Revisiting: The Witcher 3

Now that I’m able to record decent video without it affecting in-game performance of the most demanding titles, I figured I’d put that capability to good use.  This begins a series of videos I’ll be doing, where I’ll give a 10-15 overview of whatever I’ve been playing.  So, it could be something relevant, or something that was released some years ago.  Since The Witcher 3 finally has all its DLC on the table, I thought now would be the perfect time to revisit that game, and share my opinions with you.  Enjoy!

Super Mario 64 Review

I remember walking into my local Toys ‘R Us and gazing upon the Nintendo 64 demo station. The console was a thing of beauty. The blocky molds of its predecessors were tossed in favor of curves and waves. Toy-like colors were abandoned for a sophisticated dark gray. The controller was… well, odd, but it worked well enough, and the moment I wrapped my hand around the center handle, Mario himself beckoned me to, “Press start to play!” So I did, and was given free rein over Mario in his new three dimensional environment.

And thus, my life was changed forever… and that’s not hyperbole, either. As my first experience outside of traditional 2D gaming, it remains the staple in which I compare all exploratory games to. Sony may have beat Nintendo to the punch with the Playstation, but because they failed to incorporate something that produced a RANGE of motion, many of their early games felt a little awkward. But Nintendo? They had the foresight to include precision in their gamepad, and as a result, Super Mario 64 was a product that changed gaming forever.

But how does it hold up today?

This comes as no surprise, but there’s very little in the way of plot. Bowser has once again kidnapped Princess Peach – previously known as Princess Toadstool – leaving Mario to charge into the castle and collect a bunch of power stars. After enough has been collected, he’ll kick King Koopa’s butt and rescue the damsel in distress.

No, it isn’t Shakespeare. But hey, when it comes to Mario, nobody cares about substantial plotlines or character depth. Hell, 2015 marks the franchise’s 30th anniversary, and we STILL don’t know how Mario and his brother entered the Mushroom Kingdom… and it’s better off that way. Trust me. I mean, let’s gain a little perspective, here:

Mario Bros.: Not to be mistaken with Super Mario Bros., a multitude of creatures invade OUR world, and it’s up to our favorite plumbing duo to stop them. That’s right! The Mushroom Kingdom never even entered the equation!

Super Mario World 2 – Yoshi’s Island: As babies, Mario and Luigi were delivered to Yoshis by way of stork.

Super Mario Bros. Super Show: The brothers accidentally pipe-warp to the Mushroom Kingdom during a routine plumbing call in Brooklyn.

Super Mario Bros. Movie (I apologize in advance, because your brain is going to hurt after being subjected to this nonsense): Mario Mario and Luigi Mario (the hell?) follow the kidnapped Princess Daisy (who?) through an interdimensional portal. Which leads them to, uh, Dinohattan. A city suffocated by fungus. And ruled by Dennis Hopper with a notoriously bad haircut.

Point is, creative staff have never cared about telling a story that’s worth a damn, so the quality of this game rests squarely on the shoulders of its gameplay… and that’s a tall order to fill. Even more so when those mechanics are analyzed through a 19 year old lens.

Now I’ll probably get flambéed for saying this, but when it comes to gameplay, Super Mario 64 is tops. It isn’t perfect, but strikes such a fine balance between accessibility and challenge, that virtually anyone can play and walk away satisfied.

My son, for example? Beat this game at the age of 3. He was only able to pull off the basics – walking, running, jumping, punching, etc. – but it was enough for him to finish the core experience.

His journey began by practicing in Bob-Omb Battlefield – the first stage in the game – and inevitably worked his way up the mountain to find King Bob-Omb. Intimidated by the size of his foe, my son decided to run and fight another day. But with a bit more practice and encouragement, it wasn’t long before he stood atop that mountain victorious… and with that, the floodgates had been opened. Next thing I knew, he was butt-stomping bad guys, racing penguins and koopas, swimming after eels, evading the jaws of piranha plants and spinning Bowser by the tail. It took some months before he saw the end credits, but he got there.

This obviously begs the question, if the game if easy enough for a 3 year old, where does the fun for adults come into play?

Well, just because a kid can beat the game, doesn’t mean there isn’t challenge to be had. While 70 power stars are required for your final confrontation against Bowser, an additional 50 wait in the castle’s wings for nail-biting completionists. In order to get them, you’ll need to reach new levels of mustachioed plumber controlling mastery. This often means threading the needle of time while combining a series of triple-jumps and wall-kicks. Fortunately, the devs were able to make Mario feel like an extension of the controller, meaning he’ll do what you say, when you say it. There’s no ‘sliding’ or ‘floating’ to get accustomed to here. If you need to pivot on a dime, land on the tiniest of platforms, or circle an enemy at top speed in close proximity, it can be done. If you mess up, you’ll pin the blame on yourself as opposed to the game.

Most of the time.

Some tasks can be a real chore to execute. For some reason, the devs felt they needed to justify the existence of a third-person camera, so they gave one to Lakitu that dangles from a fishing pole. It’s a cute idea but poorly executed. The ‘cameraman’ isn’t allowed to clip through walls, and this leaves the player to, at times, deal with angles that are awkward-to-unaccommodating. Certainly not ideal, but there’s little choice but to grin your teeth and bare it. Don’t get me wrong, a majority of the predetermined angles worked in my favor, but I’ve found myself having to manually adjust the camera – while it fights me, no less – more often than I’d like. It’s odd they’d allow the camera to be the compromising factor in regards to movement, especially with so much effort put into making Mario control so gracefully.

Now, let’s talk about about the stuff that hasn’t been treated kindly by the passage of time.

Like most other games in the franchise, some new power-ups have been introduced in an attempt to keep things interesting. The colored switch blocks return, this time providing special caps which allow Mario to vanish, fly, or turn into metal, and all three are fun to mess around with. I mean, rising above the land with the winged cap proves to be absolutely breathtaking. Metal Mario is the N64’s answer to ‘star power’, and it’s one of the coolest things you’ll lay eyes upon throughout the game. The concept behind ‘vanished’ Mario is tantalizing but… well, it’s a painful reminder that none of these power-ups live up to their potential. Yeah, flying is fun, but not when it counts. Collecting coins in the sky – which is mandatory if you want all 120 stars – is difficult because of the N64’s limited draw distance. You won’t see the coins until you’re practically on top of them, and by then it’s too late to compensate your flight path. Also, the metal and vanishing caps are so sparingly used, and unimaginatively at that. The sad reality is that NONE of these caps justify their existence. In the franchise overall, it’s easy to make arguments for Fire Flowers, Super Leafs, Cape Feathers, Propeller Mushrooms and much, much more… but these caps are just weak.

Another thing that shows its age? Level design. Simply put, Mario 64 is at its best when we’re able to explore cohesive sandboxes, but those worlds are few-and-far between. Some stages appear to float in a skybox for no good reason. Others felt like their integrity had been sacrificed for trickier platforming. Fortunately, these issues don’t detract from the game’s overall fun factor, but in 2015, they stick out like a sore thumb.

But hey, I understand the development team – which was smaller than what we’re used to seeing for AAA games today – had to overcome a steep learning curve. Without any 3D ‘templates’ to draw inspiration from, they had little choice but to step up and become the pioneers. So, to a certain extent, I’m able to excuse design flaws which stem from an attempt to balance experimentation with progression, and I’m sure I’m not alone.

A lot of folks want to look at the PS/N64 era through rose colored glasses, but why should anyone kid themselves? Most of the games that are regarded as true classics have a slew of both technical and design flaws, and again, it’s because developers were experimenting with new technology in the home console market. Bring any game you want to this table for discussion – Spyro The Dragon, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2, Croc, etc. – and most exhibit the same ‘generational transition’ growing pains.

My point?

That while Super Mario 64 wasn’t perfect, I can’t think of a single game from that time period that was. Some were certainly better than others, but very few managed to balance the same favorable mix of enjoyable gameplay, accessibility, challenge, or fun, as Super Mario 64 did… and that says a lot, considering this game was the first of its kind.

So, with all that taken into consideration, how does a seasoned gamer such as myself feel about this title nearly two decades after the fact? To be honest, it’s never been my ‘go to’ when people ask what my favorite game of all time is… but it has, without question, been the most replayed. I tackle it once, sometimes twice a year, and doubt I’ll ever get bored of it. Flawed as it may be, it’s still one of the most fun games I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. There’s something almost magical in the game’s overall presentation, between its finely tuned core mechanics, vibrant sandboxes lush with primary colors, not to mention the memorable sound and musical cues. I know, I know… I just went on for paragraphs about all the things that Mario 64 doesn’t get right, but maybe that’s part of a larger commentary we should all think about individually. The current climate in this industry encourages gamers to expect nothing less than perfection, but perhaps we should remember just how fun a deeply flawed game from yesteryear can be, too. I’m just as guilty as anyone when it comes to focusing on the negative, but video games weren’t always the flawless entities we remember them to be.

In short, if you’ve missed this gem the first time around for whatever reason, and can allow yourself to play a game for fun as opposed to technical greatness (even though this game was quite the achievement at the time of its release), then Super Mario 64 just might be the adventure you, and your family, have been waiting for.

Review: God of War III – Remastered (PS4)

The God of War franchise has dominated on the PS2, PS3, and PSP. The story isn’t exactly rich, nor the gameplay redefining, but there were few games that instilled the same sense of adrenaline and awe. Some criticize these games for being little more than mindless button mashers, which is valid to a certain degree. But the success of Santa Monica Studio’s mythological demigod has proven that simplicity doesn’t have to be a negative talking point. Games can be memorable for a variety of reasons, and as long as the complete package delivers more often than not, things will likely turn out for the best.

Unless you’re talking about a remaster, of course. That’s when things tend to go south, as the mere mention of them nowadays make people foam at the mouth. “Grurfrgh! Why do I have to rebuy it again?! JERKS!” Ermm… you don’t. But despite the vitriol these projects draw, the Ghost of Sparta had yet to conquer the PS4, so the devs seemingly thought it would make sense to bring God of War III to Sony’s latest home console.

And despite what some would have you believe, it does make sense. With a new God of War game in early development, porting an established title to the PS4 allows the devs to sharpen their toolset. It also allows the people who jumped the Microsoft ship to experience this game for the first time. Really, the only time I think it’s worth complaining about a remaster or port, is when it’s something nobody asked for (Dead Island, I’m looking at you). Otherwise, weigh your love of a game against how extensive the porting process was (for my in-depth opinion on remasters, click here). At the same time, studios should offer rereleases at an exceptional value, and I’m not convinced God of War III Remastered has done that.

For the uninitiated, the franchise revolves around Kratos, a ‘brawn over brains’ type that commanded the forces of Sparta. Inevitably, his bloodlust lead his army to defeat against a horde of barbarians, but rather than accept his fate, he called upon Ares for aid. The god of war was willing to grant Kratos the power he desired, but at the expense of becoming his indebted servant. He agreed, being the bloodthirsty fool he was, and was provided a pair of chained blades that were imbued with fire. The wielding ends were permanently seared to his forearms, but as promised, they made Kratos an unstoppable killing machine.

Predictably, Kratos got a bit more than he bargained for, as he became a blind ball of rage under Ares’ influence. After one such episode, he was horrified to find his family laying lifeless at his feet. So, in his most ambitious vow of vengeance yet, Kratos went after Ares himself… but that wasn’t enough. After an assault on Rhodes, the gods grew tired of his defiance, so they stripped him of his power and left him for dead. However, Gaia, who has her own agenda in this, saves Kratos from his fate in the Underworld.

And now with God of War III, the epic finale begins with Kratos hitching a ride atop none other than Gaia, as they mount their assault on Olympus with Titans in tow.

Not unlike its predecessors, the plot is bare bones, if not formulaic. Once again, Kratos, seemingly at the top of his game, is smacked down and goes through the wringer to regain all his lost power. There’s a couple of twists that try to lend greater meaning to preceding entries, but they ultimately fail to evoke… well, anything.

Worse, character development is as stagnant as ever. Once upon a time, it wasn’t unreasonable to have a few shreds of sympathy for the demigod, but now? We’re brutally bludgeoned with the idea that Kratos has become the bad guy. This time, the consequences to his actions are literally tearing the world apart, but despite seeing what his vengeance has wrought, he couldn’t care less. Of course, that’s the point. In the end, Kratos was no better than the gods he was thwarting. It’s about tragedy more than redemption. Even so, couldn’t the writers have found a better way to incorporate his loss of self than by making him so one-dimensional?

But really, these are minor complaints in the grand scheme of things. People don’t play God of War for the finesse of Shakespearian writing, but for action so big it puts major motion pictures to shame. Well, this game accomplishes that feat and then some. That ride on Gaia is no mere cut-scene, but the first playable portion of the game. Upon taking control of the series’ protagonist, you’ll be on the earth-mother’s arm, hacking and slashing your way through enemies as it tilts and sways. Before long, the camera zooms out to show her fending off watery tendrils summoned by Poseidon, and as she does, Kratos must dispatch foes as he dangles by his blades. Eventually, Poseidon calls upon Hippocampi, powerful monsters with horse-like heads, arthropod-inspired limbs, complete with the body of a serpent. Once it’s clear that Gaia is fighting a losing battle, Kratos steps in. As a result, we’re treated to an epic battle of god vs. demigod.

And that’s just the opening act.

This entire game settles for nothing less than tossing Kratos from one massive set-piece to the next. It was nonstop spectacle at its finest upon its initial release five years ago, and there hasn’t been a game that’s topped it since. If there’s one area this game DID revolutionize in, this is it.

Of course, all the ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ would mean nothing if the controls were crap. But the gameplay itself, while not perfect, does a great job of making us feel like an extension of Kratos. When those chained blades are swung with surgical precision, it isn’t long before that feeling of epic badassery swells from within. You’d be surprised how long you can keep the same basic combos rolling off your fingers before they begin to feel tedious. However, to keep things fresh, Kratos earns new weapons and abilities throughout. Some add to the game’s ‘wow factor’ – you can make it rain arrows when in a pinch – but for the most part, there’s only a couple of enemies or puzzles that require their use. Furthermore, your primary blades become overpowered long before the end credits roll, so the other goodies feel more like bells and whistles than essential companions. Still, I can’t say the option to change things up wasn’t appreciated.

After all is said and done, God of War III is the undisputed king of gratuitous action. If you’ve never played this game for whatever reason, now is absolutely the time to buy.

But, what if you’ve already got a last-gen copy sitting at home? It was probably the best looking title on the PS3, so is it worth upgrading?

I’m a huge fan of the franchise, so I, personally, don’t regret spending the 40 bucks. The increased resolution of 1080p adds a touch more in the way of color and contrast, but the best part of this Remaster is its buttery smooth framerate. Not once did I experience a perceptible loss of frames.

That said, I can’t in good conscience recommend a purchase.

God of War III REMASTERED? Gotta love marketing and how it messes with consumer psychology!

This is a port. Nothing more. I know it’s still an arduous effort for the devs – especially since the game was originally designed for the PS3’s cell architecture – but a remaster, this is not.

Nor does it represent great value for its asking price, and ultimately, other studios have offered better. The Halo: Master Chief Collection delivers 4 games – or 5 if you were eligible for Halo 3: ODST – for $60. The Final Fantasy X collection has 2 games for $40. Saint’s Row 4’s port came with all DLC and an expansion for the same price. Even the Ultimate Edition of Gears of War comes with digital copies of the entire franchise… also $40, and it’s a true remaster, at that. So why didn’t Sony Santa Monica go above and beyond for the adventures of Kratos? Ascension could have been ported, not to mention the first couple of games which were already given an upscaled treatment. Hell, even the option to own – a term I use loosely – these games via PSNow would have sufficed. I understand this studio is hard at work on another game, but asking $40 for what’s essentially a straight port is a hard pill to swallow.

In order to justify a purchase, you either have to be a huge God of War fan, or someone who’s never played the third installment… which, to be fair, is the intended target audience anyway. However, if you fall somewhere in-between on the spectrum, you’d be wise to wait for the price to go down a bit at your local retailer.

Review – LEGO: Jurassic World

When you open the door to a discussion on LEGO games, a few people that mosey in can’t wait to tell you how terrible they are. They’d go on about how they’d be nothing if they hadn’t stood on the shoulders of franchised giants, and inevitably bust out the ‘they’re for kids, anyway’ remark.

What’s frustrating is that, well… they aren’t wrong.

LEGO games ARE for children, and a major part of what makes them work for big kids are the licenses at play. But these complaints often come from narrow-minded plebeians that have never played a LEGO game, so I’ll lump them in the ‘broken clock is right twice a day’ category.

Once upon a time, I, too, was a LEGO naysayer. It wasn’t because the character models were too cutesy, nor because the gameplay was simple. No, it was because the most important character of all had been missing: Good stage design. Tackling Star Wars had been a grand idea, but the backdrops were too sterile and felt restrictive. But as time went on, this aspect of the LEGO games had gradually improved.

The real turning point had been Harry Potter Years 1-4. It did a fantastic job of adapting the film world into something that wasn’t entirely devoid of life… into something that was merely accented by LEGO as opposed to being ruled by it. Ever since, each successive game has only gotten better, with Pirates of the Caribbean and Marvel the developer’s greatest achievements to date.

Now, all four ‘Jurassic’ films have been adapted for the world of LEGO. Question was, would it roar onto the scene, or whimper its way to bargain bins?

Undoubtedly, one of the largest obstacles LEGO Jurassic World had was translating the second and third films. I’m a HUGE fan of the original, but The Lost World and Jurassic Park III left a lot to be desired.

While The Lost World had some good ideas at play and Steven Spielberg at the helm, it suffered from sluggish pacing and a silly, overindulgent finale. Jurassic Park III was smart to bring back Alan Grant, but… man, I don’t even know where to begin. Everyone else had been miscast to a horrifying degree. William H. Macy had nothing to work with, and Tea Leoni spent all her screen time screaming “ERIIIIIIIC!” Any semblance of plot or charm were nowhere to be found, instead opting to engage the audience as a 92 minute dino extravaganza… but, I guess that’s what happens when the director and his advisor (Spielberg himself) decided to reject a working script FIVE WEEKS before filming was set to begin. Bad jokes, T-Rex pee, a talking raptor, and a disrespected fan-favorite dinosaur, all culminate into a project that should have remained extinct.

I know some will disagree with this harsh assessment, but there’s a lot of people who have little-to-no love for the sequels. So, why would people want to play through them in a LEGO game?

Simply put, the devs understand how to keep things interesting. In this case, all four films are adapted into a total of 11 hours of playtime (or 15+ if you’re a completionist). All the meat’s been stripped from the bone, and all fat trimmed from the edges. What we have here is a lovingly crafted homage to the ‘greatest hits’ of the franchise. Every major set piece you’d expect would make an appearance does, and they’ve all been laced with the dev’s unique brand of family friendly humor. This means we don’t have to suffer to get to The Lost World’s exciting moments, while the plotless, yet action-packed Jurassic Park III works better as a cut-to-the-chase game than it ever did as a film. And hell, because LEGO Jurassic World incorporates the orchestral soundtrack and even original voice work from the films, there’s more than enough nostalgic driven charm to keep the Dinosaur Train a-chuggin’.

Of course, the gameplay itself hasn’t changed one iota. You typically have two characters at your disposal, each with their own special abilities. You move from one area to the next by breaking nearly everything in sight. Break the right stuff down, and you’re left with building blocks that will help you reach the next part of the stage. Specific skills are required to reach certain locations, so no single (primary) character will be neglected. Otherwise, everything else you beat down will leave behind LEGO bits, the game’s currency which can be used to unlock new characters, vehicles, and even dinosaurs.

Yes. You can even play as your favorite JP dinosaurs.

Very few are accessible through the primary campaign, however. You’ll constantly come across obstacles that can only be broken by certain dinosaurs (or other characters, for that matter), so you’re constantly reminded that you’ll need to play through the game multiple times if you’re looking for 100% completion. It would have been great to give us more control of the T-Rex, but the only extended time spent with him (her?) is during a playable bonus stage during the end-credits of each ‘film’.

Before moving on, let’s address something about those character abilities, because honestly, I’m surprised the doofs of #gamergate haven’t caught wind of them. While the guys are sneaking, shooting, grappling, chopping, or fixing their way through obstacles, the girls – get this – scream to break glass, and leap into ginormous piles of dinosaur shit. Now, I’m not personally bothered by this, because it echoes the source material. Women in the entirety of the franchise are quite strong, and digging through poo actually showcased their intellect, not some kind of weakness. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work as well in the context of a LEGO game. But, let’s be honest: If you’re playing LEGO Jurassic World, you’ve likely seen the films and know what the deal is.

But if you have yet to see Jurassic World, stay away from that portion of the game until you do (shouldn’t be long, I anticipate a DVD/Blu-ray release in October). In my opinion, it’s the first sequel that actually behaves like a worthy successor, but that experience might be lost on an audience that’s already had key moments spoiled by this game.

Anyway, the gameplay does get a little tedious, and the devs acknowledge that by tossing an occasional ‘chase sequence’ at us. Once in a while, you’ll find your characters running at the screen with a dinosaur licking their chops a few dozen feet behind. There’s pieces of LEGO currency to collect here as well, but unless you know what side of the screen they’ll appear on next (since you can’t see what’s coming), you’re bound to miss out on more of the goods than you’d like. Unfortunately, these chase sequences ALSO get tedious, since they seem to be the only variation in gameplay throughout.

Well, almost.

Once you hit the Jurassic World portion of the game, you’ll get to ride around in those human-sized hamster balls (as seen in the trailer), which provide new ways to solve environmental puzzles. You’ll also shoot projectiles from turrets, guide Compys through green pipes, bash Triceratops through concrete barriers, and quick-time event your way through massive dino battles. All are a welcome change of pace, but these moments are very brief, and too few and far between.

As far as performance is concerned, the game ran smooth on the Xbox One. LEGO titles aren’t exactly demanding though, so that isn’t much of a surprise. The only issue I stumbled upon during my time with the game was that a character would get stuck, meaning I’d have to quit and reload my most recent save. This wasn’t an isolated incident either, as it happened a total of four or five times. Thankfully, the game auto-saves enough to make this a minor issue, but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing.

Despite the flaws mentioned throughout this review, they’re all par for the course in LEGO-land. I really did have a blast playing through LEGO Jurassic World, and I’m not afraid to admit it’s because I’m a huge fan of the franchise. I mean, that’s the appeal of any LEGO game, is it not? It’s fun to play in a virtual playground that’s been designed as your favorite entertainment property, and the brand really knocked it out of the ‘Park’ this time. If you’re the kind of gamer that can just sit back and chill with something that offers little in the way of challenge or complexity… well, as John Hammond would say: “It’s right up your alley!” However, if you’ve never played a LEGO game before, there’s no better place to start than right here.