Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sonic Generations Demo Impressions

At this point, a lot of people would agree that 2010 was, at the very least, a better year than we’ve come to expect from Sonic. Sure, there was Free Riders and the TERRIBLY done XBLA/PSN port of Sonic Adventure, and due to its (often seen as negative) deviations from the Genesis games to which it is touted a sequel – and I’m not just talking about GREEN EYES – Sonic 4: Episode I has earned a reputation as a very love it or hate it game – quite unfortunate for the first part of a game that is meant to be Sonic’s opus, but given Sonic’s track record on consoles throughout the latter half of the 2000s, it’s honestly (and sadly) somewhat respectable. But then we have Sonic Colors, which rocked both of Nintendo’s current systems last Christmas, and while it didn’t satisfy absolutely everyone, I personally thought it was awesome, and it’s the first 3-D Sonic game since the Dreamcast version of Sonic Adventure 2 to secure a position in the green on Metacritic. Heck, it even got an 8.5/10 from IGN. Let that sink in. A 3-D Sonic game got a great review from IGN.

Unfortunately, gamers and the gaming press at large tend to ignore this fact, as demonstrated by this Kotaku article. Even IGN, whom lauded both Sonic 4 and Colors with praise, would rather point out Sonic’s missteps in their already-infamous history of Sonic feature, posted the other day, rather than many of the games that succeeded. Perhaps it’s to be expected, though. We’ve been burned so badly for so long that perhaps it will take quite a while to forget the pain. Or maybe we need one game so amazing that it will be nearly impossible to deny that Sonic is back.

That is what Sonic Generations, coming to 360 and PS3 this holiday, is setting out to do – and, even better, looks like it WILL do. It features two separate play styles a la Sonic Unleashed, but don’t worry: no stretchy-armed monstrosities this time! Instead, as part of the celebration of 20 years of Sonic, we will be playing as two different Sonics – the rounder, cuter, more childish Sonic that Genesis kids will remember, and the taller, leaner, green-eyed Sonic that my generation knows and loves – or “Ruined Forever Sonic”, as I like to call him after a small but annoyingly vocal faction of fans’ reaction to his presence in Sonic 4. Classic Sonic’s levels feature fast platforming based around momentum physics reminiscent of the Genesis titles from which he hails, and, judging from what we’ve seen, “Ruined Forever Sonic” combines the best elements of Unleashed – that is, the GOOD levels from Unleashed (the amazing sense of speed and seamlessly switching between 2-D and 3-D perspectives) – with the best elements of Colors (enjoyable sections of straight-up platforming). Keeping with the theme, each of the game’s levels are based on locales from Sonic’s previous adventures, (Green Hill from Sonic 1 and City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2 being the ones thus far shown) all reimagined in glorious HD, with remixed music, levels designed to fit the two play styles, and perhaps a few surprises a long the way. You know you want it.

And just to show even further how much they love us, for a limited time (20 days to be exact, starting at June 23, Sonic’s official birthday) SEGA is offering a free demo of the beta version on Xbox Live and PSN to give us a little taste of what we’re going to get. Although we can likely expect to get to play as “Ruined Forever Sonic” at some point, so far only Classic Sonic’s Green Hill Zone is playable. Over the past few days, I have played the demo almost non-stop, analyzing it as if it were some elaborate, complex, deep work of art meant to be studied and appreciated. I’ve played it until I’ve gotten bored with it, and then played it some more, and I can safely say that while there are improvements that can and probably should be made in the months leading up to the game’s release, it’s probably time to put all of our fears and doubts to rest. Ladies and gentlemen, the demo of Sonic Generations is awesome.

The first thing I want to go over is the visuals. Green Hill Zone has never looked so great. The lighting effects and colors are simply gorgeous, and the zone’s checkerboard patterned walls and grass are beautifully detailed and generally look fantastic HD. But even aside from that, the level just feels so alive. As you run through the level, you will pass by numerous giant totem poles and be able to admire the surreal landscape of the level. It’s not content to bore you with repetitive scenery, either, and as you traverse the stage you will venture into dimly-lit caves and run along mountaintops. Classic Sonic’s model is also highly detailed, as are those of the enemies in the game, which seem to have been given somewhat of a metallic shine. Definitely a nice touch. Oh, and while I’m at it, the remix of Green Hill Zone’s original theme is VERY nice.

Of course, at this point Sonic Team knows better than to put all of the work into the graphics, and it certainly shows. The first thing most of you who were disappointed with Sonic 4 are probably wondering is if they got Sonic’s physics right this time. For the most part, yes, they did. When running or during a spindash, Sonic carries and maintains momentum just as he did in the classics and just as he should. Perhaps the best way that Sonic Team has shown their work is that it’s even incorporated into the level design, as you will need to make use of Sonic’s momentum to go through loops and to take some of the faster paths through the stage. Oh, and when coming off of a quarterpipe, he doesn’t uncurl either, if that bothered you, you unpleasable little retro nerd (kidding). Unfortunately, not all is perfect with the physics. In fact, this brings me to the first negative point I will mention: pressing down while running (which causes Sonic to roll into a ball briefly), while not as useless as it was in Sonic 4, generally only slows you down from my experience. It’s not a big disappointment, but it’s something I’d like to see fixed by the time the game is released.

Now, there IS another change that has been made to the physics, but it seems to be intentional. Bouncing off of an enemy no longer causes you to bounce to a height proportional to how much downward momentum you gained. Instead, the height is always fixed. I say this is intentional because bouncing off of enemies seems to have been made into a sort of “double jump” now. This is demonstrated very well by a section toward the beginning of the stage where you have two paths to take: a lower route through a tube that will overall be a slower route, and a higher route on a ledge that Sonic can’t jump to normally. However, there is a purple bee enemy flying back and forth, and if you can time a jump so that you can hit it while it’s close enough to the ledge, you will bounce off of it and be able to reach the ledge. It’s a mechanic that works well and that I hope to see used more often in the game’s levels.

This brings me to yet another of the demo’s major strengths: the level present is EXTREMELY well designed. The level blends speed and platforming very well, just as the Genesis games did, but that’s not even the best part. The level is multi-layered like in the classics, featuring an upper, middle, and lower path, the upper path being the fastest to take but the hardest to stay on. This is where you can REALLY tell that Sonic Team knows what they’re doing, because as I continued to replay the demo, for the first ten or so playthroughs I kept finding new areas and shortcuts through the level. There are TONS of different pathways and shortcuts to take in this one stage, and it truly captures the freedom and exploration that set the Genesis games apart from other platformers way back in the early 90’s along with Sonic's speed. Oh, and as mentioned before, to take the fastest paths through the stage, you will need to utilize Newton’s third law of motion to your advantage. If the first stage of the entire freaking game is like this, then just think, what will the rest of the classic stages be like?
He's waaaaaiting...

Now, a common criticism of the game (aside from the poor implementation of the rolling mechanic) from those who have played it is that Sonic feels kind of heavy and stiff, and I will have to concur. It’s nothing game breaking, but it’s definitely noticeable and it’s something that should be fixed. I’ve also heard people complaining about things like the number of scripted events in the stage, how springs are activated by hitting them from any side rather than by jumping on them (and are also scripted) and that the stage has more automated segments than the classics. Though I do think that changing some of this could help the game to feel even more like the Genesis games, I honestly didn’t take issue with any of these points. Not enough of the level is fully scripted or automated to detract from it in my opinion, and the thing about being able to use a spring from any side seems really inconsequential anyway. Really, just polish it up, fix the rolling, make Sonic feel lighter to control, and make the spindash a bit weaker and I think this game will be ready to play this Christmas.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the Generations demo. Now, SEGA, getting to play a classic level of this game early is great and all…but when those 20 days are up, will you let us play Modern Sonic’s level a bit? Please?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sly Cooper Series/The Sly Collection Review

When I get nostalgic for the early and mid 2000s, my mind always turns to Sly Cooper, an anthropomorphic raccoon who was one of the PlayStation 2’s three mascots, along with Jak & Daxter and Ratchet & Clank, back in the day (and the only one I really grew up on). The entire series was remastered for PS3 last year, and an unlockable extra was a teaser for “Sly 4." This year at E3 brought a brand new trailer as well as gameplay footage (!!!!) for the game that is now titled “Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time,” developed by the up-and-coming Sanzaru Games rather than Sucker Punch, whom have moved on to the Infamous series. All three instances reduced me to a state of giggling with childish glee as if I were once again nine years old. Of course, that’s an age where you can say that Nickelback produces deep and meaningful music without getting simultaneously punched in the face by every intelligent human being on Planet Earth. Before I got too excited, I decided to go back and play through the original PS2 trilogy, partially to relive some good childhood memories and partially to see if my love for the series wasn’t just me viewing it through nostalgia goggles. Here are my reviews for the games in the Sly Cooper series. They are based on the PS2 versions of the games (as I do not own the collection), but this also doubles as my review for the PS3 collection. Also, this is going to be pretty long, so bear with me.

*Also note that this review will contain some spoilers for the plot of Sly 1, which will appear in the first paragraph of the Sly 2 review.*

-----General praises----

If there’s one thing that has remained completely consistent across all three games in the franchise, it’s the fact that each game feels like you’re playing a cartoon, and this is completely intentional. Much as Infamous went for a comic book feel, the Sly Cooper series goes for a cartoon feel and, just like Infamous, does so exceptionally well. Most obviously, the cutscenes that take place before and after “episodes” of the games are made completely using 2-D, cartoonish art, albeit with somewhat limited animation (in the first game moreso than the others), and the aesthetics in general are very reminiscent of cartoons. The cartoon feel runs deeper than the visual style, however. The plot of each game features a “monster of the week” setup, with all of the games’ episodes featuring a different villain, and each character (including the villains) has a defining personality.

Another thing I greatly appreciate the series for is that, by platformer standards, the series as a whole has a very well-done and sometimes even dark storyline, with protagonists that you really like and care about and villains that you really hate. Being a cartoonish series about an anthropomorphic raccoon who steals stuff, the games know not to take themselves too seriously and always find the time to inject some comic relief into a situation, but really, for platformers, these games have a very interesting plot (Sly 2 and 3 moreso than the first).

-----Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus Review-----

I will start my excursion through the franchise with the first game, Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus. Sly Cooper and the Thievious Raccoonus (hereon referred to as “Sly 1”) introduces us to – wait for it – Sly Cooper, an anthropomorphic raccoon who comes from a family of thieves that goes back hundreds of years, and each of these thieves have learned their techniques from a book called – wait for it – the Thievious Raccoonus, and each of these thieves has also added their own techniques to the book. Also, apparently the Cooper family only steals from other criminals, cause, you know, I guess that makes you somewhat less of a butthole? Regardless, when Sly was a kid, a group called the Fiendish Five broke into their home, brutally murdered his dad, ripped the book’s pages out of it and then left with said pages. Well, gee, that’s not nice, is it? Now, Sly is an adult with two trusty companions: Bentley, an intelligent turtle who handles most of the technical crap, and, the ehm…pink…hippo-thing, Murray, who, in this game only, exists solely to drive the gang between locations in the Cooper equivalent of the Mystery Machine. To keep his family name worth something, Sly must find the Fiendish Five, exact sweet vengeance and steal back the pages of the Thievious Raccoonus. Along the way, they must avoid Carmelita, a fox cop who wants nothing more than to see the gang incarcerated.

Sly 1’s gameplay can be best described as something like Metal Gear meets Crash Bandicoot. For the most part, the game plays as a linear platformer. You jump from platform to platform, kill stuff and break stuff while collecting coins. Sly can only take one hit normally, but you can collect up to two magically delicious lucky charms (no, it’s not really the cereal) that will allow you to take more damage. You will find lucky charms as you go through the levels, but you can also get lucky charms by getting 100 coins, and if you already have two of them, getting 100 coins will net you an extra life. One of the things that make Sly stand out amongst platformers is the element of stealth in the game. Part of the challenge of the game is avoiding laser security and spotlights, as getting caught will result in an alarm going off followed by the lasers and spotlights becoming heat rays ready to burn your flesh. The game also features flashlight-carrying guards whose attacks are tougher to avoid than those of other enemies, and if one catches you, they’ll blow a whistle that will send other such guards rushing to their location, all with a thirst for blood. You don’t want that, so it’s in your best interest to dispatch of them stealthily.

Another thing that makes Sly stand out is the incorporation of parkour elements into the gameplay. Sly carries a cane with a rounded end. Aside from being used as his main method of attack, he can also use it to grab onto hooks, done rather famously by jumping and then hitting the circle button. After grabbing onto a hook, you can then swing back and forth to gain enough momentum to jump to your next destination, provided you don’t already have enough momentum. Sly can also use his cane to grab onto and then climb up and down poles and pipes, done by, again, jumping and hitting the circle button. As the game progresses, you learn two more moves requiring the amazing button combination – the Ninja Spire Jump, which allows you to land safely on narrow surfaces, and the Rail Walk and Rail Slide, which allow you to walk and slide on said narrow surfaces. These parkour and stealth elements are woven into the platforming gameplay very well, making for a fun platforming experience with impressive level design.

Of course, platforming isn’t all you’ll be doing in Sly Cooper. Though Sly is the only playable character for most of the game, you will get to play as Murray and Bentley…sort of. Murray gets a few driving levels (two of them involving racing) and Bentley gets a computer hacking level, played as a top-down shooter, toward the end of the game. Not every moment spent playing as Sly is spent platforming either. There are two missions in the game where you are riding in a hovercraft with a gun attached, and you get to drive around killing stuff as you make your way to the end of the level. There are also a few missions where you have to defend a character making his way to a key by shooting all enemies and obstacles in his path, one of these aforementioned levels being played as Carmelita. These brief alternate gameplay levels are fairly enjoyable and add some nice variety to the game.

One critcism that Sly 1 sometimes got was that it’s too easy, and, well...I would have to disagree. Maybe I just suck, but I found the game to be fairly challenging, especially the five bosses…well, three of them. With the exception of the Panda King, whom you can win against by simply smacking him with your cane constantly – no, really – and Raleigh, where all you have to do is wait for him to be vulnerable so that you can smack him with your cane, the bosses are difficult and have interesting ways of defeating them. The battle with Muggshot, for instance, takes place in a room with multiple levels, each having a set of mirrors and crystals. Whilst avoiding gunfire from Muggshot, you must hit the mirrors with your cane to make light shine on the crystals, and once all of the crystals are lit, Muggshot’s guns will melt from the heat. This will force him to retreat to the next level of the room in order to get replacements. You follow him, and then the battle continues in a similar manner, except more difficult. Also, Mizz Ruby’s battle is played as a rhythm game. She will send energy blasts in the shape of controller buttons at you, and you must press the corresponding buttons to avoid them as you continue towards her so that you can land a hit.

With all of that going for it, Sly 1 could have been a great game. Unfortunately, there is a major flaw: it’s…pretty freakin’ short. Most gamers should be able to beat it within three days at the most. Granted, there are collectible clue bottles in the game, and finding all of them will reveal the combination to a vault containing a page of the Thievious Raccoonus (which will unlock a new move), and there are also challenges to complete a level within a certain amount of time, which will unlock developer commentaries. However, with the exception of the dive attack and the moves that allowed you to fall into water and off cliffs without taking damage, I rarely found myself using the extra moves, and does anyone seriously care that much about developer commentaries? Though it’s fun while it lasts, the short length makes it kind of hard to recommend for full price. Of course, given its age, it’s highly unlikely any game store would be selling it for full price, but it’s still worth mentioning.

Score: 7.5/10

-----Sly 2: Band of Thieves Review-----

Sly 2 picks up two years after the original Sly Cooper. Clockwerk, the mechanical final boss of the first game, has been defeated and disassembled and his parts are now at a museum. In an attempt to make sure that he never returns, Sly and the gang break into the museum to find that the parts have already been stolen. They are confronted by Carmelita and new character Constable Neyla, the latter of whom mentions that the “Klaww Gang” may have stolen the parts. Further research indicates that they may indeed have, which results in the gang once again traveling all over the world to steal from a group of international criminals. Fun, right?

Sly 2 is a very different game than Sly 1. Rather than a straight-up platformer with stealth and parkour elements, Sly 2 is a mission-based, open world game. The game has eight playable worlds, each with their own missions, and the stealth and parkour elements are the rule rather than the exception. The game also introduces several new abilities for Sly. Sly can now perform stealth kills on unsuspecting enemies, and can also pickpocket enemies for coins and even treasure that you can sell on the Internet for even more coins. Speaking of which, although collectible clue bottles return with the same purpose, coins are now used to purchase new moves and items for Sly and the rest of the cast. They’re not as useful as the ones you find in vaults (unless you’re required to get them to continue), but some of them are still pretty cool. Oh, and each character has a health bar now, which is very nice.

This brings me to another major addition to the game: Bentley and Murray are now playable characters. Sly is the character you’ll be using the most and he is my favorite character to control, but that’s not to say that Bentley and Murray aren’t pretty dang fun to control as well. Murray is no longer the cowardly, pink hippo-thing he was in Sly 1. He’s…well, he’s still pink, but he’s now the main fighter of the group. He can pick up objects or even unsuspecting enemies and throw them at other enemies, and also has a “thunder flop” move that creates a shockwave when he lands. Combat isn’t Bentley’s strong suit, and it shows. However, he is able to put guards to sleep by going into first-person view and then firing a tranquilizer dart at them, after which he can lay a bomb next to them and just wait for the sweet satisfaction of seeing them get blown to smithereens. Bentley’s hacking missions return from the previous game, and he also has an RC chopper that he uses for missions that require air support.

As I played through Sly 2 again, I realized that I had forgotten how much I loved it. In fact, bearing in mind that I have yet to play Infamous 2, I would say that Sly 2 is Sucker Punch’s best game yet. Yes, even better than the original Infamous, and allow me to explain why. One of my main problems with Infamous was that there wasn’t that much variety in side missions, which resulted in them getting kind of repetitive. The story missions weren’t repetitive, but as I recall for the most part you were shooting stuff with lightning. Now, I love shooting stuff with lightning, but let’s take a look at Sly 2. There are very few missions in the game that ask you to do quite the same thing as another mission, and playing the game never gets old. Another thing that I love about Sly 2’s missions is how you never feel like you’re doing something just for the sake of doing something. Every mission feels like you’re doing something that’s essential to accomplishing the objective at hand, and at the end of every episode there is a big, final job where every character gets a chance to shine and you (usually) get what you came for and sometimes even fight a boss. Combine that with the multiple playable characters and the fact that the gameplay is noticeably more polished, and you have what is in my opinion a better game than Infamous.

Sly 2 is considerably longer than Sly 1, featuring eight full episodes as opposed to five, and the episodes take longer to complete overall. Also, I found the plot and the cast of villains to be a lot more interesting than that of the original Sly Cooper. Really, the only thing that I find wrong with Sly 2 is how, in areas where there are several things that Sly can land on or grab onto (by jumping and hitting the circle button, of course), Sly won’t always grab/land on the thing you want him to unless you are right next to it, which can be a bit frustrating.

Score: 9/10

-----Sly 3: Honor Among Thieves Review-----

In Sly 3, Sly learns about the Cooper Vault, which holds everything his family has ever stolen, and his cane is the key. Unfortunately, the island it’s on is owned by the nefarious Dr. M, who has been trying to open the vault himself and keeps the island under heavy security. Sly, along with a group of (at this point kept hidden, except for Bentley) characters, makes it to the Cooper Vault, when he is stopped by Dr. M, who attacks him using one of his gigantic genetic engineering experiments. Whilst being crushed to death, he remembers how he recruited everyone he needed to get there, and the first five episodes are those memories.

Although I have a lot of fondness and nostalgia for Sly 3, I remembered that as a kid I never liked it quite as much as Sly 2. When I was first getting into it again, I didn’t quite understand why. The gameplay is mostly the same as Sly 2, but it feels a lot more polished and refined, and some changes have been made that are small, but do help to make the game more enjoyable. For instance, Bentley, left in a wheelchair after the events of Sly 2, is a lot faster and can jump a lot higher (thanks to his jet thrusters), and can even upgrade his jump so that he can jump four times. He also has his own method of stealth killing and pickpocketing enemies now, as does Murray.

In addition, five new playable characters have been added in since Sly 2 (although you can only use them for certain missions). Carmelita makes her first fully controllable appearance, allowing us to blast people in the face with her shock pistol. The Guru is perhaps the most interesting new character, being able to jump on enemies’ backs to possess and then ride them, which is really freaking fun if I do say so myself. Penelope is now in charge of the RC vehicles rather than Bentley. She uses a chopper with a claw that she can use to yank enemies and toss them away as well as an RC car outfitted with turrets. The Panda King, who was a boss in Sly 1, can lock onto enemies and use his fireworks to blast stuff – which is awesome. Finally, Dimitri, who was a boss in Sly 2, has...first-person underwater diving missions. Yes, in a series where none of the fully controllable cast OR the enemies is able to swim at all, one character has first-person underwater diving missions. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, as a kid, I never liked Sly 3 quite as much as Sly 2, and as I got farther into it, I remembered why. To start with, what’s another way that Sly 3 tries to change things up from Sly 2? Well, whereas Sly 2 had a lot of variety in objectives, Sly 3 has a lot of variety in gameplay, and that’s its greatest weakness. Now, don’t get me wrong, having variety in gameplay is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, Sly 1 and 2 had areas and missions where the gameplay changed entirely as well, albeit in smaller amounts, and it helped to further add variety to the games. The problem with Sly 3 is that a decently-sized chunk of it isn’t even played as a platformer. The addition of more playable characters is partially to blame for this. As mentioned before, Penelope is now in charge of RC vehicles in the game. What I didn’t mention is that you are going to spend a lot of missions controlling said RC vehicles. That’s not to say that it’s not fun, though. What isn’t fun is playing as Dimitri. The first mission with him can best be described as bland, boring, uneventful, and boring. Did I mention it was boring? His second mission, up until the boss fight (which was sort of fun), is needlessly frustrating due to awkward control. Thank God you only have to control him twice in the entire game.

All that said, most of the characters fit in fairly well with Sly, Bentley and Murray. However, a fair number of the missions played with them don’t even feature platforming. Heck, half of the fifth episode of the game is spent on a pirate ship where you engage in battles with other ships. Now, there’s something I want to clarify here: except for Dimitri’s gameplay, the problem is not that these alternate gameplay sections aren’t fun. In fact, I rather enjoyed most of them. The problem is that it feels like the game can’t decide what it wants to be. Does it want to be a platformer? Does it want to be a dogfighting game? Does it want to be a driving game? Does it want to be a DIVING game?

Another thing that I didn’t like about Sly 3, at least when compared to Sly 2, was the amount of time spent playing as the title character. I think the other characters – except for Dimitri, of course – are a lot of fun to play as, but I mentioned in my review of Sly 2 that Sly was my favorite character to control, and that still holds true for Sly 3. So why am I hardly spending half the game controlling the title character? Also, one thing that annoyed me about Sly 3 as a kid is that it has fewer episodes than Sly 2 – six as opposed to Sly 2’s eight. However, a lot of the missions take longer to complete, so it’s roughly the same length overall.
For all of the ranting I’ve done about its faults, Sly 3 is still definitely a great and fun game and very much worth your time. Most of the alternate gameplay is well done, and the characters besides Sly are fun to play as. I just wish that at least 90% of it had been a platformer.

Score: 8/10

-----Advantages of the PS3 collection-----

Keeping in mind that I haven’t played the PS3 versions of the games and I’m just going by Wikipedia (because we all know that’s the most reliable source ever, right?), The Sly Collection upscales the graphics a bit, adds in new mini-games that can be played either with the PS Move or the normal controller and has trophy support. That’s not much if you already own the PS2 versions, but if you’ve never experienced the series, you’re a fan of platformers, and you own a PS3, then what are you waiting for? It’s only 30 bucks on, so go get it!

And thus ends my critique of the Sly Cooper series. I bid you good day.