Intermission

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Getting tired of the semi-hiatus here at Retro(spective)? (All five of you, I mean). Me, too! I did warn everyone though, so I’m not losing too much sleep over it, but still, nothing worse than dead air. What can I say, school has been a beast lately, Nintendojo (which you all should be reading) always has something percolating, and well, I can’t write about games if I don’t play them! Summer approaches, though, so expect things to start getting livelier as we move deeper into June.

Mario Kart 8 will be getting the old review treatment, and expect the same for Tomodachi Life, too. Beyond that, E3 is going to be huge. What I don’t post for Nintendojo will be here, so look forward to hands-on time with whatever amazingness lies in wait for this year’s show. I’d also like to point out, Retro(spective)’s one year anniversary is also fast approaching! Maybe I’ll… give something away in celebration! Exciting times await, dear readers! I hope you’ll all be along for the ride.

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REVIEW-Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

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Konami has given the world an answer to the question of whether or not a game can get away with only being a handful of hours and not be considered a demo. That answer is yes, but with reservations, as there’s no denying that the brevity of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is pushing it. I cleared my first rough playthrough in about an hour and a half, give or take fifteen minutes. In that time, I got to know a new voice for Snake, familiar yet different controls, and one of the grittiest bits of narrative I’ve yet seen in a Metal Gear Solid game. Despite Ground Zeroes‘ diminutive size, it signals a true evolution of the series that has made me genuinely excited for The Phantom Pain.

The entire campaign is confined to a small military facility where Paz and Chico, from PSP’s excellent Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, are being held hostage. Snake is on a mission to infiltrate the facility and rescue the duo without alerting their captors to his presence. It’s not unfamiliar territory for MGS, but there’s no denying that, tonally, Ground Zeroes is a different beast than normal. The opening cinema is typically vague, as Kojima is wont to be with the series, but there’s a sinister feeling to the proceedings that surprised me. Traditionally, MGS games are almost bombastically over the top, despite the series’ serious and intricate plots, but Ground Zeroes never felt very tongue in cheek. I thought it was a welcome change and integral to heralding this as a new approach to the franchise.

Not that Ground Zeroes is completely foreign. The mystery baddie leading the enigmatic XOF strike force goes by the name Skull Face, so there remains some of the absurdity that fans have come to love (and always seems to work). Kojima is now venturing into his second MGS game in a row focused on Big Boss, but with several titles already released detailing the character’s exploits, new players might be a bit lost going into Ground Zeroes. There is a recap to help get folks familiarized, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that you’re best off having played Big Boss’s games up to now. Of course, the buzz surrounding Ground Zeroes is centered squarely on the game’s ending, which I won’t spoil here. I will say that how gratuitous it is depends on your own sensibilities. I’ve certainly seen more controversial things in movies or TV shows, but it is gruesome and might be a bit much for some of you out there. I personally think that Kojima handled the ending well, and it has me completely on the edge of my seat for what comes next.

Skull Face

Graphically, Ground Zeroes is easily one of the best looking games on PS3 and 360, despite some drops in framerate that I experienced. The lighting has to be seen to believed, movement animations are smooth, and the sound was crisp and clean. MGS games have always pushed the limits of whatever hardware they’ve graced, but like the plot itself, Ground Zeroes seems to be vying for something more realistic than before. Snake’s weathered face has never looked more expressive, and the facility felt like a living, breathing compound plucked right from reality. Kojima and company took their time crafting the new Fox Engine powering this game’s visuals, and we’re reaping the benefits.

Ground Zeroes maintains the series’ signature third-person gameplay, but its been evolved and fine-tuned beyond even Peace Walker‘s excellent control setup. Sneaking and shooting felt precise and fluid. Swapping weapons was also snappy and convenient, and despite some tweaks to what many fans are accustomed to, becomes familiar after just a few moments of playing. Creeping around the facility was a genuine test of patience and skill, and ramps up considerably when played on higher difficulty levels. I was especially impressed by the guard AI, as they felt more like observant foes than bots with a limited conical field of vision. There’s a decent amount of things to do unlocking new missions and scouring every inch of the facility, so those worried that the game will be over in the blink of an eye can rest easy. Understanding Ground Zeroes is simply a preview of what’s to come makes it a much better time, all around.

I haven’t forgotten that I said Konami succeeded with reservations, and for me they stemmed mainly from the new voice of Snake. For those not in the know, Keifer Sutherland has replaced David Hayter, and yes, it’s as jarring as one might expect. Snake just didn’t sound right without Hayter’s voice, and it honestly detached me from the experience, at times. I will say that there’s absolutely nothing funadmentally flawed with Sutherland’s performance; in fact, he really doesn’t speak a whole lot for the duration. What’s there is suitably gruff and weathered, though, and matches the spirit of Snake as longtime players know him. In the end, I have hope that the switch has the potential to benefit MGS, because if the series is going to be more serious and realistic, a new voice for Snake is a solid (heh) way of signaling that to fans. If anyone’s up to the task, Sutherland is the actor.

Beyond the voice acting, I was let down that the core campaign ended as quickly as it did, even with the extra missions to play. While well-crafted and compelling, I couldn’t help but think that maybe Kojima didn’t quite have his plan for Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain firmly in place before pulling the trigger on releasing them as separate experiences. What’s here is immensely playable and fun, though, so I have no problems recommending anyone interested in stealth games or MGS go out and pick up a copy. I have yet to snag a PS4 or One, so be aware that my review is based on the PS3 and 360 versions of the game. Anyone still rocking last gen owes it to themselves to try out Ground Zeroes!

Score: 8.5/10

+ New direction for the series has promise; grittier and more realistic than ever; graphics are excellent; gameplay refined and better than ever; enemy AI almost creepily human-like.

-Too short, even playing all the extra missions; Keifer Sutherland as Snake is going to take some getting used to; minor graphical stuttering; ending is well handled, but might upset some fans as being overkill.

Building a Better Final Fantasy Game

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Lightning Returns, the third and final (a pun!) installment of the Final Fantasy XIII epic, has been met with mixed reactions to say the least. It’s really quite interesting to think how the once unflappable franchise is now a great, big question mark in the eyes of its fans. It’s not that FF is a bad series, these days, but it certainly feels like a misguided one. Let’s figure out how to get Square’s flagship franchise back in fighting form!

No More Project Runway

Why Square decided that all of its characters need to look like they stepped off of a fashion runway is confusing, to say the least. Simplicity is king, and it’s been years since any FF game has featured a cast that wasn’t garishly outlandish looking. As mimicked as Final Fantasy VII‘s cast might have become over the years, there’s no denying how iconic and clean their designs remain to this day. XIII was a step in the right direction, but its subsequent sequels strayed back into the realm of hyper-weirdness. Future installments would do well to take a more balanced approach to character design.

Focus the Narrative

Some of the most poignant narratives ever committed to pixels and polygons come from Final Fantasy games. Sadly, we’re far removed from the days when the death of Aerith shocked fans to a standstill. Where Square once dominated in terms of storytelling and building character relationships, FF has become more about spectacle and grandiose exposition. While the cinematics in recent years have become more and more stunning, there’s just not enough substance behind them to really suck players in. Let’s get back to the more heartfelt tales of FF’s past.

Shouldn’t Take a Textbook

I really don’t think it’s farfetched to say that the more recent FF games can be incredibly mentally taxing just trying to figure out how all the different battle and upgrade systems work. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun with the paradigms in the FFXIII trilogy, but there’s no ignoring that the accessibility of the series has taken a huge blow over the years. The tutorials can be useful, but too often it feels like the screen is a jumble of boxes and numbers that’s more convoluted than it needs to be. I suggest simplifying things with a little bit of reservation, because I know that many fans have a lot of fun learning the ins and outs of each game’s unique quirks and nuances. Regardless, a little streamlining wouldn’t hurt, and can be done so as not to alienate longtime fans.

FF XV is supposedly deep into development, so hopefully it won’t be long before we learn whether or not Square has learned from its mistakes. Perhaps more than anything else I listed above, Square can make FF supreme again by not being so hung up on its past. FF used to be all about marching boldly into the future, not slavishly trying to replicate what came before. If XV can be half as brave and creative as the best FF games, hopefully Square will be able to restore everyone’s faith in the brand.

Speculative Ops

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I decided I’m going to give Spec Ops: The Line a try on my PS3 this week. Sort of left field, I guess, but during IGN’s spate of personal “top ten” lists a couple weeks ago, one of the editors listed Spec Ops and it got me intrigued. It was an interesting look into the game, bereft of the usual grandstanding found in a review. Just a person talking about a video game that had a personal impact on them.

I remember when Spec Ops came out, a big controversy that sprang from it was how online multiplayer was shoehorned in against the developers’ wishes. Lead designer Cory Davis went so far as to decry the addition as a “cancerous growth”. Ouch. Honest, though, which is something that just about any medium of entertainment could stand to see a little bit more of, these days.

In this maddening “me too” era of desperate Call of Duty wannabes, Spec Ops was a victim of not being ambitious enough in terms of head shots and leaderboards. Where Spec Ops did push the envelope was its brutal narrative. It’s disappointing that any developer should try to say something more in a shooter and be ignored, and worse still that the message be buried by its own publisher. Of course, if the game isn’t fun, I guess there’s no point in defending Spec Ops as much as I am, but I think the principle here is more important than the gameplay.

Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s important (paramount, even) that a game is as playable as it is inventive or trend setting. Going in a different direction for a moment, given Spec Ops storyline, and its overall message about the permanence and consequences of a soldier’s actions in battle, it’s tough to determine how much fun a player was even supposed to be having. The mechanics of a video game are supposed to impart some sort of satisfaction, after all, so if Spec Ops wants the player to feel every shot, it seems contradictory to make shooting fun.

Games like Modern Warfare 2 found a decent balance between engaging gameplay and communicating a deeper message. The “No Russian” mission was very hot-button when the game launched, but having played it myself, I thought it was a potent and surreal moment of gameplay. Suddenly, all the fun I’d been having taking out enemy troops was replaced with feelings of guilt as the crowd of innocent people and cops crumpled before my eyes. It was a small part of MW2, as opposed to an entire campaign like Spec Ops, but it demonstrates how the message can be communicated if done right.

So, Spec Ops, here I come, and whether you rock or suck, I hope that more devs can take a page from your playbook and try something different. Shooters should be able to do something more than amass a digital body count, after all. Video games in general should be able to play against stereotype more often than they do, too.

Building a Better Uncharted Game

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The Uncharted series is often praised for its pleasing mixture of cinematics and gameplay. Players spend half their time engaging in traditional third-person shooting and exploring, while the remainder of the game is devoted to taut storytelling and impeccable voice acting. Yet, despite continued accolades and huge sales, there are things about Uncharted that could be tweaked to make it an even better experience, though few those tweaks might be. Here’s how Naughty Dog can take Nathan Drake’s next adventure to the max!

Less Killing

A reviewer of Uncharted 3 pointed out how they had wished, during the course of the game, that they could have spent a little less time shooting and more time exploring and experiencing the story. It’s become evident over the course of four Uncharted games that the titles are hampered by an unnecessary fixation on gunplay and ridiculous amounts of dead bodies piling up.

I get that there are parallels between Uncharted and films like Indiana Jones, including how Harrison Ford racks up a decent body count of his own, but Nathan Drake’s exploits could fill a crematorium through sheer volume. When there’s such an emphasis on narrative as there is in the Uncharted games, it makes little sense to have Drake take down waves of baddies when it ultimately doesn’t enhance gameplay and distracts from the story. I say less shooting for the next Uncharted so as to make the times when you are in a gunfight more meaningful.

Don’t Be Such a Crook

I had some trouble getting into the story when I played Uncharted 2 because at times I just didn’t feel sorry for Drake. This issue is acknowledged within Uncharted 3‘s narrative, but when Drake is just a straight-up crook, it makes it hard to root for him. Of course, I know that’s sort of the point with Uncharted; Drake and Sully aren’t necessarily the good guys. They live in a dark world and make some shady choices. Unfortunately, Uncharted’s unique take on the concept of the protagonist in a video game makes that a tough pill to swallow.

Like The Last of Us, the purpose of the protagonist in the Uncharted series is to be a character and not a projection of the player. This is part of the reason the narratives that Naughty Dog puts together are so entertaining and compelling, as the traditional emotional cipher of so many other games is replaced with a genuine person. The only problem is that in The Last of Us, Joel’s choices are distinctly framed by what he believes to be right; as a result, no matter how horrifying some of his actions might be, it’s reasonable to want to root for Joel anyway. With Nathan, it can be a little tough, because the particular shade of gray he exists in can often be too unflattering.

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Being an antihero is fine, and exploring a morally ambiguous protagonist in a video game isn’t unheard of, but Uncharted can sometimes simultaneously portray Drake as likable and irredeemable, which is frustrating. It’s unrealistic to expect a player to cheer for Drake when he’s done something out of pure greed and is killing a bunch of people for selfish reasons and nothing more. In fairness to Naughty Dog, the studio does try to stymy this feeling when Drake’s targets are revealed to be the worst of the worst, as it facilitates sympathy that otherwise wouldn’t exist when he goes at them. That said, as a narrative device it can appear lazy when Drake is being blatantly bad, but conveniently is shown as not being as bad as the guy he’s about to blow away.

If Naughty Dog wants to give Drake that classic, charming scoundrel type of personality, it has to be tempered with less acts that come across as totally unheroic. If the intent is to shine the spotlight on Drake being a bad guy, then keep the presentation more even. Drake’s got plenty of personality, Sony; now just make sure it’s a consistent one.

Arkham Uncharted

I think that hand-to-hand combat in the series has gotten better with each installment of Uncharted, but there’s plenty of room to grow. First off, going back to the idea of not killing everyone that crosses his path, Drake’s fisticuffs should get pushed into more a combo and counter system like the Arkham series of games in order to put gunfights on the backburner. Uncharted 3 played with this to a certain extent, but the results could have been better. Button prompts for blocking mixed with the satisfying beatdowns Drake is known for would be a great addition to make the games less dependent on gunplay. With that said, Drake also doesn’t need to snap necks or start strangling every time he sneaks up on a baddie. Deepen the fighting and make shooting less of the go-to during gameplay and encounters will become that much richer.

The Uncharted games border on perfection each time out, but making these adjustments could push them that much further. Tone down the senseless slaughter, make hand-to-hand combat more satisfying so that gunfights aren’t the focus of every battle, and provide Drake with something a little more meaningful to compel him to action, and suddenly The Last of Us has company at the top. Here’s hoping Naughty Dog can bring Uncharted to PS4 better than ever.

Toy Box 9-de Blob 2 Figurine

I have a soft spot for THQ’s de Blob series. The characters are cute, the gameplay is fun, and both games have great soundtracks. There are a number of these de Blob figurines in a variety of colors, including ones of the bad guys! Some sell very cheap, and can even be found in the occasional Toys R Us. Once these things sell through, though, don’t expect to find more. With THQ defunct and de Blob’s future a giant question mark, these figurines are one of the last tangible connections to the series you’ll be able to find!

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Retro(spective) is back in action, folks. Catch you all next week with another installment of Toy Box. Hmm, number ten… perhaps something special is in the works? Bet on it!

Is The Sonic Cycle More Myth Than Fact?

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The Sonic Cycle, as illustrated above, is a circle of pain and anguish in which loyal Sonic fans anticipate a new game, get worrying glimpses of it in previews, then play it and are horribly disappointed. With IGN’s reviews of Sonic Lost World on Wii U ( which described the game as a “big blue speed bump”) and 3DS garnering scores of 5.8 and 6.8, it seemed that the Sonic Cycle was in full swing yet again. Or was it? There’s no denying that some low-quality Sonic games are out in the wild, but there have been more hits than misses in recent years than most videogame journalists care to acknowledge. It’s time to peel the curtain back and reveal some of Sonic’s best games in recent history!

1) Sonic Colors (Wii/DS, 2010)

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This Nintendo-exclusive title is a true triumph of Sonic Team, with beautiful production values and intense gameplay. Unlike many of Sonic’s 3D outings, Colors eschewed an unnecessary play control gimmick in favor of unadulterated Sonic speed and action. While the development team did slip in color-themed powerups, they’re largely enjoyable to use and aren’t always required to proceed through a level.

For the DS version, SEGA opted to keep Colors a 2D adventure, which was a wise choice, as it played to the strengths of the handheld. Developer Dimps (who you’ll hear more about in a bit) was known for making excellent, traditional Sonic games and maintained that reputation with this fun, albeit short, take on Colors. The powerups carried over to this version, too, but like the Wii’s Colors, they’re generally fun to use and not always required to progress.

2) Sonic Generations (XBox 360/PS3/3DS, 2011)

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SEGA followed-up Colors with another gem for Microsoft and Sony’s consoles with Sonic Generations. Like Colors, Generations also abandoned a play control gimmick in favor of focusing on pure running/platforming, but rather then use powerups to spice things up, they split hero duties between modern and classic Sonic, instead. Half the game features 3D gameplay, with the other 2D, and is set in multiple stages based on Sonic’s classic outings from the Genesis all the way up to the present (well, then-present). It was a treat to see Green Hill Zone in blistering HD, and even modern classics like City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 made an appearance.

For the 3DS iteration of Generations, SEGA again turned to Dimps but focused only on 2D gameplay, with a twist. The duo of modern and classic Sonic was maintained, but the former had his homing ability in tow while the latter speed dashed across the screen. Some of the joy of the console versions was lost in removing the 3D segments, but the handheld take on Generations is still a great Sonic game worth experiencing.

3) Sonic 4: Episode I (Wii/PS3/360/Mobile, 2010) & II (360/PS3/Mobile, 2012)

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SEGA’s revitalization of the original Genesis numbering was a smart move, as it declared quite clearly their intent to return classic, 2D Sonic platforming to home consoles (and even cellphones!). Both installments were a blast, with lush graphics and solid controls. Some complain that Sonic’s jumps don’t feel like they did on Genesis, but it’s not such a glaring difference that it detracts from an excellent experience. Oh, yeah, and Metal Sonic. He alone is worth the price of admission! Just to note, the mobile versions are good, but there’s no substitute for a physical controller, so make your purchases accordingly.

4) Sonic Rush (DS, 2005) & Sonic Rush Adventure (DS, 2007)

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Dimps has long been a stalwart Sonic developer for awhile now, and they’re crowning achievements remain the awesome DS 2D Sonic games. The Rush titles feature pure, classic Sonic gameplay, but the emphasis is on speed more than platforming. The resultant adrenaline rush (a pun!) from sending Sonic blazing across the two screens of the DS is a sight to behold. There’s also a new sense of verticality to the levels in the DS games, as both screens are utilized simultaneously. Rush Adventure is the weaker of the two titles as it, unfortunately, has some awkward 3D segments crammed in, but they’re brief and shouldn’t deter you from checking out both.

5) Sonic Dash (iOS, 2013)

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Temple Run might have been first, but Sonic’s turn as an endless-runner is as fun as it natural. The graphics are crisp, the controls are precise, and the genre is really just an excellent match for Sonic on mobile. That’s not to say 2D Sonic platforming can’t be done on a tablet or phone (see Episodes I & II above), but the lack of buttons makes Dash‘s control scheme much more tenable and enjoyable on the go. Definitely a nice way to pass some time on your commute, or just to blow off some steam at home.

Sonic Lost World might have disappointed some (and I’ll be letting you know how I feel about the 3DS and Wii U versions myself, soon), but there are plenty of good Sonic games out there if one knows where to look. Give these titles a try and see why Sonic has been such a beloved character for all these years. One last thing; they’re older and a little harder to come by, but the Sonic Advance series is also a wonderful take on classic, 2D Sonic platforming. If you have a DS Lite or Game Boy Advance, all three games are well worth your time!