Monday, February 7, 2011

X-Men Arcade Review

I honestly never thought I'd play X-Men Arcade again once the coin-operated industry withered and died. Fortunately, despite the fact that Activision currently holds the license for X-Men games, Marvel and Konami have struck a deal that allows me to gather up to five of my friends to stop Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil mutants. In many respects the game is just as fun as it was back in 1992, but there's no doubt the game shows its age and considerable eccentricity.

Konami and developer Backbone Entertainment have painstakingly recreated the six-player brawler, and in doing so they have ported one of the best games of the genre. But, typical of that genre back then, there are considerable problems. The game is incredibly simple, repetitive and it suffers from the most ridiculous dialogue and storyline you could possibly imagine. And yet it works. It's simply a blast to play with friends. As kids we loved challenging Magneto's army of Sentinels with strangers in a packed arcade.

In every way, this is a straight port of the original experience. You play as one of six X-Men, punching and kicking your way through eight or so levels, fighting endless waves of a rainbow battalion of Sentinels and… odd alligator people. The story is laughable, not only because of its shallow nature (save your friends and the world) but because it makes little sense. In one scene a giant Sentinel unleashes a horde of enemies upon you… and 10 minutes later you hitch a ride on it to challenge Magneto on Asteroid M. The reason? There isn't one - just go along for the ride. As a quarter-munching arcade game none of this mattered much, but in the solitude of your own home, you're going to notice. It's probably because I still love the X-Men and have such a fond nostalgia for the game, but I found all of the ridiculousness amusing. Your mileage may vary. 

The dialogue in X-Men Arcade deserves a special mention as it is amongst the worst (and therefore best) in the industry. No doubt you're all aware of the "All your base are belong to us" case of terrible translation from Zero Wing. X-Men carries some of its own gems, including "I am Magneto, Master of Magnet." And I hope you love repetitive music, because you're going to get a ton of it – when you can hear it over the primal shouts of Colossus as well as characters yelling out their names every time they die and restart in the level. 

By any modern production standard, X-Men Arcade is ludicrous. That was also true back in the '90s, but many of us were too young to notice. But knowing this game is mostly a social affair, Konami has added full online support for both XBLA and PSN. In the case of XBLA, recruiting online players is the only way you can reach a full six player roster since the Xbox 360 only supports four controller connections. PSN players don't have the worry about that restriction, as the system is more than capable of allowing six local participants. 

Online play is a breeze, thanks to several options for players. A Quick Match will jump you into the first game the system finds. With Custom Match you can search for particular settings such as difficulty, location and even the version of the game (more on that below). You can also host public or private games with the Create Match option and even disable voice chat to prevent pesky commentators. Konami also included leaderboards which can track a number of statistics, ranking players by points, which can be filtered by a number of criteria. 

Perhaps the weakest element of X-Men Arcade isn't quite Konami's fault. As part of the deal with Marvel, no alterations could be made to the original code outside of online functionality. There are no added characters, no new enemies, no redone graphics… this is the exact same game, one that will likely only take you about 30 minutes to complete. To be fair, Konami did its best to add in a few perks for fans. One is the ability to switch between the Japanese and USA versions of the game. The Japan version of X-Men is actually easier. Health and Mutant Power items are dropped by enemies, and in the Japanese version your mutant powers use the "Power tokens" first and health later. For some inexplicable reason the USA version does the reverse. There are also a few levels of difficulty, which become necessary if you want a challenge when you're sporting a full co-op mutant roster.

Mafia II: Joe's Adventure Review

When Mafia II was originally released, I reviewed it and gave it a 7.0. I loved the story of the game -- the life and times of an up and coming gangster -- but the fetch quests, empty world, and dated cover/shooting mechanics were a real turnoff. Mafia II: Joe's Adventures starts on a high note and seems like it's going to address those issues, but then it sinks back into the same old same old.

A meaty piece of DLC, Joe's Adventures drops you in the shoes of -- you guessed it -- Joe Barbaro, the best friend of the former main character Vito. If you played Mafia II, you know Vito goes to the big house for part of the game, and that's where Joe's Adventures is set. You'll play as the fat man as you set out to exact revenge on the stool pigeon that sent Vito away, and then you'll just continue doing tasks for the seedy individuals you work for as the story unfolds.

Some of these are cool and shake up the Mafia II formula. At one point, you're driving across a frozen lake as you chase your target. You need to zig and zag around gaps in the ice and catch up to the bad guy. Trouble is, when you do catch him, he just sits in the car like a spud and lets you cap him in the head. He doesn't fight or react like a real person. 

The DLC is stuck not knowing what it really wants to do -- it's somewhere between the disc-based game and the arcade DLC that has come before. I'd love to get a compelling Joe story that has some substance like the one told in the proper Mafia II game, but that doesn't happen here. We get a few cutscenes in the beginning of the game, but then you start getting the static screens that introduce missions with text -- the storytelling flair disappears. With the movie-like atmosphere removed, you're just running to floating "mission start" icons on the screen, getting your mission and trying to get it done before the timer runs out. 

It's boring. Joe isn't getting the attention Vito's tale did. While that was OK for the arcade-style "Jimmy" DLC missions that came before, it's a weird juxtaposition now. 

With the story feeling, well, nonexistent, you're left to rely on Mafia II's stiff gameplay. Again, just like the retail game, you have forced stealth missions, stupid AI that will chase you into shops and then forget about you, and really dated cover and shoot mechanics. There are still cars to drive and oldies to listen to, but it all feels like well-worn territory.

DanceDanceRevolution Review

When I think of arcades, I think of DanceDanceRevolution (DDR). Its intense, rhythm-based gameplay not only helped uncoordinated gamers exercise, but it also served as our window into the delightful oddities found in Japan's gaming world. DDR has made an appearance on a number of consoles and now players will be able to dance frantically with DanceDanceRevolution on the PlayStation 3.

The newest title in the sweat-inducing line of games offers more of the same gameplay we've come to expect, along with the inclusion of Move support. It's a polished game with a diverse track list, but some odd issues hold back an otherwise enjoyable experience. It's also based on an outdated formula that's been surpassed by other dance games available today.

DanceDanceRevolution uses the same formula as its predecessors: directional arrows flow up the screen towards a "Step Zone" at the top of the display. When the arrow crosses the corresponding marker in the Step Zone, players step on the indicated part of the included dance mat. The more accurate steps a player completes, the more points they earn. As players complete the steps, the Groove Gauge fills up. When it caps off, players can activate the Groove Trigger, which adds a multiplier to the points they earn. This is all traditional stuff for DanceDanceRevolution, and it still works.

The track list is a sticking point for DDR enthusiasts, and the tunes in this DanceDanceRevolution make for an interesting set. A number of popular American songs like Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" and Paramore's "crushcrushcrush" are included alongside several older tracks like "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang. Most are fun to dance to and work well with DanceDanceRevolution's style. A handful of the high-intensity Japanese songs that DDR veterans love also make the cut, but most of the initial tracks are American. Luckily, more tracks can be unlocked on top of the initial 30. 

Incorporating your upper body is where Move support comes into play. The Step & Move mode tasks players with hitting on-screen targets with the Move controller while dancing normally. There are four targets -- one in each corner of the screen. When the icon for the upper right target appears, players move their hand towards that target in time with the music. This mode adds an extra layer to the experience, which is refreshing for long-time DDR players that want a new challenge. The Step & Move gameplay is similar to the motion functionality found in previous Wii versions of DanceDanceRevolution, but it's more accurate here. 

Overall, I was happy with Step & Move. It's more difficult than the traditional modes, and hitting the on-screen targets is a fine way to mix things up. 

For those bored of the typical modes, the additional ones are a good way to mix it up. The Club Mode strings a set of songs together with special challenges tossed in to keep players on their toes (no pun intended). The Dance Off game type pits multiple players against one another in an attempt to own the most arrows in a song. This is done by taking turns on a looped track and working to be the most accurate dancer of the bunch. IGN Editor Jack DeVries and I played through this mode and enjoyed it because it brings a more immediate competition to the formula. It's about as close to a dance battle as you're going to get here. 

Both Club and Dance Off are appreciated, but I'm especially happy with the included tutorials. This was a smart idea on the developers' part to bring in newcomers, and giving players the ability to practice songs (or parts of songs) at a slower pace is invaluable. 

You go, girl.
You go, girl.

You'll need to slow down songs and practice, too, because DanceDanceRevolution has some issues that make it occasionally brutal. There's a massive difficulty spike between the Basic and Difficult settings. On Basic, things are way too easy for me, but jumping to Difficult seems steeper than it should be -- and Difficult isn't even the hardest setting available. Also mindboggling is the lack of a pause button. Perhaps there's a secret pause feature that I'm not aware of, but no button on my mat or controller paused the game. Oversight? I'd say so. 

Along with difficulty and interface, the thing that holds DanceDanceRevolution back the most is its age. This is largely the same game we've seen for years. This is a good thing for those that have happily followed it, but I personally want something more out of a dance game. The tech has evolved to a point where we don't necessarily need to follow a set of four arrows to "dance." There's more realistic ways to bring dancing into games. The Kinect title Dance Central, which involves real dancing with no peripherals, makes dance pad games feel antiquated.

Eat Them! Review

There were plenty of days lost to Rampage on my SEGA Master System. Friends would come over, and we'd side-scroll our way through the world as a giant ape or a giant wolf, destroy buildings, and eat the inhabitants -- the finale coming when Lizzie the lizard reverted back to human form and we got to see a pixelated naked woman. Now, developer FluffyLogic -- creators of the strategy game Savage Moon -- is inviting you to pick up a controller and smash everything in Eat Them!.

With a third-person view and a really slick cel-shaded look, Eat Them lets you create monsters by plugging together arms, heads and other pieces you've unlocked. Then, take out the baddies across a number of different gameplay modes where you smash, kick, roar and jump on buildings and vehicles that have earned your ire. At first -- and definitely in small doses -- this game is full of win. Eat Them looks pretty and runs well as you punch out building walls, hurl fire trucks and dance atop high rises. It's only later when it feels like the same old same old that the game gets tripped up, but I'll get to that.

Anyway, all of the actions you take consume your power; so does the damage you receive from the cops and the military. To keep your monster from falling in battle, you need to scoop up passersby and eat them as fuel. (Get the title now?) Missions range from causing as much damage as you can to competing in checkpoint races to polishing off a number of story-based tasks. 

These story-based quests are the highlight of Eat Them because they're clever and challenging. See, in the tale, a mad scientist has whipped up these beasts and is controlling them for his own gain. You'll need to smash a prison and then protect the orange-clad escapees as they make a break for it through the city streets, break open banks and fend off the feds as your getaway cars flee with the money, and so on. Each of these special missions starts off one of Eat Them's worlds/settings, but then you need to medal in each of the challenges a world contains before moving on to the next story segment. 

Here's where Eat Them slips into ho-hum territory. These missions -- the aforementioned cause the most damage and race modes -- can definitely be fun, but you have to do them again and again. As you progress, the destruction challenges get tougher as army men in mechs start showing up and the races won't allow for as much property damage (that's right, you're not supposed to destroy stuff in races), but it's still the same thing over and over again. And I'm talking about being done over and over again in the same world. It's not like you're getting one destruction challenge every time you go to a new area -- you're getting a bunch. 

Eat them all!
Eat them all!
Of course, smashing the crap out of a city and leaving it a burning mess of rumble is what this game is about, right? I shouldn't be too hard on it for repeating that same idea again and again. I'd agree with you if the gameplay was flat-out amazing and designed to wow you, but it really isn't. In my experience, I felt like certain moves were doing no damage and I didn't know why. There are challenges that need you to knock down specific buildings in certain periods of time, and I'd be left kicking and punching this one flaming structure and the damn thing wouldn't fall. Why the hell not? I had just destroyed four other buildings, what was I doing wrong here? Why were my kicks not doing anything? My attacks felt like they were whiffing even though I could see them hitting. 

Eat Them packs multiplayer for up to four local players. The cool part is that you can actually play through the story here and unlock new areas. The four-player destruction is fun enough, but the races break the screen into four parts, and the already sensitive camera wigs out even more. I was swinging the camera all over the place trying to find the next objective (which appears as an arrow and can be very hard to see), and by the end of the round, I was carsick.
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