Video Game Review: Wipeout HD [Playstation 3, 2008]

Wipeout HD [Playstation 3, 2008]

Wipeout HD
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEE
Developer: SCE Studio Liverpool
Release Date: September 25, 2008

Slick visuals, a pounding techno soundtrack, fast-paced racing gameplay. Wipeout HD has everything I love in a racing title, and I am shocked that it took me this long to check it out. Kudos to Sony for making this a part of their Welcome Back package a couple months ago.

I have never played a Wipeout title before, so this is all new to me. Those who have played the PSP titles, Wipeout Pure and Wipeout Pulse, will feel right at home here, however, since eight of their combined tracks have been remade for HD. The lack of original content may irk series veterans, but it’s pure bliss for a newbie like me.

Wipeout HD [Playstation 3, 2008]

In Wipeout HD, you pilot an anti-gravity craft through a variety of different races. Some are simple — i.e. regular lap races and time trials — but others are unique, such as the trippy-as-fuck Zone mode. The Zone mode is unlike anything I have ever experienced in a racing game. In this, you are racing alone on a track that keeps pushing you forward faster and faster until you are at breakneck speeds. The kicker is that the environment’s colors frequently change into a vibrant array of neon imagery that make it feel as if you are racing through an out-of-control acid trip. Seriously, it’s insane.

The game’s campaign mode throws all of these different types of races at you via eight different “levels”. The races start off easy enough, but they get increasingly more difficult the deeper you go. Around the halfway mark, there is a noticeable raise in difficulty, and it can become a challenge to even earn a bronze model at that point. Still, the races are quick and very, very fun, so even those who are easily frustrated will keep pushing forward.

Not enough can be said about Wipeout HD’s presentation. The game’s 1080p and 60 frames-per-second visuals are absolutely stunning, and the in-game racing is as smooth as can be. Quite frankly, this is amazing for a downloadable title. The techno soundtrack fits the gameplay perfectly, complete with tracks from some of my personal favorites such as Booka Shade and Mason.

Wipeout HD [Playstation 3, 2008]

As if Wipeout HD wasn’t amazing enough in its own regard, Sony included the Fury add-on pack in the Welcome Back package. Fury adds eight new tracks, 13 new ship models and three new game modes, all of which essentially double the single player content. Incredible.

I am smitten with Wipeout HD. This is exactly the kind of arcade racer that I enjoy, and I haven’t played such a game that brings everything together the way this does. If you missed out on getting it for free, rest assured that the bundle is still a steal at its $24.99 price tag. Brace yourself for a wild ride.

9/10

Video Game Review: Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Grand Theft Auto IV
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar North
Release Date: April 29, 2008

In a series rife with over-the-top entries such as Vice City and San Andreas, Grand Theft Auto IV takes things in a new direction: gritty realism. This time around you play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant who has arrived in Liberty City in pursuit of the American Dream (and I’m not talking about Dusty Rhodes). Upon arriving, he gets caught up in the criminal lifestyle found in other GTA games, eventually racking up countless murders and other violent crimes. Along the way, he meets a colorful cast of characters (some brilliant, some annoying) who help push the story along by providing new missions.

The core sandbox gameplay found in previous titles is largely the same, but everything is more realistic, beginning with the driving controls. A lot of people were instantly turned off to the game due to its vehicle handling, which is drastically different from years past. Cars are a little more difficult to handle, at least at first, and it’s a little too easy to lose control while traveling at high speeds. The learning curve will bother some gamers, but I found the controls to be satisfactory as I grew more comfortable with them.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Another aspect that tries to make the game more “real” is the heavy reliance on Niko’s cell phone. People are always calling Niko. If they aren’t telling him about new missions, they are wanting to hang out and go bowling, play pool or go get some drinks. Going out with friends is, unfortunately, a necessity if you are looking to do everything the game has to offer. This means that in between missions you will often have to call some friends (or potential girlfriends), pick them up, go out and do something, then drop them back off. While hanging out to sustain relationships is realistic, it’s more of a nuisance than anything in video game form.

The game’s main missions are pretty much what you would expect — meet with someone, drive to a location, kill some people, outrun the cops and then pick up your reward. This is the basic formula that encompasses the majority of the missions, although every now and then there is something unique to liven things up. My personal favorite involves participating in a bank heist gone bad and then having to shoot your way out; it reminded me a lot of the Michael Mann classic, Heat. While there is some redundancy involved, the occasional spurts of different tasks keeps the game fresh.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Unfortunately, the game’s mission checkpoint system still feels like it is in the stone age. This is a major issue for me, as it can be unbearably frustrating to start a mission, drive all the way across the city, complete a task or two and then end up dying before completion. If you die or get arrested, you are screwed. You can’t restart at the point you died; instead, you have to start the entire mission all over again. Times have changed, Rockstar. This shit does not fly anymore.

Another thing that can be grating is the clunky combat/shooting system. While certainly improved over past entries in the series, GTA IV’s combat still does not feel natural. The new cover system is a good idea in theory, but sometimes it can be difficult to actually get into cover and remain there. This can lead to being left prone for enemy fire. The new targeting system is improved, but again, it still leaves something to be desired. The appropriate steps have been taken, but Rockstar just isn’t quite there yet.

Grand Theft Auto IV [Xbox 360, 2008]

Really, even though all of these gripes are perfectly justifiable, Grand Theft Auto IV is an impressive video game, hands down. It’s not perfect, but I have never played a game that has created such a massive, living and breathing city like Liberty City. There is just so much to do, and you can play the game to your liking. Liberty City feels like the sadistic little brother of New York City, with its own distinct areas modeled after real life locales. Quite frankly, the game’s world is beautiful in its own dark and grimy way. The graphics are slick, and even breathtaking at times (I love driving on the bridge with the skyline in the background). The soundtrack is as great as ever, and even the hilarious satire news stations are back.

Grand Theft Auto IV is a major technical achievement in the video game industry, and it really is something to behold. Even with its flaws, GTA IV is a great experience that is worthy of the many, many hours that so many gamers have invested in it.

8/10

Video Game Review: LittleBigPlanet [Playstation 3, 2008]

LittleBigPlanet [Playstation 3, 2008]

LittleBigPlanet
System: Playstation 3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Media Molecule
Release Date: October 27, 2008

Never before have I played a game that provides so many customization options and thrives almost entirely because of user-generated content.

LittleBigPlanet is a side-scrolling platformer that comes with eight themed worlds of pre-made levels, as well as a handful of unlockable mini-games. You control Sackboy (or Sackgirl/Sackperson, depending on your gender), a charming rag doll that can be decorated in any way imaginable. This is a common theme because nearly everything in the game can be edited. The ultimate goal in each level is to go from beginning to end, racking up points and finding sticker bubbles that can be used for further customization. All of the levels can be played with 1-4 players, both online and offline.

Although many of the game’s provided levels are imaginative and full of life, the platforming aspects aren’t really anything new. Sackboy only has three functions: running, jumping and using the action button (to grab onto objects, hit switches, etc.). The game uses three levels of depth on the 2D plane, meaning Sackboy can move from the foreground, middle and background while moving from left to right. While this is an interesting dynamic to basic platforming, the controls are a tad too touchy and therefore cause unnecessary problems with perception. There were many times when I would attempt to jump onto an object, only to have Sackboy go off to another plane and miss the jump altogether. I appreciate the depth provided by this feature, but it could have really been more polished.
LittleBigPlanet
LittleBigPlanet excels for one reason: its creative community. The game provides the option to create your own levels with a surprisingly in-depth yet easy-to-use system. Gamers have really taken this option and ran with it, as the online community has thousands of uploaded levels, many of which are absolutely brilliant. Some people have made truly innovative worlds of varying themes and difficulties. There are also countless fan-made homages and tributes to other games, everything from Super Mario to Dead Space to Fatal Frame. You name it, there is probably some sort of LittleBigPlanet version online. Seriously, this is where the game becomes worth its cost.

Don’t let LittleBigPlanet’s “cutesy” look deter you from giving it a shot. The “Play, Create, Share” idea works out very, very well here. Even though the platforming gameplay isn’t all that original, the sheer amount of customization and community output puts this on a whole ‘nother level. With more polished controls, I would be an even bigger fan of the game. I didn’t spend too much time creating levels simply because I prefer to play them instead, but if that’s your thing then feel free to bump up my rating even higher. I am eager to play LBP2 to see how much the sequel improved upon the original’s ideas.

LittleBigPlanet is very cheap these days, and if you have the option then make sure to pick up the Game of the Year Edition. This comes with additional levels (including an awesome series of Metal Gear Solid missions) and some clothing packs for Sackboy.

8/10


Star Ocean: First Departure [PSP, 2008]

Star Ocean: First Departure [PSP, 2008]

Star Ocean: First Departure
System: PSP
Publisher: Square Enix
Release Date: October 21, 2008

One of my favorite role-playing games from my “youth” was Star Ocean: The Second Story for the Playstation. I put countless hours into that game, exploring alternate storylines, recruiting different characters and so on. That was my first foray into the SO franchise, and naturally I was incredibly curious about the elusive first Star Ocean game that was made for the SNES but never released in the USA. This Japanese-only game finally got released in the U.S. just two years ago, this time in PSP form and with a number of major changes.

The first thing I noticed right away was First Departure’s striking similarity to the PSX game I knew and loved. The game looks absolutely identical to its sequel, with the same style of character models and pre-rendered backgrounds (which are admittedly gorgeous). The battle system is also the same as SO2, and it is free-roaming real-time combat still holds up quite well. A lot of the same extra features are also here, such as an extensive item creation and customization system, and the ability to perform “private actions” to allow your party’s characters to interact with each other individually. The most notable upgrade is the usage of anime cutscenes, which are beautiful and give the game an extra bit of flair.

The story this time around is fairly basic and leaves something to be desired. You play as Roddick, a young village guard who is searching for a cure for a stone paralysis plague that is crippling the country. Roddick meets two Earthlings who suddenly appeared on this planet, and they decide to go back in time to find the cure. Basic stuff to be sure, but the gameplay is proficient enough to keep you playing even when the story lacks.

While the game offers some great variety in the form of its many optional bonus features (i.e. the aforementioned item customization, private actions, etc), it does have a handful of disappointing flaws. For one, navigating on the world map is painfully slow and boring. This becomes an exceptionally large problem when forced to backtrack to other worlds, which is a common occurrence during the game’s later stages. Another issue is the obnoxious voice acting during random battles where the characters yell the same things over and over again. Finally, while I found the degree of difficulty to be satisfactory, it could be potentially dismissed as “too easy” to some gamers.

There is a lot to like with Star Ocean: First Departure despite these few issues. I am exceptionally grateful that I even got the chance to play this game since I never believed it would be available for U.S. gamers. Basically, it comes down to this: if you played Star Ocean 2 and enjoyed it then you really ought to seek out First Departure. If you are just a fan of RPGs in general and are not going to readily dismiss a title just because of its age, then I do not hesitate to recommend Star Ocean. This is a good game, not a great one, but it packs enough of a punch to justify playing it for 20 hours.

7/10

Star Ocean: First Departure (screenshot)