In this month's column, Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla checks out Metal Gear Solid 4, Mario Kart Wii, Ninja Gaiden II, Lost Planet: Colonies Edition and Okami.
You ever come home from work, sit down and decide to throw on a game? You start playing that game for a while and you soon realize that it's like two o'clock in the freakin' morning! You know why that happens? It's because you're playing a winner. I mean, c'mon, that's not news to any of us as gamers. We can all recall the days as kids when we would play the original NES until we passed out, only to start playing it again in the morning, with a bowl of half-eaten soggy cereal in warm milk sitting in the corner. That was the life, my friend!
That doesn't mean we can't live those days again. Right now the game industry is one of those industries where you can't say "they don't make then like they used to anymore," because there is a variety of great games out there. Sure, they don't look the same or play the same as the oldschool stuff, but give credit where credit is due; it's a great time to be a gamer because the quality of games nowadays is the highest it's been in years (well, all except for the games from last month's article, that is.) If you're really looking for some quality out of the game industry, then let me introduce you to a handful of winners in this month's edition of "Press Start"!
Metal Gear Solid 4 for the PlayStation 3; Publisher: Konami; Developer: Kojima Productions; Release Date: June 12, 2008; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action/adventure; Players: 1; Support: DualShock 3 rumble; Online: N/A
Wow, this game has a ton of backstory! I'm talking about story in the game and out of the game. Let's talk about the Metal Gear Solid series for a second. If you are lucky enough (or old enough) to own the very first PlayStation system, then it's a safe bet that you have played Metal Gear Solid. Needless to say, it was outstanding; complex and enjoyable gameplay, a huge array of weapons and items, engaging story, excellent graphics for that time and, of course, all the little extras that catered to the gamer's heart -- like "Psycho Mantis," the boss who can read your mind and also read your memory card and tell you what other games you've been playing, not to mention physically looking on the back of the game case to find Meryl's radio frequency.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was the first Metal Gear Solid title to hit the PS2, and it was also an excellent addition to the series, with more of the same from the first MGS. Metal Gear Solid 3 changed things up a bit with a jungle setting and, although it still had the typical MGS top-down view, there was no radar. Although this made some sense in the story, it also made the gameplay unapproachably hard! Later Konami released MGS3: Subsistence, which was a remake of the same game with a few much-needed fixes, such as the new ability to view the game in a third-person camera angle instead of the fixed, top-down view. Shortly after that, every Konami employee was made to write "No more top-down camera angles" on a chalkboard 100 times!
At last we come to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. This is the first MGS title for the current-gen home systems and it is a serious piece of work. First and foremost, fans instantly noticed that the main character, Solid Snake, looks like Sean Connery. Snake is suffering from a condition that is causing him to age rapidly. The graphics in MGS4 make it the first game on the PS3 to truly take advantage of the huge digital capacity of Sony's Blu-ray Disc media. The graphics in MGS4 actually play a huge part in the new cloaking system. Players can have Snake press up against a wall or lay down on the ground and his suit will automatically duplicate the color and texture of the wall or ground. Konami has also added a new threat system to MGS4; a faint white circle will appear around Snake when he's crouching, and parts of the circle will spike up if there is a threat near.
Gameplay is exactly what you would expect from an MGS title. Holding down L2 will bring up the items menu, while holding down R2 will bring up the weapons menu. Typical gameplay controls just like an action/adventure game should control; character movement with the left stick, camera control with the right stick. Konami has also added an over-the-shoulder view when aiming weapons, which is a huge selling point in this game. Players could only aim using the iron-sight in previous MGS titles, which meant that it was as if you were actually holding a gun and looking through the sights. Players can also change the aim to be from Snake's left or right shoulder at any time, which makes shooting a heck of a lot more satisfying.
The story line sparks up a whole tidal wave of nostalgia for the MGS fan. Big characters make a return to this installment of MGS, including Otacon, Roy Campbell, Raiden and Meryl. Some new characters have also been added this time around, such as the weapons dealer Drebin and his creepy hairless monkey. There's not much to complain about in this version of Metal Gear, except for the fact that the dialog is still a little cheesy at times -- but nowhere near as cheesy as the first MGS. In short, this is the number-one reason to own a PS3.
Mario Kart Wii for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Nintendo; Developer: Nintendo; Release Date: April 27, 2008; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: kart racing; Players: 1-4; Support: Miis, Wii Wheel, classic controller, GameCube controller; Online: multiplayer online races and battles
The king of kart has finally returned! Everyone loves the Mario Kart series; if you don't like the Mario Kart series, then there must be something wrong with you. Every Mario Kart that has ever existed has had its own style, from the first-ever SNES Kart right on up to the GameCube and Nintendo DS Karts. Of course, the latest version -- Mario Kart DS -- has been the greatest Kart to ever hit the series, with the exception of having to deal with dirty, rotten "snakers" online.
This time around, not only has Nintendo fixed any flaws in the game, but they have also done what they typically do best, and that is throw some ingenuity into the mix. Mario Kart Wii is the newest addition to Nintendo's kart-racing series. Nintendo has shown Wii owners some love with the inclusion of a steering wheel designed specifically for play with Mario Kart. Players insert their Wii Remotes into the Wii Wheel and make like they're really driving the kart. Of course, Nintendo also figured that using a wheel and pantomiming driving a go-kart wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, so they also included the ability to use almost every other kind of control method that the Wii can possibly allow.
Graphically, the actual content in Mario Kart Wii, such as 3D models, texture mapping and particle effects, is only slightly better than Mario Kart: Double Dash for the GameCube, but Nintendo takes great care to preserve the awesome frame-rate that is essential in any racing game and always a staple in Mario Kart titles. Players also have the option of placing their created Mii characters into a kart and racing them alongside veteran favorite characters such as Mario, Bowser and Toad, and new characters such as Baby Mario and Baby Peach. Of course, the wide assortment of items makes races pretty "interesting," unless of course you're in first place, in which case you are dropping nothing but bananas and fake item boxes and praying to God that no one shoots you with a blue turtle shell.
Like I said, Nintendo has finally done away with "snaking," where players could constantly activate turn boosts down a wide road, gaining a ridiculously unfair advantage over any other player. This time around, boosts are performed by how long a player drifts into a turn and by performing stunts when flying off a jump. Stunts are completely new to the Kart series and help a lot when you've been hit with three different items and go from first place to 11th place (Yes. That happens quite often!)
Also, players can now play online -- as with Mario Kart DS -- only this time the online mode has been refined. Players can check rankings in overall and specific areas in the Mario Kart Channel. As always, players have the option to play on the same console using split-screen. Mario Kart Wii is the first Kart that gives players the option to race using a kart or a bike; there are big differences between using a kart and a bike and I'm sure the expert Kart players have already found ways to dominate with the bike. Mario Kart Wii might not be revolutionary, but using the Wii Wheel is fun and you just can't go wrong with the Mario Kart series.
Ninja Gaiden II for the Xbox 360; Publisher: Tecmo; Developer: Team Ninja; Release Date: June 3, 2008; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action / adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Ninjas are the coolest thing to happen to video games. The Ninja Gaiden games were freakin' awesome on the original NES, not to mention incredibly hard. Years later, Tecmo released a brand new Ninja Gaiden, with multiple iterations on the Xbox and one for the PS3. Then you got the awesome piece of work known as Ninja Gaiden DS, which was one of the games that restored my faith in portable systems. I thought it was about time that Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox got a sequel -- and that's exactly the same thought that Tecmo had. On comes Ninja Gaiden II in all its messy glory!
Now, when I say messy, I mean that in a very good way. Let me explain. The graphics were great in the first Ninja Gaiden for Xbox. In fact, Ninja Gaiden's graphics on the Xbox are great even by today's standards, but Ninja Gaiden II on the 360 takes the graphics to a whole... 'nother... level. (I couldn't help but take a quote from Eugene Struthers!) Of course the graphics in NG2 are amazing, but don't turn a blind eye to the animation, because it is some of the finest quality animation in any game. A bunch of new moves have been added, some of which made an appearance on Ninja Gaiden DS. The ridiculous combos in NG2 make the combos of its predecessor look almost conservative.
Now, I said "messy" earlier for a reason. Sure, there was blood in NG on Xbox, but now the enemies are like over-filled water balloons. The main character, Ryu Hayabusa, slices through baddies with the goriest of grace and actually has to shake off the blood from his sword after a battle. The Izuna drop doesn't just drop an enemy on his head anymore, it completely makes his head explode, leaving a greasy spot on the floor. Enemies will actually lose an arm or a leg in NG2, and here's the kicker: they'll still keep coming at you! This game's difficulty is no joke, but, luckily for us, there are a whole new set of weapons to butcher enemies with, like the chain scythe and a set of claws that looks like something The Shredder would wear.
The energy system has been re-imagined and is so much better this time around. Before, if you got hit, you lost energy, plain and simple. Now, a red bar starts building as you get hit, which will eventually take off chunks of energy as you take more damage; but if you are able to take only a small amount of damage, the red bar will refill your energy after a battle, giving you a fighting chance, because, like I said, this thing is freakin' hard. Along the way you will learn new moves and magic attacks, as well as come across familiar faces in the Ninja Gaiden world.
The story is the only thing about Ninja Gaiden II that could use some work, but, to be quite honest, you really won't care. This is an action game... period. Sure, there are some puzzles to solve, but the challenging and always spontaneous fights are what really warrant the purchase of this title.
It's always a pleasure to get your hands on a good, old-fashioned hack-n-slasher, especially one as good-looking as this.
Lost Planet: Colonies Edition for the Xbox 360 and PC; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: May 27, 2008; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: third-person shooter; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: various online multiplayer modes
Lost Planet is an acquired taste. What you got with Lost Planet was a really good third-person shooter with some minor problems. You always kind of felt like it was missing something, or it just needed more of what it already had. But I'm not reviewing Lost Planet, I'm reviewing Lost Planet: Colonies Edition. Of course, you're thinking, "Well, what the heck is the difference?" The difference is that Colonies is the "greatest hits" version of the original Lost Planet and Capcom is evolving the way greatest hits games are to be released. Gamers who waited to pick up this title not only get it for an outstanding price, but are also treated to so much new content that colonies isn't even compatible online with the original Lost Planet.
The story goes that the Earth has run out of natural resources and humankind has migrated to a planet that is total ice. Their most precious resource on this new planet is an orange "thermal energy," but the only way of obtaining thermal energy is by harvesting it from monsters called Akrid. The Akrid come in many different sizes, ranging from small and manageable, to Akrid the size of Pakistan! You play as Wayne, a main character who seems to have the absolute worst luck. Right from the beginning of the game, he faces the biggest Akrid, his dad dies, he gets amnesia, he get separated from his home and nearly freezes to death in the ice. He's found by a group of survivors and then given the task of finding more thermal energy.
Gameplay in the single-player mode is linear, but thoroughly enjoyable. You fight through armies of humanoid enemies and Akrid enemies, all the while collecting thermal energy. Every once in a while you will get to control a "Vital Suit," which is a robotic suit that can perform various actions and lay waste to tons of bad guys. There weren't many weapons in Lost Planet, but Colonies changed all of that. Players can not only pick up weapons like machine guns, shotguns and grenades, but they can also detach the much larger guns from Vital Suits and use them as handheld weapons. Wayne is also equipped with a grappling hook to get him to higher ground when needed.
Graphically, Colonies looks good. The Akrid are very well designed and very well animated, so they appear as intimidating as they should. As far as the environment goes, most of the environment is ice and snow, so how good can you really make ice and snow look?
Controlling the game is good, but some of the controls feel unnecessary. For example, the LB and RB buttons are used to spin your character instantly 90 degrees to the right or left, but if you set the aiming sensitivity to a high setting, you really don't need the 90-degree spin moves. If they just added one button that spun the character 180 degrees, as in The Club, that would be a welcome addition; that way the other button is free to serve another function. It really doesn't affect gameplay, so it's not a big loss.
There is only one thing about Lost Planet: Colonies that needs work and that is the dialogue. It feels like it's been translated from another language (which it has) and not much of it seems to fit the circumstances in which it's used. Lost Planet: Colonies only suffers slightly from these problems and is still a good shooter with lasting appeal.
Okami for the Nintendo Wii; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Ready at Dawn; Release Date: April 15, 2008; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: action / RPG; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
Ah yes, we've definitely been down this road before. Now, I'm normally not one for ports of older games, but I feel this one deserves some recognition for finally getting its proper placement. Okami is an action/RPG that came out for the PS2 a while back and was an insane ride through a cel-shaded adventure. Players take control of the main character, Amaterasu, a white wolf that looks identical to a legendary white wolf that saved the world once before.
The reason I say that this is an action/RPG is because there are so many elements that can be built up as you progress through it. Not only that, but the written dialogue provides so much engaging story to pore through. The reason I say that this title finally gets its proper placement is because, when Okami was first released and we were informed about the ability to paint using a magic brush, I thought, "Why isn't this game coming out on the Wii?" Controlling the brush with the Wii Remote would be an outstanding feature! Well, Capcom finally got the hint and so we finally get to experience Okami on the Wii.
The game plays exactly the same as the PS2 version. You can expect to see lots of fight scenes with many different enemies. You can also expect to perform a truckload of side missions that you will find when talking to the many characters in the game. The presentation of Okami on the Wii has been vastly improved. Because the Wii can push way better graphics than the PS2 could, it is now easier to recognize many different aspects of the game that were previously unrecognizable due to the PS2's lack of power and the abstractness of the graphics.
Also, Okami is now presented in widescreen format, which makes for outstanding gameplay simply because the world is so huge and players can now see more of the surroundings. This is especially great-looking when the game is connected to a high-definition TV with component cables rather then the composite cables that come with the Wii system. The only problem with Okami for the Wii is that it's a port. If you've already played through this enormous game before, then you probably won't want to go through it again for the extras in the Wii version unless you're a huge fan or you have tons of time on your hands. But if you've never played through this title before, then this is the perfect opportunity to do so.
Now, if you recall, Okami for the PS2 was developed by a company named Clover Studios, which was owned by Capcom and is now out of business. This version of Okami is produced by Ready at Dawn, whom you might remember as the developers of God of War: Chains of Olympus for the PSP. Because Ready at Dawn did such a great job with this new version of Okami, one might conclude that just because Clover Studios has been shut down doesn't mean that a sequel to Okami is not in the cards. Capcom could potentially release a new installment of Okami to a great response.
Peter Rizkalla is a lifelong aficionado of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in videogame companies such as THQ, Namco and 2K Games and has won several awards for his animated short films, such as his videogame-themed Flash film Toadstool Funk. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.