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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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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Game Review: Tokyo Beat Down

The sum of its fun parts couldn't save it from its overwhelming ambitions.



The Good:
Engaging plot * Colorful characters * Quirky dialogue * Nice variety of enemies * A handful of fancy moves and weapons * Combat segments and investigative sections make for gameplay variety

The Bad:
Unresponsive controls * Cheap enemy A.I. * Firing a weapon isn't as rewarding as it could be * Unfinished story

Nothing screams fun like old-school. For most of us, our malfunctioning consoles from the 1990s may mean that we are no longer able to enjoy the classic old-school titles of yesteryear. Fortunately, the DS has risen as a platform for us to relive some of these old-school titbits. Tokyo Beat Down is the newest doctor yet to be trained and qualified to administer us shots of nostalgia. A side-scrolling beat-em-up, Tokyo Beat Down slides us down to the days where repetitive punches, enemies whose bodies blink away after defeat, and breakable crates and barrels containing food, health kits and ammo are still hip and trendy.

Tokyo Beat Down isn’t just a rehash of any random side-scrolling beat-em-up. Rather, it adds an engaging plot, colorful characters, and quirky dialogue into the mix. Couple the aforesaid with a healthy handful of fancy moves and interesting gunplay, and what you have is a formula for a truly enjoyable game. The fact is that Tokyo Beat Down is both fun and disappointing. It rises above expectations with its skilful blend of furiously-paced combat segments, investigative sections, and a suspenseful story that handles the action with much panache. Unfortunately, the sum of its fun parts couldn’t save it from its overwhelming ambitions. Tokyo Beat Down is a game which prefers to be distasteful rather than satisfying.

We are taught that in Tokyo, the cops would do anything to contain crime – and that includes punching, kicking, throwing, and shooting criminals. In a city where a mere ‘dine-and-dash’ incident can result in the cops beating the heck out of you, you got to be wary of the main cast of Yaseu police station. There’s Lewis Cannon, the cop who has adopted sarcasm as a habit, Rika Hyoda, his buxom love interest, and Captain Takeshi Bando, the moody leader of the band.

With such a basic premise, Tokyo Beat Down could have turned out dry. But it’s easy to appreciate the effort which the nice lads over at Atlus have put into localizing this entry in the beat-em-up genre. Each of the main 3 characters in the game has a personality as distinct as the humor in the dialogue. The cleverly scripted jokes and puns which are constantly being exchanged do well to suit the beautifully produced, if somewhat over-the-top, still artworks of the characters. It certainly speaks volume about how competently accomplished the presentation of a game is when I am compelled to flip through each dialogue in the cut-scenes as leisurely as possible.

When the cut-scenes pulled and the screen cut back to the action, I feared for the worst. Side scrolling beat-em-ups have the fatal tendency for repetitive gameplay since the concepts within it are very much simple, requiring close to no brainpower to play the game – that is, laying a brick down on any one of the buttons and spamming the same manoeuvre to victory. Good beat-em-ups always compensate for this genre shortcoming by pushing the limits on enemy and moveset variety. For a while, I believed that Tokyo Beat Down was heading down the same path as its failed predecessors, but the increasingly varied enemies and challenges, and handful of fanciful moves keep this game fresh throughout.

Your move set is pretty much standard fare: punch, kick, throw, punch combo, kick combo, block and equip-weapon-and-shoot. Spamming the punch move could guarantee your victories in the first level or so, but no longer than 3 levels in would the game have started overwhelming you with some of the more comically dressed, but capable, enemies. There’s the agile guy donned in traditional Chinese clothes, the singlet-clad fat guy, the rocket launcher guy, the terrorist, and the Molotov cocktail guy. The sooner you realize that a combination of moves is needed to bring down each given type of enemy quickly, the better. Various objects are also strewn around each level, including wooden planks, metal tubes, shotguns, sub-machine guns, rocket launchers, and Molotov cocktails, empowering you with increased attack options when picked up. Occasionally, the game switches up combat segments with investigative sections to break the monotony of thrashing criminals. Some require you to question random people in the streets while others press you to break the crates and barrels to uncover evidence. While the investigative components aren’t very imaginative, they work well into the plot and add a much welcomed layer of variety into the gameplay.

Unfortunately, Tokyo Beat Down decides to plot its suicide all too soon. Its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. could not sustain the action – it’s easy to call it a day if weren’t for the extraordinary presentation here that puts it above other games in its genre. More often than not, equipping a weapon to engage an enemy proves much of hassle – and hazard – than anything else. The draw weapon function has been assigned to the left shoulder button, and that’s fine by me. What’s not fine, however, was how the game spectacularly failed to recognise any of my initial taps on the said button – which means that if you want to draw a gun, you would have to tap twice (frustratingly) on the left shoulder button and wait for a few seconds for the game to finish with its equip-gun animation before you can register your first shot. In those precious few seconds, you could get hit. The right should button, for which the block function has been assigned to, was also stubborn to response to my request on every other occasion. Put the former and later together, and the result is a game in which you would get points docked off from your health bar unnecessarily.

The cheap enemy A.I. doesn’t help much either. During several points in the game, I was hit from off-screen, and even if I wasn’t, the enemies would fire at me the moment I got up. At times, all of them would fire at the same time, giving you close to no chance of survival. This is especially annoying in boss fights, where the boss character is usually accompanied by several other minions. In these instances, there’s a fine line between victory and defeat because whether you get to finish the boss character off or not depends on whether the minions gang up on you continuously or not. In other words, it’s more luck than skill – and that sucks. Firing a weapon was also not as rewarding as it could be. They do so little damage – this, coupled with the unresponsive controls for firing, means that you’re better off punching, kicking and throwing criminals.

Tokyo Beat Down has its story to thank for keeping me captivated, but quite ironically, the plot is the game’s biggest letdown. I played through the entire game despite some of its glaring flaws because I wanted to uncover the mystery – an element so expertly weaved by Tokyo Beat Down. Just when I thought that I had uncovered the real culprit behind all the incidents, the story did well to plunge me into greater mystery. It was of no surprise then that I was caught off guard when the credits ran after this sentence in the last dialogue: “So we couldn’t catch the real culprit behind the bombings afterall.” An unfinished story’s cool – so says Tokyo Beat Down, but I find it ridiculous. It’s like watching Spider-Man fighting Sandman in Spider-Man 3, but while the battle is still going on, the credits suddenly roll.

Final comments
Tokyo Beat Down fired up to a good start with an engaging plot, colorful characters and quirky dialogue. Intense combat, together with investigative sections, as well as a variety of enemies and moves do well to keep the gameplay fresh. But it got overly ambitious, failing to fix its unresponsive controls and cheap enemy A.I. The biggest letdown, however, is its unfinished story. Tokyo Beat Down had some really great ambitions, but somewhere along the line, its feet grew too large to fit the shoes.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Game Review: Fracture

Does terrain deformation give this game a facelift or does it sink it into a crater?



The Good:
Huge variety of weapons * Good use of innovative terrain deformation element * Graphically impressive

The Bad:
Poor use of cut-scenes * Distinct lack in enemy variety * Inconsistent enemy A.I. * Generic music * Some technical glitches

The shooter genre can be a tough nut to crack – no thanks to the waves of run-of-the-mill titles released by the various publishers every year. A handful of games, including Lost Planet: Extreme Condition and Battlefield: Bad Company, have taken to environmental destruction to distinguish themselves from the others. Fracture works with this idea, but greatly expands on the concept. The result is an innovative and unique shooter built around the notion of terrain alteration. Does this imaginative element provide the game with a facelift or does it sink it into a crater?

Fracture thrusts you into year 2161. Global warming has arrived at its zenith and the ocean has conquered a portion of the United States, splitting the nation into half. The west (the Republic of Pacifica) has adopted genetic modification to better their citizens, while the east (the Atlantic Alliance) has decided that a brighter future can be achieved by technological advancement. You are put into the shoes of Jet Brody, an Atlantic Alliance soldier sent to the Republic of Pacifica base in San Francisco to negotiate with, if not apprehend, the Pacifican leader Nathan Sheridan after genetic modification has been outlawed by the government. Still bitter with the ban on genetic modification, Sheridan isn’t so keen on negotiations and proceeds to initiate an assault on the east. It’s now up to you to stop his rebellion, infiltrate his bases, find him and put an end to his ambitions.

The shooter genre is one that typically deals with perfunctory backstories – and Fracture does little to prevent itself from succumbing to the said stereotype. This is made more unfortunate because of the fact that Fracture does have an interesting premise which has lots of potential for plot expansions, but it expectedly succeeds in brushing its story aside once the gameplay begins. It’s like the developers have this really great introduction, but then they don’t really have an idea on how they could continue with their tale – so they shove in additional, if somewhat superfluous, phrases and sentences to embroider and expand the introduction. At the end of the day, however, there’s only this shallow script. The title of this script: Fracture.

You could mention that that’s all the details the game needs since the plots in shooters have always been about providing you with just enough reasons for you to go pop the heads off truckloads of baddies. I couldn’t disagree on that point, could I? But what startled me was Fracture’s exceedingly poor use of its cut-scenes. Never mind their clumsy execution which was demonstrated in out-of-sync mouth movements throughout the duration of the game. More noteworthy, however, were the cut-scenes’ excessively obvious failure to progress the plot. The said necessity was reduced to mere ‘Oh, they are attacking us!’ and ‘OMG! Look, they are using [insert threat here] to attack us!’ moments. Really, what’s the point of having cut-scenes in Fracture then? The game would be better off without them – and it would have been an improved product too.

Story and cut-scenes aside, Fracture is a rather enjoyable game peppered with a few easily-forgivable flaws here and there. Shooters have always been about providing a wide arsenal of weapons for the player to toy around with – and on that count, Fracture delivers. There are about a dozen of weapons to tinker with, among which are some of the standard ones like the sub-machine gun, shotgun, sniper rifle and grenade launcher and other more creative ones like the Rhino, which sends a electrically-charged boulder rolling to your enemies, the Lodestone, which pulls all objects in the target’s surroundings towards it, and the ALM-37 Deep Freeze, which freezes enemies temporarily. Being aware of the environment is essential to your survival in Fracture as different weapons can wield varying advantages in any given situation depending on the objects present in the environment. Some of the weapons are necessary for solving some of the puzzles in the game, but more on that later.

Besides equipping yourself with any of the 2 weapons, you will also be allowed to carry 4 grenade types. A tectonic grenade creates a lump in the ground, while the subsonic grenade, a crater. Throw a spike grenade and a spike which towers into the sky will rise from under the ground. A vortex grenade, arguably the strongest grenade type and the hardest to find, creates a vortex that will pull everything in its immediate vicinity towards it, sucking them and blowing up in a massive explosion. All in all, there’s a healthy variety of weapons in Fracture.

But the weapons aren’t the highlight of Fracture. Rather, it is the ability to alter the terrain. Marry it with destructible environments and what you have is a shooter that has a constantly evolving battlefield – and of course, dynamic gameplay. Terrain deformation is what the game calls it and it is this element that will set Fracture apart from the many run-of-the-mill shooters out there. With a suit function known as the Entrencher (or via using the tectonic or subsonic grenade), you can either raise or lower the ground. Basic uses include raising the ground to reach higher ledges and platforms, and create temporary cover, as well as lowering the ground to enter dirt-filled tunnels. Many commercial videogame journalists have criticized this feature as being underused, but I beg to differ. In fact, this raise/lower ground feature has made some really creative puzzles in the game possible. In one, you have to manipulate the terrain so that rounded mines can get to their targets (think of it as LocoRoco in 3D). In another, you can raise the ground to crush enemies into the ceilings. At other instances, you would be altering the terrain to dislodge pillars or sockets, and raising or lowering debris so that energy beams can be reflected onto their targets. Underused? Far from it.

Puzzles in the game aren’t necessarily limited to terrain deformation, though. There are some light platform sections where you have to use the Lodestone, a weapon which pulls all subjects in the target’s surroundings towards it, to move various platforms into jump-friendly positions. However, not all puzzles are as intelligent. The spike grenade seems to be grossly underused, almost to the point where it seems to be forgotten altogether. The spike grenade is only used in instances where you need to nudge something up, say a bridge, or in instances where you need to create a platform for you to be able to reach even higher grounds. Other than that, the spike grenade is practically useless. Disregarding the spike grenade, it is Fracture’s ability to allow you the freedom to screw around with your environments in any way you deem fit which makes this game such a satisfying and immensely fun one.

The same could not be said about the enemies, however. For all its variety in weapons, Fracture suffers from a distinct lack in enemy variety. There are only a handful of enemy types that you will get to face off against in the game: the sub-machine gun wielding guy, the rocket launcher guy that can leap to great heights, the shotgun wielding guy donned in a spacesuit, the grenade launcher wielding guy (also donned in a spacesuit), another variation of the sub-machine gun wielding guy who has teleportation abilities, the Half-Life 2 Antlion-esque bug and the Minotaur-like beast called Bolla. If you’re keeping count, that’s a total of 7 enemy types. That’s quite a number, but for most parts of the game, you would be encountering the sub-machine gun wielding guy, the shotgun wielding guy and the grenade launcher wielding guy; the others appear at very specific points in the game. This lack in enemy variety starts to drag the game down in the later parts when you start to encounter the same enemy over and over again.

It doesn’t help that the enemy A.I. is vastly inconsistent. In some instances, enemies take cover when shot at or switch cover if they find that their positions are being compromised but at other times, they display a blatant lack of common sense by staying riveted on open ground or failing to react even the slightest to your shots. Fracture compensates for this by planting enemies on every conceivable shooting angle and setting a generous number of enemy respawns. The result is a game that is challenging – though unfairly challenging.

On the technical side of things, the game does look good. Thanks to the terrain deformation abilities of the suit and the huge number of explosive-loaded weapons, Fracture has quite a number of opportunities to parade its impressive terrain alteration and explosion effects. It is even more impressive that the game manages the action with hardly a hitch in framerate save for slight drops at a select number of save points. The music, however, is very much generic, sounding monotonous at best. One of the most victimized portions of the game must be the driving mission. In it, you drive a futuristic buggy and must escape a facility before it blows up. The music fails to effectively convey any kind of intensity or dread, making the drive-and-escape mission feel routine. It is a pity, really, because a better piece of music could add layers of additional value to the game, especially for a highly-intense shooter like Fracture.

I also discovered a few glitches while playing the game. Most unfortunate was the instance where a boss character got stuck behind some crates. From my position, I could get several clips of bullets into its weak spots while it stood motionless. In another glitch, my health was unable to recharge even though I was not being shot at, putting me at a great disadvantage as I was in a near-death situation. Other minor glitches include enemies being stuck in animation behind barriers.

Like any other shooter, I was able to get 10 hours out from Fracture’s single-player. There’s some replay value here – mainly because there are data cells to be collected here. Some of these data cells are cleverly hidden, while some require more creative uses of your terrain alteration abilities to obtain. What they unlock, however, isn’t quite as rewarding as I’d like them to be. Depending on the number of data cells which you have gathered, equipments in the Weapons Testing mode may either be locked or unlocked. The said mode is unique, if very much pointless. After you have completed the single-player, there are the requisite multiplayer modes to toy around with.

Final comments
Overall, Fracture is a satisfying and fun game. It boasts a fresh and well-used concept in terrain alteration and has a wide variety of weapons that do more than just shoot – they solve puzzles. Fracture is one game that is easily enjoyable – if you can overlook some of its forgivable flaws and appreciate its greater offering – its innovation – one that actually works.

Monday, April 06, 2009

Movie Review: Knowing

You need to know this.



In my book, any movie with an aliens-arrive-on-Earth or end-of-the-world theme is worth the admission price. Regardless of the differences in creative interpretations, movies exercising any of the aforesaid themes pretty much guarantee a concoction of intriguing plotlines and explosive action with mostly impressive special effects. Knowing is the newest chief yet to cook us a tall tale about aliens and humanity being wiped out. After watching last year’s similarly-themed, yet disappointingly disastrous The Day the Earth Stood Still raze everyone’s attention to the ground, I have to admit that I was a tad sceptical about Knowing. But as I discovered, Knowing is a successful blend of elements from both themes as much as it is of a nastily intensifying and engaging production.

It is 1959 and students from an elementary school are asked to illustrate their predictions for the future. Rather unsurprisingly, objects like robots and flying cars are conjured up within the imaginative young minds of these children. Creepy little girl Lucinda Embry (Lara Robinson) thinks otherwise and goes on to agitatedly press a series of seemingly random numbers on her piece of paper.

The movie cuts forward to the present day, fifty years after the drawings are reposed in a time capsule and buried. We pick up with single parent John Koestler (Nicholas Cage) and his son Caleb (Chandler Canterbury), the later of who studies at the same elementary school Lucinda attended. As promised fifty years ago, the time capsule is unearthed and each student receives a drawing. Caleb is given Lucinda’s paper, setting up a plot point where John, a college professor specializing in astrophysics, becomes increasingly intrigued by the outwardly unconnected numbers on Lucinda’s paper. After an accidental discovery that one of the lines of numbers accurately represents 9/11 and its death toll, John immerses himself in more thorough research and comes to the conclusion that the other numbers on the paper are actually representations of various disasters which have occurred. 3 lines of numbers remain, and with the help of Lucinda’s daughter Diana Wayland (Rose Byrne) and granddaughter Abby (Lara Robinson again), both of whom John managed to track down, he must now find a way to prevent these supposedly predetermined catastrophes from happening – while also protecting Caleb from some eerie black-suited men who are seemingly stalking his son.

Alex Proyas’s prior directorial effort may have been the 5 years old I, Robot, but fortunately, his skills haven’t skidded off even by an inch. I enjoyed I, Robot tremendously and am certainly glad that the expertise shown in I Robot’s action scenes and plot turns have been carried over. If anything, Knowing is an impressive entry to the film library and is the perfect film to mark the return of Alex.

How am I supposed to know what these numbers are?

Alex’s penchant for suspense definitely shows in Knowing. Like any good movie should, Knowing tries not to give away too much from the start so that there’s a consistent layer of mystery and captivation. The most unique thing about Knowing is how it manages to tease audiences with subtle revelations ever so slightly every now and then hide it just as you finally decipher the cue. Quite intelligently, the smattering of clues administered throughout the duration of the film tend to inch you towards the side of certainty – meaning you are sure that what you have guessed based on the clue provided is what the movie is driving at – but then, your guess is almost always brutally deconstructed by the next clue. In other words, there is this constant balance between an ‘Oh, yes, I know what this movie is telling me’ ideology and an ‘Oh, wait, no, this isn’t what the movie is about’ ideology which never ceases to keep audiences at the edge of their seats for the next clue. And when all the ribbons which hold the box with the plot together gets unattached in a massive revelation during the last 15 minutes, it’s already too late for the audiences to realize that they have been rather cleverly manipulated into thinking otherwise all these while. This makes for a truly suspenseful film which takes much delight at plunging you into further suspense in the midst of an already intensely suspenseful moment. Knowing does this with a nasty and brutal whistle, butchering the minds of its audiences at every chance it has got. It’s like a magician revealing the beak of a parrot from his hat at one instance, the claw of a crow at the next instance, and the tip of a pigeon’s wings at another instance, but when the magician finally pulls out his pet from his hat, it’s neither a parrot nor a crow, or a pigeon, but a rabbit.

Serving as great accompaniments to the plot are the set pieces. Granted, the numbers on the paper are excuses for the movie to be able to provide its very own creative interpretations on how some fatal disasters could turn out, but that’s fine by me. (Mild spoilers) If you have watched the trailers, you would already have known that there would be an aircraft and train accident in Knowing. These set pieces are especially spectacular to watch, with visuals and effects that are aesthetically arresting. My favorite would have to be the aircraft crash. Tilted at a portentous angle, the airliner rams through electrical lines and crashes into a mushroom of flames on a patch of land adjacent to a busy expressway. As John helplessly rushes in to attempt to save the victims, portions of the airliner gets blasted out into the sky like rockets and the furiously expanding flames puff themselves up and engulf survivors, snatching them away from any hope they might have left. Images of this kind stay in the audiences’ minds long after the movie has ended, providing a topic for discussion among people who have watched the film before. Quite clearly, this is one of the demonstrations of how memorable Knowing is.

Final comments
Now, I’d have to begin with this overused line: Knowing is one of the best movies I have seen. But it’s true. Like any ‘one of the best movies’, Knowing goes about showing its stuffs to its audiences a little differently. When all the elaborate paragraphs are cut down, it all boils down to this sentence: This is the most intelligently suspenseful film I have seen yet, and its set pieces are nothing short of memorable. Now, you know you need to watch Knowing, don’t you?

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