Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (Review)

NOTE: I was not able to play the multiplayer component of Uncharted 2, hence why it is not mentioned anywhere below.

So last summer I played and reviewed Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune when it was a whopping four years old. Not allowing history to repeat itself, I purchased the three year old Uncharted 2: Among Thieves off of the Playstation Store and played the hell out of it. I completed Uncharted 2 in less than two full days, which is a rarity for me these days. Is this a good or bad thing? Considering the fact that I beat it so quickly due to the fact that I couldn’t put the game down, this is a very good thing!

When I reviewed Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune last year I had trouble believing how any game could top it and I couldn’t fathom how Uncharted 2 was supposedly miles ahead in practically every category. After playing the game, I now see how a near perfect game can still be improved upon. While the first Uncharted was an amazing experience that was near perfection, Uncharted 2 is even closer and is perhaps as close to perfection that I can imagine a video game ever reaching.

Before I actually talk about this game, there are a few more things I want to say that truly are indicative of just how amazing the Uncharted series is. I’m a guy who hates 90% of shooters out there and I also detest most games that simply have shooting sequences. This is pretty evident by the fact that my reviews on here are pretty light on games with guns. Considering my strong disdain for shooters, shouldn’t someone such as myself not like a series such as Uncharted? You would think so, but for some reason the shooting sequences in these games don’t bother me in the slightest as I become completely immersed in Drake’s adventures. Whatever Naughty Dog did with Uncharted, which resulted in someone who hates shooters considering this to be one of the greatest video game franchises of all time, it is surely nothing short of miraculous. I hate shooters, yet this game I am about to talk about is my favourite game on the Playstation 3 and surely one of my all time favourites for years to come. Wow. Anyway, I have a game to review! Let’s get to that now, shall we?

Those pesky enemies with riot shields are back.
Those pesky enemies with riot shields are back.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves picks up some time after the first game. Nate, Sully, and Elena have seemingly gone separate ways. However, when a quest to find the mythical city of Shambhala emerges, Drake isn’t long in recruiting sidekick Sully to help point him in the right direction. Joined by the exotic and fiery Chloe, as well as Elena shortly afterwards, Nate’s journey in search of Shambhala leads him to Borneo, the chilly Himalayan mountains of Tibet, a war ravaged city in Nepal, and several other locales. Each area you visit is perhaps more beautiful than the last as this game just looks better and better the further you progress. Despite the game being a few years old, the graphics are still very impressive for a console game. My roommates were watching me during one of my Uncharted 2 marathon sessions and commented on just how good the graphics are. Naughty Dog really outdid themselves with the visuals in this game.

What makes Uncharted 2 such a beauty to look at? For starters we have the character models which have been vastly improved since the first game. In my review of Drake’s Fortune I mentioned that the voice acting didn’t seem to sync with the characters’ lips at all times and some animations weren’t as good as they could have been. All of these problems have been completely ironed out in Uncharted 2. What impressed me the most in this game easily had to be just how good the lip syncing and facial animations are. Nate and Elena were never this realistic looking in the original game. The range of facial expressions that the characters show off in Among Thieves is nothing short of impressive. I have never seen such expressive characters in a game before and it really helps to make these characters feel alive. Sure the locations, environment lighting, and even the weather effects all look absolutely stunning, but the characters are the show stealers here by miles.

Of course the characters wouldn’t be as believable if they didn’t have a stunning soundtrack and amazing voice acting to back them up. Uncharted 2 doesn’t just look amazing, it sounds it too. Greg Edmonson’s compositions are able to bring each and every scene to life so strongly due to the music in this game being that good. We’re talking borderline movie quality here. Fortunately the music never outshines the stars of the game. Nolan North returns as Nathan Drake and his performance here is so unbelievably well done that it makes his portrayal as Nate in Drake’s Fortune look amateurish! Emily Rose also returns as Elena Fisher and does just as well in her respective role. Emily once said that, when they debuted the Uncharted 2 trailer at E3, the audience went into hysterics with their applause when Elena appeared on the screen. She really has become a beloved character and having her in the Uncharted games is just as mandatory as including Nate.

One woman isn't enough for a man like Nathan Drake.
One woman isn’t enough for a man like Nathan Drake.

A few other voice actors do amazing jobs here. Richard McGonagle once again dominates as Victor Sullivan while newcomers Claudia Black (as Chloe Frazer), Steve Valentine (as Harry Flynn), and Graham McTavish (as bad guy Zoran Lazarevic) all throw in stunning performances. Also remember Odo from Deep Space Nine? The talented actor who portrayed him, Rene Auberjonois, has a scene stealing role in Among Thieves as well. Rene’s years of experience really shine through as he portrays the elderly Karl Schäfer.

Clearly I’m in love with the artistic side of Uncharted 2, but how does it play? Very well is your answer. For starters it is worth noting that gun fights are much better here than they were in the first game. The cover system has been improved and is much more responsive now. It feels like Drake is able to take cover more easily and use more objects as cover than he could in the previous game. Melee combat also feels a little more worthwhile now which is fantastic considering how I felt it was perhaps the weakest part of the original game. That is not the case in Among Thieves as Nate is now able to sneak up on enemies and take them down using stealth kills. The whole “brutal combat” system from the first game has been removed as well, and now it merely takes a few well placed button presses to dispatch an enemy. I found that sneaking around and performing stealth takedowns was incredibly fun and, in a lot of situations, it was just as viable as charging in with your guns blazing. Of course sneaking around and picking enemies off one by one is a much slower process, but it also saves a lot of ammunition.

Regarding ammo, it’s just as plentiful as it was in the first game. This is a great aspect of the game because, unlike in Drake’s Fortune, fire fights don’t exceedingly long. In the first game it was not uncommon to fully clear a room of bad guys only to have an even larger backup force enter the room. This could happen several times in one room and it made some fights take quite a while to get through. This never happens with Uncharted 2. Backup forces seldom arrive and, when they do, it actually makes a lot of sense unlike in the first game. No longer will droves of enemies rush into the room from the entrance you just used! Still, ammo may be depleted quickly late in the game due to a few game changing encounters that pop up later on. Without spoiling anything, the late game bad guys change your strategy up similarly to the surprise enemies in the first game, but the ones in this game are capable of dishing out far more punishment. Fortunately there is also a late game weapon that can take down the end game enemies pretty easily.

There is tons of climbing and jumping around in Uncharted 2. I’m pretty sure you’ll spend more time scaling walls and making heroic jumps in Among Thieves than in the first game. While this is a breath of fresh air for me (I wanted more of these sequences in the first game), I do have one small complaint. In the original Uncharted I more or less always knew where to go because walls that could be scaled were pretty easy to spot. Uncharted 2 wasn’t like this and I found that some walls I had to scale weren’t very obvious at all. I don’t ask for games to hold my hand but, when I run around a small area for a few minutes looking for whatever it is I have to climb and eventually have to wait for the game to give me a hint, I feel like something is wrong. This only happened a few times throughout the game, but it was definitely enough to hamper the cinematic flow that the game has. Essentially my beef with this part of the game isn’t that it was difficult or anything of the sort, no. My issue is that it simply broke the immersion a little.

The fact that this is actual gameplay and not a cutscene is astounding.
The fact that this is actual gameplay and not a cutscene is astounding.

Like in the first game there are only a few major puzzles which all make use of Drake’s handy notebook that he carries. Without Drake’s notebook, the puzzles would pretty much be almost impossible for most gamers to solve. Fortunately the game will let you know when the notebook is required. I attempted a few puzzles without first looking at the notebook and let me tell you it was a big mistake! Use the notebook whenever the game suggests you do so. Not only will it prevent you from scratching your head for half an hour, but it will also make you feel so much like Indiana Jones that it’s unreal. One puzzle late in the game that involves opening a secret passage is perhaps the best example of this and anyone who has played Among Thieves should know which one I am talking about.

So overall, how is this game? It’s simply amazing. The cinematic cutscenes are beyond anything I’d expect to find in a video game and the smooth gameplay keeps you moving all the time which allows the movie-like flow to maintain itself all throughout the game. The soundtrack is just phenomenal and the characters, from their relationships with one another to their superb voice actors, are the greatest in any video game I have ever played. You end up caring so much for Nate, Sully, Elena, and Chloe that it is unreal. These do not feel like mere video game characters at all, they feel like real people who have invited you along for an exciting adventure… and what a hell of an adventure it is. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves is one of the very best video games ever created and anyone who has decided to skip the Uncharted series, for whatever reason, is making a huge mistake. Uncharted is the video game equivalent to movies such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars, or The Shawshank Redemption. No sane person would miss seeing such defining films such as those, and no sane person should pass up on the Uncharted series. Naughty Dog has redefined what an adventure game is, and it is no surprise that the new Tomb Raider game is seemingly aiming to copy what made Uncharted so wildly successful.

This game is the absolute cream of the crop of video games. If you have not played Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (let alone Drake’s Fortune), then do so immediately. You will not regret it for even one second.

Final Score

10/10

Pros:
+ Amazing soundtrack that rivals major motion pictures.
+ Stunning production values and amazing cinematic flow to the gameplay.
+ The most believable and likeable characters to ever grace a video game.

Cons:
– It wasn’t long enough (it was, I just want MORE Uncharted!).
– That wasn’t really a con though, was it?
– Neither was that. Wait… what’s going on?

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Game of Thrones – Season 2 Finale Review

Wow. What do I even say? Here I was thinking that David Benioff and D. B. Weiss couldn’t top the finale to the first season, but they did. Boy, did they ever top it! The season two finale of Game of Thrones did a fantastic job of resolving a few lingering stories that have plagued us for a few episodes but, at the same time, we’ve had some massive cliffhangers thrown at us as well.

First, even though he didn’t open the episode, is Stannis. The weight of his defeat almost seemed to drive him mad alongside the guilt he finally expressed over killing Renly. You can really tell that he’s genuinely frustrated with Melisandre’s whole Lord of Light religion, and the way in which he strangled her and said something along the lines of “where is your god now?” was really incredible. He looked intent on killing her and, despite how much I root for Stannis, it really reminded me of just how big of a cold asshole he is. I’m very interested in seeing what he does next, because Stannis gives off the impression that he’s not one to admit defeat and become submissive. Melisandre told him that he didn’t lose the war… is she right?

Tyrion’s scenes felt a little underwhelming, but it was nice to see him alive and recovering. I was very pleased to see Varys being openly friendly to Tyrion, and the scene with Shae was really comforting. I enjoy seeing how close the two of them really seem to be. Shae handled everything quite well despite Tyrion’s doubts this episode. It’s unfortunate that Tyrion is now going back to the role of “the family freak” now that Tywin is in King’s Landing. Much like Sansa, I’m worried that his stay in King’s Landing is only going to get worse.

As for Sansa, I’m not sure what to think. Joffrey’s decision to marry Margaery Tyrell could be a blessing or a curse for Sansa. It was a nice touch to see her laughing in relief after Joffrey decided to cast aside his vow to marry her, and I also supported her in turning down Littlefinger’s offer to help get her home. Who in their right mind would accept an offer from that man? Would anyone really side with the man who was responsible for their father’s death? If Littlefinger had remained honest with Ned, we’d have a Stark ruling King’s Landing right now. I’m hoping that Sansa refused the offer just because it was Littlefinger making it, but she also turned down Sandor Clegane’s offer in the previous episode. She’s surely heard that Winterfell has fallen to the Greyjoys by now, so perhaps she knows that staying in King’s Landing is the better choice at the moment.

Varys was given a little more depth in this episode, which I enjoyed. When Joffrey appointed Littlefinger as Lord of Harrenhal, you could see the daggers shooting from Varys’ eyes. It was a look of pure contempt and disgust, a look that I don’t think we’ve ever seen on the face of Varys. The man was rightfully pissed off, and it’s clear that he wants to strike out at Littlefinger somehow after his meeting with Ros, the go-to whore for the writers to use in every situation that seems to require use of one of Littlefinger’s employees. I had a little chuckle when Ros stuck her hand between Varys’ legs only to be given a very matter of factly look from the man himself. I was a firm believer last year that Varys is one of the show’s biggest anti-heroes, but this season made me believe that he’s perhaps the biggest. His methods are questionable at times, but as Varys told poor Ned last year, he serves the realm itself – not whomever sits on the Iron Throne. The man is simply after what appears to be peace and unity, but the spiteful Varys seeking revenge against Littlefinger will probably be very interesting to watch next season.

Theon, look out behind you!
Theon, look out behind you!

Arya, Gendry, and Hot Pie weren’t utilized very much this episode, but I still liked the sight of them wandering off together. I get a kick out of seeing Hot Pie tagging along, especially after his introduction last season made him look like he’d be a miniature antagonist in Arya’s story. Now he tags along with Arya and Gendry, almost feeling like the comic relief of the trio. Jaqen H’ghar’s appearance and subsequent face changing trick was pretty cool, and it raised a few pretty good questions with the most important one being just what is Jaqen? An illusionist? Shapeshifter? Something even more unbelievable? I’d like to know, but he appears to be exiting the show so we may have to wait a while to really know for sure.

Robb’s surely getting himself into loads of trouble. I can understand that he feels true love with Talisa and that the two of them really want to be together, but he’s definitely digging himself into a hole. Catelyn reminded him, yet again, that he is breaking the vow he made to marry one of Walder Frey’s daughters. Given how jerkish Walder seemed to be when we met him in the first season, I don’t think he’ll take too kindly to Robb breaking the vow. The question is… how long will it take for Walder to find out, and what can he do about it? The people of Westeros take promises and vows very seriously, so I don’t know if Robb can put too much faith in being able to cross Frey’s bridge again.

Now, how about the conclusion to Daenerys’ Qarth adventures? I’ll admit that a lot of her scenes have been pretty hit or miss this year and her endless empty threats being made to everyone in the middle of the season were more than grating, but this episode redeemed her fully and made her into a lovable character once again. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate her. It’s just that her constant yelling at everyone in Qarth about laying waste to her enemies and taking “back” the Iron Throne, along with the episode or two where she was pretty dickish towards Jorah struck me the wrong way. The season finale righted every wrong and brought back the Daenerys I liked from before. It was very cool to see her reject every false illusion thrust at her by the creepy warlock Pyat Pree. It was cool to see her reject the Iron Throne and I was impressed with her ability to pull herself away from the illusions of Drogo and Rhaego so easily. And what was even better? The torching of Pyat Pree. The first season’s finale ended with an epic scene of the dragons being born, but I think that this finale’s dragon scene was even better. Those three little suckers breathed fire! We’re not just talking little squirts of flames, but actual breath of fire. Pyat Pree was noticeably shaken when he saw Drogon spit out a small smoky burst of fire, but he clearly didn’t expect a huge barrage from all three of the dragons! It’s not often that I’ll grin and cheer when I see a character burning to death, but Pyat Pree deserved it when he decided to chain Daenerys and the dragons up just so that the source of his magic would never leave him. What an evil little freak.

The final scenes with Daenerys were just as bittersweet. Discovering that her handmaiden Doreah was sleeping with Xaro Xhoan Daxos was a huge discovery. It was a flat out betrayal regardless of what Doreah pleaded. When Daenerys had Doreah and Xaro locked inside of Qarth’s surprisingly empty vault I was reminded that this small woman is not to be messed with. Just as the witch Mirri Maz Duur discovered last year, double crossing Daenerys Targaryen will result in death. Afterwards, Daenerys and her motley crew of Dothraki deserters were able to help themselves to looting and ransacking Xaro’s estate. When Daenerys held up a large golden cup and asked Jorah if it was enough to buy a ship, I couldn’t help but smile. Daenerys is still far away from Westeros so I can’t imagine her even managing to reach her homeland until at least season four, but she’s definitely making progress. No longer is she a poor woman leading a bunch of wanderers. Daenerys now has money. Lots of money. Look out, Essos.

As for Winterfell, well, seeing it smoking as a result of Bolton’s bastard son attacking it definitely hit home. It felt like that scene in a lot of movies where the good guy’s base of operations gets destroyed. Winterfell, a location that has played such a central role in the story, has been ransacked and left deserted. What was even more depressing was the demise of Maester Luwin. I really liked that guy because he was the sort of guy everyone would want as a grandfather. He was a gentle and caring old man who was exceptionally wise. Nodding to Osha that he wanted her to put him out of his misery was a truly saddening scene. The only other death in this show that made me feel as sad was Ned’s death. It’s always really somber when a truly good person kicks the bucket, and Luwin was perhaps the gentlest soul on the entire show. I’ve liked his character immensely since day one and I’m going to miss him for sure. Damn Theon’s men for causing Luwin’s downfall! I didn’t expect them stab the poor guy with a pole-arm, but I didn’t expect them to betray Theon either. I should have seen it coming though after Theon’s moment alone with Luwin in which he realized that he wasn’t the man he was basically pretending to be and that difficult circumstances drove him to do every wrong doing that he committed this season. Theon essentially admit that he made some grave mistakes, but those very mistakes made it impossible for him to go back. It was at this moment that he embraced his imminent death, and his motivational and uplifting speech that he delivered to his men almost made me forgive Theon for every terrible act that he was responsible for. Almost.

Sam, I forgive you if you wet yourself. I would have too.
Sam, I forgive you if you wet yourself. I would have too.

And now for the parts that I’ve been waiting to write about, the stories of Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly. With Jon, it was really surprising to see Qhorin Halfhand literally attack him! I know that Qhorin did it to help Jon, and I hope it’s clear to everyone else as well. Qhorin knew that he was a dead man regardless of what happened, but Jon still had a shot at being able to bring the head of Mance Rayder to Knight Commander Jeor Mormont. By outright branding Jon as a traitor and provoking the young steward turned ranger into actually killing him, Qhorin did more for Jon than he can imagine. When the Lord of Bones said “let it be known that this is the man who killed the Halfhand” I couldn’t help but want to give the distraught Jon Snow a fist bump. His ropes have been tied and he’s been given free reign. Way to go Jon, you’re in buddy! Jon’s final scene of looking down upon the Wildling capital with Ygritte was a great way to end his story for the season.

Now… Samwell Tarly, you poor bastard. When Sam and the other two stewards (their names escape me) heard one horn blow for rangers returning, I knew that wasn’t what it was for. When the second horn blow sounded, a smile crept on my face. I knew that it wasn’t going to be for wildlings attacking… and when the third horn blow sounded, my heart rate must have been through the roof. When Sam mentioned earlier in the season that three blasts are for white walkers, I thought to myself right then that we were being told very useful information and that it was definitely foreshadowing. Indeed it was! As Sam proved to be too slow to keep up with the other two stewards as they fled to rejoin the others, we were treated to the silhouettes of a few bodies in the distance. Sam knew what they were, and so did we. As the snow and wind picked up, the mood became extremely tense and almost horrifying due to the idea that Sam could have possibly been about to meet his demise. When the horde of White Walkers and wights finally reached him as he hid behind a snow covered rock… wow, just wow. When the White Walker looked straight down at Sam, I thought that he was done for. Fortunately for the lovable chap, the White Walker decided that Sam wasn’t worth their time and issued a cry for the wights behind him to march forward, leaving poor Sam there all by himself and surrounded by an army of undead that slowly crept past him… towards the Fist of the First Men.

WOW.

We seriously have to wait another nine or ten months to find out what happens!? I don’t know if I can last that long! This was just such an awesome episode that had so much happening that it bears several rewatches this week alone. I didn’t even touch upon Tywin smugly accepting the role of King’s Hand or Jaime being impressed by Brienne murdering three Stark men in cold blood, but those were amazing scenes as well. Everything about this episode was stellar, and it was a fantastic end to a great season. This is how you conclude a season, everyone. The cliffhangers in last night’s finale will keep theorists busy for many months to come and, mark my words, the season three premiere will no doubt be a shockingly good episode with an all time high for the show’s ratings. I felt like the death of Ned Stark last season was the start to the season but with an army of undead marching on the Fist of the First Men? This is the real deal right here. Bring on season three, because it’s going to be a doozy.

Episode Rating

A+

Diablo III (Review)

I don’t know what to write. I hate to open a review by saying that because you’re here for my opinion on this game, but I truly have no idea how to go about reviewing Diablo III. This is a game that is so hard for me to describe my feelings for. When I’m playing the game, I think it’s a lot of fun and I don’t want to stop… but when I’m not playing the game, I pretty much have nothing but bad things to say about it. I’ve never felt so conflicted about a game before! With that said, if you are reading this now, then surely I came to a decent conclusion about this game that I felt was worth expressing. Let’s hurry up and cut to the chase, shall we?

Diablo III is the third installment in Blizzard’s sixteen year old action RPG franchise. It’s hard to believe that the Diablo series is so old now with only three games to its name, but keep in mind that the original Diablo III would have happened over half a decade ago if it hadn’t been for the unfortunate demise of Blizzard North. Twelve years have passed since Diablo II and, in that span of time, one would expect Blizzard to come up with a lot of exciting and innovative ideas for the next game. To put this span of time into perspective, the time that passed between Diablo II and Diablo III was greater than the time that passed between Super Mario Bros. on the NES and Mario 64 on the N64. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Even more so hard to believe given the severe lack of innovation in Blizzard’s latest outing. Irvine, California based Blizzard definitely played it safe with Diablo III, believing that sticking to what they knew, rather than pushing the envelope, would be the key to Diablo III’s success. Why do I say that Diablo III isn’t innovative and that Blizzard played it safe with the development of the game? Unfortunately, it’s because Diablo III is pretty much just a 3D version of Diablo II with several features stripped away or dumbed down. For each step forward this game takes, it then takes a dozen steps back.

An absolute mess of a skills menu.

Remember socketed gear in Diablo II? Don’t even think about seeing it until midway through the game’s second act. Socketing works the same as it did in Diablo II, though there are not as many kinds of gems available and the socketing rewards are not as exciting. You see, since Diablo III also removed stat point allocation, the process of distributing additional stat points has been placed upon gems and socketing. Gems now increase strength, dexterity, and other stats rather than offering additional bonuses like in Diablo II. The whole socketing meta-game feels a little cheapened in Diablo III, but there is one definite feature which I welcomed with open arms. You are now able to remove gems from items and reuse them again. While I like this feature and find it to be incredibly handy, I will admit that there is a definite disadvantage to it. Without having to worry about permanently socketing an item anymore, the risk of losing gems or using them on something that will soon be obsolete no longer comes into play. There’s no risk and reward gameplay involved in socketing anymore, removing the aspect of gemming that sort of felt like a lottery at times. Plus why bother hunting down new gems when you can just take out the old ones from your previous pieces of equipment?

The greatest change, aside from stat point allocation going the way of the dinosaur (which I’m fine with), is the streamlining of player abilities. This is a feature that I’m glad to see, but it was implemented horribly and is an awful mess. Rather than choosing which skills to learn and refine via skill points that you gain as you level up, players now learn new abilities upon each level up. It’s not a bad system because it allows players to try out everything and figure out what works best for them rather than playing what I like to call “skill point lottery” by sinking a bunch of points into skills that may end up being garbage later on. All abilities scale with your level, so they’re all viable throughout the entire game. Combined with runes, which are performance changing modifiers that you unlock as you level up, each class has dozens of different combinations to play with. Now, what makes this a horrible mess? The ability menu does. It’s clunky and not at all user friendly. It feels like something I’d expect to find in a children’s game, as everything it tucked away into little categories that you have to click to access. The game practically recommends what abilities to use and in what slots, which takes away from the player’s independence a bit and really holds their hand. Thank goodness for elective mode, which lets you place any skill into any slot on your hotbar.

Scrolls of identify and town portal have vanished as well. Players can now use town portals whenever they want, but the spell to cast a portal must first be obtained from an early quest in the first act. As for identifying items, almost everything already comes identified for you. Rare items must still be identified, but this is simply done by right clicking the item and waiting a moment for your character to identify the item in question. Pointless feature, I know. If identifying no longer costs money or requires Deckard Cain, why even have it in there? The cost of identifying items has become three wasted seconds of your time.

I want those precious seconds back too, Hans.

I’ve also noticed that Diablo III is very light on randomization. Outdoor areas are no longer random at all (though they do contain random dungeons and events) and are entirely static. As for quest dungeons, they all seem to feel the same to me each time I visit them. I’ve seen people claiming that the game does randomize their layouts, but I can’t help but feel like I’m running the exact same path through the Tristram cathedral each time I play, which I attribute to the fact that there are very few set pieces used in randomization. Expect to find the same rooms and hallway layouts almost constantly in this game. There’s very little in the game world that is any bit interesting to look at or explore and, since nothing appears to ever change, I can’t think of any reason to thoroughly explore any given area on additional characters. Unlike the world of Diablo II, Sanctuary is a very static place in the newest installment.

Gameplay thankfully feels a lot like Diablo II. The AI has been improved significantly and the newer game engine allows a lot of interesting things to occur during important boss fights. The only part about the gameplay that feels a little off is the graphical presentation. Diablo used to be a dark, gothic 2D adventure. It’s now a semi colourful 3D experience, so a bit of the game’s personality has been lost and it is felt during gameplay to an extent. Everything else in the gameplay is pretty much the same as before, right down to spell properties and how certain monsters behave in battle. Fallen shamans still resurrect the dead and the barbarian’s whirlwind still annihilates everything in sight. This is the same ol’ Diablo experience that we’re used to but, as I said at the start of the review, Blizzard played things too safely. This is pretty much just a colourful Diablo II with new classes.

I mentioned elective mode a few paragraphs back. This is a feature that you can enable in the game’s options menu which allows you to place any skill into any slot on your hotbar. Without enabling elective mode, you are stuck putting certain skills of one category into a sole slot on your hotbar. So, if you have two offensive abilities that fall under the same category which you really like and don’t have elective mode turned on, you can’t use them together. Elective mode makes things a lot nicer and allows users to fully customize their hotbar, but I still have one beef with it. You have to unlock slots on your hotbar, and you won’t have them all unlocked until around level 20. This is because certain slots on the hotbar were designed to be used by certain skill types only by users without elective mode on. I can understand the reasoning for this, but it really gives users of elective mode the shaft. If you have four skills that you want to use early in the game but only have three hotbar slots unlocked, you’re screwed and have to deal with it until you unlock the next slot.

I’ll also take a stance against the bosses in this game. While they are all very well designed and are loads of fun to fight, they’re simply far too easy. Players are extremely unlikely to be challenged by any of the game’s major bosses on normal difficulty, and even on nightmare they’re still relative pushovers in comparison to what you’ll face in the wilderness. The unfortunate truth with Diablo III is that random monsters can pose as greater threats to you then the leaders of Hell itself. This isn’t terribly evident in normal difficulty, but once you move onto the harder difficulties you will encounter champion and unique monsters that have pretty terrifying affixes that are designed to make them more challenging than they would normally be. These affixes give monsters some pretty scary passive abilities such as poison clouds, molten magma trails, and magical arcane beams. Every single one of these affixes is designed to either harm you severely or lock you in place. On nightmare and above, the combinations that some monsters are given are just downright frightening. They provide great challenge and are fun to fight, but I really do take issue with them being more challenging than the big boss fights of the game. For example, I’m yet to die on the game’s final boss, but I died to an amped up champion or two on normal difficulty. The contrast between bosses and lowly champions grows even larger once you hit nightmare difficulty. It’s a pretty strange anomaly, and I hope Blizzard buffs the bosses considerably. They should be evoking apprehension and fear into the players but, at the moment, they’re just not doing that at all.

I don’t recall ever saying “I want to be a witch doctor” as a little boy.

I don’t want to knock on the game’s visuals too much because I know that Blizzard designed the game to be able to run on a wide variety of systems (a feat that is easier in 2D than 3D without sacrificing visual style), I can’t help but shake that the WoW influence in the visuals is extremely worrying. Diablo never used to look like this at all. Models all have jagged, pointy edges along with very colourful but simplistic textures. At times, this game seriously looks a lot like WoW from an isometric angle with slightly better graphics. Looking like WoW isn’t really a bad thing, but it’s not the visual style that a Diablo game should possess at all. It just doesn’t fit and it makes the game feel like an imposter parading around in Diablo’s skin, which is a bit of a role reversal since that is usually Diablo’s specialty.

It’s also worth noting that there is some visual inconsistency in the game. Characters and NPCs look fine for the most part, but the are several varying styles in Diablo III’s monster designs. For example, the two Lesser Evils looks pretty Diablo-esque while other models, such as the Butcher or Maghda, give off serious “designed for WoW” vibes. Other monsters don’t look like they belong in Diablo or even Warcraft, such as the huge exploding zombies and the suicidal fallen demons that blow themselves up. There is also one enemy type appearing in the third act that I can’t immediately recall the name which looks downright cartoon-like in nature. This visual inconsistency in the game’s monster models is very disappointing and unfortunate when you take into consideration how consistent and detailed the game world itself is. One last note on the visuals. The cinematics in this game reminded me that Blizzard really needs to make a movie. They have the talent to do so, and it would certainly be a gorgeous film to watch… but the story would probably be something worth worrying about for sure.

That was a pretty good segue so, next up, the story. It’s pretty bad. Without spoiling anything, Blizzard can only rehash the same formula so many times before people know what’s going to happen to every character in their games. There are twists and turns in Diablo III, but they are all very predictable and anyone who has played Starcraft or Warcraft will know what to expect. There’s nothing groundbreaking in this game, but the actions of one character did bother me slightly at one point in the game. Also, as if a poorly crafted story wasn’t bad enough, the writing is pretty lousy as well. Outside of Cain, Leah, and Tyrael, I cannot think of a single character with good lines. To make matters even worse, the games two big baddies Belial and Azmodan, frequently appear and taunt you in a manner I’d expect from a high school jock. It’s just so juvenile and silly. It’s beyond evident that Blizzard North’s writers were in a league of their own when compared to the current crop of writers employed by Blizzard.

What to say for the sound effects and music? Very generic, really. None of the sound effects are particularly satisfying and the music is entirely forgettable. I don’t even have the music on anymore when I play because I never notice it anyway. I just play my own tunes now or put Diablo II music on loop instead. The voice work isn’t any better. I love a few of the voices for the playable characters (the male monk is just awesome) and a few well known talents such as Dominic Keating and Jennifer Hale do a good job in the game. Other characters (mostly NPCs) sound absolutely dreadful, and don’t even get me started on the voices of the antagonists. Are demons supposed to sound like Saturday morning cartoon villains? Azmodan, buddy, I can’t take you seriously with that voice!

Jennifer Hale's awesome voice brings Leah to life.
Jennifer Hale’s awesome voice brings Leah to life.

I didn’t even touch upon the fact that you have to be online to play at all times and that everything occurs server-side. This is a pretty terrible system that prevents you from playing the game whenever you want and it makes progressing through the game a real challenge when you have to log out of the game before you can complete an objective that you’ve been on for a good amount of time. It will all reset unless you hit a checkpoint. There’s also the issue with inevitable lag spikes which are completely out of the player’s control. This can make playing a hardcore character extremely risky. Would you be okay with permanently losing a hardcore character to a lack of skill or a lapse in judgement on your part? Sure you would, it’s to be expected. Now, how does it sound to have your character die for good due to an unexpected increase in latency that results in you being unable to respond to monster attacks in a timely manner while also being hit by melee creatures standing halfway across screen? Not very good, right? Not at all, and I learned that the hard way with my own hardcore character that I lost due to a random lag spike. Hardcore characters are now very risky to play. Given how you can now lose your character due to factors that are out of your control, it definitely does raise the question as to just how good of an idea it is to play a hard core character, especially for those who may already have existing connection issues.

Diablo III is a good game, but it is littered with many flaws and minor issues that hold it back from true greatness. There were just too many questionable design choices made during the development of this game and they really do harm the overall quality of the product. Fortunately Diablo III excels where it matters, and that’s hacking up dozens up dozens of monsters while fighting for your life. The combat-heavy dungeon diving is a sheer blast in this game and serves as a nice counter to all of Diablo III’s surprising shortcomings. Make no mistake, this is a very good game. Diablo III simply isn’t the masterpiece many people expected due to Blizzard’s hesitance to raise the bar and push the boundaries of the action RPG genre. This game is light on new features and some aspects of the game fall short, but the overall gameplay is certainly right on the money.

Final Score

8.1/10

Pros:
+ Cinematics are absolutely amazing to watch and are satisfying conclusions to each act.
+ Classes are quite varied and there’s at least one here for everyone.
+ Gameplay is still fast paced and a lot of fun for those who enjoy action RPGs.

Cons:
– Requirement to always be online to play means you will not be able to play whenever you wish.
– Story almost feels like it is over before it even begins due to the four acts being very short.
– Very little innovation in the game, if any at all.

Tropico 4 (Review)

Tropico 4 took quite a lot of heat when it was released for basically feeling like a Tropico 3 expansion pack. I’m having a hard problem even calling it that, to be honest. The only two changes worth noting, aside from a slightly altered UI, are social networking integration and factions.

In the case of Facebook and Twitter functionality, it’s probably something that absolutely nobody asked for or even wanted in the first place. I didn’t even use either function because I didn’t want the game to be touching my defunct Facebook account nor did I want it to be spamming my Review Depot Twitter account with pointless updates about my papaya production or election results.

Factions (such as capitalists, environmentalists, nationalists, etc.) play a bigger role now and will frequently annoy you with offers to increase your standing with them. Environmentalists may want you to build gardens or cut back on pollution while other factions will want you to build military bases, destroy homes, and more. You can choose to ignore these faction requests without being punished much, but they are worth doing sometimes if you’re aiming to increase your standing with particular factions prior to the next election. My only complaint is that factions bother you far too frequently, constantly taking you out of the action of the game.

The rest of the game is pretty much identical to Tropico 3, so the following is copied from my review of the previous game.

“Good morning Tropico!” I should really have that set as my alarm in the morning after hearing it so many times in the game I am about to review, Tropico 3.

It wasn’t until April of this year that I even knew about the Tropico series, which is surprising considering that the first game came out a decade ago. As a fan of games such as SimCity, I’m really upset that it took me until the third game of this series to even know that it exists.

Tropico 3 is all about ruling over a Caribbean island known as Tropico. The game begins in the 1950s when you first seize power of the island. It is up to you to decide how your dictator did so, as you are presented with a character creator that allows you to choose your dictator’s appearance, background history, and character flaws. I opted to make my dictator a balding alcoholic Russian who was put in power by the USSR.

Tropico’s gameplay was quite interesting. The game started out slow and demanding like the Caesar game in which you have to micro-manage several small details in order for your city to get off the ground, but after that happened it just played mostly like a SimCity game thanks to messages always popping up and telling me what was going on in Tropico.

You basically start with nothing more than your presidential palace, a dock, some shacks, and a few businesses with terrible wages. You have to turn this around, so the first step is to make a good source of income that your populace will work at for little money. Cigars turned out to be a fantastic way to go about doing this, as all I had to do was first plant a farm and direct them to grow tobacco, and then build a cigar factory beside it. For a few ingame months, this did absolutely nothing for me financially until the tobacco began to grow at a good rate, allowing the nearby factory to begin manufacturing cigars and then sending them to the dock to be exported.

Once you start getting some decent money in and the quality of life starts to improve in Tropico, you’ll want to bring in tourists by building another dock or an airport. As I did this, I found that it was also imperative to remove shacks from the city, due to them being unpleasant to look at and they brought down the appearance of the neighborhoods that they popped up in. A good way for me to discourage many shacks from popping up was to increase the wages of many jobs.

Of course, there is more to Tropico 3 than just expanding your city and aiming for a higher population and bigger bank accounts. Unlike in games such as SimCity, your approval rating actually means something in the Tropico games. If it dips too low, you had better expect some serious consequences. The last thing any good dictator wants are riots and assassination attempts!

To make sure that your people respect you, it is important to make sure that Tropico has everything that your people need to survive, or even just have fun. When the city itself is just fine but your people are showing discontent, you can use edicts to sway their loyalty. Edicts are things such as introducing tax cats, bringing the Pope to your country for a visit, or declaring Mardi Gras. Some edicts, such as Mardi Gras, are wonderful for Tropico’s economy.

The game has a lot of content in it, ranging from campaigns to individual mission-style maps. If you don’t like being told to aim for a specific goal, there is also the sandbox mode in which you are free to just develop Tropico however you wish to.

I find myself really enjoying the visuals of Tropico 3. It is perhaps the best looking city management game that I’ve ever played. The buildings and terrain are loaded with detail, and all pedestrians are rendered in real time as they walk to work or just find things to do in the city. Animals, freighters, and more are also all visible most of the time, and many shacks like to pop up on vacant land as well. I expected Tropico to run slowly with so many things going on, but the game was silky smooth for me even on the highest display settings.

The sounds of Tropico 3 are magnificent. Even though there are only a few music tracks in the game and they play over and over again, they are all very fun to listen to and set the mood extremely well as they are all very Latin-based. Sound effects and voice acting are also great, and I never tire of hearing “Good morning Tropico!” from the ingame radio announcer who tells you what’s going on in Tropico, which is very helpful to you.

Overall, Tropico 3 is a lot of fun. Your cities are different each time you play, and the realism in Tropico 3 blows SimCity out of the water. If you’re looking for an enjoyable city game to spend time playing until the next big one comes along, then Tropico 3 is for you.

So is this game worth checking out if you’ve already purchased Tropico 3? No, unless you plan on playing the expansion pack which adds a lot of modern days flair to Tropico 4. If you are a Tropico 3 player who is uninterested in this game’s expansion, then stick with Tropico 3. Seriously. The few features added in Tropico 4 are not worth $40 or more. This is literally Tropico 3 with only a few changes and tweaks, and shame on the developers for thinking that this was acceptable. Because of this, I am going to give this game TWO scores. One score will represent what this game feels like as a returning Tropico 3 palyer, and the other score will be how I’d grade the game for someone who is brand new to the series.

What score would I award this as a Tropico 3 player?

5/10

Now, for those who are brand new to Tropico, this is surely the best in the series. You guys are in for a treat.

8.7/10

Star Wars – The Old Republic (Review)

I’m not a big Star Wars fan and I haven’t really enjoyed any Star Wars video game that I have played in the past. With that said, The Old Republic is without a doubt the most well designed MMORPG ever made and I’m enjoying my time with it so far.

After spending a good amount of time with the game, the overall detail and quality of the finished product is blindingly apparent to me. This isn’t another Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Aion, or even Rift. The Old Republic is a very noticeable step above them all in terms of how well made the game is. The surprising thing, however, is that The Old Republic is clearly better than World of Warcraft in terms of quality as well. Even if it doesn’t beat WoW in sales (though it could with Star Wars’ huge fanbase), it should still be regarded as the superior product.

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So what makes this the best MMORPG out there? Maybe the fact that it plays like a suprising infusion of Mass Effect and World of Warcraft. You could honestly sit back and play this MMORPG as a single player RPG strictly because the narrative and story telling are both so exceptional. There is actually a main quest in this game, one that is centered around the exploits of your character. To enforce this, there are phased areas throughout the world where only your character will be visible. The entrances of these phased areas are marked with green holographic barrier-like walls that you can walk through. Upon passing through one, you will be phased out of the persistent world containing hundreds of other players and will exist solely on your own (there is no loading to accomplish this). What purpose do these areas serve? Well, phased areas mosly contain important quest NPCs that you’ve been directed to kill among other things. This is a huge improvement over other MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft because, in The Old Republic, a phased area belongs to you and you alone, so any quest NPC you have to kill in a phased area wil be killed by you – not other players. I’m sure many people have terrifying memories of having to fight over quest mobs in World of Warcraft, such as the infamous Hogger in Elwynn Forest. This is no longer an issue.

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Interactions with NPCs are fully voiced and play out as they would in Dragon Age or Mass Effect, meaning there are moral responses for you to choose from when replying to NPCs. It’s a nice option to have which adds some much needed personality to our MMORPG characters for once. Because of this, my Jedi Knight is shaping up to be a very sympathetic guy who always wants to do the right thing for people. A lot of the moral choices I’m choosing are increasing my alignment and pushing me to the light side. Light side, you ask? Yes, there’s the light side and the dark side. Depending on how you play your character and how they respond to NPCs, their personality will develop and will inch towards either the light or dark side. Assist villagers and side with them on ethical issues and you will be pushed in the direction of the light side, but if you run around and choose the intimidating and rude dialogue options (which are quite likely to end up in the death of others around you) then expect to have your character slowly turn towards the dark side.

This all sounds a lot like a single player RPG, doesn’t it? That’s the best part, it’s not. At all. Instances (flashpoints) and raids (operations) are still around as well and are intensely story driven. When you’re not in phased areas for questing reasons, you’ll see plenty of other players running around completing their own quests, killing enemy mobs, and interacting with NPCs. The Old Republic contains everything that other MMORPGs do but beefs the experience up with the character development and narrative we’ve come to expect from single player RPGs. This really is a new level for RPGs. Yes the core gameplay is roughly the same, but the extra layer of single player RPG-esque goodness that Bioware has thrown into the formula has drastically improved how The Old Republic plays as an MMORPG.

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As far as character structure goes, all of the usuals are in such as individual gear slots, the ability to pick up trade skills (which rely on your companions to create items rather than yourself), mounts to increase your overall speed, and quite a bit more.

Another exceedingly strong point has to be the game’s presentation. The sound effects are all superb, making the act of slicing apart bandits and syndicate criminals with a lightsabre more satisfying than it has ever been! The game’s voice actors are also very talented as well, but would you expect any game that features the revered Jennifer Hale to have bad voicing? I don’t think so. There’s also the graphics which aren’t going to make any systems work overtime to render anything, but the game still looks a lot better than any other MMO out there. Any lush and forested planet is proof enough of that.

I would have liked to spend more time writing this out, but this is an MMO and, in 2012, we all know what they’re about. Big time sinks that are all about leveling, questing, and raiding. The Old Republic just does everything a little better than the competition and, in the end, that is what matters the most.

Final Score

9.2/10

Pros:
+ Beautiful cities, beautiful planets, beautiful everything.
+ General MMORPG formulas are executed better than they are in any competing MMOs.
+ Top of the line voice work all across the board.

Cons:
– Game can be very burdening if you have never played an MMO before.
– PvP could have been more developed.
– Singleplayer aspect may drive some away from cooperating with fellow players.

Street Fighter X Tekken (Review)

Tekken has been my favourite fighting game series by leaps and miles ever since the third game in the series over a decade ago. The characters, gameplay, and mechanics have always been the cream of the crop in my eyes. Street Fighter, in comparison, has always been a distant second… But really, there’s nothing wrong with coming in second, is there? Both universes have good characters and fun gameplay, so combining them sounds like a formula for best fighting game ever.

Unfortunately. Street Fighter X Tekken falls a bit short in my opinion, which is a shame given my love and respect for the two franchises that star in this game. That’s not to say that SFxT is a bad game, because it’s not. SFxT is just merely a “pretty okay” game.

First and foremost, I’d like to mention the graphics. Outside of SoulCalibur V and Tekken 6, this is easily the best looking fighting game this generation. The stages you fight on are all extremely detailed and put even Street Fighter’s most hectic locales to shame in terms of how busy the backgrounds are. The game is also overflowing with a really fantastic sense of style with a lot of ingame hit animations and effects looking simply gorgeous. There are a few falters however, such as when you KO an opponent with an ultra combo. The screen flashes so erratically that I would worry for any epilepsy sufferers who would happen to be watching this game in motion and, as a whole, looks a little sloppy in comparison to the rest of the game’s pretty looking effects.

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Character models are mostly all pulled straight from the Street Fighter 4 series but with a few tweaks here and there. Some characters may have a little more detail in their textures while others may have slightly different proportions (for example, some say Cammy has bigger thighs, but I don’t see it myself). The Tekken characters are all brand new, though some of them are clearly just retextured and heavily reworked Street Fighter models (Ogre is an obvious Seth, Asuka is a redone Sakura, etc.) but, for the most part, they all look exceptionally unique. I’ll commend Capcom for really nailing down the look of some Tekken characters such as Hwoarang, but a few of them (Law and Paul being good examples) don’t look terribly faithful, giving off the impression that Capcom just shrugged their shoulders and winged it.

The music department isn’t too stellar. Music doesn’t dip above average in any instance in my opinion, and the versus screen tracks are just horrendous. Capcom usually does a pretty good job with fighting game soundtracks, and I can’t help but wonder if they used one of their second tier composers for this game. If not, then clearly whomever they used (was it the SF4 composer?) didn’t put forth a lot of effort.

The sounds and voices of SFxT aren’t anything to write home about either. All of Street Fighter’s familiar voices are carried over from previous games, so we know what to expect there (awful English Akuma and all). Tekken’s cast is pretty iffy when it comes to voicing. I’ll commend Namco on getting the original voice actors for some characters such as Lili and Steve (who both sound great), but others just sound really “off” in this game compared to their Namco counterparts. Paul sounds like he has a severe psychological disease coupled with rabies, and Marduk sounds like he has been taking one too many anger management sessions since we last saw him.

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In terms of gameplay, this is pretty much just Street Fighter with a more beginner friendly approach to inputs and delving into the finer technical side of the gameplay system. If you’ve played Street Fighter in the last few years, then you’ll be able to pick up and play SFxT without any issues. The Tekken characters all play like Street Fighter characters themselves, with some even having projectiles now, so they fit in pretty well with Capcom’s crew and are fun to learn how to use. I’ve found Steve to be particularly lethal when I can get into a groove with him, but it pains me to see my favourite Tekken character, Paul Phoenix, not having a great deal of tools at his disposal here.

Essentially, this is just Street Fighter with Tekken characters and an engine that is easier for beginners to ease themselves into. Unfortunately here isn’t much else to it than that, literally. Beyond the standard arcade and online fighting modes, there is just versus, practice, and mission mode. Versus is mandatory of course, but it is just another fighting mode. Practice is essential too, and is pretty much better than mission mode (dull and mindless character trials) in every way possible when it comes to learning how to play the game. Mission mode is, literally, a complete waste to even play. As was the case in Street Fighter 4 and Marvel vs Capcom 3, mission mode teaches you nothing that you can’t learn in practice mode. It’s pointless.

There are no fun bonus game modes and very little to do besides just fight, which has become typical of Capcom fighters nowadays. There is a customization menu for assigning gems to your characters (they modify your damage output, speed, and other things during fights) as well as colouring your characters. Both of these features were hyped by Capcom pre-release, but after sinking my teeth into the game I can tell that they weren’t properly developed and are particularly lacking in terms of appeal and content.

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Overall, this is just another fighting game by Capcom. There’s a significant sense of “been there, done that” when playing. It’s evident that Capcom has stopped raising the bar when it comes to fighting games, as they feel that they can just slap a few fighting modes together and call it a day in recent years. There’s a wealth of new moves to learn from the Tekken characters, as well as a few gimmicky bonus characters, but when everyone online is going to default to Chun Li, Guile, Juri, Ken, Ryu, and Sagat then… Well, what’s the point of it all?

Final Score

6.8/10

Pros:
+ Street Fighter engine has been dumbed down to gently ease beginners into it.
+ The character roster is absolutely huge and will grow more later in the year.
+ Very flashy and great looking presentation.

Cons:
– As expected of Capcom nowadays, there’s a severe lack of content.
– Some Tekken characters are represented very poorly.
– The game could have sounded a lot better as a whole.