Friday, March 16, 2012

Art of Fighting Review

Without a doubt, Art of Fighting has the best visuals of any of the 2D fighting games that are currently available for the Wii's Virtual Console service. The scaling effect that zooms the view in and out as the space between the two combatants changes is still mighty impressive today. While the animation is choppy and occasionally tough to watch, the large characters literally fill the screen. You also can't argue with the roughly $9 download fee when the original cartridge cost NeoGeo owners more than $200 back in 1992. It's just a shame that the circa-1991 arcade-quality graphics and "bargain" price don't make up for the fact that the underlying gameplay is nearly devoid of soul.

You've seen countless games like this before. Art of Fighting is your typical Street Fighter II knockoff where you fight one-on-one battles against the CPU or human opponents. Pushing the different buttons lets you unleash various punches, kicks, and special moves. Special moves are limited by a spirit meter that drains as you use them, but the meter is easy enough to replenish by standing still and holding the attack button for a second or two. The problem lies in the combat system or, more to the point, the near lack of one. Each character only has a small handful of basic punches, kicks, and throws, as well as a couple of special attacks. Attacks also don't chain together into combinations, apart from the occasional one-two chain. You'll find yourself repeatedly performing the same punches and fireballs, which gets boring fast regardless of whether you're playing human opponents in the versus mode or working through the eight CPU opponents in the story mode.

For some insane reason, the folks who developed the game also decided to limit your choice of characters in the story mode. If you hook up a second controller and play against your friends, you have eight characters from which to choose. However, if you want to play against the CPU, your only choices are Ryo and Robert (who have roughly the same moves).

If you do decide to download Art of Fighting to your Wii, you can at least rest easy knowing that the emulation is accurate. The graphics are sharp, the audio clarity is excellent, and the overall game speed matches the output of a real NeoGeo AES console. Performing strong attacks may be uncomfortable for you using the standard Wii Remote because of the placement of the A and B buttons. For that reason, you'll want to play using a GameCube controller or a Classic Controller attachment if you don't want to feel arthritic after 10 minutes. Some people have reported that the video output goes black when they try to play the game on a high-definition display with the Wii's video output set to 480i, but many of them have also reported "fixing" the problem by pressing the home button to pause and restart the emulation. Hopefully, D4 and SNK will iron out the kinks in the emulator before they bring the much-improved Art of Fighting 2, as well as other awesome NeoGeo fighting games, to the Wii's Virtual Console service.

Dragon Ball: Raging Blast 2 Review

Last year's Dragon Ball: Raging Blast kicked off a new series of fighting games set in the popular Dragon Ball universe. But while it admirably captured the look and energy of the Dragon Ball anime, delivering fights filled with stylish attacks and demonstrations of tremendous power, the core fighting action was too shallow and repetitive to make wielding that power much fun. And sadly, Raging Blast 2 does very little to improve upon its predecessor. The visual energy is still there, but Raging Blast 2 doesn't do anything we haven't seen before, making its weaknesses even harder to forgive than they were in the striking but flawed original.

Raging Blast 2 feels more like a modest expansion of the first game than a full-fledged sequel, which makes its $60 price point pretty tough to swallow. It adds 20 characters to the roster, bringing the total to 90, which sure sounds like a lot. But since the differences between one character and the next remain mostly cosmetic, this does nothing to address the shallow gameplay. All the characters handle almost identically and have functionally identical melee attacks and combos. The only real difference is in the super and ultimate attacks they have at their disposal, but these, too, are largely the same for many characters, even if the names and animations associated with them are different. And of the 14 environments in which you can do battle, only four are new for this sequel. The rest are recycled from the original Raging Blast.

Little has changed with regard to the fighting mechanics since the first game. The combatants all soar effortlessly in all directions through large, three-dimensional environments, and the blistering speeds with which they move around make controlling them a pleasure. All the moves are incredibly easy to pull off. Standard melee combos can be dished out with one button, long-range ki blasts can be fired with another, super attacks are performed by pushing the right stick in one direction, and the even more powerful ultimate attacks are done by clicking the right stick. The simplicity of the control scheme makes it easy for anyone to jump in send their opponents flying through the air, through the nearest building or into the nearest mountainside, and it is a kick to fill the screen with the blazing energy of Goku's kamehameha, Tien's tri-beam, and all the other flashy super and ultimate attacks you can so easily perform. But this simplicity also means that the action quickly starts to wear thin. There are a few attacks and defensive maneuvers that require precise timing to pull off, but all of your staple moves are so easy to do that none of it is rewarding in the long run. There's very little nuance to combat in Raging Blast 2, and battles quickly start to feel repetitious and shallow.

The most significant addition to combat is the raging soul system. In the original Raging Blast, melee attacks did so little damage that they were almost pointless, except as a way of building up the ki needed to perform super attacks. Building up ki is still a major component of Raging Blast 2, and it's not uncommon for the action to come to a complete halt as both fighters stand in place, charging up their ki for several seconds before unleashing their next barrages of super attacks at each other. But now, at least there's a way to make melee attacks worthwhile. By charging up your ki to the limit and triggering the raging soul state, you lose the ability to perform super attacks, but your melee strikes become much more powerful. Having a way to make melee strikes a more viable path to victory is a small step in the right direction for the series, but there's still too much emphasis on the slow process of building up ki, and pounding a single button to release strings of melee attacks or holding it down to charge up a strike and send your opponent flying doesn't make for engaging combat.

Raging Blast 2 has a slew of single-player modes, and a decent assortment of multiplayer options as well. In the single-player Galaxy mode, you fight your way through a series of battles associated with the history of each character. This is the closest thing Raging Blast 2 has to a story mode, but it makes no effort to actually tell a story. Unless you already know these characters well, you'll have no clue what their motivations are for punching each other across the universe. The snippets of dialogue that characters utter before each battle certainly aren't enough to flesh out what's going on. Galaxy mode also sets conditions that often make battles far more challenging, but in ways that prove to be more frustrating than rewarding. For instance, you might start with so little health that just a few hits will finish you off, but you have to defeat an opponent who has full health. This is so unfair and the gameplay is so monotonous that defeat becomes a source of crushing discouragement, rather than a hurdle to push yourself to overcome.

There's also a straightforward arcade mode called Battle Zone, a Tutorial mode that introduces you to the basics of combat, and a Training mode in which you can set a variety of options to determine your opponent's behavior and then practice your stuff. Battle and Tournament modes let you battle each other in split-screen; the screen is divided vertically, though, and significantly limits your view of the action. If you jump online, you can participate in ranked or non-ranked single fights or tournaments with other players. Online combat is smooth and responsive, but the combat system makes spamming powerful attacks so effective that even when playing against human opponents, the repetitive fighting quickly grows tiresome.

At least Raging Blast 2 looks good, though the visuals don't improve significantly on last year's game. Still, the characters are vibrant and detailed, and they move with all the blistering speed you'd expect them to possess. The highlight remains the elaborate super attacks, which incorporate close-ups, slow motion, and other techniques to convey the over-the-top energy these characters constantly unleash. Unfortunately, the biggest issue with the presentation of the first game hasn't been addressed here. When your opponent is far above or below you, the camera loses sight of him or her altogether and often shows you nothing but empty ground or empty sky. The sounds of battle are appropriately absurd and exaggerated, and the characters utter their taunts with reliable enthusiasm, but these repetitive outbursts soon become grating.

As a piece of fan service, Raging Blast 2 is packed. There's a remake of a rare Dragon Ball anime included on the disc, and the game rewards you constantly with new pictures, costumes, music, and new special moves, giving diehard Dragon Ball fans an incentive to press on against the monotonous gameplay. But it's just not worth it. When you consider the $60 asking price and how little this game adds to its predecessor, there's no reason for even the most devoted fans to spend their hard-earned money on this hollow cash-in of a sequel.

Virtual On Marz is the first new entry in Sega's manic robot action series in the US since Oratorio Tangram landed on the Dreamcast. Though more than three years have passed since then, the Virtual On formula remains the same in the most significant ways. The breakneck arcade style of play that Virtual On is built on has been improved upon by other games since Oratorio Tangram, and Marz ends up feeling dated, like a Dreamcast game time forgot.

Though the main story mode in Virtual On Marz is lamely pushed forward by a narrative that loosely pertains to the events in previous Virtual On games, what really runs the Virtual On universe are very big robots who fight with other very big robots in arena-style settings. The action boils down to entering an arena, destroying your opponents before they destroy you, and then moving on to a new fight. Actually, the game doesn't need to do any boiling, because that's really all there is to it. Your tactics may have to be modified, depending on the strengths and weaknesses of the robots you're facing, but hopefully you enjoy straightforward one-on-one robot fighting, because that's what Marz has to offer.

It would be fine, really, if the combat held some incredible depth and there were some detailed mech customization options, but Virtual On Marz has neither. Though the game touts more than 40 different playable robots, each with its own special skills, they all fundamentally do the same things. You've got some basic ranged energy attacks, some up-close melee attacks, a few different high-powered special attacks, a rocket-powered jump, and a multidirectional dash move that can be performed on the ground or while in the air. Attacks are largely automated, with a single button unleashing either ranged or melee assaults depending on your range from the enemy you've currently locked on to. This is good, because managing the movement of your robot requires your full attention. The robots move backward, forward, left, right, up, and down with grace, but they are needlessly difficult to rotate. Manually rotating your mech is a frustratingly slow process that will just get you killed. The best way to keep tabs on your target is to jump into the air, automatically turning the focus of your robot onto whatever you're currently locked on to. This seems more like a weird workaround for someone who is using a broken controller rather than an actual, workable control scheme. There's not much for tactics, either, and well-timed dashing and shooting tend to be the keys to consistent victory. There are four different control schemes available, two of which ostensibly re-create an arcade twin stick setup, but none of them are able to surmount the inherently simplistic gameplay. The controls, which were part of what drew fans to the Virtual On games in the first place, are now simply outmoded and needlessly arcane, even sucking most of the potential fun out of the challenge and multiplayer modes, which basically just strip out the dry, truncated storytelling from the "dramatic" story mode and cut straight to the action.

While there are several different aesthetic routes you can take with the giant robot genre these days, Virtual On Marz sticks closely to the anime-inspired archetype. It takes equal parts Macross and Gundam and creates outlandish robots with an excessive number of fins, wings, and ornate headdresses. These robots are then put into abstract metallic, cyber-inspired environments. Though you'll fight in arenas on Mars, Jupiter, the moon, and other galactic locations, none of them have any real unique atmosphere. At best you'll feel like you're fighting in a moon-themed arena, while at worst you'll feel like you're just fighting in a big metal box. In its time, the original Virtual On game was a visual treat, pushing polygons and dishing out special lighting and particle effects in big, impressive dollops. Technology has advanced since then, but Virtual On hasn't really kept up, so what passed for jaw-dropping 3D graphics in the 20th century are no longer as impressive. The game is definitely playing to its arcade roots, as there's a crispness to the presentation and a certain intensity in the color saturation that legitimately make it look like a pumped-up Model 3 game. Hitmaker, a developer most at home when catering to the arcade crowd, creates a look and feel seemingly designed to inspire you to put some tokens into some kind of slot. Even the music sounds like "attract mode tunes" designed to lure you in with their upbeat, mercilessly looping melodies. All of this could be appealing for Sega devotees who don't want to let go of their Dreamcasts, but to modern gamers the robot designs will feel trite, and the whole Virtual On Marz package will just feel tired.

Diehard Virtual On fans will inevitably find some things worth praising in Marz, but the fact remains that Marz simply feels antiquated. While Virtual On has stuck close to its formula, other games have since distilled the giant robot experience into different formats that give people more of what they like about massive humanoid-shaped robots. Capcom's Steel Battalion games take the tank-control concept to a baroque new extreme, and Konami's Zone of the Enders series delivers weightless, anime-style action in mind-rending quantities. Most people outside of Virtual On's established fan base will have a hard time finding a very satisfying experience in this game.

When you start playing SoulCalibur: Broken Destiny's single-player Gauntlet mode, a warning pops up on the screen to let you know that its bizarre story is "based on obscure fables and does not accurately represent SoulCalibur history." Fortunately, just about everything else in Broken Destiny feels very much like it belongs in the long-running fighting series. The weapon-based combat is as accessible and as deep as ever, the arenas are ripped right out of SoulCalibur IV, and the two new fighters introduced in this game are definitely a better fit than the Star Wars characters that graced the aforementioned Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game. There's not enough compelling single-player content here to make Broken Destiny a must-have if you're planning on going solo, but add a friend with a second copy of the game to the equation, and good times are guaranteed.

All 28 of the fighters on Broken Destiny's roster are available from the outset. You can also create your own fighters from scratch using limited customization tools to determine their physical appearance and then dress them up in gear chosen from a massive wardrobe, much of which has to be unlocked. There are no performance bonuses associated with clothing and weapons this time around, which is unfortunate if you really enjoyed that aspect of SoulCalibur IV, but great if you want to wear all of the matching pieces of the Santa costume without feeling like your fashion choices are compromising your effectiveness. Regardless of which fighter you choose to play as and what he or she is wearing, Broken Destiny, like previous SoulCalibur offerings, is easy to pick up and grasp the basics of. You can move in eight directions using the D pad or the analog nub, and face buttons are used to guard and to perform basic horizontal attacks, vertical attacks, and kicks. That's really all you need to know to get started, though you'll find that there are plenty of more advanced techniques to master if you check out the character-specific move lists in the useful Training mode.

Oddly, Broken Destiny doesn't feature an Arcade mode in which to pit your chosen combatant against a number of opponents en route to a matchup with a boss. In its place is Trials mode, which incorporates three distinct score-based challenges in Attack, Defense, and Endless flavors. In the Trial of Attack you're pitted against five opponents and earn score bonuses for playing aggressively and for landing combos. The Trial of Defense is a little longer and culminates in a boss battle against Algol from SoulCalibur IV, so in that respect it's a lot like that game's Arcade mode. The main difference here is that you score points and earn bonuses for guarding against your opponent's attacks and retaliating quickly. Endless Trial is a survival mode of sorts, except that your fighter regains all of his health between rounds. Seeing how many of the increasingly tough opponents you can make it past without ever losing is a lot of fun, but your score isn't based on that. Rather, every time you land a blow you earn points, and there's a score multiplier that goes up when you hit your opponent but falls back down when you get hit. The scoring system in the trials means there's some fun to be had replaying them to beat your best performances, but it's unfortunate that there's no way for you to compare your high scores with those of other players online.

Outside of quick one-on-one matches against the AI that you choose from a pseudo online lobby complete with win/loss records for different players, Broken Destiny's only other single-player content is the story-driven Gauntlet mode. Spanning more than 30 chapters each composed of multiple challenges, this mode is really just a lengthy tutorial that trains you to defend against every character in the game. Learning to effectively evade and guard against your opponent's attacks is important, and if you take the time to play through all of the 80-plus Gauntlet challenges, you'll almost certainly emerge a better player than you were when you went into it. You're not necessarily going to have much fun along the way though.

Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition Review

It's been two years since Capcom rejuvenated the Street Fighter series with Street Fighter IV, one of the best fighting games to be released this side of the 21st century. Super Street Fighter IV Arcade Edition--which comes as either a standalone package or as a downloadable update to existing versions of Super Street Fighter IV--is the latest iteration of the game, adding four new characters, tweaking the online experience, and introducing a raft of character balance changes. For Street Fighter IV fanatics and competitive online players, Arcade Edition is essential, because its additions make it the most complete and well-rounded version of what was already an excellent brawler. For everyone else, Arcade Edition's core-focused changes won't add too much to the experience you're already having with last year's Super Street Fighter IV, so it's a version you can safely skip with the knowledge that you're not missing out on too much.

With Super Street Fighter IV, Capcom made some significant changes to the original, adding in 10 new characters and selectable ultras, as well as overhauling the game's online features. Arcade Edition isn't as ambitious in scope, so the game feels and plays much like its predecessor. (Check out our full review of Super Street Fighter IV). The most apparent additions are the four new characters Arcade Edition brings, bringing the game's total roster up to 39 fighters. Street Fighter III veterans Yun and Yang skateboard and rollerblade their way back in (respectively), while Ryu gets a villainous makeover as Evil Ryu. The last new character slot is filled by Oni, an even nastier version of Akuma.

While Yun and Yang might superficially look and play similarly, the only thing they truly share is their similar rushdown style of offence. Both characters are effective for getting into an opponent's face and pressuring with fast strikes. For players not used to Yun and Yang's aggression, they can be tricky to fight against (particularly online, where the twins have become favorites). Evil Ryu plays like a mix of Ryu and Akuma, with additional moves like an Akuma-like teleport and a wicked axe-kick. Oni, on the other hand, is a mixture of Akuma and Gouken, sporting a ridiculous number of projectile attacks and easy combo potential. Both of the dark hado characters also pack a mean punch, dishing out high damage and making them dangerous characters in expert hands. The trade-off, however, is low health. In fact, all four of the new character's offensive strengths are balanced out by relatively less staying power, particularly Evil Ryu and Oni.

Because Evil Ryu and Oni are essentially souped-up versions of characters like Ken, Ryu, Sagat, and others, Yun and Yang are the most interesting additions to the roster. Those wanting to brush up their skills on the newcomers, however, might find the early going tough because none of the new characters have been incorporated into the game's Challenge mode. Challenge mode--a series of trials set for each character that effectively taught players different combos--was the best way to get to grips with an unfamiliar fighter in the previous incarnations of Street Fighter IV, given the paucity of other training options within the game. Without challenges for the four additions, you'll have to look elsewhere for advanced tips on how to improve your game.

As for the other 35 fighters on the roster, they've all experienced some changes as part of an overall tweaking of the game's balance. Some of the changes are quite noticeable (Akuma and Ryu's air hurricane kick, for example, has had its jump arc modified to make it tougher to run away with, while Guile's flash kick damage has been nerfed), while most have had subtler tweaks made to attack damage, recovery, hit boxes, or frame counts. The majority of these changes only really affect high-level play, and for casual or moderate players, their favorite characters will still handle much as they have previously, and the overall gameplay experience will feel very similar to Super Street Fighter IV.

Unlike vanilla Street Fighter IV and its Super incarnation, online play between Super Street Fighter IV and Arcade Edition is not mutually exclusive. In Arcade Edition, you can choose to either play other Arcade or Super players online, with the game letting you choose which version to look for (Super owners, however, won't be able to play you online if you're set to Arcade Edition). "Downgrading" to Super will also turn off the balancing that Arcade Edition introduces, which could be a handy fallback if you're not happy with how your favorite character has been changed. Online play is seamless, with only matches with players from the other side of the world experiencing any sort of lag.

Arcade Edition comes in two flavors--either as a download via the PlayStation Network or Xbox Live to upgrade an existing Super Street Fighter IV copy or as a budget-priced retail box that includes the entire game. For Super owners, Arcade Edition isn't a dramatic overhaul of the game, and its worth really depends on how competitive you want to stay when playing online. But for those who haven't picked up Street Fighter IV, the low price point of the boxed version of Arcade Edition makes it a great entry point into this outstanding fighting game. Street Fighter IV is a tight, fun, and competitive brawler with a healthy online community, and Arcade Edition is the most complete and comprehensive version of it yet.

SoulCalibur V Review

SoulCalibur V is the most complex entry in the series to date. By incorporating some 2D fighting mechanics into its 3D weapon-based system, the game forces you to manage more variables than ever before. In short, this is not a return to the simple times of SoulCalibur II. What SoulCalibur V lacks in accessibility it more than makes up for with its unprecedented depth, fostering a well-crafted, offensive-focused experience that never wants for excitement.

At the center of SoulCalibur V's new design is the critical gauge. This meter can hold two bars of energy used to perform new types of offensive and defensive maneuvers. Critical edge and brave edge attacks are its offensive uses. The flashy, cinematic critical edge attacks cost a full bar of meter and deal substantial damage. Each character has one, and every critical edge has the same input command. Critical edge attacks come out quickly and are great for catching aggressive opponents off guard, especially when you're rising from a knockdown.

Brave edge attacks are improved versions of a character's normal attacks and use one-quarter of the critical gauge. Hilde, for example, has an attack that knocks her opponent into the air and over her head. The brave edge version starts the same way but automatically impales the opponent in midair for extra damage. This combo isn't possible otherwise, hence the meter cost. Both critical and brave edge attacks open up new combo possibilities for the entire cast and help make old characters feel new without altering their fundamental gameplay.

Defensively, the critical meter is used for guard impacting, otherwise known as parrying. That's right: unlike in previous SoulCalibur games, parrying is no longer free. Instead, it costs one-quarter of the gauge--the same as a brave edge attack--and still requires precise timing.

However, there are other ways to parry that don't use the critical gauge. The first is "just guard." This is done by tapping the guard button the instant before being struck. It requires even more precise timing than a standard parry, but if you're successful it will have a similar effect. Certain attacks also incorporate a parry into the attack itself. These attacks are generally slow-moving, highly telegraphed blows that will leave you wide open should you miss.

Guard breaking also discourages defensive-heavy play. Block too many attacks in a match, and your character will automatically drop his or her guard for a few seconds. You can tell you're at risk when the health gauge begins to flash. All of these changes create more intense matches by restricting defensive options and promoting aggressive play. However, the game also keeps itself in check through the limitations of the critical gauge. Since the gauge can hold only four quarters total, and refills slowly as you fight, you can't abuse the new techniques. It's a finely tuned balance that fits naturally atop the existing system.