Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Fighting games were ubiquitous in video arcades for more than a decade, until the video arcades themselves began to die off. Home console technology surpassed arcades, and so we lost our incentive to play games in public. And though we've since been treated to arcade-perfect home conversions of some truly great fighting games, if you've ever been thrilled to play these games in a competitive environment, then you know it's just not the same to play them at home against the computer or even with the same group of friends. No, fighting games are all about taking on all challengers. And now the true spirit of fighting games is reemerging in games like the new, online-enabled Guilty Gear X2 #Reload. Online play is definitely the main attraction here, despite a few apparent issues with the implementation. But, make no mistake: This is a great 2D fighter even if you don't take it online, and it features all the depth, creativity, and responsive action you'd expect from a top-quality game in this vein. Factor in a budget price point, and Guilty Gear X2 #Reload becomes a genuine must-have for fighting game aficionados.

Let's talk about online play right off the bat. It features the standard assortment of Xbox Live options, including quick match, optimatch, and leaderboards. You've also got a good amount of options when setting up a match, and you'll be able to find competition from both the continental United States as well as Japan, so there's no shortage of people to play against. We tested the game using a high-speed T1 connection as well as a more-down-to-earth DSL connection, and in most cases we experienced smooth, lag-free gameplay. However, we experienced frustratingly laggy sessions from time to time--even when the game estimated an "excellent" network connection to the opponent. We also occasionally had trouble connecting to other players' games altogether. Other players have anecdotally reported similar problems, so it's safe to say that the game's Xbox Live support isn't perfect. Nevertheless, the effort of finding a lag-free session against an opponent of similar skill level proves to be very well worth it--time will fly as you fight match after rematch after rematch. Guilty Gear X2 #Reload is a fast-paced, well-balanced fighting game with lots of depth and variety, so it's an excellent game online. And it has plenty of offline options, too.

For the record, Guilty Gear X2 #Reload is an upgrade to an upgrade of Guilty Gear X, which itself is a fighting game sequel originally released several years ago. Fortunately, this latest version of the game doesn't look or feel particularly dated--probably because it features a classic-style design inspired by countless other 2D fighting games from Capcom and SNK. Yet while the basic structure of Guilty Gear may be conventional and fairly familiar, its cast of characters is pretty exceptional. In this game, you've got everything from a pirate girl wielding an enormous anchor, to a hunched-over white-clad doctor who seems to be wearing a brown grocery bag on his head, to a debonair vampire smoking a pipe, to a scantily clad witch wielding an electric guitar, to an androgynous British lad who looks and sounds like a lass and fights with a yo-yo. You know we couldn't make this stuff up if we tried, and it's good to see that the designers of this series decided to keep moving in the direction of "weird," adding characters in subsequent installments, rather than introducing more straightforward sorts of characters. For good measure, this upgrade to Guilty Gear X2 packs in several more playable characters, including two powerful boss opponents who may fortunately be disabled for online play for balance reasons.

The game is brought to life with vibrant hand-drawn 2D character sprites and backgrounds, making Guilty Gear X2 #Reload look as much like an anime episode as a video game. In fact, the legions of fans of anime series like Dragon Ball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh! really ought to take notice of Guilty Gear, which has a similar sort of style and sensibility to it. Meanwhile, the presence of a hard-rocking electronic guitar soundtrack further helps set this game apart. Although the tracks may not sound drastically different from one to the next, it's still great that the designers have given Guilty Gear X2 such a cohesive musical style.

In addition to the usual modes you'd expect from a fighting game, including arcade, versus, training, and survival, Guilty Gear X2 features a mission mode, a story mode, and a variation on the survival mode in which big combos earn you medals, some of which restore a little bit of your health. The story mode is unique to each character and consists of a scripted series of battles interspersed with verbal exchanges between your character and his or her next opponent. The speech is all in Japanese, a point that many of the game's fans will probably appreciate, and the story mode helps provide a better sense of all the game's various personalities. The stories for the characters can even branch off at particular points, depending on certain conditions of your performance during the battles. The story mode isn't terribly complex, but fans of the game's character design will definitely want to spend some time in it.

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