Video Game Review: Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

Tomb Raider
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3 and PC)
Genre: Action-Adventure
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal (multiplayer)
Release Date: March 5, 2013

One of my biggest pet peeves in gaming is when a game scatters dozens, sometimes hundreds, of collectibles throughout the environment in an effort to boost replay value. The Grand Theft Auto series, in particular, is notorious for this, but this is a common practice in open world games. I usually don’t bother to go back through and find these random trinkets, but I made an exception for this year’s Tomb Raider reboot.

You see, in Tomb Raider, it’s actually *fun* to explore the world it presents. A novel concept, right?

In this reboot, a young Lara Croft and a team of archaelogists/adventurers have embarked on an expedition to find the lost kingdom of Yamatai, an island off the coast of Japan. Little is known about the island, other than that it causes death and destruction for those who near it. Sure enough, upon arriving to the area, the crew’s ship crashes in the midst of a violent storm, and the group becomes stranded on the island.

As one might guess, it turns out that they aren’t alone on Yamatai. A violent cult of “Sun Queen” worshippers inhabits the island, and they don’t take kindly to visitors. As Lara navigates through the island in an attempt to find a way off of it, the cult members are there nearly every step of the way. They are a huge problem at first — especially since young Lara has never encountered such violence at this point of her life — but by the end, they become nothing more than mere nuisances.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The evolution of Lara Croft from an ambitious archaeology graduate to cold-blooded adventurer is marvelous, and quite frankly, it’s one of the biggest reasons to play this game. Not only is her transition to a hardened explorer believable, she also looks anatomically correct for once. Crystal Dynamics did an excellent job developing Miss Croft, humanizing her while showing the immense suffering she receives along the way.

The other major player in the game is the island of Yamatai itself. This is a gorgeous island full of wild life (including boars, wolves and rabbits, all of which can be hunted), and there is so much of it ready to be explored. The island is incredibly well-designed, as anyone with a sense of adventure will surely be curious enough to climb the various ledges in hopes of seeing where they lead. While the story is a fairly straight-forward affair, there are plenty of opportunities to traverse the wide-open world in order to find relics, documents and other historical items scattered about. Hell, I found myself visiting every nook and cranny of the island just for the beautiful views they might provide. Seriously, this is one gorgeous-looking game, easily one of the best from this console generation.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

As this is a tale of survival, much of the gameplay revolves around Lara doing what she needs to do to survive and get off the island. A convenient XP system allows her to “level up” by killing enemies, hunting animals and finding treasure. These experience points are in turn used to improve her current capabilities, such as adding a rope gadget to her bow, or adding extra ammunition for her guns. What’s great about this feature is that every improvement is shown on screen. If you add the rope gadget, for example, it will appear on top of the bow and remain visible while harnessed on Lara’s backside. This attention to detail is very impressive, and it only adds to the sense of realism within her character.

Also on the island are a handful of optional tombs that can be explored, and each one presents an interesting little puzzle. Some of them are real head-scratchers, but the reward at the end is always worth the trouble. Each tomb has its own chest full of goodies to help Lara, often including treasure maps that show locations of collectibles in the area.

Miss Croft also has the unique ability to use her “survival instinct” — with the quick press of a button, the environment turns gray, and any items of interest are highlighted in yellow. This is similar to Batman’s detective mode in the Arkham games or the Eagle Eye vision in Assassin’s Creed, and it comes in handy quite often. At times, it perhaps makes things too easy, but it can be avoided altogether for those who want a bigger challenge.

Tomb Raider [Xbox 360]

The single player campaign lasts anywhere from 10-15 hours, and it plays out much like an Indiana Jones movie. There are several big adventure scenes that will leave you breathless, but at the same time, there’s nothing “new” here in terms of storytelling or action setpieces. If you have played any of the Uncharted games, you will know what to expect, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tomb Raider also features a multiplayer mode, but it is merely tacked-on and mostly irrelevant. The online features were dead on arrival, as the community has dwindled rapidly, making it difficult to find matches less than a month after its release. I played online for a couple hours, enough to get a feel for the three different modes, but it did not leave a lasting impression. This has always been a series to play for the single player campaign, and this reboot is no different.

While it’s still quite early, Tomb Raider stands as one of this year’s biggest gaming highlights so far. As far as adventure games go, this is one of the better ones, and it also happens to be a technical marvel. This series received a much-needed breath of fresh air with this reboot, and I’m curious to see where Lara Croft goes next.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Sleeping Dogs
System: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC and OnLive)
Genre: Action-Adventure, Open World
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: United Front Games
Release Date: August 13, 2012

It’s too easy to dismiss Sleeping Dogs as “Grand Theft Auto set in Hong Kong”, though the similarities are certainly there. Both are open world adventures set in a world of crime, but this offering from Square Enix is strong enough to stand out on its own.

The game places you in the role of Wei Shen, an undercover cop in Hong Kong who is tasked with infiltrating the infamous Triads gang to take them down from the inside. As the game progresses, the number of crime and mob story clichés increase, but the end result is still satisfying. It’s a well-told story, especially when compared to other like-minded video games, and it is engrossing despite its reliance on familiar tropes.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

Since Wei is a highly-trained officer, he has an impressive array of skills at his disposal. Not only does he know how to handle a gun (of which there are many), but he is an expert in hand-to-hand combat. The fighting system is one area where Sleeping Dogs really shines — it’s very similar to Rocksteady’s Batman games, and it is easy to pick up and play. As Wei works through the story and completes different side missions, more fighting combos are unlocked, offering a surprisingly deep system.

Wei can also use his police abilities at various points, and these include hacking security cameras, lockpicking, and tracing cell phones. He is a man of many talents, and this leads to a diverse group of missions that send him all over the streets of Hong Kong.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

While working undercover, Wei can perform work for the Triads while also sneaking off to help on police cases. There are dozens of random side quests scattered throughout, some of which include helping pedestrians with small tasks, street racing, or even performing karaoke. Quite simply, there is a lot to do in the game, with no shortage of things to discover.

One gameplay tweak that Sleeping Dogs offers over other sandbox titles is its increased amount of checkpoints. No longer do you need to replay an entire mission if you die — there are checkpoints provided after every major event. Unfortunately, while this sounds great in theory, it’s both a blessing and a curse. It’s a relief to not have to drive halfway across the city just to restart a mission, but having so many checkpoints also lowers the difficulty quite a bit. During my 15+ hours with the game, I was rarely ever challenged. Once I got the hang of the countering system within combat, I was able to breeze through most of the missions, with nary a restart necessary. It’s a bit disappointing that the game is so easy.

Sleeping Dogs [Xbox 360]

On the flip side, one area that Sleeping Dogs absolutely nails is its presentation. A great amount of detail went into building the in-game Hong Kong, and the story is given the full Hollywood treatment, even bringing in big names for voice work, including Tom Wilkinson, Emma Stone and Lucy Liu. Perhaps most impressive is the in-game soundtrack. The score, composed by Jeff Tymoschuk (Nightfire, Everything or Nothing), is fantastic, but the radio stations are some of the best I have found in any game, period. Music buffs will love that there are stations devoted to individual record labels, including Daptone (Budos Band, Charles Bradley, Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings), Ninja Tune (Bonobo, Emika, Lorn) and Warp (Bibio, Flying Lotus, !!!).

It’s a shame that Sleeping Dogs got a bit lost in the summer of gaming, but it is a great sandbox title that deserves a good, long look. For fans of open world games, this is a must play, and it will likely be a fixture on my “best of” year-end list.

8.5/10

Video Game Review: Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

Deus Ex: Human Revolution
System: Playstation 3 (also available on Xbox 360, PC, and Mac)
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Eidos Montreal
Release Date: August 23, 2011

Talk about a mashup of genres.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution has elements of stealth games, first person shooters, sci-fi thrillers, RPGs, and tactical espionage. It is a smart and cerebral adventure, one full of conspiracies, twists and turns. Quite frankly, this is one of the most mentally stimulating titles to come out on this current generation of video game systems.

A prequel to the original highly-regarded 2000 PC title, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is set in a dystopian futuristic Detroit. To be exact, the year is 2027, and a major class divide is running rampant. On one side, there are the “Naturals”, normal humans who are against any sort of genetic body modifications. On the other side are “Augs”, humans who are augmented with mechanical implants that push the boundaries of human ability.

Caught in the middle of the escalating war between the two sides is Adam Jensen, a gruff-talking security expert for Sarif Industries, one of the largest augmentation companies in the country. After a rival company attacks Sarif’s headquarters and begins torching the place, Adam becomes gravely injured and is near death before being taken in and, unwillingly, given augmentations. These modifications save his life, and when he gets back to full strength, his boss sends him out to find those who attacked the company. What Adam uncovers goes far beyond his wildest expectations.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

As a cyberpunk-themed story, Human Revolution is incredibly well written and always intriguing. While the main quests add up to a lengthy adventure, the side quests help flesh out the story more and are oftentimes just as enthralling. Typical playthroughs will last for 20+ hours, even if optional missions are ignored.

There is just so much to see and do in the game, and it helps that the environments are so fascinating. Futuristic Detroit is dark, grimy and full of seedy characters. The city is big enough that it is possible to find new things while just wandering around, but it is scaled to the point where it’s easy to walk from point A to point B without there being lengthy gaps between action. It’s amazing how well-crafted the game’s settings are.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect (and possibly biggest selling point) of Human Revolution is the fact that you can play it any way you want to. While the game prides itself on its stealth capabilities, you don’t have to sneak around. You can go in guns-a-blazin’ and shoot up everyone you see if that’s how you would rather play the game. Adam’s augmentation system allows you to build up his capabilities to suit your style, and upgrades can be earned by gaining experience and finding relevant items scattered throughout the city. While Adam starts off with fairly meager augmentations, he will be spectacularly built up by the end of the game, provided you allow him to be.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

In my first playthrough, I opted to do a hybrid of stealth and action gameplay. Both styles were a blast to mess around with, and it was easy to switch between the two. Sneaking around was perhaps most fun, which is a bit of a surprise to me since I usually prefer intense action sequences. There’s something to be said about crawling to a side of the room, staying in cover, waiting for an enemy to turn away, then taking him down with a quick knockout punch, all while surrounding enemies are oblivious. I also loved exploring areas to find ventilation shafts, which in turn would take me to previously inaccessible areas.

Exploration is a large part of the game, especially if you want to really dig into the story. Scattered throughout the environment are eBooks, “personal secretary” notes, and private emails, all of which add to the overall story when read. Considering the sheer amount of detail that went into the plot, it’s worth finding as much as you can (especially when you stumble upon some of the many humorous Easter Eggs).

Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Playstation 3, 2011]

One of the most efficient ways of obtaining information is via hacking. This is done through a mini-game that is confusing at first, but easy to get the hang of after a few tries. Basically the idea is to navigate through a series of nodes in order to reach the end target while trying to get it done as fast as possible in order to avoid setting off alarms. This is exciting in its own way, as it is always a race against the clock. As a bonus, there are hacking augmentations that can be used to make things a bit easier if you are having problems.

Flaws are few and far in between. The most glaring issue is one that will only affect those wishing to play the entire game without killing anyone — a handful of boss fights interrupt the game’s flow and can cause great difficulty for those armed with nothing more than a tranquilizer gun and some health packs. I found these battles to be a challenging change of pace for my style of gameplay, but this can certainly be a problem for those going all ninja-like.

Also, while enemy AI is generally rather sharp, there are occasions where adversaries get hung up in certain areas, allowing themselves to be casually picked off one by one. These moments are not that common, however, and do not hinder the overall combat experience.

Visually, Human Revolution succeeds in delivering a gritty and unique cyberpunk-style environment. Character models are well-designed, and animations are generally pretty solid outside of occasional awkward clipping (such as when attempting to drag bodies to another location). The aural experience is nothing short of phenomenal. The game’s soundtrack is hauntingly beautiful, a perfect fit for game’s setting. The voice acting is of the utmost quality, with Adam Jensen’s surly Clint Eastwood/Keanu Reeves imitation leading the way.

In short, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is one of the better single-player experiences you will find today. Sci-fi aficionados will love the story, shooter fans will dig the impressive amount of weapons and slick combat action, and RPG lovers will enjoy crafting Jensen in their own image. There really is something for everyone here, although the game’s slow pace may take some getting used to. Kudos, Square Enix, for delivering such a deep adventure that makes the player really feel like THEY are in control.

9/10

Video Game Review: Just Cause 2 [Xbox 360, 2010]

Just Cause 2 [Xbox 360]

Just Cause 2
System: Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
Developer: Avalanche Studios
Release Date: March 23, 2010

Just Cause 2’s appeal lies in one simple concept: blowing shit up. Given an entire massive island as your playground, the possibilities to wreak havoc are endless. Want to hijack that helicopter flying above you? Go ahead and use your grappling hook to attach yourself to it, then throw out the pilot and take control. Bored of flying that helicopter? Jump out of it and use your parachute to safely get back to ground level, then watch the copter explode upon impact. Want to see more stuff explode? Head to one of the hundreds of locations scattered throughout the island and start shooting everything in sight — fuel tanks warrant the biggest explosions. Seriously, this game is a pyromaniac’s wet dream.

I played the first Just Cause a couple years ago, and it was underwhelming. The original promised a gigantic island to run around in, and it delivered in that aspect, but everything else was just dull and the Xbox 360 version did little to differentiate itself from its Xbox/PS2 brethren. Just Cause 2 is one of those elusive sequels that truly improves upon its predecessor in every single way. The island is even bigger, the graphics are vastly improved, and the game is just more fun in general. It’s still not perfect, but it is more enjoyable.

The game has a story mode that is beyond cheesy, and apparently that’s what the developers were going for. You play as Rico Rodriguez, a field agent for “The Agency” who is sent to the war torn island of Panau to overthrow its newest dictator. In order to do so, Rico aids a number of criminal factions in the area and causes destruction to anything he can see. The story limps along via cut scenes that showcase some of the most over-the-top and downright terrible voice acting that I have ever heard in a video game. It’s obvious that the game doesn’t take itself seriously, for better or for worse.

While you have the ability to progress through the main story missions, the most fun is had just exploring the ridiculously large island and finding more stuff to explode. This is one of the biggest open world games ever made, and it is nearly impossible to run out of things to do. The replay value is extremely high since you are given the ability to try to 100% all 368 locations, max out your weapons, perform street races, and do a plethora of side missions.

There are a few problems that hamper the experience, however. I can’t help but feel the game could have been more polished overall. The gun targeting system is floaty and does not feel right at all. There are occasions when controlling Rico in general feels awkward, although that is a minor problem. Ammunition is scarce in the early portions of the game, and it’s not until you upgrade your weapons that the ammo does not become as much of an issue. Also, the game does get repetitive after a while. I love to blow shit up just as much as the next guy, but a little more variety would have been nice.

In short, Just Cause 2 is a big improvement over the original game, and it offers a hell of a lot of things to do. Although it has a handful of flaws that hold it back from greatness, JC2 is still a fun sandbox adventure game that is worth looking into. Just don’t expect a particularly deep experience.

7/10

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)