Review: Smart As

I had a review for Smart As about 95% complete on Sunday afternoon as Hurricane Sandy took a hard left towards New Jersey leaving us on the shoreline in Connecticut on the windy side of the storm.  I had to add a few pictures, correct a few grammatical errors and then figure out how to have the website post it at exactly 3AM on Tuesday morning when the embargo was lifted and we were sure to have long since lost power.  It was a great plan except for one small problem…  I enacted it about 15 minutes too late and lost power as I was finishing this final bit.

The reason I’m telling you isn’t only for sympathy (FIVE DAYS WITHOUT POWER AND INTERNET!) but because it helped me enjoy Smart As in a completely different light and while it didn’t change what my final score was I feel like I can better illustrate what the game does well and where it comes up short.  So much like many of the trees in my town, the old review is destroyed and I’m going to start over with the knowledge of a post-hurricane boredom survivor.

This is one of the many games contained within. The idea is to connect the same color pegs without crossing the streams. This is one of the more simple games in the package but it’s also one of the most satisfying to my super intelligent brain.

Smart As is the newest, shiniest and bestiest (is that a word? Cleese?) ‘brain training’ game in a portable world that has quite a few of them.  I’ve cut my teeth on Brain Age.  I’ve mashed wits with Brain Challenge.  I’ve spent $.99 at least 5 times (quick! quick!  $4.95 in total!!!) on various iOS variations.  So when Smart As was announced I knew I wanted it and I wanted to know why it was $30.

Not only are the statistics absurdly in-depth but they also look as snazzy as the rest of the game. The presentation here is top-notch. For better or worse that’s where the higher price tag comes from.

The answer is pretty clear within minutes of starting it up.  You are greeted with a logo for the Unreal Engine, something even my wife commented on as being ‘weird’, and then once you start the game proper John Cleese is narrating to you while you play rather clever (and abundant) brain training games that have never, ever looked so good.  The games use all of the Vita’s features from touch (including writing numbers or letters with your fingers) back touch (to really melt your brain during one particularly daunting Observation game) and even tilt and the camera for A.R.

You’re damn right I am!

The more gimmicky games tend not to come up in the daily training exercise which is the meat and potatoes of the Smart As experience.  Each day you do 4 exercises, one from each section of the exquisitely modeled brain (all hail the Unreal engine’s finest creation!) and you get a score which is a percentage out of 100.  The game’s rather robust save file and online ranking system means that your score doesn’t just simply exist in a vacuum.  It goes online for everyone to see, including people who want to break down the rankings by country, by age group or even by if you prefer dance music or rock music.  There are friend rankings of course which is both a blessing and a curse.  See, to me, the magic of brain training games is that make you feel smart and they tell you it over and over.  Smart As is brilliant at this.  It asks you a series of questions and by splitting the player base off into so many different subgroups there *HAS* to be one that you are at least in the top half of.  So a loading screen may say “You are smarter than most people who prefer sneakers to dress shoes” and in your mind you pump your fist and go “that’s right bitches, I’m a goddamn genius!”

I had a problem early on where every once in a while the game wouldn’t know what I was writing in these games with the chalkboard. I don’t know if the game adapted to me or I adapted to it (probably the latter – i think large, exaggerated letters and numbers work better) but it’s been almost two weeks since the game misunderstood what I wrote. Pretty impressive.

The problem with your friends list leaderboard is it may just so happen that you are the dumbest friend and that’s no fun.  So far that isn’t the case for me but I know my friends and I know I’m screwed so I’m going to need the reinforcement from the game that I’m smarter than people who take a bath while holding a toaster.  One aspect of the game that I didn’t even take into consideration until I was stuck in my house with no power for days was local multiplayer.  While the game doesn’t specifically have a mode for local MP (which is an odd exclusion but easily rectified just by playing a game and remembering your score and passing it) it is great fun to play with, say, your wife.  She and I were laughing hysterically whenever either of us had a brain fart on some seemingly easy logic puzzle.  We gloated when we won, we frowned when we lost.  It really was great.  And while I won most of the time because my wife is dumb (her words) and I’m a goddamn genius (my words) we still had a great time.

And of course my wife isn’t dumb, the game really is just about memorizing how each game is played and then executing it quic……. bah  baahhhh   nooo!  SHUT UP PETE!  No, I won because I’m smart.  The game told me I’m smart because I’m smart!  Don’t look any deeper into this!

This is the home screen that will greet you everyday. The game looks great, it loads quickly, and it tells you over and over that you are smart. What’s not to love?

So what we end up here is a top of the line brain training game with extremely slick and polished presentation, narration from John Cleese that is both funny and pretty mesmerizing in how it will recall things you did days earlier and the most robust online interface a game like this could ever dream of having.  Much like the Vita itself, this is a high-end product for a very specific consumer…  and while some may scoff at the $30 price tag — those of us that love these types of games will know that we actually made out in this deal.  I can see myself playing at least the daily exercise every single day for the next year or two (or three or four).  Tell me you’re going to do that with your $60 copy of Darksiders 2.

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Review: Dokuro (JPN)

I love a good puzzle-platformer, so much so that if I were tasked with designing my ideal game, it would probably involve a fair amount of jumping and puzzling. I do, however, have a significant beef with the direction the genre has taken in recent times. The problem is that somewhere along the line, the platforming aspect has become an afterthought. In games like Braid, Closure, and even to some extent Limbo, platforming has been relegated to a crutch whose only real purpose is to keep the focus, the puzzles, from becoming a complete abstraction. Admittedly the jumping is sometimes an integral part of a puzzle, but rarely, if ever, in these games is there platforming-for-platforming’s sake, and they suffer as a result. Dokuro, on the other hand, is an example of a genuine puzzle-platformer. Not only does it feature a good number of exquisitely designed puzzles (on a par with the likes of Braid), but these are mixed in with traversal elements that are as good as those of any traditional platformer.

Some of the enemies are genuinely creepy.

What makes this balance even more impressive is the complexity layered on top of these core mechanics. The player controls Dokuro (literally ‘skull’ in Japanese), a skeleton who can transform into a prince. Choosing the correct form at any given point is crucial to success, as each has its own abilities and weaknesses. Dokuro’s goal is to help the princess escape from the ‘Dark Lord’s’ castle. (Exactly what is going on here is only really fleshed out in the game’s closing cutscene. Suffice it to say you’re not going to miss a great deal if you never see it.) The catch is that the princess is apparently the product of hundreds of years of royal inbreeding. Her only function is to walk left to right across the screen, and to die. A lot. The player’s role is to prepare a path for the princess to escape. Beyond the standard tropes of pushing and pulling blocks and bombs, Dokuro has at his disposal three different colours of chalk which are applied via the touchscreen. I won’t spoil anything, but each of them has a very different effect on the environment. Oh…and gravity manipulation crops up too.

What we are left with is effectively a puzzle-platformer-cum-escort-quest with both ranged and mêlée combat, walking on the ceiling and a rudimentary drawing mechanic. This should be a mess, but it isn’t. It’s brilliant. Some of this lies with the core mechanics; the puzzles are clever, and the platforming controls are tight. Beyond this though, the developers have shown restraint in managing all these different elements. Unlike most escort quests, protecting the princess never reduced me to a gibbering wreck because, despite her lack of smarts, she knows enough to stop walking when the next step will kill her. You also learn pretty quickly that the developers have been very careful with respect to how many of your tools will be required to complete a level. I can’t recall, for example, a section which I needed to use all three types of chalk to pass. (This is not without its drawbacks – once or twice I found myself stuck, only to remember the blue chalk, which I hadn’t used in about thirty levels.)

The Dark Lord – not as friendly as he looks.

It’s also a really nice looking game, if not especially ambitious. The chalk theme is reflected in the art, which has a grainy look much like that of chalkboard drawings. The animation is very simple, and combines with the art style to give the whole thing the feel of an old Eastern-European cartoon (a little like ‘Worker and Parasite’, for those long-time Simpsons fans). The bosses are probably the artistic highlight. One or two of them are impressively grotesque and really quite nightmarish. If I have a complaint about the presentation, it’s that the backgrounds are pretty drab and repetitive, but they are consistent with the art style as a whole. The music is appropriate but forgettable – twee, with a dash of fairytale kitsch.

I’m going to pre-empt the perennial question of whether this wouldn’t be more successful on the PS3. Absolutely not. First, gone would be the tactile aspect of the drawing mechanic, which would be a big loss to the feel of the game. Beyond this though, Dokuro really feels like a game that has been built with handhelds in mind. Most of the games 150-odd levels are very short. Once you have worked out what to do, a majority of them can be completed within a minute or two. For the last few weeks I have kept Dokuro open almost constantly open on my Vita, picking it up for a few minutes at a time to knock off a level or two. The game also offers a fair amount of replayability, at least for trophy hunters (platinum) and crazy people. Each level in the game has a coin to collect, some of which are very difficult, and there are also a number of trophies related to finishing the game within a certain time. Were I playing it on the PS3 there’s no chance I would go back to this game. On the Vita I can see myself returning to it for some time, trying to shave a few seconds off a level here and a level there.

Things start to get a bit complicated after a while.

For me, Dokuro is in many respects the perfect handheld game. As a puzzle-platformer it is absolutely top tier, and its design makes it ideally suited to being played in small chunks. This aside, I’m not about to suggest that it’s a must for everyone. Firstly, it can be frustrating – infuriatingly so. If trial and error are a bummer, this game may not be for you. I will also admit that Dokuro is a little longer than it needs to be. There was one egregious instance of repetition late in the game that was just unnecessary and drove me to distraction. However if, like me, you have a masochistic streak, Dokuro has a lot to recommend it. Some of the puzzles are absolutely diabolical, and solving them gave me more of a sense of satisfaction than I’ve derived from a game in some while (I hasten to add that just how diabolical you find the puzzles will depend on just how much smarter you are than me. I’m not that bright.)  In fact, I would go so far as to say that much of the time it’s more satisfying than it is fun. The game currently retails for around ¥2,000 in Japan, which I would guess will put it in the $15-$20 range once it hits the US (which seems likely – the cart comes complete with support for half-a-dozen languages). For Vita owners who are attracted to the idea of a puzzle-platformer in the truest sense, and who aren’t averse to a bit of a challenge, Dokuro is a gem.

Review: Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes

In the world of videogames, like most things, expectations can make or break the reality of something. I remember when the first Fable game came out on the original Xbox; there was such hyperbole about what it accomplished that when we all put the disc into our systems and it was merely an action RPG in which you could have interesting interactions with about 5 different NPCs, we took a collective dump on the game all over the internet.

That’s not some sort of filter, folks. That’s just blurry, terrible video. It’s like they took a camcorder from 1996 and videotaped the 3DS videos and transferred them over as is.

I feel pretty much the same way about Lego Batman 2, mostly due to my own ignorance.  I will say right off the bat (get it?) that I’m not a Lego-anything fan, other than actual Lego.  But the idea that this game had an open world was really intriguing to me.  I didn’t go nuts over it, I (clearly) didn’t follow its development very closely, but when it arrived in the mail I was excited to see how it all played out.

As you’ve already realized, I was an idiot.  This isn’t the console game at all.  It’s a port of the 3DS version, complete with FMVs at the 3DS’s terrible resolution.  Now, should I hold it against the game that my expectations were raised when really it was my own ignorance that caused the disappointment?  It’s a difficult question to answer but I, fortunately, ducked a bullet because the game is merely average – whether you were excited for it or not.  Expectations can be tossed out the window.  If you thought it was going to be amazing, you will likely think it’s average, and if you thought it was gonna be terrible you will likely think it’s average.  In this case being average actually helps them sidestep embarrassment.

The Batcave acts a hub-world for the game’s missions. It’s neat seeing it in its Lego glory and they have added a bunch of replayability with the inclusion of the Justice League missions. It’s all smoke and mirrors though, this is a typical Lego game through and through.

So what’s the game actually like? Well, it’s a Lego game.  That’s it.  You punch stuff, collect pieces, hold down the circle button to create devices that help you through a gauntlet of ‘puzzles.’  I personally find the whole formula to be pretty tiresome and not all that fun.  Batman does, at least, bring with it some decent combat.  There are some combos and slow motion take downs that I couldn’t help but chuckle at, given how violent and awesome the little Lego Batman was being.  But combat is actually kinda rare in the game.  You spend most of your time punching objects until you find the one that changes your Batman into “Sticky bomb Batman”, or whatever they call him, and then you can solve a bunch of rudimentary roadblocks whose solution is ALWAYS sticky bombs.

Punch a couple flowers, solve a couple rudimentary puzzles. Yep, it’s a Lego game alright.

I must reiterate that I am not a fan of Lego games and really I’m not a Batman super-fan either (I do like two of the Tim Burton movies and I like the two Chris Nolan movies… but I’ve never picked up a comic book in my life).  So with a game of this type your mileage may vary.  But if you’re a super-fan of any of the above things you likely made your choice about this game long before now.  If, like me, you think maybe the game could be some fun: it is.  Kinda.  Not really.  Maybe if it had an open world?  I guess we’ll never know.  Let’s just get mad at Warner Brothers for porting the 3DS version and not the PS3 version and we’ll all feel better.

Review – Resistance: Burning Skies

Resistance: Burning Skies is a strange amalgam of expectations, delusions and corporate ineptitude.  It also happens to be a pretty decent game, if you allow it to be. This game, more than any Vita title before it, is all about the attitude you bring into it.

There seem to be two factions in terms of expectations for this game.  One that wants this to be a PS3 quality Resistance game and another that merely wants a decent shooter, with two sticks, on a handheld. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to figure out which of these camps will enjoy the game.  But hey, I have to write the review anyway, right?

I will say it was never fair in the first place to compare this game to the PS3 series.  The hardware isn’t as good, the team developing isn’t as good, the budget was smaller, the development time was shorter.  These are all Sony’s fault, not Nihilistic’s, but the general public seems to be mad at them anyway.  Sony doesn’t take its handheld as seriously as Nintendo does.  Super Mario 3D Land was made by the team that made Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2. Resistance: Burning Skies was made by the team that made the godawful Playstation Move Heroes.  Sony has a lot to learn in this area.

But for everything Nihilistic had going against it, including its own mediocrity, they have created a solid product.  Resistance: Burning Skies rarely strives to do anything beyond average, but it does average pretty darn well.  Most of this is helped by the Resistance universe itself being decent canon for the story and for Insomniac’s previous work in the series creating these wonderful guns.  But Nihilistic has done a great job of bringing the universe and guns to life on a handheld and they should be commended for that.  This feels like a Resistance game, even if it’s not as good.

The game starts out slow (which, if you’ve played the demo, you already know) but it picks up pretty quickly.  And all of the staples of a Resistance game are there from interesting set pieces (minor spoiler:  I really enjoyed fighting on a bridge I used to drive over daily).  They also included the incredibly huge bosses that the series really became known for in Resistance 2 – complete with glowy parts to shoot.  Again, none of this is extraordinary; it’s ordinary.

Will ordinary make you happy? I fall into the camp that a technically capable shooter, with two sticks, that I can play on go or in bed, seems really, really cool to me.  Instead of being amazed by the game I was more amazed by how novel playing a game like this is.  It was bolstered by my love of the Resistance universe and weapons, for sure, but really the attraction here isn’t Resistance.  The attraction is “this is a twin stick FPS on the go.”

For some that’s not enough and if you are one of those people I recommend staying away from the game.  Even the multiplayer is fairly bland, most of the fun of it is ‘omg I’m playing a decent game of deathmatch on a handheld.’   It’s instantly forgettable, but the next time you are out and need to kill some time you’ll be happy you have it with you.

Overall Resistance is a pretty small package.  The Sony Early Adopter Tax™ has this game at $40 but really it should have been part of the $30 tier.  The main story can be beaten in less than 6 hours and the multiplayer is nice to have around, but likely isn’t going to be your go-to shooter for online play.  You aren’t selling your copy of Battlefield because Resistance 4vs4 is so awesome.  It’s also worth noting you should get the platinum trophy on one play through, with maybe 1 or 2 trophies to snag afterwards if you didn’t happen to get enough headshots or something.  So even the trophies don’t help foster much replayability.

I’m giving Resistance three stars and I only bring this up to say that if the idea of a decent Resistance game on a handheld sounds good, make it four stars.  If you only want the best, make the score two stars.  This game will live up exactly to your expectations whether they are positive or negative. I enjoyed my time with it, but I can’t help feeling I was happy with it because I wanted to be.

The ports that no one asked for: Lego Harry Potter and Supremacy MMA reviewed

The launch of any new system brings with it some weird game releases that make you wonder what the heck they were thinking.  This has been compounded with the Vita, which at this point in its life-cycle really can only be described as a niche device. Most of the world doesn’t want to spend $300+ (after memory cards) on a handheld device – as evidenced by the Vita’s, um, meager numbers.  But those of us that did want the Vita, and dropped the coin, did so because we wanted something out of a handheld experience that neither an iPhone nor a 3DS can deliver.  With this in mind, Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7 and Supremacy MMA: Unrestricted are perfect examples of the unnecessary launch title. Both left me wondering: “What kind of Vita owner is looking for this game?”

Lego Harry Potter, at the very least, fills a niche (a niche within a niche device–intense!!!) with younger gamers.  But how many younger gamers even own a Vita?  I have no data on the subject – I’m not even sure such data exists… but I’m going to guesstimate “not very many.”  Kids have iPod touches.  Kids still love Nintendo and their 3DS.  Kids generally aren’t looking to play Uncharted on the go.

Lego Harry Potter is a kids game through and through. If you’re looking for something for your son or daughter to play on your Vita, it’s a solid choice – but there are better (and cheaper) ports of this game on nearly every other platform.

But, as a kids game, Lego Harry Potter isn’t terrible.  It plays well enough, though it has framerate issues.  It’s nice that it has buttons, but the same game is available on the iPhone for $5.  LHP has the dubious distinction of being the only Vita game I’ve seen retail at $50 besides Uncharted (though, to be fair, most retailers still sold it at $40).  And I’m going to go out on a limb and guess it bombed, because it’s now the cheapest new Vita game on Amazon ($22 at last check).

Supremacy MMA, on the other hand, has issues beyond just audience.  In fact, I think there probably is an audience for MMA on the Vita – to a certain extent.  But Supremacy MMA is just a bad game.  Really bad.  The graphics are mediocre at best, and once again there is slowdown.  So while some Vita owners may want a MMA game, they have no use for a bad one – especially on a handheld that in its short lifespan is already one of the best handhelds ever in terms of quality fighters, with Mortal Kombat, BlazBlue, and Marvel vs Capcom 3 at the top of the heap.  If you have access to those three brilliant fighters, why would you ever even think about buying Supremacy?  Conjecture again… but I’m guessing not many people did.

Where I come from we call this “the push down.”

The bummer out of all of this is 505 Games and Warner Brothers are probably blaming the platform and not themselves for not understanding their intended audience.  But that’s not really of our concern, I guess.  All I will say is that if you absolutely love Lego Harry Potter games and want one on the go, do it – especially at $20.  It’s an ok port, you will likely enjoy it.  But even the hardest of hardcore MMA fans will find very little to cheer about with Supremacy MMA.

Lego Harry Potter: Years 5-7——————————————————————-Supremacy MMA: Unrestricted

                                         

Review – F1 2011 (Reviewed by ex-EGM editor Greg Sewart)

Editor’s note:  This review is written by the one and only Greg Sewart, former editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly and currently found on the Player One Podcast.  It was a personal honor that he agreed to do this for and we are forever appreciative.  Not only does Greg bring a strong game writing pedigree with him, but he is an absolute car racing nut. So without further ado…
 

Upon firing up F1 2011 for the first time you’re greeted with an exciting video of what’s to come – beautiful machines built for nothing but speed dicing it up on some of the most picturesque and storied racetracks in the world; drivers experiencing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat; the frenzied activity in the paddock as engineers ready the cars and the media swarms the heroes who pilot them.

Then you actually jump into your virtual car and realize it looks nothing like that incredible video. What you just witnessed was in-game footage of the 360/PS3 version of F1 2011. What you’re playing is a stripped down version of what you saw, featuring low-poly models, low-res liveries, and none of the pageantry surrounding each event that exists in the console game.

None of this is to say that F1 2011 on the Vita is a bad game. It just strikes me as odd that those making the game would choose to highlight the game’s visual shortcomings right at the outset. Even if you enjoy the game for what it is, there will always be that reminder of what it was.

Is it an upgrade of the 3DS version or a downgrade of the console version? We aren’t sure but the visuals overall are average at best. It does maintain a solid framerate and portrays a good sense of speed however.

With all that out of the way, though, it has to be said that F1 2011 on the Vita is a pretty solid game. Car control is spot on, if a bit on the arcadey side. Sliding the rear through the odd tight turn is not a bad thing in this game, and honestly feels like it’s pretty much required to get a good time on some of the tracks you visit.

Likewise, you’ll be dealing with a lot of contact with other cars, due mostly to the fact that the AI here is really not all that good. Competitors tend to brake extremely early for the most gradual of bends even if you have the difficulty set to maximum. They also seem to have a particular problem navigating the tighter courses in the game, like Monaco. Especially when they’re bunched together.

The net result is that those looking for a full sim experience here are going to be disappointed. Ramming into the back of the car ahead will become the norm for even the most seasoned of racers, meaning you’ll want to leave the damage options turned off. The best way to victory is through aggressive, off-line passing maneuvers, which means contact is pretty much inevitable.

F1 2011 veers more to the arcade style of racing which may disappoint purists but makes for a rather fun portable racer.

If you’re looking for a more casual racer with a ton of options, though, F1’s got you covered. Every car, driver and track from the 2011 season is present. And you can choose to run single races, full grand prix weekends (including all practice rounds and F1’s unique, knock-out style qualifying process), a full season, or even a career mode where you work your way through the various teams on the grid as you attempt to become the next Sebastian Vettel. Plus there are a decent amount of setup options to fiddle around with if you’re so inclined.

Formula 1 racing has been approaching the realm of video games for a while now, what with the DRS passing zones and KERS boost system bringing some excitement and strategy back to the sport, and F1 2011 on the Vita captures that excitement admirably. It’s just a shame that the technical side and human element aren’t captured in this game like they are on the PS3 and 360.

These days Greg Sewart can be found on the Player One Podcast, doing a web video series on the Sega Mega Drive, and on twitter.