The Backlog: Bursting at the Seams Edition
Huuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuge backlog for everybody this week. Nick is trying to tie up loose ends before the fall games rush starts up, Doug is tearing through demos of some impending releases, and Aaron is spending time on some small game by a developer in Seattle...has something to do with Rings (maybe they're finally doing a good Sonic game?). Oh, you mean it's called Halo? Haven't heard of it.
Seriously, the crew is in a verbose mood this week. Bring a drink, sit down and enjoy our wordiness. Without further ado, the backlog awaits.
While I've still had a steady diet of the current games I've spoken of recently — Dragon Quest IX, NCAA Football 11, and Civilization Revolution — there's been a few demos and game trials I've gone through this week that I can render an opinion on, too.
First up is the downloadable next-gen brush-up of Sonic Adventure. It's out now on Xbox Live and will be available soon on PlayStation Network. And it is...definitely a brush-up of the Dreamcast launch title, which I've played recently in its original form. Now, let's be fair: the controls feel much tighter than on the Dreamcast, the graphics definitely look the business in HD (the textures haven't really suffered at all), and the Sonic stage featured in the demo is still very fun. However, playing through the trial makes me want to finally buy the VGA box for my Dreamcast than invest in the downloadable game; it's still going to have the same issues I complained about in my Dreamcast retrospective last week.
Next is a pair of demos for sports games. A demo for NBA 2K11, the new version of the highest-rated basketball series the last few years, is also available now. I came away a little unimpressed with the demo; the physics seemed floaty, there didn't seem to be as much heft or physicality to the game of basketball on display. It may not be as hard-hitting as football, but basketball is a contact game, and there did not seem to be much routing of that contact to the player. The demo has great presentation and graphics, but that won't save it if the game doesn't feel better — especially with hype for NBA Elite revving up.
Last is the FIFA 11 demo. While I enjoyed FIFA 08 and 09 when Konami's PES series was missing in action, last year's PES 2010 proved that my taste for soccer games lies clearly with Konami. However, I'm still interested in seeing what FIFA has to offer; neither game is perfect, and EA Canada has made strides with each FIFA since 08. After playing two quick matches in FIFA, I like how they're shifting much of the team management and player ranking to look more like PES — but with added twists, like individually rating how high- or low-energy players are in attack and defense.
The presentation on the field is good, but man, I still prefer the feel of PES. FIFA's players still feel stuck in a dead zone and, despite the promise of needing to establish play with passing, FIFA remains a vertical, fast game. There are some good points, though, like EA adding the ability to play as a goalkeeper in the Be A Pro mode, and it's amazing. I'll probably keep going back to the demo for a while...if only because the special unlockable in the demo is the ability to play as my favorite soccer club, Arsenal. They really know where my proverbial bread is buttered.
Even though it's very much already dead and buried in Oregon, summer is quickly drawing to a close. With that in mind, I'm racing to finish up a couple of the best games of the first part of the year before we're bombarded with quality games on a weekly basis.
At the top of my to-do list is a pair of Japanese RPGs, Valkyria Chronicles and Final Fantasy XIII. It's a shame that Valkyria didn't sell better, because it's that rare sleeper hit that would actually appeal to just about anyone if they were able to look past its soft, cute exterior and awkward, teen-dramedy storyline. I checked out the sequel at PAX and walked away impressed with how well the first game's novel turn-based, tactical shooter mechanics translated to the PSP. And while just about every cutscene where a gorgeously rendered character opens their damn mouth in Final Fantasy XIII frustrates the hell out of me, the combat system continues to be an absolute joy. I'm very close to the point where the game opens up dramatically, which has me excited. It's been almost a decade since I had the patience to max out a party in a Final Fantasy game, but I wouldn't rule it out with XIII just yet.
I anticipate I'll have wrapped up the final sequence of single-player missions in StarCraft 2 by the time this article goes live. When I bought StarCraft 2 back in July, I was pretty sure I'd eventually regret my purchase; fortunately, I was dead wrong. This is high-quality storytelling and accessible gameplay on a level not seen out of Blizzard since Diablo 2's expansion, Lord of Destruction. And thanks to the game's highly accessible campaign and solid online matchmaking, even an SCV-mismanaging fool like me is finding a relatively non-threatening competitive arena to learn the ropes within. I can't imagine anybody not getting their money's worth out of StarCraft 2, even if they only focus solely on the online or the offline portion of the game.
I also feel obligated to mention that I'm about a third of the way through Halo Reach, but what am I supposed to say? It's a Halo game, thoroughly and unapologetically. Whatever you're expecting from Reach is pretty much exactly what you'll get. Maybe there's some credence to the thought that Bungie ought to be faulted for resting on its laurels, but when that core Halo gameplay is still so fun and so very well-refined, should anyone care?
It was Halo: Reach week across the world, a time for Ewok-like celebration via the constant "pwnage" of "newbz" online. Ah hell, I'm being too hard on Halo — I can finally admit that. Reach, in my opinion, is the best Halo game that's ever been released. Not counting the nostalgia factor of Combat Evolved and how exhilarating it was to drive a Warthog for the very first time, a closer look at the maturity level of Bungie's work in Reach has amazed me to the point of unflinching praise.
Here we have a better plot than Halo: ODST, which was already a refreshing change from the dense sci-fi nonsense of the previous two core Halo titles before it. Noble Team, the committed squad of Spartan soldiers on the front cover, has its share of militaristic-space-soldier stereotypes, but these characters aren't integral to the enjoyment of Reach. Sure they matter in terms of progressing the plot, but even when a member (or two) meets their demise, the emotional impact is sudden yet brief — which is a fantastic choice on Bungie's part. Halo enthusiasts in general won't care how deep the characters are amidst the cacophony of plasma rifles and magnum pistols firing around them, both in the campaign and online.
However, even the most cursory, backwards-hat-wearing fan of Halo should pay attention to what Bungie's personal finale to their beloved series represents. Reach is what Halo needed to be: A game that doesn't take itself too seriously; a game that doesn't try too hard; a game made by people who are experienced enough, and old enough, to know the meaning of the word subtle.
It's just too bad Bungie needed nine years and its departure from the Halo franchise to figure it out.