Sunday, March 11, 2012

Tekken 6 Review

Tekken 6 on the PSP may not have all the bells and whistles of its console counterparts, but it still packs a hefty punch. This portable brawler offers the most comprehensive roster in the history of the series, introduces new mechanics for veterans to master while retaining its button-mashing accessibility to newcomers, and is simply a visual treat. This great-looking game is an altogether welcoming fighter, so whether you're a complete stranger to the series, an occasional masher, or someone who can pull off 10-hit combos without dislocating a finger, Tekken 6 has plenty to offer you.

While it strips out the console version's lengthy beat-'em-up campaign and doesn't have the same depth of character customization, this is an otherwise pitch-perfect conversion. In fact, it feels and plays exactly like the console and arcade iterations of Tekken 6. The game has a robust lineup that features 41 fighters, including old stalwarts such as Kazuya, Lei, Paul, Nina, and Jin, as well as recent additions from Dark Resurrection, such as Lili and the emo-Nazi look-a-like Dragunov. Experienced Tekken players will see that the tweaks and changes made to the move sets of returning characters are, for the most part, minor. Most characters get a new attack or two, some stances have been modified, and the damage dealt by some of the more powerful combos in the past have been slightly toned down. Despite this, most of the returning characters feel completely familiar, so you'll never feel like you have to relearn your favorite fighter from scratch.

It's not all veterans, of course, with six new characters making their debut in Tekken 6. These include: Bob, a rotund American fighter who is deceptively speedy for his size; Leo, an androgynous German martial arts specialist; Miguel, a Spanish brawler who relies more on power than speed; Zafina, a member of a mysterious secret order who sports some creepy and unusual stances; Alisa, a seemingly naive young girl who's actually a jetpack-and-chainsaw-wielding android; and Lars, who has some relation to the sprawling Mishima bloodline (hence his move set similarity to Jin and Kazuya). Of the new recruits, Zafina is the most unique, thanks to her distinctive-looking moves that incorporate stance-based attacks, such as the off-putting tarantula, which sees her get down on all fours to creep low along the ground. Alisa is just sheer fun to play as given her frankly bizarre move list, which includes using her own head as an explosive and a whole series of attacks based on her chainsaw appendages.

A fembot with chainsaws for hands may seem overpowered in a fighting game, but Tekken 6 manages the tough task of presenting a well-balanced brawler despite the abundance of characters. Tekken's fight mechanics--each limb assigned to the four face buttons on the PSP, with special moves usually performed via button combos and directional pokes on the D pad or control stick--are eminently suited to the PSP's layout. Thus, novices and experts alike should have no problem in getting their heads (and hands) around the controls. Most of the hundreds of moves in the game are a cinch to perform individually, which means you'll be able to pull off some flashy moves from the get-go. Stringing them together into increasingly damaging combos, however, will take some practice, which is where the game gets deliciously deep. Juggle combos--where you launch your opponent into the air and try to keep him or her there--are still integral to the Tekken experience for expert players. Other important moves include throw counters, wall juggles, roll evasions, and various in-depth strategies.

For those already comfortable with their various 10-hit combos, Tekken 6 introduces a new way to deal extended damage. The bound system essentially allows you to extend combos by slamming an airborne opponent into the ground, leaving him or her momentarily vulnerable for further strikes. Just as with juggles, each of the characters has his or her own bound launcher, and it's a great new addition for Tekken fanatics to explore. Another new addition is rage, a power-up of sorts, which activates when your pugilist's health dips to about 10 percent. It's pretty exciting when you're able to pull off a miraculous win, thanks to your rage-fuelled strikes, but the rage system is one that's unlikely to change the course of most matches because by the time it kicks in, you're usually only one or two hits away from oblivion.

Previous Tekken ports have been known for their wealth of game modes, but Tekken 6 is rather bare, Tekken 6 is rather bare, omitting the extras seen in previous home and portable versions (such as bowling in Tekken Dark Resurrection). Apart from the stock-standard Arcade mode, you can play through Story mode, Ghost mode, and challenge battles. Arcade allows you to gain ranks for each individual character, with the game emulating the experience of playing against real people by having your AI opponents appear with their own individual gamer names, win/loss ratios, and ranks. The AI here is strong--there are five difficulty levels to choose from, ranging from ridiculously easy to frustratingly tough, so there's a good chance you'll find a fit for your own experience level. Story mode is where you can unlock each character's full video ending, which has been a highlight of previous Tekken games and definitely a winner for Tekken 6. Challenge battles feature Time-Attack and Survival modes, as well as Gold Rush--a mode where you earn cash with every attack (although repeating the same moves will earn you successively less cash). You'll actually earn cash with almost everything you do in Tekken 6, which can then be used to customize your character's costumes. You won't find anywhere near as much variety here as you will in Tekken 6's console versions, however, with only a handful of choices available in each category, such as headgear, new tops, pants, or even comic-book-style exclamations every time your character makes a hit.

Multiplayer is also pretty threadbare, offering only wireless ad hoc play. Playing with a friend is a generally smooth experience, but you'll need to find someone who also has a copy of the game because Tekken 6 has removed the single-UMD game-sharing option found in Tekken Dark Resurrection. But if you do have a friend with his or her own copy of Tekken 6, you can also exchange ghost and ranking data.

Tekken 6 may be light when it comes to game modes, but its presentation is outstanding. While there have obviously been some concessions made to cater to the PSP's technical limitations--some of the textures on characters aren't as refined, for example, and stage backgrounds aren't as packed with detail--the game still looks great. Character animations are uniformly smooth, while there's still plenty to see in the game's varied stages. Sound is also quite impressive, with bone-crunching effects adding a great deal of believability to your every strike. What the PSP version does trump its console cousins on is load times--even off UMD, load times between fights in Tekken 6 are only a few seconds, and this is shaved to being almost negligible if you install the game onto a memory stick.

For fans, Tekken 6 is the most complete Tekken experience so far thanks to its large and varied roster, while for newcomers, it's a visually dazzling introduction to the long-running series. While it could have benefitted from more modes, if you're hankering for a portable puncher, then Tekken 6 is the game for you.

Samurai Shodown V Review

Before there was Soul Calibur, there was Samurai Shodown. SNK's weapon-based fighting game series has always featured fantastic character design, unique play mechanics, and lots of personality, though many fans agree that the series hit its peak with 1993's Samurai Shodown II. Nevertheless, the series carried on, and one of its latest installments is now available for the Xbox, complete with online support so that you can take on those other 2D fighting fans out there. Samurai Shodown V's uneven, bare-bones presentation and somewhat clunky feel mean it's not the best 2D fighting game you could find these days, but it's got some interesting aspects, and a bunch of different characters, so it's a decent route for those of us who've always felt like something got lost in translation when fighting games went 3D.

The Xbox version of Samurai Shodown V is more or less a straight port of the NeoGeo fighting game originally released in 2003. That's not so long ago, but the NeoGeo hardware dates back to the early '90s, and this game recycles a lot of the graphics and the sound from 1995's Samurai Shodown III, so this isn't exactly cutting-edge stuff--well, besides all the swords. It's also rather ironic that a lot of the recycled character graphics and sounds are better than the content that was newly added to SSV. Classic characters like the wild swordsman Haohmaru and his ruthless rival Genjuro still look quite good--with their fearsome fighting stances and colorful expressions--but some of the newly added characters, like the hammer-wielding rascal Sankuro and the game's tough, spear-wielding last boss Gaoh, are drawn and animated rather poorly. Likewise, the game's background graphics range from sort of pretty to pretty garish, which makes SSV look like something out of a classic game compilation. The audio does a better job of standing the test of time. There's some nice music (including both the original, digitized soundtrack and a new, instrumental version) and good voice work here and there, including a gravelly voiced English-speaking announcer who fits the game pretty well--even though Samurai Shodown's narration has always been in Japanese up until this installment. The original Japanese language option is still available, but you're required to adjust your Xbox's language setting to activate it.

It's worth noting that, for whatever reason, SNK opted to bring the original version of Samurai Shodown V to the Xbox, rather than the updated version called Samurai Shodown V Special. While the differences between the two aren't superficially obvious, the updated version sought to improve the mechanics and play balance, based on how SSV panned out with its hardcore fans. SSV Special also featured the return of Samurai Shodown's classic boss characters, and in what appears to be an unfortunate misprint, the manual for SSV suggests that they're hidden in this version of the game, which apparently is untrue. At any rate, there's a slow, tactical pace to the action in SSV that won't necessarily appeal to every fighting game player. While the game moves relatively smoothly, the combat is responsive enough, and the emphasis on well-placed hits over drawn-out combos is refreshing, none of the characters move particularly gracefully, and the hits don't feel all that solid when they connect. It's a basic issue with the overall feel of the action as compared to some of the tighter, faster fighting games out there, including a lot of older ones. Play balance is also pretty suspect, especially since the two deliberately stronger-than-normal midboss characters are freely playable online. Brief yet annoying loading times between battles also drag the pacing down. It seems bizarre that this game would have any loading times at all.

The game features well over two dozen different characters, including virtually every Samurai Shodown character who has appeared in the series to date. Everyone from the master ninja Hanzo to the terminally ill swordmaster Ukyo is in here, complete with all their trademark moves. Notable omissions, though, include the freakish Gen-An, the ferocious Wan-Fu, and the aptly named Earthquake--but for the most part, this is a good reunion. New fighters include Yoshitora, a flashy aristocrat armed with not just one or two, but seven swords; Mina, a sprightly archer with an annoyingly cute pet; Kusaregedo, a monstrous freak; and several others. Not all of the new fighters are completely original, though. In Samurai Showdown III and IV, you could choose between two alternate versions of each fighter, each of which had his or her own set of special moves. SSV ditches this option, choosing instead to spin off some of these alternate personalities into semi-unique characters. For example, Haohmaru has an evil twin in the even meaner and nastier Rasetsumaru, but the two aren't dramatically different in terms of gameplay. Also, a lot of the underlying game mechanics translate equally across all the fighters, so there isn't necessarily as much variety to the roster as you may initially suspect, despite how many different faces are in it. Even so, the character design runs the whole gamut, and it can be fun and interesting to try to learn the nuances of everybody in here.

This is a straightforward fighting game for the most part. You hack up your opponent in a best-of-three-rounds battle, using a variety of slashes, kicks, special moves, and combos. While the basics are conventional, SSV does feature a number of fairly weird gameplay systems that become easier to grasp the more you play. There's an attack strength meter onscreen, which depletes each time you attack but gradually refills when you're not swinging. This feature discourages you from going wild on the attack buttons, since the more you flail about, the weaker you get. As in previous Samurai Shodown games, your fighter also gradually becomes enraged as you take damage. When your rage gauge fills up, you turn completely red and may execute a powerful move that can disarm your opponent, and your attack strength gets maxed out, making it possible to defeat your opponent with just a couple of well-placed strong slashes. Once per match, you can trigger a rage explosion ability, which instantly fills your rage gauge and also interrupts an opponent's combo, potentially saving your skin.

Alternatively, SSV introduces an ability called "concentration one," which may be used only once per match under special conditions when you're close to defeat. This ability effectively gives you a speed advantage by causing the opponent to move in slow motion, giving you the chance to perform a last-ditch, one-hit-kill maneuver. In practice, stuff like this makes it so that SSV matches can really come down to the wire, since a nearly defeated player can still make a dramatic comeback. It can feel a little cheap to wind up on the receiving end of a move that sucks up half your health or more, though, but SSV's esoteric gameplay system can still make for some fairly exciting matches.

The artificial intelligence in the single-player mode mounts a pretty stiff challenge the closer you get to the final boss, though certain dirty tricks can be used to practically guarantee easy wins. There's also a versus mode for two players, a practice mode that lets you mess around with all the different fighters, and an online mode through Xbox Live. The Xbox Live support is about as basic as can be, but it works, and we experienced relatively smooth, lag-free matches whenever we were able to find opponents online. It's easiest to find an opponent using the quick match option, but the option to ask the opponent for a rematch doesn't seem to work after a quick match--you're thrown back out to the Xbox Live menu. Since there aren't that many people playing SSV online, you'd naturally want to keep battling against any decent competition you find. Thankfully, you can keep fighting against any given player as much as the two of you want if you create a match or use the optimatch option.

Samurai Shodown V is ideal for fans of NeoGeo fighting games who are still keeping the faith after all these years, but its dated presentation and complicated game mechanics probably won't do much for anybody else. The game does work well online, though, so if you want to experience this once-great fighting game series with other like-minded players, the less-than-full retail price of SSV can be well worth it.

Godzilla: Unleashed Review

Common thoughts when watching a Godzilla movie: "If you told girls you were the guy in the rubber suit, would they believe you?", and "If Godzilla spit at King Kong, wouldn't all his hair catch on fire? How is that even a contest?" A less common thought, on the other scaly claw, is: "Man, Godzilla is pretty cool, but someone should let that guy off his leash!" Don't tell this to Atari, though, because the company seems to be under the impression that it has finally liberated everyone's favorite fire-spitting lizard in its recent city-crushing romp, Godzilla: Unleashed.

Ironically, Godzilla and company have never been as leashed as they are in this monster fighting game. Bound by wonky Wii controls, a terrible targeting scheme, a lame campaign, and generally terrible artificial intelligence, this game might be better served with a title like Godzilla: Hits Like A Wuss, Godzilla: Doesn't Want You To See Him Like This, or maybe just Godzilla: Leashed. However, at the very least you can still knock down Mothra with flame breath and then hit her with a small building while she's down. That counts for something, as does the fact that the game is mostly playable. In fact, at some points it even plays itself.

But first, the god-awful plot. Giant, powerful crystals land on earth and drive most of its monsters insane. As Godzilla or one of a handful of good monsters, you have to travel to various locations, subdue rampaging titans, destroy crystals, and stop a crazy army guy from killing you. The whole campaign takes about three hours to beat, at which point you gain a certain number of store points you can use to unlock more monsters, even though they all play roughly the same. The idea is that you'll actually grind through story mode over and over to unlock the likes of Space Godzilla (which would take at least 10 hours). But really, after about two plays, you will have wrung every ounce of blood from this inert space rock.

Your average level goes something like this: Several monsters duke it out in a bad approximation of a major city, and from the perspective of a camera that is completely out of your control. One of the monsters is you, and another might be juiced up as a result of scattered crystals. You can proceed by destroying the crystals (which can be difficult to hit if your monster thinks you're aiming for something else), by defeating the bad monsters, or by dying. However, only one of these options requires you to actually play. If you do nothing, there is a chance the bad monster will be defeated by the other CPU-controlled monsters, or that they'll come burn you down. Either way, the level is considered complete, and you move on--even if you die. Because, as you know, Godzilla never dies.

If you decide to fight the other monsters (there are usually several), you can take one of two approaches to guaranteed victory. You can run circles around your foes until they inevitably turn on each other, and then pelt them with breath attacks until only one badly wounded monster remains. Or, you can just wade in like an idiot and die.

If you elect to use the breath-attack strategy, you'll run into several interesting issues. For instance, every level is bustling with small, durable aircraft. Couple this with the fact that your monster automatically aims its blasts at the closest targets, and you'll end up firing straight up into the air when you meant to shoot straight into Megalon's face. You can attempt to steer your ray toward your opponent with the Nunchuk's analog stick, but this doesn't work all that often. But fret not; two factors make this situation bearable: You can always recharge more breath, and when you do make contact with a monster foe, you can potentially pelt it with your fiery wrath for about 30 whole seconds.

The resulting breathfests are fun to look at but incredibly tedious to play. Charging your projectile attack to its fullest takes nearly a minute, and after all that, you can easily waste all four charges (each worth a good five seconds of firepower) on UFOs and warplanes, without actually hitting anything monstrous. Cue outraged Godzilla roar.

Things go a little differently if you're fighting a monster one-on-one. The CPU AI tends to be very aggressive, as well as incredibly effective at countering any melee strikes you throw its way. However, this is okay because you can charge your breath attack while blocking. Normally, if you simply stood there and blocked, the CPU monster would run up and throw you. But if you charge your breath at the same time, it will usually just stand in place until you have a lungful ready to spit in its face.

When you do finally fire, one of two things will happen. You will either blast the creature for an extended period of time and damage, during which it will try in vain to walk toward you (rather than taking cover), or it will fire back with a beam of its own. When this happens, the beam attacks meet and initiate a minigame wherein a pulse travels ever faster back and forth between the monsters. To keep from eating the pulse and getting blasted, you have to swipe the remote as if you were hitting a tennis ball. It's Pong in one dimension, and it's also Godzilla: Unleashed's most engaging play mechanic. That's how bad this game is.

At least it looks pretty. When you're far from other monsters and the camera pulls out to keep everyone on the screen, it really looks like you're watching a monster battle in a realistic cityscape from a bird's-eye view. The breath attacks cut through the air in bright oranges and yellow, wavy lines, and warplanes and UFOs shoot rockets and rays at all and sundry. Unfortunately, the sound bytes aren't great. Most (though not all) of the monster noises are here, but the music is bad, the voice acting is horrendous, and the effects are generic.

We aren't sure why you'd try to inflict this disaster on multiple players, though that's an option. Really, though, you shouldn't even inflict this on one player: namely, yourself. Although Godzilla: Unleashed looks good, it's an incredibly boring game to play, with busted mechanics and short-bus AI. The short and wimpy single-player campaign doesn't help matters, nor does the fact that the game seems to expect you to play through it a dozen times to unlock some of the cooler monsters. All in all, you should let this sleeping dragon lie.

Mashing together fighting-game mechanics with rhythm-game ideas sounds like one of the stranger genre combinations you're ever likely to find in a video game. Nevertheless, in Draglade, you'll be fighting to a musical beat while also enjoying some light adventure and collection aspects. However, none of these aspects--most notably the rhythm mechanics--are very robust by themselves, which leaves you with a game that is merely decent when it could have been much more.

Draglade shows you the ropes via its single-player story mode. You can choose from one of four available characters and guide him through his quest to become a major grapper, a professional fighter that uses a specialized weapon called a glade. Each of the four characters' stories follow the same basic template, which involves the same tournaments, the same optional quests, and the same generic, sinister organization bent on harnessing the power of dark glades. If you've ever seen an anime series or played an anime-themed game, you wouldn't be missing anything if you chose to skip the forgettable dialog.

There's rarely any motivation to talk to townspeople, anyway; most don't offer anything but recycled combat tips. You'll sometimes hear tales such as the two lovers who were from different social classes, or an old potter whose lost vase turned up in the hands of a mischievous child, but you can never help them out. Some towns have many areas and people, but given that you can't do anything with them, you'll wonder why the developers even bothered with it all. Don't be surprised to find yourself ignoring everyone and going straight to the fight.

Combat in Draglade is quite simple. All characters have light and hard attacks, each of which can be modified to knock the opponent either into the air or down on the ground. You also use up to six different "bullets" in battle, which are special moves you can equip before battle, including fireballs, electrical bolts, and even health-restoring dew drops. Usage of bullets is governed by a regenerating energy meter at the bottom of the screen, which means that you can't throw an overpowered bullet at your enemy over and over again.

Via a rudimentary combo system, you can chain light attacks into a heavy one, perform moves that hit multiple times with a single button press, or hit foes one extra time as they come down from a fall. It never gets as complex or as tactical as a Street Fighter match, though, and instead opts for a feel that mimics Super Smash Bros. or Power Stone. This is exacerbated by the fact that there's no distinction between blocking low attacks versus high ones.

The beat combo system is where the rhythm-game aspects make their way into Draglade. As long as you've got energy stored up, you can send your character into a beat mode by tapping the L button. This activates a horizontal note chart--the beat score--at the bottom of the screen. It begins scrolling when you execute a light attack, after which you must continue to hit the light attack button in time with the notes. Do this successfully and you'll complete the beat combo, which can cause massive damage if it connects. If your timing is especially good, you'll do even more damage.

Aside from being able to perform one in the air, there's not much more to beat combos than tapping a single button in time. For the majority of the game, beat scores last only about three seconds long. Furthermore, being limited to the light attack button makes it feel even more simplistic. Due to the loose nature of the combo and blocking system, you can't reliably chain into a beat combo from a normal strike. Unless you exploit moves or bullets that leave your adversary stunned, nailing someone with a beat combo relies on chance a bit more than we would like. However, in a fun twist, you're able to create your own custom beat scores: Taking someone down to the riff of "Kung Fu Fighting" never gets old.

The simple fighting mechanics make for a relatively easy experience, but this at least makes the game more accessible. Furthermore, even if it's not necessarily deep, on the surface it is quite varied. The wealth of bullets you collect during story mode cements that notion, considering that there are a hundred different attacks you can buy or find throughout the towns you visit and the side missions you take. The side missions, all of which are optional, boil down to guiding your character from left to right and beating up creatures that stand in your way much like you would in a one-on-one match. This is, again, very simplistic in that it rarely throws any more than two threats your way, and you'll start to wonder why the developers couldn't put some interesting platform elements or secrets in there. Finally, there's absolutely no way for you to backtrack and complete missions you've failed previously until you start over with a new character.

Regardless, you'll want to put up with all the side missions and complete the game with all four characters if you want to fully enjoy the multiplayer experience in Draglade. Finishing the game with each character not only increases his hit points and attack strength, but also unlocks a character from his story for usage in versus mode. DS wireless play makes a standard versus mode available along with a cooperative campaign and a lobby through which to trade beat combos and bullets. The versus mode features single-card download play, which is a nice addition despite its limitation to the four principal characters. It's subject to occasional stuttering but holds up well enough. You can also fight online, with the option to limit your encounters to anyone within your skill range. Leaderboards are a nice touch, as are the achievement medals you earn for such acts as winning a match very quickly, exploiting beat combos, and successfully defending against repeated onslaughts.

There are a lot of neat little things about Draglade, but they're not taken advantage of as much as they should have been. Therefore, Draglade ends up being enjoyable but hardly robust. If Ultimate Mortal Kombat and Bleach DS aren't enough to satisfy your fighting-game bloodlust on the DS, Draglade is a worthy game, but don't go into it expecting anything too intense or complex.

Up to this point, Capcom's Darkstalkers has essentially been "Street Fighter with monsters." At its core, Darkstalkers 3 is still just that, but it has a few twists that manage to make it feel quite a bit different.

How? Instead of going by a best-two-out-of-three-round system, DS3 takes the Killer Instinct approach, where each character has two life bars. When one is drained, the character falls down, refills, and the match continues. Another new twist is the Dark Force power-up, which takes one level of your super meter and acts a bit like the gems did in Marvel Super Heroes. Each character is affected differently by Dark Force. Some characters get armor, others get mirror images of themselves that double their attack power, etc. There are two types of super moves in Darkstalkers 3. ES moves are powered-up versions of normal moves, like super fireballs, extra damaging throws, and multiple dragon punches. EX specials are entirely different moves. For instance, Demitri can turn his opponents into little girls (even the boys turn into girls - don't ask), pick them up by the neck, and choke blood out of them, while Lilith tosses a top hat at her opponent. If the hat hits, her enemy is forced to do a little dance, taking damage all the while. A good portion of the EX moves are, in a word, insane. They go a long way to making the game substantially more fun than your average post-Street-Fighter-Alpha-2 Capcom fighting game.

There are additional modes in the game that distinguish it from both the arcade version and the Saturn version, which only came out in Japan. A collection mode allows you to view various character art, and the original character mode allows you to pick a character, change its name, and fight to build up various skills and powers. The characters are very well animated, though a few frames were dropped in the conversion, especially in the background animations. The game has an excellent soundtrack, and the character voices are all terrific.

Overall, Darkstalkers 3 is a lot of fun. It's easily the best fighter Capcom has put out in years. It doesn't fall prey to the cookie-cutter formula Capcom's been using to make the last few Street Fighter games. If you're a fan of Capcom-style fighters, or if you're sick of Capcom's recent cloning approach to fighting, Darkstalkers 3 is definitely for you.