Peter "The Rizk" Rizkalla has a run at some pretty outstanding games this month, including Street Fighter IV, Afro Samurai, Big Bang Mini and F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin.
I hate bad days. I think the whole reason why I got into videogames in the first place was to let off steam. Come to think of it, I've actually been playing games since I was five. If relieving tension is why I started playing videogames, then I must have been one stressed out kid! Think about it, though: you ever have to pay a bill for something you don't even remember buying? You ever misplace something you really, really like? Oh, how about this one? You ever get a ticket!? Those are the kind of jacked up days where I wish the world was a basketball hoop and I was Shaquille O'Neal! I know it's bad when my wife actually has to say, "Babe, you look pissed. Play a game or something."
It's cool, though, and I'll tell you why. This month I got to check out Afro Samurai, F.E.A.R. 2, a couple of underground games -- Big Bang Mini and DJ Max Fever -- and everyone's favorite fighting game Street Fighter IV. If you had to give this "Press Start" a theme, it would definitely be something about putting together an outstanding game. Every one of these titles has come out with the intention to really dazzle and entertain -- and they do! I wouldn't be showing off crappy games this month, especially considering the mood I'm in. Anyway, check out the games we offer in this month's edition of "Press Start." And by the way, I really don't use a mouse and keyboard for fighting games. I use a dance mat.
Street Fighter IV for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Publisher: Capcom; Developer: Capcom; Release Date: February 17, 2009; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: fighting; Players: 1-2; Support: arcade joysticks; Online: ranked and player matches
Show me a gamer who used to hang around the arcades during the early '90s and I'll show you a Street Fighter fan. Show me a gamer who says that they don't really like Street Fighter and I'll show you a liar. You can't go wrong with this franchise; even non-gamers will recognize the signature characters Ryu, Guile and Chun Li. The last real Street Fighter title was Street Fighter III: Third Strike; every other Capcom fighting game after that was a spin-off from the core Street Fighter series and, believe me, Capcom certainly knows how to create spin-offs. Twenty years after the release of the first Street Fighter with more than two dozen iterations of the series and we're only at Street Fighter IV. Mind you, I'm not knocking Capcom for making any bad fighters, because almost all of them have been great, I'm only knocking Capcom for how long it takes them to count to four.
The story of Street Fighter IV actually takes place in between Street Fighter II and Street Fighter III. All of the original SF2 characters, including the bosses, have made returns with the exception of T. Hawk and Dee Jay -- and so begins the griping of bitter Dee Jay players. New to the Street Fighter cast are Rufus, C. Viper, El Fuerte and Abel. I think it's hilarious that our Japanese friends over at Capcom actually developed the two American characters, Rufus and C. Viper, in honor of North American gamers. Rufus is a seriously overweight, American martial artist, so I think to myself, "Is this really how the Japanese see us? As fat, martial arts wannabes? "I mean, c'mon! Sure, that's probably the conclusion that you'll come to if you've ever attended Comic-Con but that's not the point! Alright, alright, I'll let it go. A new, and very weird final boss by the name of Seth also makes his debut along with the return of Akuma and the first-ever appearance of Gouken, Ken and Ryu's master, who supposedly died at the hands of his brother Akuma. Gouken is kind of like Big Foot -- you know he's around, you know he's awesome but you've never really seen him. El Fuerte is actually not even a fighter; he's a chef with a penchant for Mexican-style, lucha libre wrestling. Abel is a French grappler who has lost his memory and is searching for clues to his past. He's a great fighter to use but his character is extremely soft-spoken. He's like a totally chilled-out version of Alex from Street Fighter III.
Since this is the first attempt at a 3D fighting system since the Street Fighter EX series, it has actually turned out great; it kind of feels like Street Fighter Alpha 3, only slower. Things have been simplified; every character still has an arsenal of three punches, three kicks, throws, special moves and a few unique moves. Special moves can be powered up into EX special moves the same way as in Street Fighter III. The super meter charges up to only one level whereas in past Street Fighters it could charge up to three levels. All characters have one Super move and one Ultra move. Super moves and EX moves, obviously, are charged up by attacking your opponent while Ultra moves charge up by taking damage. The Ultra moves have been added to Street Fighter IV to even the playing field so that guys who are being utterly worked can hit their Ultra and do some massive damage to their opponent and make a serious comeback. I found that Ultra moves cannot be connected from regular attacks, specials or EX attacks the way Super moves can, but it is very possible to connect an Ultra after knocking an opponent into the air and catching him in the Ultra move; this is called a juggle. Ultras can also be connected after stunning an opponent with a Focus Attack. Let's talk about the focus attack a little bit.
This is a new maneuver added to Street Fighter and every character in SF4 has one. A focus attack is an attack with a long animation that absorbs one of the opponents hits and retaliates with a hit that stuns the opponent leaving them open for whatever. Unlike parrying in Street Fighter III, focus attacks can only absorb one hit but it is much easier to do. Also, absorbing a hit with a focus attack will cause damage to your character but, as long as your character does not take any further damage after the focus attack, the damage will slowly be regenerated. Focus attacks can also be used quickly, but a quick focus attack will not stun your opponent. Quick focus attacks can also be linked into combos to add extra hits and do more damage to your opponent. At the risk of sounding like an infomercial: "But wait! There's more!" After starting a focus attack, players can perform a dash to cancel the focus attack which is great for baiting opponents into a trap or continuing a combo.
Almost any maneuver in Street Fighter IV can be linked to another maneuver, and as you play more and more you'll find some outstanding combo possibilities. In addition to the main arcade mode there is actually a trial mode in SF4 that challenges you to perform certain actions and combos just like the Kombo Challenge mode in Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe. Adding to the content of SF4 is a survival mode which tests how long you can survive through a gauntlet of opponents and a time-trial mode which challenges you to beat opponents within a certain time limit. Online play is a must for SF4, but, if you are going to play ranked matches, be prepared to face some seriously cheap players.
As you begin the arcade mode with each character, you are treated to an anime-style scene created by Japanese animation house Studio 4°C, which explains why your character has entered the tournament. This is the only gripe I have about the game: although they can be funny sometimes, the 2D anime sequences just don't feel on-model with the rest of SF4's 3D gameplay. People who picked up the Collector's Edition of SF4 are treated to a feature-length animated movie also created by Studio 4°C in the same art style as the in-game anime scenes. The film explains what happens between Street Fighter II and IV; it's a little long-winded in the dialogue department but don't be surprised if some scenes give you a goose bump or two.
Back to the main game, the 3D art style is an outstanding feat with some very well-done cel-shading, excellent lighting and a hand-painted style that, coupled with the outstanding animation and facial expressions, brings life to each character's personality the way you would imagine each character would be. Some of the character's facial expressions, after being hit, can be a little over the top, making it hard to take the game seriously sometimes but it's really not anything that would hold the game back. Street Fighter IV is easily the best fighting game on current gen consoles. The only fighting games that come close are Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix and Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe, which SF4 easily beats both due to the outstanding amount of content that SF4 offers.
Afro Samurai for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Publisher: Namco Bandai; Developer: Namco Bandai; Release Date: January 27, 2009; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: action-adventure; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: N/A
Two years ago an awesome anime with a hilarious name was released, called Afro Samurai. Not to be taken lightly for its goofy sounding name, the first 10 minutes of the anime dropped more F-bombs than any regular person could possibly fit into 10 minutes of speech. Afro Samurai is also known for its righteous fight scenes, buckets of 2D animated blood, the musical talents of the RZA from Wu-Tang Clan and the voice acting talent of everyone's favorite and most intimidating actor, Samuel L. Jackson. Namco Bandai has taken us to the front line and brought us the Afro Samurai game.
The story of Afro Samurai is actually not very deep. The main character -- who everyone just calls Afro -- witnessed his father get murdered when he was young. Afro's father wore the Number 1 headband, which was a sacred headband that showed every fighter who came in contact with its wearer that, basically, this was the baddest man on the planet. Anyone and everyone would challenge the Number 1 in order to become the new Number 1, hence why Afro's father died. Afro is now grown up and has killed so many people that he wears the Number 2 headband and is constantly looking for the man wearing the Number 1 headband in order to avenge his father. The story in the anime and the game are the same thing; the game is just a continuation of the anime.
Jackson returns to the role of Afro Samurai and his counterpart Ninja Ninja. RZA also returns to create new beats for the Afro Samurai game. The graphics in Afro Samurai are absolutely gorgeous. Everything is modeled in 3D but you would swear up and down that it looks exactly like the anime. The artists created texture maps that completely retain the look and feel of the anime right down to the penciled cross hatches across the characters faces during dimly lit scenes. As in the anime, Afro Samurai is set in a modern-day Feudal Japan. What that means is that everyone in the Afro Samurai world enjoys all the same technology that we have today but they have chosen to keep everything looking like it did in Feudal Japan. It's not uncommon to run across a 17th century Japanese hut with an air conditioning unit sticking out the back of it.
At its core, Afro Samurai is a hack-n-slasher. Afro can unleash huge combos consisting of light slashes, hard slashes and kicks. As you kill people you gain experience, which unlocks more and more combos. Afro can also perform focus slashes and other focus attacks which slow down time and allow you to dice up enemies with single slashes as long as your timing is right. The dialogue can get real comical and real niche; I nearly peed my pants when Jackson called me a "button-mashing mother f%$r!"
I loved the fact that there are so many different maneuvers and combos but the one thing that chafes my thighs is the fact that when you're low on health you have to kill enemies to regain it. This proves very difficult and you have about 20 guys coming after you. Even if you're slick enough to cut up a few guys to get some energy back, other enemies have a tendency of slashing you up from behind, knocking you back down to the energy level you worked so hard to climb up from. Thankfully, there are stuffed bears that are hidden throughout levels, which replenish your health when you find them.
The vulgarity and sexual innuendo are extremely over the top in this game. Yes, I know, the anime was the same, but in a game it not only becomes a distraction but also prevents you from taking the game seriously at times. Sometimes it will come to the point where you will see something and cynically say, "Oh, come on. Are you serious?" If you can look past these issues the game turns out to be a good hack-n-slash title. You won't find any content outside the main story mode but the game is fun to play and even more enjoyable to look at.
Big Bang Mini for the Nintendo DS; Publisher: SouthPeak; Developer: Arkedo; Release Date: January 21, 2009; ESRB Rating: E for everyone; Genre: shooter; Players: 1-2; Support: single-card multiplayer; Online: N/A
I'm really starting to like the SouthPeak guys. They only make two kinds of games: hardcore games that are meant to be real serious and games that make you think that these guys must be smoking something crazy. Big Bang Mini makes you think the latter. I mean, just look at the box! The box art is one of those animated pictures that moves when you tilt it from side to side. It has things like a dancing DS stylus and a golden pig tied to a bunch of balloons floating by and then getting blown up by fireworks! That is absolutely classic.
The idea behind Big Bang Mini -- from what I gather -- is that you are someone riding in a train and traveling from place to place and as you look out your window you see some crazy stuff happening. The window of the train looks like the top and bottom screens of the DS. You protect a small geometric shape on the bottom touch screen while enemies appear from all sides of the top screen and sometimes the bottom screen as well. You attack these enemies by striking the bottom screen like you would strike a match, which then shoots up fireworks in the direction that you strike. You use the fireworks to blast enemies out of the sky. As enemies shoot down projectiles you have to drag the small shape away from danger with the stylus. When you destroy enemies, they will explode into beautiful looking fireworks and drop a rainbow-colored star, which you need to pick up by dragging the shape to the slowly-falling stars. This is how you complete levels. If you miss enemies with your fireworks then the fireworks rain down projectiles that can harm your shape, so it's actually very possible to lose at your own hands.
The graphics of Big Bang Mini are gorgeous and abstract at the same time. Dazzling fireworks and creative and colorful enemies are constant throughout each locale. Speaking of locales, the game is divided into multiple locales and as you complete the levels of each locale, you will come to a boss battle. Winning the boss battle advances you to the next locale. Boss battles can get pretty hard and pretty weird at the same time. The bosses are about as weird as you would find in games like Power Stone 2. Be prepared to fight a wire frame King Tut head and -- my unconditional favorite -- a walrus wearing punk rock sunglasses with a rainbow Mohawk and riding a flying carpet. I swear I am not making this stuff up. The art style of the enemies, shapes and fireworks change with each locale and you will come to many different areas such as an ice level, and Egyptian level, a Japanese level and so on.
Big Bang Mini makes perfect use of the DS's touch screen capabilities and offers players a unique and, often, challenging experience. The levels are rather short and so you will probably plow through the entire game in just a few hours. Thankfully, there is a multiplayer mode which allows players to go head to head with just one cartridge. The multiplayer is actually amazingly good and gives players abilities to use against each other, which are not found in the main game. Not only does Big Bang Mini offer matchless gameplay but also the multiplayer aspect alone is worth the purchase of the game, and at a release price of $20 there is every reason in the world to play this gigantic acid trip of a DS title!
DJ Max Fever for the Sony PSP; Publisher: PM Studios; Developer: Pentavision Ent.; Release Date: January 27, 2009; ESRB Rating: T for teen; Genre: rhythm; Players: 1-2; Support: wireless multiplayer; Online: N/A
Holy crap. How long has it been since I even touched my PSP? The multiple layers of dust that have accumulated on the screen would indicate... a really, really long time. I put together a "Press Start" a long time ago talking about the importance of exclusive titles on the PSP -- or any system for that matter -- and how exclusive titles can either make or break the life of a system. Needless to say, if you've shelled out some dough for a PSP, chances are, you're probably pissed. There's just not a lot of titles for this system that'll make you geek-out. Leave it to the small-time game developers like PM Studios to come to the rescue of PSP owners before gamers abandon their PSPs into the waiting arms of Gamestop.
DJ Max Fever is a throw-back to old-school rhythm games like Beatmania and Hip-Hop Mania. The main game has players choose a song, which then takes you to a cell phone screen with notes falling from the top to the bottom of the screen. Players then press buttons at the right time as notes fall to the bottom line of the screen to progress through the song. Players have to hit the right button for each note in order to get the highest score possible. DJ Max Fever offers multiple levels of difficulty with game modes that start at using only four buttons for beginners all the way up to eight buttons for experts with easy, medium and hard difficulties for each mode. The songs you'll hear in Fever aren't any popular songs but rather various underground techno, dance and electronica beats as well an assortment of Korean songs. As you progress through Fever you will unlock a surplus of content, which has multiple effects on the game, such as turning your notes from simple dashes to hearts and changing the look of your cell phone. Players can also edit the speed at which the notes fall and even make the notes disappear altogether, creating an extreme challenge for players who have memorized the notes of the song.
Previous games in the same vein as DJ Max Fever, such as Beatmania, were often times unmercifully hard. Fever offers a little bit of leniency, if you want. Although you are required to hit the right button for each note, hitting any button will actually count as hitting the correct button. This means that you can complete an entire song with one button. This, of course, makes the game way too easy, but on the other hand, you also receive a 20% penalty for hitting the wrong button for each note. Fever also has a meter that fills as you hit the right notes during a song. Once the meter is full players can activate Fever Time, which is a lot like star power in Guitar Hero, giving the player double points for each correct note.
DJ Max Fever is fun because it is a great Beatmania-style rhythm game without having to purchase a special turntable controller. It's also worth the bucks because the music selection is catchy and enjoyable. The sheer amount of content in Fever will make you scream; modes that allow you to hear the songs by themselves as well as view the music videos are, in themselves, great reasons to own this title. My only regret about Fever is that there is no way to turn off the ability to hit any note with any button. Also, some of the music videos that play in the background during gameplay appear to be a little pixilated, but you'll probably be too busy hitting notes to really pay attention to the background videos. DJ Max Fever is great fun if you love rhythm games and playing it will definitely make your thumbs sore in the morning.
F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin for the Sony PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC; Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Ent.; Developer: Monolith; Release Date: February 10, 2009; ESRB Rating: M for mature; Genre: first-person shooter; Players: 1; Support: N/A; Online: ranked and player matches
Anyone who remembers the first F.E.A.R. remembers the embarrassment of being scared like a little girl by a little girl. F.E.A.R. first made its debut on PC, then made the move on over to the home systems. Plenty of expansion packs for both versions soon followed and F.E.A.R. soon became a mainstay among FPS fans. F.E.A.R. 2 continues where the first F.E.A.R. left off; well... sort of. You play as Sgt. Michael Becket; you and your squad are en route to capture a high-level target. All this is supposed to happen right before the very end of the first F.E.A.R. so it's kind of like what is happening in a different area of the F.E.A.R. story. The story of F.E.A.R. revolves around a little girl named Alma. When she was young, Alma's father discovered that she had powerful mental abilities that allowed her to manipulate people's minds as well as manipulate the physical world around her. Alma's father then locks her up in order to study her and make use of her abilities. You can probably guess what happens next. She breaks out of daddy's cage and now -- thanks to dear old dad -- she kills, maims and drives people insane. This is the story of the first F.E.A.R.; as you play through F.E.A.R. 2 you come to a point where you find out that Alma has actually grown up into a woman, only she doesn't realize it.
The visuals are superb. Character models are very convincing due to well-executed modeling and lighting techniques. You'll come across an assortment of ominous and down right creepy visuals like blood-smeared walls and dead bodies that each tells a story of how that character was killed. My favorite is the bloody dead guy sitting on the toilet in the men's room. I don't know whether to wet my pants from fear or wet my pants from laughter. Everything looks great; sometimes things get way too dark but that's nothing that a little brightness adjustment can't fix.
As far as the animation goes, the facial animations give very believable demeanors to every character in the game, but F.E.A.R. 2 's character animations unfortunately suffer from a dated animation technique. Although most of the animation looks great, the animators tried to create more personality by having the characters move their heads all around to communicate their attitudes. As a production technique, animators used to add boisterous head movements to give the characters more personality but nowadays developers don't need to add those kinds of movements because good facial animations do the job of giving characters personality just fine. It's a minute problem but it is noticeable. Aside from that, all the animations and rag-doll effects look great especially when you start coming across monsters.
The gameplay offers abilities like slowing down time to get clearer shots at multiple enemies. When time slows down, enemies will explode into piles of organs when they get shot; although this is a feature that has been done many times before in other games it fits the best and is the most helpful in F.E.A.R. 2. The whole feel of the game is a mix of survivor horror and modern military combat. It's kind of like BioShock but with more bullets, better guns and just a tiny splash of splicing. Thank God F.E.A.R. 2 has something that BioShock doesn't -- multiplayer. Players can go online and compete in "player" and "ranked" matches, which gives F.E.A.R. 2 some replay value after you beat the main game. The online multiplayer modes are not necessarily icing on the cake but rather the strawberries on the icing on the cake. F.E.A.R. 2 is like a graphical cocktail: the quality of the graphics is gorgeous but some of the more hideous scenes might just make you heave. What makes it fun is that it's more of the same from the first F.E.A.R. but with better graphics and a few new twists.
Peter Rizkalla is a life long enthusiast of videogames and the videogame industry. He has worked in various videogame companies such as THQ, Namco and 2K Games and avidly attends many game conferences and events. Peter can be reached at PRizkalla@gmail.com.