Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Phantasy Star Zero: longing for analogue

Phantasy Star Online is probably my favourite game, ever. I know I've said that about Populous: the Beginning before, and to be honest if I was forced to choose between them I'd have to toss a coin, but bear with me for now.

I've been looking forward to Phantasy Star Zero for ages. It was billed as a return to PSO, with new levels and quests but the same play mechanics, usable items, online gameplay and an upgraded picture chat system. The graphics looked really impressive for the DS - a bit of a drop from the Dreamcast, of course. I've tried Phantasy Star Universe and found the quests to be limiting; I've tried Phantasy Star Portable and the lack of multiplayer and linearity of the game kills it. I had big hopes pinned on PS0.

Oh dear.

The game in general is great. It's not quite like PSO - the levels are separated into discrete blocks rather than being all free-flowing. My dreams of resurrecting Xevious (my PSO character) died when I saw the limited character customisation options; there was no purple, and the main male human looked like a spoiled kid. Swords look like solid swords, rather than the lit-up sabres that I loved. Magic users are a bit too pathetically weak.

But that pales into insignificance when it comes to the controls. I've been spoilt by Zelda, maybe, but this is painful to play for any length. You have to press the buttons down for extended periods, and it's often on a diagonal. Trying to face the enemies is tricky when you can turn only in increments of 45° - and the auto-lock-on doesn't pick up large angles. So you end up battling against the camera, unable to focus on and hit enemies until they move into one of the angles you can turn to. All the time they hover over your character taking energy off of you.

It's a crushing disappointment, but it's still a great game.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Pac-Man Vs: fruit appeared!

We also played this last night. It hasn't aged at all, and had six of us shouting instructions at each other to try to catch Pac-Man. The scoring system's a bit off (subtracting Pac-Man's score seems a little pointless), but the core of the game is still amazing.

Lego Rock Band: or pop band?

One of my birthday presents was Lego Rock Band, which is like all the other Rock Band games except the music selection is a bit more poppy and with fewer swears. And your characters are Lego people, obviously.

We played it quite a lot last night, since I had people round for a party. There's some overlap with Singstar, really, though this also gets people involved who refuse to sing. I have a feeling it may be quite expensive in the long run, given the number of songs on the Rock Band Store ...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Xbox Live: party like it's 2005

Last night I met up online with Kieron and John. We had a plan.

On April 14, Microsoft is turning off the original Xbox Live servers. After that date, it'll no longer be possible to play original Xbox games online - unless you go through some sort of unofficial LAN link. It's the end of countless classic experiences.

Xbox Live was amazing. Online gaming beforehand (at least on consoles) was normally an afterthought, bolted onto a game designed for party play. It was hampered by needing to accommodate for dial-up users, and with a lack of expectation that the console would be permanently connected. That's not to say that great games didn't exist - Phantasy Star Online would argue that - but because of the inconvenience, I didn’t play them that often. Chu Chu Rocket and PSO were about as far as I went. With Live, though, game designers started to exploit the medium properly. Project Gotham Racing 2 was the first Xbox game I played online, and I was amazed by how smoothly it worked. Not only could I join a random game and race against people worldwide, I could also talk to them as I did it. Plus the game downloaded leaderboards and my friends' best times, even when I was playing the single-player game.

Online functionality was increasingly included in games throughout the Xbox's life. It evolved from additional single-event versus modes, through dedicated party modes, to cooperative modes through the single-player game. Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow was a highpoint of the last of these.

To capture the past for one last time, we met up armed with our copies of Halo 2, PGR2, and Outrun 2. It was odd not being able to carry on chatting as we moved from game to game. It was annoying to have to sit and wait for updates to be installed for each game as we tried to play it - though bearing in mind that my broadband line now is 40 times faster than the one I had when I first got Live, I'm not going to complain too much. Online gaming's come on a long way since, with better options and play modes. But none of this mattered for what we played.

Halo 2 is still great. We played custom games amongst ourselves, since we didn’t all have the expansion maps installed and without these we couldn't join matchmaking. Rockets are great, and much better than their Halo 3 variants. Going back to Halo 2 only served to show how Halo 3 didn't really evolve the game that much, if anything adding too many options. Having said that, Halo 3 is obviously a direct replacement, and the loss of Halo 2's online mode won’t mean that there's nothing similar to play.

That’s the case for all the games we played, really. Project Gotham Racing 4 does effectively make PGR2 online obsolete, though I reckon the range of cars in PGR2 is slightly better. I don’t like the bikes in the later game either. Outrun 2 is obviously replaced by Outrun Online Arcade, though with different courses meaning the game's not identical. OOA has got one thing in common with the earlier game - there's never anyone online.

Farewell, original Xbox Live. You'll be missed. A little.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Angry Birds: going backwards

I now have three stars on only 50% of the levels.

They've just updated the game, and it's gone from three worlds to five. They've given us an extra 42 levels for free. That's very generous indeed.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks: completed!

I was right about where I missed stamps - the Goron Village stamp was partially hidden and required the whip to get to it, which is why I missed it before since (I think) I got the whip after exploring the village. The Dune Sanctuary stamp was on an island to the Southeast, which I spent ages trying to get to before realising that all I needed was a chicken. Sigh.

Anyway, stamp book completed, all rabbits collected, all tracks revealed ... I'm never going to get enough treasure to collect all the different train parts, so off to the dark realm I went.

Despite its small size, this game does "epic" very well. The journey up to the final temple looked impressive and daunting, with the green portal pulsing. Half-way up the hill, Zelda hints that once we go through, we can't go back. It's a turning point for the game, but also for Link. He's leaving behind the friends he's made throughout the world - the gorons, the anouki, the flirts in Paparrazi Village; and he's travelling to somewhere evil. The innocence of youth is about to be broken.

Yes, I got all that from a straight bit of rail.

There were a number of final fights, with different play styles. The first of these I found to be quite tricky - planning a route around the rail map to hit light pearls and then the enemy trains shortly after. It was like a verson of Pac-Man where you were able to pretermine your path. The main difficulty came from the placement of the pearls, with two trains in the Northeast corner being too far away from any pearl - until I realised how the warp gates worked.

Then there was a rolling stock fight, versus the Demon Train. Easy enough, particularly given that my train had six units of health rather than the standard four. Zelda (in a guard's body) and I climbed on top of the defeated train and had to make our way to Malladus (in Zelda's body) at the front, with her blocking the laser and me killing off the electric mice. Zelda hit Malladus, and he left her body floating in mid air. She regained it, and that was the end.

Or should have been. The trademark death-blow of a Zelda game can't be omitted, and as such another boss battle was bolted onto the end, which just seemed a little superfluous. It was another battle using Link and Zelda together, but with the two screens showing different viewpoints of the same scene - a view of Zelda readying the bow of light, and a view of Link running around trying to distract and avoid Malladus. When he turned his back on Zelda, you could shoot, knock him down, and Link could attack the top of his head. Repeat three times, and Zelda joined Link to deliver the final blow; that was that.

It was good, but not as good as Phantom Hourglass. It's spurred me on to playing Twilight Princess, though.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks: missing stamps

I've got the Compass of Light now - it took two attempts since I couldn't work out how to defeat the three flamethrowing warrior-type enemies, until I fluked on the fact that I could use my whip to grab their shields and then hit them. I was trying to get Zelda to go around the back to attack, but that was easier said than done.

I'm now on my way to the dark realm, but there are two stamps missing in my passport. I reckon I've missed stamps in the Dune Sanctuary and possibly in Goron Village, but for the latter I've no idea how I missed it - plus the Valley Sanctuary stamp might cover that. We shall see.