Sunday, April 11, 2010

Rock in LEGO

The core game is nothing more than Rock Band.  Story Mode unlocks new venues by earning LEGO studs instead of money as well as earning fans and stars (based on the performance of each song played).

Each new venue is unlocked by buying a unique vehicle (that becomes more and more extravagant as your band gains popularity).  In addition to the new vehicles for each venue, a specific challenge is unlocked as you earn more stars.  The specific challenge then opens with the iconic Travelers Tales LEGO humor and character work, in which you either battle ghosts (aptly playing Ray Parker Jr's Ghostbusters)  or recharge an alien ship's power source (playing Europe's Final Countdown) without the benefit of using the Overdrive boost.  Each new set piece is a great creation to look at, unfortunately there aren't enough different audience member models or skins so after a few sets the rocking hordes of fans look very plastic and drone like (perhaps intentional given the source material--but compared to Rock Band 1 & 2 is very noticeable and someone disappointing).

When songs are completed, studs are earned which can then be spent on the band's clubhouse as upgrades.  The clubhouse has a TV viewing area which allows you to re-watch unlocked cut scenes, a practice stage (for practicing of course), a music shop (which allows you to purchase better looking instruments--which unlock as songs are compeleted) as well as several other unique areas for hanging out doing what LEGO characters do best....act silly.

Along with buying new items for your clubhouse, you can hire members in your entourage.  The entourage will boost fans and studs earned after each gig.  The benefit of hiring all of the entourage members becomes apparent the further into the game.  The tally screen at the end of each song takes longer and longer to count up the fans and studs earned as the bonus from each additional entourage member multiplies the number accordingly.  The way that LEGO Rock Band implements the entourage makes a lot more sense than how hired help is utilized in Rock Band 1 and 2.

My biggest gripe and praise for LEGO Rock Band stem from the same thing.  Song selection.  If you were playing LEGO Rock Band without ever having played Rock Band 1 or 2 (or downloaded songs for those), then the song rotation in LRB becomes weak very quickly.  However one of the greatest things about LRB is the fact that it recognizes most the library that you may have created by downloading songs for Rock Band 1 and 2 (or imported RB1 for RB2).  This definitely gives LRB some additional milage.

As a music game LRB really shines for younger kids who want to play the game but may not have the co-ordination to play even on easy.  Harmonix has added a Very Easy mode which to many veteran RB players would consider having all of the fun taken away, but for really young players who have taken a shine to the indomitable litte brick, this is a fantastic addition.

Fun for the whole family, LEGO Rock Band is a great game for trophy hunters as well.  If you already have plastic instruments in the house (and kids as well), LEGO Rock Band is worth picking up.

Glorious Kratos

It has been too long since I've posted anything about gaming or otherwise but I have to admit that my silly attempt at hunting trophies in February took a bit of a toll on my desire to game, track trophies, and write about my experiences all the while working and keeping up with my kids.

During the time since I last posted anything I have played through Modern Warfare 2, continued a second play through of Dragon-Age: Origins, rocked through LEGO Rock Band, visited the battlefield of Vasari in Killzone 2, destroyed the Secret Armory of General Knoxx and killed Zeus in God of War 3.

I have always been drawn to the iconic character of Kratos even before owning a PS3 (and of course not ever owning a PS2).  Something visually menacing about the white ghost frame with the red battle tattoos has always drawn me to the character.  In addition to the look of Kratos, add his Blades of Chaos and the sheer rage that bubbles out of Kratos with every attack and I can't help but get sucked into the Greek tragedy that is the God of War story.

Earlier this year I took to task the completion of the God of War Collection (re-mastered in HD for the PS3) and found myself really enjoying God of War 1.  During my play through of GoW1 I won a copy of Bayonetta which arrived conveniently enough as I was finishing GoW1.  Going into Bayonetta I wasn't quiet sure what to expect other than knowing it would be at minimum a button mashing experience like GoW1.  As it turns out Bayonetta is a whole lot more than just button mashing.  Rather Bayonetta is well tuned combat experience balancing button mashing combos and a fluid dodge mechanism that gives the Umbran witch the upper hand.  Plowing through GoW1 and then Bayonetta, I had planned on going back to the Collection and complete the God of War 2 story so that the whole arc was fresh in my mind by the time God of War 3 came out.

Then something happened.  I loaded up God of War 2, started the initial battle and realized two things.  First off, my hands were tired of button mashing.  Secondly, I wasn't inspired by Kratos.  Perhaps it was the fact that I was expecting more from the second iteration of Kratos' story, figuring that the graphics would get a notch crisper and the story telling would be able to one up everything from GoW1.  I think overall it had more to do with the fact that last gen gaming compared to current gen gaming, while solid on it's own, just doesn't have the same resonance when compared to the latest and greatest.  Perhaps after playing Bayonetta and becoming used to that style of combat and defense I wanted more of that but in a different skin.  Or perhaps I realized that even though Kratos looks cool, he is basically just an angry dick.

I turned to shooters and music for a bit to help erase the mindset of button mashing and angry war gods (a topic or two worth mentioning at a later date) but after chatting with a co-worker and listening to several podcasts I was determined to see if I was wrong about Kratos after all.

I admit that I did not go out and buy GoW3.  I did buy several Slurpees to get the Kratos Dynamic theme for my XMB, but my feelings about GoW 3 kept me from dropping 60$ for a game that can essentially be finished in 10-12 hours.

Sliding the disc into the PS3, the game loads up quickly and immediately begins a gorgeously designed silhouetted recap of the events from the first two games.  As with the second game, Kratos begins with his full powers but quickly has them stripped away in his initial confrontation with the gods he wishes to kill.  I'll admit I'm a fanboy of the PS3 because of the rich visuals that can be created from the console.  God of War 3 wastes no time in proving just how vast and awesome the graphics can be.  The fidelity and depth of field that is conveyed in the initial battle as Kratos climbs up a the Titan Gaea while she is climbing up Mt. Olympus leaves you awestruck.  So much rich texture and detail is moving across the screen at all times while the camera zooms from one battle to the next in quick succession showing just how huge the battle of Titans versus gods versus Kratos really is. 

Camera work is masterfully handled allowing you to see everything important going on, long enough to grasp what is expected, and then pans along to the next objective, all the while the massive Titan is being rocked by water hydras, flaming boulders and swarms of arrows raining down.  Epic.  Truly epic.

As the initial jaw dropping moments wane, you finally start to appreciate the detail that has been given to Kratos.  Whether the camera is zoomed in close to see individual pores, scars and sweat on Kratos' face or pulled back to the point where Kratos can only be identified by his flaming Blades of Chaos, every action that you give to Kratos just feels right.  Jumping, attacking, dodging, Kratos moves with a determination that (to me at least) was lacking at the beginning of God of War 2.

Without giving too much away I feel that the developers at Santa Monica studio really took pride in every aspect to create such a rich game.  Each environment feels unique and they take advantage of the power that the PS3 provides.  A new element of game play is the head of Helios, which acts as a flashlight, flashbang grenade, and tool for revealing hidden treasures. Color lighting also is exceptional and is reminiscent of the light saber battle at the end of Star Wars Attack of the Clones. 

In addition to the new Helios power, Kratos also collects additional weapons along the way that behave similarly to the Blades of Chaos but effect either the creatures you battle differently or help to remove obstacles in the environment.  In the previous titles the additional weapons that Kratos picks up all feel secondary and almost unnecessary; however, the new weapons not only feel and act differently, but are definitely necessary to continue through environments and waves of enemies.  When Kratos picks up Hercules' fists, they are needed for destroying shielded creatures as well as environmental amber crystals.  The Claws of Hades summon various souls that are unlocked as the game progresses which act as a pet to help battle the waves of enemies.  The Claws of Hades also are used to bring various specters out of a plane of existence that allows them to attack but not be attacked until sucked into the physical realm.  Several other weapons are also obtained and can be accessed by either selecting them from the D-pad or by the newly mapped quick select (L1+X) which is a great addition to game and allows you to cycle through the available weapons while in the heat of battle without having to move your thumb from the left analog stick.

All of the great weapons and rich environments only take the game halfway to being a complete experience.  As I mentioned above, after finishing God of War 1 and immediately jumping into 2, I quickly became disillusioned by Kratos' rage and need for vengeance.  Something spoke to me fairly early into the game this time however and I think it was the performance by Rip Torn as Hephaestus.  Torn's voice work is really strong and you can feel the sorrow Hephaestus has endured for so many years.

In addition to Torn's work as Hephaestus I was surprised by Kratos' reaction toward Pandora herself and his need to find and protect her (almost as a way to forgive himself for the slaughter of his own wife and daughter in GoW1) perhaps spoke to my fatherly instincts in a way that I wasn't expecting for a game that thrives on bloodshed and revenge. By the time Kratos reaches Pandora I had become completely sucked in and wanted to see how saving the young Pandora would help Kratos defeat the gods of Olympus.

Many have complained that the end of God of War 3 was a bit of cop out. While the battle between Kratos and Zeus isn't much different from any of the previous battles I was really impressed by the fact that moments within the battle were something you would find in classic Disney movies instead of (again) a game that thrives on bloodshed and revenge. Perhaps it is due to the power of the PlayStation, but the fact that Santa Monica studios broke up the end battle with a few minutes of pantomime shadow figures was something new and really added a touch of class that could have easily been skipped. To those who say that video games aren't art, I'd challenge them to play the final battle of Zeus and Kratos and say that that isn't art. Highly stylized and perfectly implemented, the final moments of the game really cap the story for all three games.

For as rich and creative the ending is, one of my biggest complaints with the game go back to the complaints that I have with GoW1. Some environmental puzzles in the games in the game are so completely ridiculous that they really take you out of the entire experience. First off, whoever thought putting a musical rhythm segment in should be put on a different project. While the idea of playing a refrain from the game's score to unlock the next part of the game is a cool idea, the overall design was bad. I don't want to play Rock Band in God of War, I want to kill, maim, and destroy enemies. Playing a mock pipe organ to unlock a puzzle using musical quick time moments really destroyed the moment for me.

My other big environmental complaint is during the labyrinth. There is a cube room in which enemies spawn to attack; all the while sections of the floor have spikes that pop up from the floor in a pattern of alternating corners of the floor, eventually popping up across the whole floor. While that puzzle doesn't sound bad, what makes it a horrible moment is the fact that when the entire floor becomes spikes, Kratos needs to latch onto a harpy that is flying above the room, but since there are many different enemies on the floor attacking, Kratos doesn't always latch on to the harpy to pull himself up in time resulting in insta-death. Making things worse is the fact that once you do latch onto a harpy, the cube room rotates and you drop down on to the new floor to face the same situation but with the floor spikes popping up in a different pattern. When you die you end up having to start over from the first floor again. This ranks right up there in the "Seriously, why the hell did anyone think that this was fun?" category. One of the on-disc documentaries shows Stig Asmussen (director for God of War 3) testing out a section during development and he comments (paraphrased) "This is not fun, but frustrating; I've already died four times and want to put the controller down." Obviously many iterations of various sections were tested and re-done, but to me the cube of death in the labyrinth was one section that needed to be baked a bit more.

Even though there are a few really rough moments in the game, I cannot say enough to really praise God of War 3. The game is a visual masterpiece. Obviously I'm not alone in thinking that the game is good as it has already sold over a million copies in less than a month of being released. While that's nothing compared to the dreck that is Modern Warfare 2, it says a lot about gamers wanting more than just a rehash of last year's shooter. God of War 3 is definitely a game that is not for kids (gory dismemberment, curb stomping deaths and jiggly boobs to name a few) but this is most certainly a showcase title that needs to be experienced by anyone who has ever called themselves a gamer.