Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games

Mario_&_Sonic_Winter The 2010 Winter Olympics have come and gone, and all that’s left are memories; memories, and this game from Sega. If you’ve ever felt the need to take part in the olympics without all that troublesome training and effort, now you can. You might find yourself looking like a green dinosaur or blue hedgehog as you compete, but hey, it’s a small price to pay, right?

Environments

Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games does a pretty good job of making you feel like you’re there in Vancouver. The events are all held in virtual recreations of the venues used in the actual Winter Games this year. Skiing down a mountain, over moguls or blazing a path down a bobsled or skeleton run feels incredibly authentic no matter what character you’re choosing.

Events

The events felt a little more hit or miss for me. Some of them are compellingly accurate, such as the bobsled/skeleton runs and curling. This is especially true of the bobsled/skeleton if you happen to have the Wii Balance Board, which does a wonderful job of using subtle body and weight shifts to control your movement down the track.

Others suffer a bit more for their translation to the controller. Hockey and Figure skating are, by their nature, unable to be represented with as much fidelity as something like bobsled. It’s unfortunate and leaves us stuck with events that have extremely oversimplified controls. Given the audience for the Wii, it’s hard to take Sega to task for this. I do think it was the right decision to simplify the controls, but it does leave gamers like myself feeling that those events are lacking.

Dream Events

One fun element of the game that I appreciate a great deal is the ability to unlock various “dream” event versions of the regular winter events. These take the relatively mundane “normal” sports featured in the olympics and translate them into forms that might feel more appropriate in a classic Mario or Sonic series game.

The dream ski jump takes you right out into space, leaping through vistas last seen in Super Mario Galaxy. You’ll fly through the great void in the sky, avoiding small planets as you aim to land on your mark. Another has you skiing down an obstacle course that’s taken straight from Mario Kart, items and all.

These dream events seem a little gimmicky at times, and the game play doesn’t always fit the concept terribly well. The Mario Kart inspired racing for instance is just too slow to really do Mario Kart any justice. On another level it just doesn’t matter though; if you’ve ever played the games these dream events are based on, you will end up smiling big-time when Sonic bowls Bowser off his skis and into a snow bank with a green shell on a sharp turn.

Final Fantasy XIII Impressions, Part 1

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Image by Gord McLeod via FlickrI'm impressed with Final Fantasy XIII.
No, I'm VERY impressed.
FFXIII has a very different feel than I've come to expect from the franchise, which is pretty appropriate. When Final Fantasy first came to the Playstation with FF7, it changed dramatically from what came before with the introduction of 3D graphics to the series. When it appeared on the PS2 with FF10, it changed again, taking 3D graphics to new heights and adding voice work for the first time. Now FF13 streamlines the play experience in huge ways, which feel oddly subtle while totally changing the game.
For starters, there are a lot of cutscenes in this game, but while that's not unusual for the series, their length is. These are mostly pretty short scenes, and they come at you frequently.
Next, there are save points everywhere. I have played through several hours worth now, and I don't believe I have yet come up on a stretch where I went more than 15 minutes without hitting a new save spot.
Take these two features together and you've totally sold me. The rest almost doesn't even matter.
One of the big things that always drove me crazy about JRPGs, and Square's JRPGs in particular, was the insane lengths of time you could go without the ability to save. Not too long ago I gave up on Star Ocean: The Last Hope on the 360 because the console's instability  resulted in one too many crashes between far-spaced save points. I eventually ended up trading it in for the International version on the PS3, which seems much more stable and I may be able to finish it.
But it's still not high on my list of gaming priorities. It's a wonderful game, I love it and will finish it, but those 2 hour gaps where you can't save are horrific. Even without the risk of crashing, it's hard to rearrange my schedule around the game. If I'm playing at night and I hit a save point at 11:00, do I risk continuing? What if it's 1am before I find another place to save? What if I continue and find myself in a cut scene that's 20 minutes long, or 30? What if that cut scene can't be paused or skipped?
Square games have always been gorgeous and fun and moving, but there's always been an element of inconvenience. Final Fantasy 13's biggest change is the complete removal of that inconvenience.
I've barely scratched the surface of this game, but I already know I'll be finishing this one fairly fast. Star Ocean? Even Final Fantasy 12? I'll finish those as well, but when that will happen, I couldn't say.
More impressions to come as I progress...
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Mass Effect 2 Impressions

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Image by Gord McLeod via Flickr

When I finished the original Mass Effect not so very long ago, I was in awe of how grand and cinematic the game felt. Knowing then that a sequel was right around the corner, I worried how it could possibly live up to what Bioware accomplished with the first one. I shouldn't have.

Mass Effect 2 takes almost all of the fun that existed in the first game and amplifies it, while eliminating the tedium. In the process, they made quite a few interesting design choices.

The most obvious improvement is with the visuals. It actually looks like they use quite a few of the same models they used in the original game, especially for Shepard, who looks EXACTLY the way you'll remember her (or him) if you played the first. The shaders used to enhance those models are vastly improved, though; I actually gasped when I saw how good the game looks.

Mass Effect 2 plays very much like a shooter. In fact it may actually be more accurate to call it a shooter than a roleplaying game at this point. But don't let that put you off; as good as the shooter part is, they have managed to improve the cinematic quality of the dialogue even further in this installment.

The characters so far (disclosure: I haven't finished playing yet) are extremely well developed, with each getting a considerable amount of "screen time" to be fleshed out beyond generic recruits for your grand mission. Much of this screen time is optional though, a good choice on Bioware's part as not everyone will care about getting to know these people. This is their loss, as they're well worth getting to know.

I do have two complaints about the game. One of my favorite elements of Mass Effect was driving around planet surfaces. The rover you controlled was tricky to learn, but a lot of fun once mastered. It is sadly missing from Mass Effect 2, though my guess as to why is that it eliminates potential frustration at having to drive around a large area searching for minerals and other discoverables.

In Mass Effect 2, you locate minerals by scanning planet surfaces. This is a fine approach and would work well if you spaced it out between missions. I, naturally, failed to do this. COMPLETELY my own fault, and something I regret, as I now need quite a few minerals to complete various upgrade and research projects the game gives you. Unfortunately the process does get very dull when you do a lot of it at once.

Still, these are really minor quibbles with a game that in my book is an early contender for 2010's best.

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Bayonetta Micro-Impression

Bayonetta
Image via Wikipedia
I recently had the chance to pick up Sega's  Bayonetta and give it a run on the PS3. From the little I've played so far though, it seems like a fantastically polished, fast, furious and fun game. It's exactly the kind of quick combat oriented game I can throw in the machine and have some fun with for a short time, without worrying too much about how much progress I make.
From a design perspective, one feature in particular caught my eye. During load times you retain control of your character in a way that reminds me a little bit of Assassin's Creed's Matrix-like loading feature. Bayonetta takes that concept and makes it even more useful. You can practice your combos while waiting for things to load. This is very handy for a gamer like myself; I gravitate more towards role-playing games and shooters than combo-fests. When I picked the game up, I assumed I'd have to get through it with a little luck and a lot of button mashing, but this practice feature gives me some hope that I might be capable of actually learning a few of the cooler moves at some point. It also makes the load times much easier to bear, though the update that allowed the game to be partially installed to the system's hard drive results in load times that are pretty easy to handle anyway.
This post is my first experiment at shifting my game impressions from my blog to Google Buzz. Let's see how this works out!
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Impressions: Star Ocean - The Last Hope

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Image via Wikipedia

As of this writing, I'm about 30 hours into Star Ocean - The Last Hope (SO-TLH) for the XBox 360 and I'm enjoying it. I had wished, when I started writing this, that I'd be able to say I was thoroughly enjoying it, but there are a few concerns I've got that prevent me from saying that.

The Last Hope is a fantastic Square-Enix RPG, no doubt. Anyone who likes Final Fantasy style Japanese RPGs will be into this. The title comes from the core of the story, which is that humanity has been up to it's old tricks and taken warfare to such an extreme that World War III has occurred and left the Earth unable to sustain life, at least on the surface. Humanity has taken refuge under ground, but they can't remain there indefinitely. The human race's titular last hope is the search for a new world to call it's own, hopefully one they'll take care of a bit better than they did the Earth.

The characters are decent, if a little generic-seeming at the start. They do begin to come into their own as you get further into the game, which is a bit of a relief. Your primary characters are Edge Maverick and Reimi Saionji, humans from Earth's underground who are determined to find humanity's new home. They're fairly typical anime/RPG character archetypes, the idealized everyman that you can identify with comfortably while a part of you wishes you secretly wishes that you could identify with them a little more closely. This makes it easy to slip into their shoes so to speak, but also makes them feel a little bland at the outset. As the game progresses they start to come into their own a little bit more with story events tugging on their personas and moulding them into something a bit more unique.

The combat is enjoyable, resembling other Square-Enix games in the broad strokes but with some twists that are new to this title. It took me a long time to get into the game's Blindsiding system because I found it largely unnecessary, but now that I do know how to pull them off, I find I do them a lot more often. Blindsiding is a way your characters have of slipping past an enemy's defenses to strike from their "blind spot" which always results in a critical hit for much more damage than a typical hit would do.

If I had any complaint about the combat, it's the same one I have with all Square-Enix games - it's often necessary to go "grinding", or fighting endlessly for the sake of fighting to build experience up when you discover that you're not strong enough to get past a particular encounter. This is not always a bad thing. In this game in particular I've found it less irritating than I have in other games, because it has led me to exploring the various planets I can travel to in more depth, and I've completed a large number of smaller side quests as a result. These side quests make for an effective alternative to grinding, in fact, because you can earn a fair amount of experience doing them,which levels your characters up just as effectively as the fighting.

Another nice side effect of the side quests is that many of them are crafting quests. People or shops will often ask you to find or make special items for them. The game contains a vast number of resources you can acquire in various ways. You can then take these resources back to your ship's lab, where you can launch the crafting interface and create a dizzying array of items that range from weapons and armor upgrades to ship upgrades to useless bits of arts and craft that can be sold for more than the cost of the components you made them from. Like blindsides in combat, this was not something I jumped into right away, but once I did start messing around with it, it quickly became a fun passtime in it's own right - and the more combat oriented items are yet another way you can reduce the need for grinding, as they can make those extra-tough encounters a lot easier to manage.

Visually... well, it's a breathtaking game that often inspires me to just sit still and pan the camera around the world to take it in. I won't go on too much about how great the game looks, because honestly, it's not often you find A-list games these days that don't look spectacular.

I have had some problems with SO-TLH that have driven me absolutely crazy. The game seems to be unusually crash-prone. I've had more problems with crashing games on the XBox 360 than on any other console, but this game in particular crashes more than any other 360 title I've played in recent memory. I'm not sure whether this is because the game is buggy, the console lacks stability, or because  my console is one of the earlier 360 releases, but no matter the cause, it's frustrating to lose progress due to lockups.

It does say something about the compelling quality of the game that I keep going back to it though. I'm anxious to see where the story is leading; what more is going to happen with these characters? What more will they go through, fight through, endure through? It's good enough to be worth a little frustration to see where things are headed.

Overall impression: I'd rank it a bit below Final Fantasy XII or Persona 3 FES, but still definitely worth a look for fans of this style of gaming.

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