Thursday, April 5, 2012

Soul Calibur II Review

By definition, one cannot improve upon perfection. So, considering that 1999's Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast is widely considered to be a flawless fighting game, maybe that explains why Namco didn't take many risks with the sequel, which has finally hit the PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube. If you played and enjoyed the original Soul Calibur, chances are good that you'll also enjoy the sequel since it's so much like the first game. That also means Soul Calibur II won't impress you as much as its predecessor, since you've seen most of these characters, their weapons, and their moves before, and the available gameplay modes are nothing out of the ordinary. Nevertheless, on its own terms, Soul Calibur II is by all means a great fighting game, and Namco has done a fine job of making each respective console version equally enticing.

For the majority of players, the most significant difference between Soul Calibur II and its predecessor will be cosmetic, though the visuals haven't been overhauled completely. The returning characters all look different and the stages are all new, but many of the animations (even for some of the new characters) are recycled from the previous game, as is the flow and feel of a typical match. As before, gameplay involves four buttons, corresponding to your character's horizontal slash, vertical slash, kick, and guard. Using various combinations of these and the directional pad, you can make your characters unleash dozens of different moves. A number of the characters even have alternate fighting stances, which they can readily switch between to vary up their attacks.

There's a two-tiered rock-paper-scissors system here that's more or less identical to the system that worked so well in Soul Calibur: Low attacks hit high-blocking opponents, mid attacks hit low-blocking opponents, and high attacks tend to beat out mid attacks. Additionally, vertical slashes tend to have priority over horizontal slashes but can be dodged laterally, while horizontal slashes can counter an opponent who's sidestepping too often. Add in guard impact moves, which all characters can use to deflect their foes' attacks, and soul charge moves, which all characters can use to power up their attacks, and you've got a deep, tried-and-true combat system. The gameplay has been tweaked since Soul Calibur, to account for some of the issues that highly experienced players of the previous game picked up on. However, most players won't really notice the different properties of crouching or of lateral movement or things like that. Of further note, the game controls well using the default PS2, Xbox, and GameCube controllers. The PS2 controller is best suited, and the GameCube's directional pad is a little small, but all of these are responsive and more than serviceable with the game.

All of the Soul Calibur cast returns either in form or in spirit. From the samurai Mitsurugi to the undead pirate Cervantes, from the nunchaku-wielding Maxi to the female ninja Taki, from the bizarre Voldo to the aptly named Nightmare, most all the old favorites are intact, each with a smattering of new moves. Some have changed more than others, but for the most part, tactics and combos that worked well in Soul Calibur still work well here. There are a number of new characters in the game, though aside from the exclusive character in each console version of the game, only two characters are completely new: Raphael, a fencer whose feints and ripostes suitably capture the elegance and effectiveness of this fighting style, and Talim, a young girl whose speed and expertise with her twin blades make up for her small stature.

The special-guest characters in each version of the game are well done in their own right and are about as fully realized as the rest of the cast. The PlayStation 2 version gets the Tekken series' grizzled old karate master, Heihachi Mishima. The Xbox version gets Spawn, Todd McFarlane's muscle-bound comic book antihero. And the GameCube version gets none other than Link from The Legend of Zelda. These characters have been heavily promoted and talked about, and though none of them fits in very well with the rest of Soul Calibur II's characters, they each look good, are competitive, and have their own unique fighting styles. Heihachi has all the ferocious kicks and punches that make him a powerhouse in Tekken and looks better than ever before. Spawn has a limited ability to fly and can inflict massive damage with his ax. And Link's got all his classic moves and all his classic weapons, including the boomerang, the bow, and the bombs.

Another character is new to the home versions of Soul Calibur II and is not in the arcade original: Necrid, a Todd McFarlane creation specifically designed for this game. Necrid is surprisingly fast and powerful and fights with a ghostly weapon that mimics the other fighters' techniques. But this hunched-over, bloated action figure of a fighting game character seems like he was ripped out of some other game and thrown in here. Surely, it's great to have as many characters as possible in a fighting game. But there's also something to be said for having a cohesive look and style across all the characters. Each fighter in Soul Calibur for the Dreamcast, though remarkably different, at least looked like he or she belonged in the same game as all the other fighters in the lineup.

At any rate, the exclusive characters represent the biggest difference between the three console versions of Soul Calibur II, and if you're trying to decide on which version to get, you should probably go for the one with the character you'd most like to play as or against. Or if you have a home theater system and an Xbox, then the Xbox version is the way to go, since it features 720p HDTV support and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound. The other two versions are no slouches either, though, and natively support surround sound and widescreen progressive scan displays.

Psychic Force was a bizarre and only marginally popular series, and it's not likely that PF2 will be a breakthrough hit. While it does have some new modes and an extra character, it is essentially just the PlayStation version of Psychic Force 2012, a Dreamcast game that will be coming to the US courtesy of Acclaim.

We've seen this series before in the States; the original Psychic Force came out a few years ago (also from Acclaim) and immediately dissolved into obscurity. That's a shame, because if you had given the game a try you would have found that it was unique and interesting. The setup is like this: Two psychic warriors known as psychiccers float inside a huge cube, fire projectiles at each other or, when close, engage in hand-to-hand combat. While a fireball fight might sound pretty unappealing, it's not the same as in other games because there is a full range of motion within the cube (on one plane), and there are many different types of attacks, each one based on a psychic theme. The gravity-based psychiccer can hurl rocks at you, suck you into a black hole, or crush you; the light-based fighter creates beams, lasers, bolts, and prisms.

Once the round starts, the warriors square off, as in any normal fighter - the big difference being that they're suspended in midair. Movement in any direction is possible, and the arena is quite large. There are normal and strong projectiles at your disposal immediately - just tap the button. If you're in close, the energy will be concentrated into fists and feet, as punches and kicks replace psychic energy. When you perform a move, your Psy meter will drain. During a lull, you must charge it back up or you'll be unable to perform any moves besides the basic projectile or punch. Psy and life share one gauge; as life is lost, the space it had occupied can be used for additional Psy storage. The fights can get pretty intense - sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on. The action is quick, and it sometimes feels random, but once you get the hang of it, it begins to make sense.Control is quick and configurable. While the game is peculiar, to say the least, after an hour or so you'll be able to fly around and zap everyone with ease. The ability to place a lot of the more complex functions on their own buttons helps, too. The game is pretty difficult, if not as unrelenting as the Dreamcast version. There are eight difficulty levels, which is sure to please just about anyone.

To differentiate this game from PF2012, the developers had to add something - after all, if it offered an identical set of features but looked and sounded worse, it wouldn't be very tempting. So, the game sports an intensely generic anime opening. It's beginning to seem as though every fighting game has the same opening, actually. There's also a hidden character not found in PF2012, Sonia. Finally, some new modes differentiate it from its Dreamcast cousin.

Most of these modes aren't particularly original, but they are new to PF2 all the same. In addition to arcade, story, and versus, group versus, and survival, the game has Psychiccer's Network and Psy-Expand. Psy-Expand is the only meaningful new mode here. Similar to the world-tour mode of Street Fighter Alpha 3, it lets you modify your character's statistics. You can even gain levels, as each Psy-Expand battle gives you experience points. You can save the character to your memory card and whip him out in any of the other modes on the disc - a pretty interesting addition but not something you'd miss if it suddenly disappeared. Finally, there's an album mode, where you can access the attractive high-resolution artwork shown at the completion of the game. Basically, if you have the DC version it's going to take a hard sell to get you to switch to the PS version, unless you're a true Psychic Force completist. The good news is that even if Acclaim decides it has had enough PF for a lifetime, this is an English-heavy import.

Do you have an open mind when it comes to fighters? If you do, then you might do well to check this game out. If your interest has been piqued, it comes down to one thing: Do you have a Dreamcast? If you do, skip this version. If you don't, then you might be in for an esoteric treat. The gameplay is weird but good, the graphics are reasonably attractive, the music is neat, and the character designs are cool. All in all it's a slick little bit of fun, though not deep enough to hold your attention for long.

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 Reviews

Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is going mobile. The PlayStation Vita version of this chaotic, 2D fighter features everything you'd expect from the console version, along with some welcome additions. These include replay support for online matches, as well as support for Heroes and Heralds mode right out of the gate. The Vita's direction pad, thumbstick, and face buttons all work well for a fighting game, and there's even touch-screen support. Of course, UMVC3 is just as challenging as before and can break your heart with a single combo. It's mean, it's flashy, but most importantly, it's Marvel, baby!

This version of UMVC3 runs just as smoothly as its console counterpart. The only sluggishness occurs when performing hypercombos, but it is minor enough to be negligible. All of the fighters are rendered in full detail and beautifully shown on the small screen. Of course, some concession had to be made when working on less-powerful hardware. This means all the special effects--fireballs, impact flashes, and the like--have been knocked down to a lower resolution.

The Vita's front touch screen can also be used in single-player or multiplayer. Movement is performed by swiping in a direction, while tapping the screens makes your character attack, usually with a basic combo that ends with an ultra. It's little more than a gimmick and can be filtered out when searching for online opponents.

The 12 new fighters from the console version are all included, and many of them personify the game's shift in focus between MVC3 and Ultimate. Together with the original cast, they raise the total to an impressive 48 fighters. Players who prefer to rush in aggressively will find Wesker's moveset to their liking, while those who relish keeping foes at a distance will appreciate Hawkeye and Ghost Rider. Additional tweaks to the fighting mechanics, such as scaling back X-factor and beefing up team aerial combos, carry over into this version as well.

You're not on your own to discover these changes. Mission mode, which teaches players basic techniques for the cast, has been updated to accommodate all of these tweaks. The 12 new characters have their own mission sets, while the missions for veterans have been updated. Unfortunately, this mode has issues in the way it presents information, so if you don't know your gram from your ragtime shot, then you constantly have to pause the game and dive into the menu to see the move's input. Being able to watch a demonstration of the current mission would also have been appreciated.

The Shadow Mode downloadable content from MVC3 is altogether absent. Its replacement is Heroes and Heralds mode. Heroes and Heralds has you collecting cards and assigning them to your three-person team to unlock new bonuses and abilities. The steady trickle of new cards, as well as the new abilities they confer, make this an addictive addition. But with so many radically different card abilities, it can be confusing to go up against enemy teams if you don't have all of the cards memorized.

One feature that fans were dying for in the original Marvel vs. Capcom 3 that made it into Ultimate is a spectator mode during online play. No longer are you confined to watching two sets of life bars tick down while awaiting your turn; now, you can see all of the action for yourself. Replay support is also included in the Vita version. From a replay-specific leaderboard, you can sort through replays based on region and even save them to your Vita's memory. When viewing replays, you can scroll through the action frame by frame, show input data, and even pull up an overlay that shows character hit boxes.

During our play sessions, online play did have some hiccups. Part of this was the aforementioned slowdown during hypercombos, but at other times, it was simply lag. Few games went by completely free of lag; however, what lag we did encounter was brief and didn't significantly detract from the experience. And just like on consoles, Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 for the Vita may feel inviting at first, but when you sink a little deeper, you discover a game in which victory and defeat hinge on a fine line. It's a high-risk, high-reward system that buries you in a brightly colored light show at the slightest misstep. This game makes a graceful transition to the handheld space while retaining everything from the console version.

One Piece: Pirates Carnival Review

The great thing about Japan's entertainment industry is that it quite often seems like the people making it are completely out of their minds. Case in point, Shonen Jump's One Piece, a manga-turned-anime that is all the rage in Japan and has seen a few not-so-great fighting-game translations in North America. This isn't the place to get filled in on the epic 430-plus chapters of the manga series--but to put you in the right frame of thought, a little boy chases his dream of worldwide acceptance and recognition, there's some non-FDA-approved fruit involved, face faulting is played out in barbaric proportions, and the world's most inoffensive pirates go about their business. It's nonsensical by nature, and developer hand uses this backdrop extensively for its party game based on the series, One Piece: Pirates Carnival. Unfortunately, the minigames themselves aren't that great, and more often than not, the overabundance of Monkey D. Luffy and his crew drag on an otherwise interesting design like an anchor in the mud.

You can have it all laid out for you in a tutorial, but Pirates Carnival's primary mode of play is far easier to comprehend on a hands-on basis. On that note, the One Piece-themed minigames are bundled up in an overarching game that somewhat resembles Reversi (or Othello, for you sophisticated types), played with four players instead of two. Pirates Carnival is best served as a party game, and up to four human players can jump in and take control of any one of the current Straw Hat Pirates, sans Franky. However, solo play is also an option, and you can select up to three CPU players on four different difficulty settings. The initial square board comprises 25 panels, with each player calling one corner home. After battling it out in an initial minigame to see who controls the center panel and goes first, each player takes turns flipping panels to reveal variously themed One Piece cards, which have a corresponding monetary value. Panels come in four different varieties: minigame, event, captain, or davy back fight. Minigame is the most prevalent variety, and flipping one of these gives you a choice of three minigames to compete in. The winner of the game takes control of the panel, regardless of who flipped it. Event cards are freebie panels, and they usually come with a beneficial side effect, such as commandeering one of your opponent's panels or giving you an extra turn. Captain panels have the highest value and are actually twofers, with the catch being that they are a three-on-one game. Davy back fights let you contest a panel controlled by an opponent, potentially letting you make off with the sweet booty hiding underneath. The Reversi element factors in when you surround an opponent's panel or panels with your own, effectively letting you plunder an opponent's hard-earned winnings in true piratical fashion.

Even though many of the minigames skew toward the absurd and get massive style points in that respect, their core mechanics lack the depth and variety necessary to give them any substance. One of the more enjoyable minigames involves skydiving 10,000 meters to land on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, with an octopus acting as parachute to measure your descent. It isn't overly complex, as you'll only be using the thumbstick to aim your descent and one button to unfurl the octopus, but it creates a highly competitive situation and is utterly ludicrous in its presentation. However, most of the other minigames only share this one's simple control scheme. In fact, a large portion of the minigames can be controlled with just one or two buttons. In one sense, this could be good, because it stays away from overly complicated controls for these short games. But in another sense it is bad, because a lot of the games end up feeling very similar from one to the next, and they have a tendency to devolve into button-mashing affairs, though there are a few decent timing-based games. Plus, even though there are supposedly 30-plus minigames in the package, you'll have access to only about two-thirds without having to undergo some hardcore frustration unlocking other boards, which isn't exactly ideal for a party game. And even then, you tend to see the same minigames appear time and time again, so the variety that theoretically should be here simply isn't. Plus, you'll have easy access to only three boards, all of which are square, which seems to miss the opportunity of adding a unique twist to the Reversi strategy.

Aside from the lackluster minigames, Pirates Carnival has several frustrating elements that further run it aground. Board games can swing in and out of your favor in an instant, and it's possible to lose the game even though you've won the majority of the minigames. Losing on a lucky draw of a no-contest event card when you're squaring off against difficult opponents to unlock a new board can be annoying, to say the least. Luck also plays too large of a factor in many of the minigames, and again, it can be infuriating to lose a crucial panel in such a way. Also, despite being able to select the difficulty level of your opponent, the overall difficulty level seems to be more dynamic than static. For instance, it is entirely possible to get inexplicably trounced by an easy opponent if you're leading the board by a healthy margin, and harder opponents will occasionally lighten up if you're well behind in total panels. However, regardless of whether you're winning or losing big, at least once per game the board will instantly change hands, so the Reversi strategic layer tends to lose a lot of its appeal.

Pirates Carnival delivers big-time on the fan service, but the frequent interruptions kill the pacing of the game. Namely, voice work has been crammed in to the brim. The English-version voice actors deliver their shtick in context with which character revealed which card, and it's actually quite impressive considering all of the various permutations that are available. Most minigames are also prefaced by fully voiced short intro cutscenes or hand-drawn manga-style stills, all featuring the same gratuitous amount of face faulting that One Piece is known for. Graphically, the game features a mix of the aforementioned stills and cel-shaded animation, and the crew appears as caricatured sprites in the minigames, which all look decent enough. Also, Luffy's exuberance apparently extends to each board's backgrounds, as windmills and small islands defy their facticity as inanimate objects and bounce with mindless glee. It's really quite perplexing.

The downside to the extensive use of the license here is that it really drags down the pace of the game. Between Luffy making claims to the pirate throne, a rules-explanation screen, Buggy the Clown brandishing his cutlass before a minigame, and a loading screen, you're in for a lot of sitting and staring, waiting and wishing to just do something. Add in that most minigames are in the neighborhood of 60 to 90 seconds max, and there's proportionally very little gameplay in the board game mode as a result.

In a party atmosphere, Pirates Carnival will occasionally offer the kind of fun that causes people to absolutely freak when they lose in a tight match. A party atmosphere will probably go a long way in making the game's quirky sense of humor a bit easier to swallow, as well as helping you overlook some of the game's ho-hum minigames and agonizing pacing. However, the minigames lack the depth necessary to keep the game entertaining for very long. And though they have a lot of character, none of what's here is particularly compelling or enjoyable. In fact, without the board game premise, you really won't find a strong reason to go back to any of these games just for playing's sake. And that's where Pirates Carnival ultimately fails.

The inherent novelty of Fighter Maker 2 is that it gives budding game designers a little taste of what it's like to build the most basic of fighting games--down to even the smallest of animations. But that novelty will quickly fade once you discover the poorly designed interface, a somewhat limited create-a-fighter feature that's far less robust than similar features found in wrestling games, and a distinct lack of clear information on how to properly use certain modes. Indeed, all of this may even go so far as to completely dash some people's aspirations of becoming a game designer, and those who are willing to tackle the incredibly high learning curve will still find Fighter Maker 2 to be time consuming, if nothing else.

Though the focus of Fighter Maker 2 is creation, there's a prebuilt fighting game already included, but let's get this out of the way: It's pretty poor in comparison to most fighting games, due to its simplistic nature, and you probably won't be able to play it for more than a few minutes before boredom sinks in. Granted, the characters featured in this mode and the gameplay mechanics are included for demonstration purposes only, to give you an idea of what a character should play like and how he or she should animate, but it's definitely not a redeeming feature in Fighter Maker 2.

The editing feature in the game is essentially broken down into three different sections--appearance, animation, and sequences. In the appearance section, you can change the sex, clothing, hair, face, and a few other aspects of your character, but there's a surprising lack of variety in just about every customizable category. The fact that there isn't a weight adjustment feature is also severely limiting, because it doesn't allow you to create some of the most well known video game characters. Instead, you're left with a generic ninja or kung fu master, all of which are the same size.

The animation mode in the create-a-fighter option is easily the most intimidating aspect of the game. Not only do you have to animate your character, but you have to do so using key-frame animation, which essentially means that every frame of animation is edited manually. It's not particularly difficult to learn how to use this mode, but making even the most basic animation look somewhat decent can be very time consuming.

The animations you create can then be used in the sequence mode, which is where you can turn them into actual moves. The sequence mode also lets you determine how and when certain attacks can take place, how much damage they inflict on an opponent, and their range of effect, among other things. Unfortunately, this mode can be a little confusing at first simply because it's not entirely clear what it is you're supposed to be doing, and the manual offers very little help since it doesn't define some of the more mysterious options displayed on the screen. The absence of detailed information on the individual modes and the poorly designed interface, which just clutters up the screen, make the editing options in Fighter Maker 2 a chore as opposed to a meaningful experience into the world of a game developer.

Unfortunately, Fighter Maker 2 won't win any points from a visual standpoint either. The game has poor character models that look as though they were ripped straight from an old PlayStation game, complete with muddy textures. The backgrounds are also pretty mundane and sport the infinite fighting-plane visual technique seen in the earlier Tekken games, where the characters never actually come any closer to the objects in the environment. It's worth noting that the game does maintain a brisk frame rate, but given the bare-bones look of the game, there's no reason it shouldn't.

As for the sound, there really isn't much there. You'll hear all of the generic sound effects used in just about every single fighting game to date as well as an equally uninspired soundtrack that admittedly works well with the environments that the characters are fighting in, but that's about it.

Fighter Maker 2 does give some insight into what it's like to develop a fighting game if you're willing to spend a number of hours to effectively integrate all of the game's features. It just takes far too much time to perform the simplest of functions, and while the key-frame animation feature gives you a lot of freedom, it would have been better if it were a little less time consuming. In the end, Fighter Maker 2 will probably intimidate most of the people who are genuinely interested in the creation aspect of video games.

Soulcalibur first wowed arcade-goers with its impressive 3D visuals and sublime head-to-head combat in 1998. The following year, a Dreamcast version packed with new features was released and quickly became a best-seller on Sega's fledgling console. Soulcalibur has since spawned a couple of sequels (the third is scheduled for release later this month) and an adventure game spin-off, but the Dreamcast game is arguably still the pick of the bunch and should be a no-brainer now that a version of it is available on Xbox Live Arcade for 800 points ($10). It's not quite that simple, though, because while Soulcalibur's gameplay has survived the transition intact, the same unfortunately can't be said for all of its gameplay modes.

Specifically, the XBLA version of Soulcalibur lacks the Dreamcast game's Battle Mission mode, which was easily the most significant and inventive addition made to the arcade game for the console release. There's no point dwelling on features that didn't make the cut in the context of this review, but for those of you unfamiliar with Battle Mission mode, it was composed of challenges that built upon the regular one-on-one formula by adding gusts of wind, quicksand, dangerous rats, and other hazards. Needless to say, its omission is disappointing.

In the Dreamcast game, playing through Battle Mission mode served as a tutorial of sorts and was the only way to unlock over 300 pieces of art in a gallery, some of which would in turn unlock new character profiles and gameplay options. All of the unlockable content is still present in the XBLA game, but it's available from the outset, which makes it much less compelling. Also available from the outset are all 19 of the characters on Soulcalibur's roster, several of whom needed to be unlocked before you could play as them originally.

Soulcalibur's fighters are a varied bunch. The requisite samurai, ninja, and martial artist character archetypes are all accounted for, and do battle with more unusual combatants that include a lizardman, a powerful golem, a European knight, a pirate, and the mysterious warrior Yoshimitsu--perhaps best known as a character from the Tekken series in which he's also a regular. Even characters with seemingly similar fighting styles and controls play differently because, unlike their counterparts in most other fighting games, they're armed with axes, nunchaku, staffs, and a veritable collection of different swords. You don't get to choose weapons with different properties as you could in subsequent games (and in Soul Blade before them), but there's plenty of variety here, and you're sure to find at least a handful of characters that you like to play.

Gameplay modes in Soulcalibur include Arcade, Vs Battle, Team Battle, Time Attack, Survival, and Extra Survival, most of which will be self-explanatory if you're at all familiar with the fighting genre. Extra Survival mode is a little unusual; it challenges you to beat as many opponents consecutively as possible in the same way that the garden-variety Survival mode does, but every battle is won by the first combatant to land a blow. Be quick, be good at blocking, or don't bother. Online leaderboards for the Survival, Extra Survival, and Time Attack modes are a good way to see how your skills stack up against those of other players around the world. They're not nearly as compelling as competitive online play would have been, though, and it's unfortunate that Soulcalibur shows its age in this regard when the rest of the game has stood the test of time so well.

The controls are accessible and responsive. The Japanese voice work for the characters, the English-language announcer, and the tunes specific to each of the different-shaped stages that you fight sound good. And the original 480p visuals have been reworked just enough that they look decent on a modern 1080p setup. There's no option to play in widescreen, though, so if you play on a widescreen display you're stuck with unsightly borders on either side of the playing area.

Since it lacks the Battle Mission mode the Xbox Live Arcade version of Soulcalibur is inferior to the Dreamcast game and, at least where online features are concerned, it's inferior to other XBLA fighters such as Street Fighter II' Hyper Fighting and Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3. Soulcalibur is still an extremely good fighting game, though, and provided you have a friend to play it with on your couch, it'll certainly keep you entertained until Soulcalibur IV arrives in stores.