight’ is unforgivable. The handling of each car feels very loose and that contributes to the difficulty of taking turns. In fact, every car handles pretty much the same; the sole difference between lower-end cars and higher-end cars is that the former can take turns easier as they are less quickly than the later and hence, require a shorter braking distance. This brings me to the next severe issue I have with this game.

The draw distance is so short that it’s really hard to anticipate a turn. The short draw distance wouldn’t pose a problem if you are driving a lower-end car because by the time you spot a turn, there’s still much time to brake and take a turn smoothly, but for most parts of the game, you would be in a higher-end car and instances where a turn appears out of nowhere while you are speeding are frequent. Unlike TrackMania DS, there’s a mini-map on the bottom screen so you would be aware when there’s a turn approaching, but you know there’s something seriously wrong when a game constantly forces you to take your eyes away from the action to glance at the position of a turn on the lower screen.

The short draw distance isn’t the only technical issue, though. The city is populated with quite an impressive number of buildings, but the moment you start getting into a ‘Cost to State’ race mode (where you need to destroy property by ramming into objects with your car), you will notice how pathetic this game is – there’s barely anything to ram your car into (note that the buildings are barricaded away from the main roads and they cannot be damaged). In fact, the city seems so empty that it almost represents a ghost town.

On the graphical front, the game is acceptable at best – especially since last year’s Pro Street’s ground-breaking visual achievement. Note that I used the word ‘ground-breaking’ because Pro Street for DS really does feature one of the most impressive visuals on DS, an achievement that is only bettered by Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. If you still have a copy of Need for Speed Pro Street for DS, boot it up and see the stark difference. The buildings here are incredibly detailed, but this comes at the compromise of the car models. Square wheels, anyone?

The poor vehicle physics and the load of technical issues have already detracted a lot from the experience, but in order to bring you this review, I have to suffer more than the aforementioned. This game cheats, period. It’s a problem that’s so frustrating that it would probably cause you to throw the DS game card into an incinerator before you have even completed the game. It’s atrocious that a slower car can suddenly speed past you when you are already driving the fastest car in the game. And just when you thought that you have caught up with a rival, consistently inching towards the competitor during the last few seconds, it suddenly zooms away from your sight when you are just one inch away from it – something that’s absolutely ridiculous. Civilian vehicles that ram into you (ala Midnight Club: L.A. Remix for the PSP)? Check. Taking turns at full speed? Check. Perhaps the A.I. here possesses cheat codes.

Undercover’s saving grace comes in the form of the wide variety of race modes. While circuit and sprint race modes can be quite boring (too many laps), the game gets genuinely enjoyable when you become the cop in All Points and Scramble race modes. Hot Car and Getaway are also equally, if not more, fun as the game constantly forces you to outwit the cops by exploring alternative routes to your target. At the same time, you are also obliged to drive slowly when the cops are approaching your vehicle in order to stay low and avoid detection, adding a much welcomed layer of strategic driving into the gameplay.

There’s a huge variety of vehicles to select from and the available tweaking options are rather sound for a portable racer (though they don’t matter since the handling is the same for each car and the A.I. cheats). The track list, while significantly shortened from the console editions, provides a suitable atmosphere for the entire game. Local wireless play and online multiplayer do well to extend the replayability of the game. These points pretty much round up the very few positives this game has. With the exception of the more creative race modes like All Points, Scramble, Hot Car and Getaway, there’s very little here that can compensate for the gapping flaws.

Final Comments
Poor vehicle physics. Tons of technical issues. A cheating A.I. These are 3 major reasons why you wouldn’t want to play this game. A great variety of race modes, among which are some that are genuinely fun – a reason why you would want to play this game. But before you even get the opportunity to enjoy this game, its severe shortcomings would have already caused you to take a hammer and smash the game card. What does this mean? This game is hopelessly bad.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Movie Review: City of Ember

An entertaining, if shallow, film.


RATING: 3.0/5


In an age where wars are raging or are threatening to happen and where the threat from natural disasters is very prominent, a post-apocalyptic world setting seems ripe for the picking. Such is the premise of City of Ember, which explores the survival of humankind in the future after the Earth is hit by a mysterious disaster capable enough of leveling entire cities. Earlier this year, Wall-E delved into a similar theme, where humankind survived by migrating to life on spaceships, but what we have here in this film is an underground city built with the sole purpose of housing future generations of humans, keeping them safe from the hazards of the Earth’s surface.

But the problem is: The underground city of Ember is only built to last for 200 years before the humans need to vacate the premises and start to live on Earth’s surface again. The builders of the city have passed on a box enclosing instructions on how to exit the city when the time comes, but the box would only open after 2 centuries are up. However, the box got lost at some point of time and the citizens are now oblivious to the ‘expiry date’ of their city.

The movie lays down the history of the city right off the bat, but that’s only for a few good minutes before it picks up at a time where the city has finally come of age. The effects are palpable: Resources are quickly running out, with rations allocated to each household significantly reduced overtime and blackouts are becoming more frequent and longer – due to the fact that the city’s sole power generator is falling apart.

It’s Assignment Day, a day where graduating students choose a job that they would do for their entire life in the city via lottery. Lina Mayfleet (Saoirse Ronan) picks out a job as a messenger, while Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway) gets to work in the Pipeworks. As if by sheer coincidence, Lina discovers the long lost box inside her grandmother’s closet after becoming a messenger while Doon is increasingly becoming suspicious of the blackouts and strives to find some answers by working in the Pipeworks, where the generator is located. These facts alone draw them together and they find out that their great great grandparents attempted to escape the city before. With Lina possessing the clues to escaping the city and with Doon having the technical know-how, the pair of youths must now work together in escaping the doomed city and seeking hope for the people of Ember before it’s too late. However, the city’s corrupt mayor (Bill Murray) and his cronies (Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook) stand in the way of the youths.

Can you count the population of Ember?

City of Ember is, quite simply, an opportunity to hop into an alternate universe – an elaborately constructed, beautiful and thriving underground city. This comes at a time where several films are exploring grimmer themes like sex and violence, so it’s safe to say City of Ember is produced with the family, especially kids, in mind. By virtue of its target audience, the film could be excused from its incredibly shallow plot, but for more matured audiences (like yours truly) who are seeking more than eye candy (the city is really gorgeous) and constant action, a little disappointment is inevitable.

While the beautiful city is certainly credible, the behaviour of the citizens here totally lacks believability. It’s puzzling how a city of people cooped up in an underground civilization for 2 centuries can live so harmoniously together – without greed and crime being existent. In fact, even when the there are obvious signs that the city is falling apart, the citizens still carry about their daily lives as if nothing has happened (save for our 2 main characters and the mayor, perhaps). The citizens are still cheerful with nary a vestige of anxiety and it’s difficult to believe that there isn’t someone greedy, or rather, megalomaniacal enough to cause some problems in the city. In other words, the film egregiously ignores the instincts of humankind and fails to portray the negative prospects of living in an underground city – secluded from the entire world – on a greater (and NECESSARY) scale such that the citizens of Ember seem more like inanimate cardboard cut-outs or pre-programmed robots rather than REAL people. There’s no believability in the plot.

But since this film is produced for the kids, it wouldn’t matter much anyway even if it explores the aforementioned – because the kids won’t comprehend them either. What families and the kids are looking out for is the action and on that count, City of Ember succeeds – with a formula that would prove entertaining not only to its target audience but also to more matured audiences. Great portions of the film are dedicated to telling the adventures of Lina and Doon as they attempt to escape from the city: there’s a distinct sense of dread as they work to solve the puzzles that the builders have left behind and there’s a tangible sense of intensity when they assay to stay one step ahead of the corrupt mayor and his equally thwarted task force. The film is concluded with a spectacular boat-ride escape that all but confirms the fun that audiences will experience when watching this film. An overgrown killer mole is added into the mix to ensure a never-ending spiral of action, but its existence was never really explained. This is clearly another result of a shallow film, but I will give its existence the benefit of doubt since this is a fantasy flick and well, there’s supposed to be fantasy in it (commercial movie reviewers who argue the lack of explanation for humans surviving on canned food for 2 centuries and question the availability of toilet paper and medicine, the burial of the dead are therefore invalid, ya, IGN?).

Final Comments
City of Ember is a city that is too shallow, though it’s admittedly a very enjoyable watch – but only if you can switch off your minds. Being a fantasy flick excuses it from its lack of explanation for many things, but the fact cannot tide it over the unbelievably naïve and gullibility of the citizens of Ember – no one mentions that characters in a fantasy flick can be stupid, right? But all in all, City of Ember does what it is supposed to do – have lots of action so that it is an entertaining film.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Game Review - Call of Duty: World at War

Significant improvement over Modern Warfare, but still lots of room for further improvement.



The Good:
Slick interface and menu * Consistent gameplay intensity * Stunning mission diversity * Very immersive aural experience * Perfect controls * Improved A.I. * More challenging * Slightly better visuals * Multiplayer now includes online play

The Bad:
Some events have already been played out in Call of Duty 2 * A.I. can still be greatly improved * Visuals are still relatively weak

- Suggestions for improvement listed at Final Comments

Portable gamers were given a little surprise late last year when Activision decided to let loose its Call of Duty franchise on the DS for the first time. N-Space undertook the project and the result was Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, a game that was in equal parts impressive and disappointing. It was impressive because what portable gamers were getting was essentially a shrinked-down console version of Call of Duty 4 – which means the DS version retains the consistent intensity of the gameplay, incredible mission diversity and immersive aural experience. On the other hand, there were a handful of control issues that detract quite a bit from the overall experience and the graphics, while acceptable, weren’t anywhere near the quality of other comparable DS titles. The unexpectedly poor A.I. also took a considerable amount of fun from the game.

With the 2nd DS Call of Duty offering, World at War, n-Space took what Modern Warfare for DS did right and improved on those positive components. At the same time, some of the issues that were present in the aforementioned got fixed. Additionally, n-Space pumped in a whole lot more content. The result is a way better Call of Duty game for DS – a very polished FPS that while not as good as Nintendo’s own Metroid Prime: Hunters, is still a must-get for your DS games library.

Unlike Modern Warfare, World at War transports gamers back to the World War 2 era, with the DS version following the story of its console siblings loosely. While this means that both editions won’t share all the events, a large part of what is offered on the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii can still be experienced here. The spectacular cut-scenes are understandably removed from the DS version, but the rather slick interface and menu that makes last year’s Modern Warfare for DS look more like a school project which n-Space has implemented more than compensates for the lack of the said. My only gripe is the decision to bring the franchise back to its World War 2 roots, especially since the previous game in the series has moved on. Instead, I found myself experiencing the SAME events from Call of Duty 2, though World at War has added jungle combat and naval warfare into the mix, so at least there’s still something precluding that ‘Why am I playing the same game?’ feeling from returning. But all in all, this is still World War 2 all over again and I hope that subsequent Call of Duty games would just move on.

But what has been done is done, so let’s make the best of the World War 2 setting. As mentioned, World at War, like Modern Warfare, has a VERY stunning amount of mission diversity going for it. The said is a Call of Duty franchise trademark and that is reflected very clearly here. Aside from the standard on-ground urban assaults, there are some really interesting scripted events. In one mission, you would be piloting a bomber attempting bomb drops on specific targets while fending off air attacks by constantly switching between manning the bombs and the machine guns – something that is consistently intense. In another, you would be taking control of an anti-air gun on a boat, all the while trying to put the darting Japanese Zeros out of commission. As per the de rigueur of Call of Duty games, the on-tank, on-halftrack, mortar strike, and call-in-artillery-strike-using-binoculars missions are all present, and so are the sniper levels. Again, like in Modern Warfare, all these are rounded off by a handful of enjoyable DS-exclusive mini-games that provide a breather from all the intensive running and gunning. However, I was disappointed to discover that the much-hyped flamethrower mission from the console editions was inexplicitly left out of the DS edition and there seems to be very few weapons offered here (where is the shotgun?).

Aside from the consistent gameplay intensity and distinctively diverse offering of missions, the engrossing audio experience from Modern Warfare was also retained. But World at War goes one up over its predecessor by filling out almost the entire game with memorable military tunes and offering more VO than you will ever find in another DS title. The former, especially, reflects the intensity of the gameplay really well and is complemented by equally, if not more, impressive, sound effects (I personally like the constant cracks of gunfire in the background and howling of wind in the later missions). This IS the game where you NEED to plug in your earphones, turn up the volume and allow the game to transport you into its world.

One of the components from Modern Warfare that had some issues was the controls. If you recall from the Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for DS review that I wrote last year, bringing up iron sights required double tap on the touch-screen and this created a couple of issues as the game often misinterpreted the command as a quick turn. World at War addresses this issue by having a bar dedicated to the command of bringing up iron sights at the top of the screen, so to execute the aforementioned now, all you need to do is to tap anywhere near the top of the touch-screen, making precision-aiming gunplay more convenient and intuitive. Another issue that I had with the controls in Modern Warfare was the crouch command, which required a double tap on the down button on the d-pad, but that particular button input was also dedicated to moving backwards so there’s a propensity for the game to misinterpret a crouch command as a backwards move command. This set of controls remain unchanged in World at War, but the game interprets the controls more precisely now. The tight and responsive mouse-like touch-screen controls for aiming from Modern Warfare get translated perfectly in World at War as well – so what you are getting in World at War is DS FPS controls at its zenith.

Another problem that was had in Modern Warfare was the terrible A.I. While the A.I. is still far from consummate in this year’s offering, it has been significantly improved from last year’s, so there’s a lot to look forward to. Part of the reason why the A.I. in Modern Warfare was so bad was because enemies often spawned in illogically to their pre-programmed positions and ceased to move the moment they arrived at their said locations. What this translated into were enemies who did not take cover when you shoot at them and who did not dodge when grenades were hurled their way. It really took away a lot from the experience as the entire game felt more like a budget online-based pop-up and shoot game or rather, a cleverly disguised war-themed Point Blank or Whac-A-Mole. Fortunately, the A.I. has been tweaked and the result is a more adaptable A.I. which does take cover from time to time and which does hurl grenades back at you if you do pop a grenade in their way (though the A.I. still stays suspiciously riveted to their spots if a grenade is about to explode). Enemy A.I. also dodges around quite a bit now – this is a great improvement over Modern Warfare, in which the enemy A.I. does not move away from its pre-programmed positions at all.

Added to the overall challenge of World at War is the increase in the number of on-screen enemies. More noteworthy, however, is the developer’s ability to make the DS produce such huge amounts of on-screen action at any given point of time with barely a noticeable drop in framerate. The only ‘downside’ to the increase in World at War’s capacity to output so many on-screen enemies at once and at a rate that is so quick is an unbalanced difficulty level. At certain points, the game can be a breeze, but during some sections, the action can grow relatively brutal and unforgiving. Depending on your preference, this can either be positive or negative. I personally dig the easy-hard approach as it injects more variety into the game, forcing you to implement more stop-and-pop strategy into gunplay.

Another thing that was found going against Modern Warfare last year was the visuals. Given the DS’s limited technical power, it isn’t exactly ideal for such action-intensive games nor is it capable of outputting graphics that would match those seen on the console versions of Modern Warfare, but the tons of huge pixellated junk and muddled textures were stamped all over the game that any hope of ignorance was all but extinguished. World at War, unfortunately, shares the same visual engine with Modern Warfare, so there’s still quite a handful of muddled textures lying around the environments, but a slight improvement was noticed as the game progresses into more urban environments. Call of Duty on DS is still a considerably ‘ugly’ game, especially given the very smooth graphics accomplished on Metroid: Prime Hunters and the sharp visuals churned out by Dementium: The Ward, but generally, World at War ends up better than Modern Warfare in the graphics department (though it’s only a tad better) – all in all, it’s still visually passable, but that isn’t a compliment by any means. If there’s one thing that I would like to see further improved in next year’s offering, it would be the visuals. On a sidenote, I noticed that the graphics remain a little on the ‘dark’ side. I would suggest playing World at War on the DS Lite or DSi (if you are quick enough to get your hands on an import) over the original DS; the capability to adjust the brightness level of the screen does help.

On the multiplayer side of things, the game has been beefed up drastically. The list of modes from Modern Warfare, namely deathmatch, team deathmatch, hunter/prey and capture the flag, remains unaltered, but these game modes can now be taken online for play in addition to local wireless play. While the DS edition lacks the depth of the multiplayer of the console versions, the fact that Call of Duty multiplayer can only get better from here is comforting. Online play is a fantastic addition, and so is the statistics tracking. An achievement-like medal system and collectible stars that unlock bonus items scattered throughout each level also increases the replayability of the game – this, in addition to the 8 hours plus of action offered by the single-player campaigns.

Final Comments
There is no denying that the Call of Duty franchise has matured greatly on the DS, and the 2nd DS Call of Duty, World at War, is an amazing title. There’s the same consistent gameplay intensity, diverse mission offerings and immersive aural experience. At the same time, the somewhat problematic controls from Modern Warfare have been perfected and the A.I. has been significantly improved, though there’s still room for MORE polish for the A.I. The game is generally more challenging, but for this step forward, the game takes a step backwards with its visuals, which is still poor by today’s standards (the DS can achieve more than what is shown here – as demonstrated by Metroid Prime: Hunters and Dementium: The Ward). Multiplayer content has been shored up and replayability, added in the form of collectibles. Despite some of its palpable flaws, World at War on DS remains a competent offering that can stand on its own feet and if you have played World at War on the consoles, the DS version is a nice game to have on the go to complement the console action.

Moving forward, I would like to see next year’s DS Call of Duty offering to have a better A.I. (especially) and improved visuals. It is also possible for the multiplayer to include more modes and online chat, yet at the same time, support for more online players in any one match (only 4 per match now).

I would also like to experience a more emotionally appealing Call of Duty and that can be achieved via the use of character focus and sprawling cut-scenes. While I mentioned that it’s understandable for this game to exclude cut-scenes given the DS’s limited cartridge space, there’s no reason not to do it since Tomb Raider Underworld for DS has already accomplished those 2 aspects that I pointed out (character focus and sprawling cut-scenes).

When all these are put in place, we would then have the perfect Call of Duty for DS. I shall have my fingers-crossed, but meanwhile, do enjoy this game.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Game Review: Exit DS

Improves on PSP and XBLA editions, but retains fundamentally flawed level design.



The Good:
Utilizing items and exclusive abilities of each character to get over obstacles * Touch-controls prove so much more intuitive than the horrible button controls of PSP and XBLA verions * Fantastic visual style * Cool animations

The Bad:
Does not allow mistakes to be reversed, leading to a lot of trial-and-error * A.I. is still a little incompetent * Scaled-back visuals of DS version * Some animations last too long

After making its debut on the PSP in 2006 before ensconcing itself in Xbox Live Arcade in 2007, Exit finally arrives on the DS. The DS version improves on the PSP original and XBLA edition in a few ways, but unfortunately, retains the fundamentally flawed level designs from the both the aforementioned, essentially keeping this title off the rankings of great DS puzzlers.

The premise is really simple. An escapologist by profession, Mr. Esc’s job is to evacuate people from dangerous situations. Throughout the course of the game, you will need to navigate a variety of 2D structures ranging from a sinking ship to a hotel struck by an avalanche to a hospital rattled by an earthquake to seek trapped victims and have them aid you in rescuing other trapped victims and escaping.

In order to get to each trapped victim, you will first need to get over a handful of obstacles, be it fires, smokes, blocked hallways or electricity. There are 100 levels spread over 10 areas (called situations in the game) and each area will introduce new obstacles (though some obstacles like fires are not unique to a particular area). For instance, levels taking place in the sinking ship introduces electricity in water, while levels occurring in the hotel features crates on ice that cannot be pushed unless special footwear is donned. To help Mr. Esc circumvent these obstacles, there are a variety of items scattered throughout each level.

More noteworthy, however, are the abilities (and inabilities) of the various trapped victims. Normal adults function very much like Mr. Esc, while obese adults need help to climb ledges and crates, but unlike the other characters in the game, can push bigger crates on their own. Children also need aid in climbing, but they are able to squeeze or crawl through narrow spaces to get items for Mr. Esc and are able to walk over thin flanks that would otherwise crack under the weight of other characters. Needless to say, the injured provide the most trouble as Mr. Esc would need to carry them. New to the cast of trapped victims in the DS version is the dog. A dog is unable to climb, but is the only character which is able to accomplish a long jump, hence being able to reach places inaccessible to other characters.

What Exit has done is to weave both elements together – the items with the distinctive abilities of each character – and create a puzzle which requires you to utilize each item and character’s ability fully in order to be able to make it to the ‘exit’ of each level. But then you realize that despite the ostensible ingenuity of the level design, the said IS in fact very fundamentally flawed – so flawed that it takes a whole lot of fun out of the game.

You see, to be able to make it to the escape of each level, you need to get over the various obstacles with items and the aid of the exclusive abilities of each character, but each level is designed in a way such that it’s more a matter of solving which obstacle first rather than planning how a particular character can be utilized. In each level, you would be provided with a mini-map and the ability to scroll through the entire environment so that you would be able to better plan your strategy. That’s a wise design choice.

But what’s flawed about this game is that mistakes are irreversible, so you really need to be reliant upon tons of trial-and-error to get through each level. For instance, if you accidentally move a crate against a wall, perhaps bearing in mind that you need the crate to be able to reach the ledge, but then realize that you need to move the crate to the other position on the right instead, you cannot pull the crate back and reposition it (Mr. Esc can push a crate, but cannot pull it?). It’s like allowing you to piece a jigsaw puzzle together, but if you put a wrong piece down, you’re not allowed to move, replace, or remove that piece. It’s simply preposterous.

During some instances, you may see an obstacle, and think that you may need to solve it first, but in fact, you need to go to the other obstacle and solve it first before being able to solve the initial obstacle. If you botched it up by ridding the initial obstacle first, there’s no turning back and you would need to restart the entire level. A puzzler in my hands, I understand that it’s supposed to be this challenging – I am not complaining about that. What I am complaining about is the game’s prohibition of mistake reversal, which is a fundamental flaw in any puzzle game.

Thankfully, there isn’t any major flaw beyond the level design. The controls could have been another significant blemish on the surface of such a cool-in-theory puzzler as demonstrated in the PSP and XBLA versions of the game, but the developers seem to have taken heed of the comments and so we have a DS version that boasts a huge improvement in the controls (though the controls still aren’t perfect).

That improvement can be attributed to the DS’s touch-screen as you now have an option to choose between button controls and touch-screen controls. I would recommend you to go with the touch-screen controls as the button controls are horrendous. Part of the reason why button controls in this game are terrible is because Exit has taken too much inspiration – perhaps inimically excessive – from old-school game mechanics. For example, if you want to jump, you cannot just walk over to the ledge and jump; you HAVE to stop at the edge before executing a jump. You cannot just walk over to a ladder or crate and climb; you HAVE to stop at the foot of the ladder or the side of the crate and execute a climb command. Such elaborate controls slow things down and disrupts the flow of the gameplay – certainly not advisable if you have a timer ticking off at the bottom of the map. But do note that these ill design choices apply only to button controls.

Select touch-screen controls and everything works wonderfully. For instance, if you want to jump over to the other side, all you need to do is to tap on the desired location and the game will do the rest of the stuffs. Mr. Esc still stops at the ledge for a moment before jumping and he still stops at the side of a crate before climbing onto it, but by selecting touch-controls and tapping on the desired location, you do not need to input any command in-between; if there’s something in the way, Mr. Esc will automatically navigate it. This saves a considerable amount of hassle and time, but perhaps more importantly, it makes the game a whole lot more intuitive. Simply speaking, a major flaw from the PSP and XBLA versions has been overcome.

But the A.I. is still a tad thick-headed. Inputting a command for a character to climb over a crate and go over to the other side of the stage may work, but inputting a command for a character to descend to a lower floor may not. You first need to command the character to move over to a ladder or stairs before ordering the character to use the ladder or stairs to move down to the lower level. It’s not a game-breaking experience, but it can get annoying during some instances.

The fantastic visual style of the game and animations round up the entire package. The DS version scales back a little on the visual style, but the overall game still looks pretty artistic and nice. Characters are featured in simple black and white, but the general character design feels really stylish – something refreshing, something that hasn’t been seen before in any other game. The stunning comic book-style design lends itself perfectly to the feel of both the characters and the environments.

My only gripe: Why have the graphics been scaled back on the DS? Instead of a mix of 2D and 3D elements in the levels, we now have strictly 2D environments. Construing the said to the DS’s limited technical power would be ridiculous as I have seen many other DS games, most notably Worms: Open Warfare 2 and Metal Slug 7, which feature environments that have a mix of both 2D and 3D elements. If those games are able to do it, why can’t Exit DS?

The animations, fortunately, are cool. Do look out for the animation where Mr. Esc suddenly changes direction while running. The animations feel really natural and inject a sense of human realism into the package. However, I find that some animations last too long and when you want to escape in the quickest time possible, they can get really irksome. I don’t like the idea of being forced to sit through some long animations when I am rushing against the ticker. Additionally, some of the long animations detract a little from the experience because it seems like Mr. Esc is taking a vacation in Hawaii rather than saving people from disaster.

Final comments
Exit DS improves on the PSP original and XBLA edition, but retains the fundamentally flawed level design. The prohibition of mistake reversal in such a puzzle game is punishable by death, really. Fortunately, new touch-controls make the terrible button controls of the PSP and XBLA versions history. The A.I. remains a little incompetent and the visuals and animations are a mixed bag.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Game Review - Midnight Club: L.A. Remix

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The Good:
Both LA and Tokyo look fantastic * LA feels different from Tokyo * Dynamic weather effects * Strong visuals * Robust vehicle rooster * Deep customization options * Single-player game is long * Huge variety of race modes * Power-ups

The Bad:
Red-marked races, supposedly the hardest, do not scale accordingly to the vehicle you drive, making them easy if you have a very fast vehicle * Lack of cop element * Terrible marker placement * Ridiculously reckless civilian vehicles

It has been a while since we loitered around the streets of Liberty City on the PSP, but in Midnight Club: L.A. Remix, Rockstar Games has returned to what it does best – open-world games. While L.A. Remix on the PSP is understandably not as big in scale as it is on the Xbox 360/PS3, the game still offers a rather impressive portable street racing experience – certainly one of the best on the PSP.

The premise is simple. You are a newbie who appeared out of nowhere in LA and as per de rigueur of street racing games, are forced to climb the ladder of reputation, with the goal of eventually becoming the champion of the city. Unlike Need for Speed Most Wanted or Carbon, there isn’t any intricate plot here (though it would be wonderful to have one), but when it comes to street racing, nothing really matters except the action.

On that count, L.A. Remix succeeds, but not with a few flaws that hinder it from becoming the perfect racer. The game starts out really easy, but as you progress, races get expectably more difficult. L.A. Remix is unique such that there isn’t any difficulty level to select from. Instead, the mission map throws up several races at once, with green-marked races being the easiest, yellow-marked races being trickier, and red-marked races being the most testing. Therein lays the problem: The difficulty does not scale to match the vehicle that you’re driving. In other words, red-marked racers may be hard at first, what with its several sharp turns that require precision driving, but if you get into a Lamborghini later in the game, red-marked races may not be that hard afterall since you would be speedier than any of your opponents and would easily win races if you take advantage of straight roads and pull far ahead of your opponents.

Part of the reason why red-marked races aren’t as difficult as they should can also be attributed to hardware limitations. I am assuming that these red-marked races get ported over from the Xbox 360/PS3 version, but what’s almost missing from the PSP version is the cop element – something which makes the red-marked races in the Xbox 360/PS3 rightfully challenging. Sure, they are still cops in L.A. Remix, but it is befuddling why they don’t give chase even after you have rammed through their road blocks. In fact, they don’t move at all, BUT that is not to say that the cop element is totally missing from this game. During a handful of races throughout the entire game, the cops do become aggressive and it adds a whole lot of fun to the race when that happens. It is a pity that the framerate dips when cop chases happen, though.

What I have done so far is just nit-picking, however. Both the aforementioned are due to the hardware limitations of the PSP – take, for instance, the lack of the cop element – considering that the framerate is already suffering minor hiccups when there are 4 to 5 cops chasing your vehicle, there is no doubt that the PSP wouldn’t be able to handle any more than that, so it’s probably a wise choice to keep the cop element to a minimum lest it impedes the enjoyment of the game. However, there remains one flaw that isn’t caused by hardware limitations and that COULD be changed.

In a step away from the conventional practices of racing games, L.A. Remix does not employ barriers (think neon barriers for street racing games like Need for Speed Carbon) to guide players on the right track for circuit races (or Point A to B races). Instead, in a circuit race in L.A. Remix, yellow markers with arrows pointing the direction to the next marker would be placed throughout the area to ensure that players stay on track for the race.

The problem is: There aren’t enough of these markers and some of them are placed very far away from each other. For instance, you see a marker at the edge of the mini-map and that marker makes it seem as if you need a turn at the next junction, but in fact, all you need to do is to follow the curve – and that would eventually lead you to the next marker. Why can’t there be a marker at the junction that points out that you need to go straight?

Furthermore, the placement of markers is terrible. Instead of having a marker at a junction to let you know that you need to take a turn, some of the markers are placed around a corner. What this translates into is that you need to keep your eyes on the mini-map at the top left hand corner of the screen while racing – so that you won’t miss a turn. And more often than not, you would be too fast that taking your eyes off the action for a second to look at the mini-map could mean a collision with either another vehicle or building (more on that later). It isn’t any surprise that I often make a wrong turn or miss a turn and speed past it. While markers mean that you are allowed the freedom to take any route to the next marker (so there could be plenty of shortcuts and alternative routes to take), I’d prefer neon barriers to keep me on the track rather than incoherent markers.

But what’s worse than unclear markers? The civilian vehicles, of course. While I understand that placing civilian vehicles on the roads of LA does make the city more realistic and lively, it’s just plain ridiculous the civilian vehicles act more like lunatics attempting to cut you off from your ride than like ordinary civilian vehicles. Civilians drive carefully, but here in L.A. Remix, reckless driving is all over the city. Imagine that you are approaching a junction and are supposed to drive straight, but suddenly, a city bus crosses the road perpendicular to yours, either blocking you off entirely or GET THIS, RAMMING straight into your vehicle! Or you could be at a junction, and a truck suddenly swerves into your lane. Or you could be taking a turn and you don’t know what’s around the corner, but when you realises what’s around the corner, it’s already too late because a pick-up would be ramming into you. Or you could be on a straight road, and suddenly you realise that all 4 lanes ahead of you are jammed by civilian vehicles, leaving you no choice but to crash through them. This is TRULY ridiculous – civilian vehicles are NOT supposed to ram into you. There is no denying that Rockstar is trying to inject ‘environmental hazards’ into the game, but this isn’t right – it is cheap.

But enough complains – because L.A. Remix does have some really sweet things going for it. For one, I have to mention that the city of LA looks fantastic. While it is smaller in size when put into comparison with the LA of the Xbox 360/PS3 version of the game, the LA here is still big enough to qualify this as a really open-world street racing title, and there are still plenty of shortcuts and hidden routes to discover. The feel of LA is not only captured via the distinctive roads and buildings, but also the impressive visuals which aid the city in being more realistic – one of the best I have seen on the PSP.

The surprise package comes in the form of being able to race in Tokyo as well. After you have reached a certain point in your LA career, the Tokyo career gets unlocked. Fortunately, rather than being a dumbed-down bonus city, Tokyo is as rich in details as the city of Los Angeles, if not more stunning. Both cities feel very different from each other: LA feels tighter and more urban, while Tokyo features more open areas and feels less urban. This fact alone provides the game with a much-welcomed layer of variety. Both cities are complemented by dynamic weather effects – it’s remarkable to view both cities in day and night, as well as in a rain – something which lends to the overall visual package of the game.

The robust vehicle rooster here also ensures that your ride matches the opulent cities. While the variety of vehicles offered here isn’t as great as that offered in say, Forza Motorsports 2, there’s still a pretty decent selection of vehicles. All of them handle great, with the higher-end Lamborghinis and Audis allowing tighter control, and the muscle cars sacrificing handling for speed. And let’s not forget that there ARE bikes here as well. But regardless of whether you are driving a car or a bike, fun driving is something that’s always present.

The game continues to surprise me with its deep customization options. In fact, the customizable options here are so deep that it would be hard – very hard – to find another racing game on the PSP that offers the same kind of customization aspects. In addition to tweaking the performance of your vehicles, you would be able to slap on decals, alter the colors and even swap the default bumpers, hoods and other parts for the various other fancy ones.

The single-player game is a long one. It took me about 42 hours over a period of 2 weeks to complete both the LA and Tokyo career, but there’s still an ad-hoc multiplayer option to jump into after the single-player game is complete. With power-ups like the ability to slow down time and go into slow-mo to make that all-important dodge and the ability to crash through traffic without damage at the expense of speed, races are all the more enjoyable.

Final comments
Midnight Club: L.A. Remix provides a solid racing experience on the PSP – albeit with a few flaws, both minor and major, that preclude it from being perfect. But nonetheless, it’s still a recommendable title as there are some truly impressive aspects such as the mind-blowingly marvellous production values of both LA and Tokyo, the robust vehicle rooster and incredibly deep customizable options. The long single-player is populated by a huge variety of race modes, including circuit races, Point A to B races, time trial, delivery (time trials with damage penalty), to name a few.

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