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Rayman Legends Demo Impressions

Last night, I had my first “wow” experience with Nintendo’s new Wii U console. It wasn’t with any of the late-to-the-party ports or even a first-party offering. It was with the demo for Ubisoft’s upcoming Rayman Legends, now available for download. It’s just three levels, but it’s one of the most exciting, refreshing, and innovative gaming experiences I’ve had all year. It’s heartfelt, beautiful, and genuinely whimsical in a way that no cheapjack indie clone coasting along on fake 8-bit chic or even Nintendo’s own nostalgic Super Mario Bros. Wii U is. It’s joyful, full of love for video gaming and without a trace of the kinds of commercial cynicism or insulting lowest-common-denominator condescension that have become endemic in the industry.

It’s a 2D platformer with 3D elements, much like last year’s terrific Rayman Origins. Ancel’s trademark comics style is rendered in an all-new engine, and it looks amazing in 60FPS, native 1080P. Maybe it’s just the shock of the new talking, but I think it looks better than just about anything on either the 360 or PS3. Gameplay is classic platforming, at its root not really all that far removed from the original Rayman- or the original Super Mario Bros. for that matter.

But the key here is that Rayman Legends feels like a very now, very current game. This is the platformer of today. It’s not an aw-shucks genuflection to the good old days. This is a game designed with innovation in mind, drawing on recent game design elements to create a new- and original experience that really, really should have been a Wii U launch title. I haven’t seen anything yet that makes a better case for the console.

Rather than trotting out Mario in another animal costume, Rayman Legends gives platformer fans something new by bringing in brilliant use of recent concepts such as touchscreen gameplay and motion control. There are elements of auto-runners like Canabalt. There are hints of IOS games like Cut the Rope. And in one astonishing segment, “Castle Rock”, the rolling lane of a game like Rock Band or Guitar Hero is subversively hidden in the rhythm-based level design. The result is a glorious symphony of sound, vision, and movement. I don’t think I’ve played any video game this year or even in the past few years that felt so vibrant, alive, and crackling with celebratory energy.

I’m excited about this game because it feels like something new yet it remains a firm example of a classic but somewhat old fashioned video game genre. Most refreshingly, there isn’t a lick of tiresome irony, bullshit hipster intellectualism, or even postmodern revisionism. I’m not going to describe anything that goes on in it, or any of the many happy surprises that happen in just the three levels of this demo. You need to discover those for yourself. From what I understand, the demo is on the in-store display kiosks and I can’t recommend enough that you go check it out if you don’t have a Wii U.

Quick Take on the X-COM: Enemy Unknown Demo

To dismiss with this point first, I know Firaxis calls the game XCOM and not X-COM. Screw that noise. We all know better. As for the demo, there’s not a whole lot that can be said about it. It’s very, very brief, taking you through two largely scripted missions and then depositing you at the menu. This isn’t a demo so much as it is a guided tour, so there’s a lot we don’t know (at least those of us, like me, not on the golden ticket list for preview code), including just how much freedom of play the actual game will offer. This was extremely restrictive, but it hints at a world of promise. Here’s what I can tell you based on the 50 or so minutes it took to go from beginning to end on the PC…

– The game looks good. The environments, soldiers, and aliens are all visually appealing. It was easy to play this and think back on what the original looked like and simply be impressed with how far we’ve come. The thought of taking the experience of yesteryear and making it look like this is delicious.

– The tactical element is alive and well. In the first mission you can only do exactly what the game tells you to do. The second mission opens it up a bit more so that, by the end of it, you’re making your own calls. At this point that glorious old feeling returns – moving your squaddies around from point to point, trying to limit their exposure, and find the ideal moment to rip off a shot at a concealed alien. Sometimes with this kind of remake attempt you’re sternly reminded how rose-colored glasses can taint memory. Not so here. The X-COM formula can still work and it’s obvious with even just a half mission to really play.

– It’s playable. If you tried to play the original X-COM and found it all too convoluted, either originally or in trying to make it work today (which it really doesn’t so much), you’ll find this a much more approachable experience. It’s possible, for long term play, it’s oversimplified, but I appreciated in the demo the simplicity of each soldier having two actions to make that can consist of two moves or a move and fire. (There’s some variation here, but at its simplest, this is how it works.)

– The squaddies are distinguishable. For X-COM to work, having an attachment to your squaddies is essential and, although it doesn’t let you make any real decisions about squad composition, it’s clear that element is there. By the second mission I found myself wanting to protect my lone veteran soldier, ensuring he was in position to both have the greatest impact –Go rocket launcher! Go!– and not be exposed to aliens hiding in the shadows. The national flags on the back of each soldiers armor was a nice touch.

– All this does not mean the game is out of the woods. The formula may work, but it’s not at all evident from the demo how much variability and freedom the game will have. I’m not saying it won’t be there, but this demo is so limited that almost nothing of long-term value can be deduced from it. Research, mission selection, and more appear to be very A-B choices right now. Do the mission in the US and get some scientists or do the mission in China and get some money. Either way one country will like you and won will resent you for it, so it’s really just about which reward you want. I doubt all mission selection will be this binary, but if it is that would suck. I’m not for or against the action camera yet (see the screen above). It adds a certain something right now, but will it get as tiresome as slow-mo deaths in Fallout 3/New Vegas? It could. (Not that it matters all that much. You can turn it off.)

– The PC controls work. I’m not going to tell you that there’s no console design influence at play here, because there obviously is, but you can effectively use them and they don’t feel kludgey. The reality is this is not a PC-only game and to expect a more advanced/complicated interface is unrealistic. The only thing to hope for is that there’s a fair balance that doesn’t feel wholly compromised and that effort looks successful.

All in all I do wish the demo offered more, but that’s a testament to the fact that what it offered sets the stage for a game that could be every bit as remarkable as the original so long as, when the training wheels do come off, what’s left is an experience that’s every bit as variable, tense, and outright hilarious as we’re being led to believe. I’ve put a bunch of shots in the included gallery. Hopefully it works since I’m not used to doing those.

Download This Demo: Unity of Command

One of the best strategy/wargames of the year, or maybe the past few years, is now available in demo form on both PC and Mac. Unity of Command is a wonderful piece of game design and you really need to give it a whirl.

Remember, even the esteemed Jon Shafer thinks so too.

Don’t be intimidated by that screenshot, this is a streamlined design that is a step up from Panzer General but not super detailed like a chit-based wargame. It’s excellent.

You can buy Unity of Command direct from Gamersgate for $29.99 and is worth every penny.

Spec Ops: The Line Demo Impressions

Here I am contemplating life without Geralt, having beaten The Witcher 2 last night. So I can either play a $1, no-case copy of Marvel Ultimate Alliance I found at a thrift store, the apparently buggy-as-hell Silent Hill HD collection, or I can chase the words “Tom Chick” down a Trials Evolution track, constantly breaking my gummy bones to try to catch video games’ most notorious writer. Instead of all of the above, I just checked out the Spec Ops: The Line demo that’s out on XBLA and PSN. I’ve heard good buzz about it, so I was definitely interested although I’ve never played any other Spec Ops games. I guess I may as well have having played every other game with army men in them.

“Edgy” menu screen. Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner” over an image of sand-buried Dubai and an upside down (OOH!) American flag, washed out in the sun. Moral ambiguity? A questioning of American foreign policy? This is a game where you shoot white people as well as brown people, so it could be a STATEMENT. Then it starts out with a helicopter minigun sequence. Right out of the gate, we’re halfway down Piece of Shit Boulevard.

And so Gears of Duty begins, at least two missions of it. It’s a third person, cover shooter with decent controls and surprisingly good shooting. I especially like that, unlike the Locust, you can shoot a bad guy in the face and they die immediately. There’s a couple of commands you can issue to your squad mates, but they seem to be there more to make you feel like there’s stratergery than anything else. But by and large, Gears of Duty is the best possible way to describe the game. Set piece battles, dramatic beats, waist-high walls. roadie runs, the whole thing. Even ziplining and Michael Bay-class bombast executed by talkative soldiers that apparently had a hit or two of Super Soldier Serum before boots on the ground.

The story is potentially interesting, but by now we should all expect the single-player campaign to be five hours long, ruthlessly linear, and occuring almost entirely in corridors and the occasional open areas. One hook is that you’re in Dubai and the whole city has been buried by massive sandstorms. That’s pretty neat at first glance, but then you realize that it’s yet another blown-to-shit, battle damaged urban setting to shoot your way through. The other is that in addition to the survivors of this sandy apocalypse, you’re also fighting- duhn-duhn-duhn! Rogue American soldiers, Unit 33 or something of that sort. The dialogue hints at shocking secrets, the CIA, and all kinds of duhn-duhn-duhn.

Whatever. The line is that this is likely a competent but completely unremarkable AAA pretender that will hit in June- with virtually no competition in its space- to hesitant scores in the Metacritic 70-80 range, with critics trying to find something of note to hang on to another middle-of-the-road title that, at this point, demonstrates absolutely no differentiators or compelling reasons for the consumer to purchase. I love shooters, I like Call of Duty and Gears of War but this demo just made me want to go back to playing those better and more established games.

It also reminded me, oddly enough of an obscure movie. Richard Stanley’s great metaphysical horror film Dust Devil. It’s set in South Africa, is very sandy, and it has some simliar color. There’s also a great scene in it that takes place in a movie theater filled with sand, which is reminiscent of some of the scenes in the demo. I liked being reminded of Dust Devil, but that has almost nothing to do with the game other than the fact that the demo bored me to the point where I was thinking more about that picture than shooting people.

There’s potential in the multiplayer because the shooting is decent. Oh, who am I kidding. It’ll probably be the usual control point crap, unlocks, a couple of guys that apparently hit the level cap on day two after launch, and some paid DLC maps somewhere along the line. Oh, and probably an online pass. Which means I will never see it, because if I play any more of this game it’s going to be a rental or a less-than-$10 used copy that will likely be available by the end of the year.

Geralt…I miss you, man.

Mass Effect 3 Demo Impressions

No High Scores

Like any good FemShep enthusiast, I downloaded the Mass Effect 3 demo last night and took my time on the bike this morning to put it through its paces. I’m not sure why, really, as I have every intention of picking up the game when it launches in March. In fact, my copy has been paid off since before Batman: Arkham City launched as I paid for both of them at the same time. I guess I downloaded it because even though I know I’ll be playing the game when it comes out, I really enjoy playing Mass Effect, so if I get to play some new stuff early, I’ll do it.

At the risk of being incredibly pithy and offering an opinion that has little or no value, here’s my take on the game: it’s Mass Effect.

Again, I know that’s a pretty worthless statement, but at the same time, I once knew a guy who said he’d like Halo a lot more if it contained none of the design elements that made it Halo. I’m not saying that line of thinking makes any sense, just that it’s out there.

Now that we’ve established that Mass Effect 3 is, in fact, Mass Effect, let’s move on…

The demo consists of what appears to be the opening level in the game as well as a mission set sometime mid-game. They don’t waste any time setting things up, nor do they spend any time explaining why you have no powers when, based on how many times you ran Shepard through ME2, you may have ended your last adventure with godlike powers. Maybe they explain that later, but the beginning is all “Reapers! Oh noes! Run! Shoot! Vault!” and then it’s over. Along the way they tell you how to run and shoot and use the abysmal cover system (more on that later) before ending with an “emotional” moment that anyone could see coming from a mile away in the typical ham-handed way that video game writers seem to feel portrays loss but ends up making you roll your eyes so hard they pop out of your head.

I didn’t spend a lot of time configuring Shepard in the facial department, so I don’t know how robust the customization is in the demo. I did like that the demo starts by making you agree to the EA online terms of service even though I don’t have access to the online part of the demo. I figured that going through bullshit online hoops to then be denied online or single player content based on some sort of server malfunction or arbitrary restricting of content would prepare me for the future, if past EA/BioWare online shenanigans were to be trusted. One has to laugh, lest one say “fuck it” and go back to Pong.

Any way, you can pick Shepard’s origins and say who died in previous games, including an all encompassing “There were many losses” or something like that. Me, I wish that choice was titled “Mistakes were made.” If so, I would have laughed my ass off. Alas, there’s no laughing when Reapers are hell bent on destroying us. Once you’ve established which crew member died because of your incompetence, you can pick you class and be on your way. I stuck with my ME and ME2 class, the Vanguard, because I suspected that I didn’t want to play ME3 as this class, what with it being somewhat useless in ME2. I was right, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

Before jumping into the story, I took some time to peruse the additional options and found some interesting stuff. For one, you can turn off conversations in their entirety, instead allowing the game to make conversation choices for you. I didn’t see an option to have Shepard lean towards Paragon or Renegade, so I’d love to see how they handle that. I think they should make it random and make it seem that Shepard is completely off her rocker, with absolutely no moral compass to speak of. They also give you the option of choosing how to play the game, aside from the normal difficulty options. You can play it as a story, which reduces the number of combat encounters. You can play it as an action game which has all conversations as cut scenes, or you can play it as an RPG. Obviously I chose to play it as an RPG, but woe befall whoever has to review this game and is forced to play multiple hours in the different modes to see how different they are. I know it’s not going to be me.

You hear that Bill? It. Won’t. Be. Me.

One of the oddest choices I saw, in fact, one of the oddest choices I’ve ever seen in any game, ever, is the option of when Shepard takes her helmet off. You can have her leave it on all of the time, or take it off for “most” conversations. As someone who was forced to watch Shepard not only throw back a drink through her full face helmet, but also make out with Liara through the very same helmet, I have to wonder just who in the nine hells would want Shepard to keep her helmet on during conversations? It makes zero sense. Worse, it’s not all conversations, it’s most conversations, so you know there’s a cut scene where Shepard is eating a Bomb Pop through her helmet and I’m going to get up and kick a hole in my projection screen. Personally, I don’t think they went granular enough. I think they should have had the ability to tick various options and on off so that I can have a Shepard that keeps her helmet on for talking, eating candy bars and licking poisonous toads but takes it off for kissing, catching snowflakes on her tongue and licking envelopes. Come on BioWare, why you gotta hate on choice?

Once the demo gets going there’s all sorts of sturm und drang about the Reapers, because even though Earth is, literally surrounded by ships, the Reapers show up with zero warning and start blowing the city up. So much for planetary defenses. Before the shooting starts, you get to see the new Freddie Prinze Jr. character, complete with stupid pseudo-mohawk and you get to see Ashley, provided you didn’t let her die. Ashley looks good, but I swear she was checking out Shepard’s ass. I don’t blame her. Shepard has a fantastic ass, and the new redheaded “official” Shepard is quite well done, but I don’t remember Ashley playing for the other team. In fact, I know she doesn’t because in ME I tried to get her into bed on multiple occasions only to get shot down. My Shepard’s sexuality is somewhat fluid, having had relations with Liara and Jacob, so I know a little about switching things up. Maybe the animators were going for a look of begrudging admiration, but they ended up with “I am so gonna tap that ass.” Again, I don’t blame her, I am quite sexy, it just came from out of nowhere.

There’s some combat in the early part of the demo, but nothing significant. That comes in the later mission when you have to help Mordin get a Krogan female off of some Salarian planet while Cerberus tries to stop you. They put the Krogan female in some sort of full body veil, which I thought was interesting in that they let you know that it’s a female Krogan without trying to make some sort of biological differences. After seeing lizard boobs in Skyrim, I’ve seen enough of my share of scaly bosoms so I’m more than happy with this. This just further cements the notion of the Krogan being the dwarves of the Mass Effect universe. They’re gruff, incredibly hardy, go insane in combat and are the only ones that can tell the females of their species apart from the males. I also liked the line about Wrex not being able to resist a fertile female, because nothing wakes one up in the morning quite like the notion of crazed Krogan sex.

I liked that BioWare added a more combat heavy portion of the demo and that they jumped you forward and gave you a bunch of skill points to allocate. The ability to choose between two paths for your powers is a nice tweak, as is the ability to jump between the paths. By that I mean that you can use the Path A choice when you upgrade your power to level 4 and then use the Path B option for level 5. It’s a little more RPGish than the stuff in ME2 which only allowed a choice once you leveled a power all of the way up.

What I didn’t like about the combat heavy portion is how utterly shitty the cover system still is. Cover seemed clunky and twitchy and worse, the game allowed me to keep moving along cover even once the cover ended, causing Shepard to pop up like a Whack-A-Mole only to promptly get shot and killed. Me not remembering how to apply health packs certainly didn’t help, but the point is that if cover stops, you need to give the player a choice as to what they want to do. Let them decide if they want to come up from out of cover or if they want to stay there and reevaluate. Don’t just pop a dude up and get him shot in the face. That’s just rude. Also, the slowing down in the middle of a run because your shield shattered is extremely annoying, especially when you have no choice but to run full force into a hail of gunfire. Oh hey, are you losing health? Here, lose more health!

On a similar note, I was disappointed to see that my beloved Vanguard class is not going to be a viable option for me in Mass Effect 3. The specialized biotic power, the ability to catapult yourself, Cannonball style towards your enemy and stun them, was more of a liability than anything else in ME2 and the trend continues here. Worse is that your submachine gun, one of your close quarters weapons, is incredibly twitchy and inaccurate with an amazing amount of recoil. I spent all of my time rocking an assault rifle in this demo. That shouldn’t happen. A Vanguard should be all pistols, SMGs and shotguns. Maybe if you’re playing on easy or you’re taking the story approach to the game then the Vanguard is a more viable option, but I found myself regretting my class choice more and more as the demo wore on. I guess it’s good that I found this out now and not five hours into the game but still, it’s disappointing. Oh well. If they’re not going to explain why Shepard doesn’t have her powers, I don’t have to explain why she decided to change classes. My hope is that I can import my Shepard, make a class change and have it still count as a run through with a ME2 character for achievement purposes.

All of my gripes aside, I still enjoyed the hell out of this demo as it had all of the things I’ve come to expect, good and bad, from the Mass Effect series. With SSX releasing a scant week before ME3, I can’t guarantee that I’ll jump into ME3 as soon as it comes out, but it will be shortly thereafter. I’m curious to see how the various play style options make a difference, especially for something like an Insane run done for achievements. If the story play style really does tone down the combat, I’m all over that for those achievements. In the end, the demo did what it was supposed to do, namely get me excited for the game. I’m not sure how many people who haven’t played the first two will be willing to give this one a try, so the demo does feel like BioWare is preaching to the choir, but at the same time, Modern Warfare 3 sold more than enough copies to support the idea that a sequel, even a threequel, can bring in lots of new players.

My understanding is that the online portion unlocks on the 17th, so I’ll try and revisit then and see if adding multiplayer to a single player RPG ends up being as bad as an idea as it sounds. Good thing I haven’t made up my mind or anything.