Here goes nothing... (Nintendo 3DS, Crysis 2, Dragon Age 2)

The last month has been a hell of a ride for video games. February was capped off with the machismo-drenched Bulletstorm, and March has been going strong thanks to high profile sequels like Dragon Age 2 and Crysis 2. As if that weren't enough, the 3DS released just about five days ago, ushering in the mainstream-inization (totally a word) of 3D gaming. And judging by the sales of the thing, it's going to be a worthy successor to Nintendo's groundbreaking DS.  
 
I had meant to write up reviews and blog posts about all of these things, and more. But then something horrible happened. Namely, I realized that I am a college student, and God damn do my classes love heaping on the work around this time of year. I've been stuck so deep in the mire of essays, midterms, and projects, not to mention my part time job, that the prospect of writing up all of these articles is just downright scary. And yet finally, here I sit. It's noon on a Friday, my class was cancelled today (mean case of the flu making its way around campus,) and I've nothing to do until work at five. So screw writing up yet another essay. I may be a little late to the party with some of these topics, but I'd at least like to put them out there, briefly. Let's start with: 
 

Bulletstorm

 
I'm not going to hide my love for this game. To date, I've played through the campaign twice and I've made my way through about half of the Echoes with three-star ratings. So what is it, exactly, about Bulletstorm that I love so much? Well, that's kind of hard to quantify. It's certainly not the story, which pits space pirate Grayson Hunt  against the universe's biggest douchebag on a hostile alien planet. The setup works, sure, but a lot of the juvenile dialogue falls flat and the game's later attempts at redemption for the characters feel weird and out of place in a game so otherwise unconcerned with morality. Tonally, it feels uneven.  
 
 The game's attempts at making characters into empathetic figures feels..off
 The game's attempts at making characters into empathetic figures feels..off
And it's definitely not the game's multiplayer. Pitting four players against hoards of AI enemies in a co-operative battle for survival is an idea that was perfected by Epic's own Gears of War 2, and while the concept remains solid, the execution is a bit lacking here. I think the main problem with Bulletstorm's take on the idea is its staunch emphasis on co-op play. In Gears, everybody could run around and sort of do their own thing. Communication was nice, but not necessary. Here, however, skillful kills are the order of the day, and it is often a necessity to coordinate with your teammates in order to rack up the big points. This is a pretty good concept that could work out nicely with a group of friends. Randoms on Xbox Live, however, are a little more... let's say, uncoordinated. Remember trying to play Left 4 Dead with random people over Live? Yeah, it's kind of like that.  
 
That's the great thing about video games, though. Games don't need an incredibly nuanced story or a fleshed out world or even good characters to be considered a success. Bulletstorm is awesome for one reason alone: the fantastic gameplay. In a market as saturated as the console FPS genre, it takes a hell of a lot to stand out from the crowd. Luckily, this game makes a great first impression thanks to what is possibly the coolest tutorial in a FPS. The good vibes continue when you pick up the Leash, an advanced piece of military tech that tracks your kills and gives out points based on how creative they are. This eventually allows for some of the craziest kills you'll see in a video game this side of Madworld. Some of my favorites include: kicking people through the spinning blades of a helicopter, wrapping a grenade flail around a guy and kicking him into a group of enemies before hitting the detonator, and tearing a dude in half with another player in the co-op mode. The skillshots are numerous and varied, and the game ignited in me an urge to "catch 'em all," so to speak, that I haven't felt since the early Pokemon days. This creative gunplay carries over perfectly into the Echoes mode, which tasks players with gathering a certain amount of points in a given time limit. It's fun, frantic, and addictive.  
 
Overall, I agree with Jeff's assessment of the game: It's a solid 4/5 stars for me. 
 

Dragon Age 2

 
It's a little difficult for me to write in great detail about Dragon Age 2 because, well, not a lot has happened so far. After listening to the latest Bombcast, it seems that Vinny and I are taking the same approach to beating this game. I've spent upwards of 25 hours doing random-ass side missions in the same ten or so areas, and barely any time actually progressing the story. I ended up collecting the 50 gold pieces for that underground exploration mission, then forgetting that I needed the gold pieces in the first place and spending them all on new armor and stuff. It took a while to earn them back.  
 
Although the original Dragon Age sits fairly high on my list of best games of 2009, I still had a lot of problems with it as a console player. The movement was stiff, the melee combat was downright awful, the graphics weren't so hot, and eventually, because of these issues, I found the game quite difficult to complete as a rouge. All of these problems have been addressed by Dragon Age II, but I don't know that I would exactly call them "fixed." Well, the movement is certainly better, at least. But the combat feels equally archaic to me. In the original game, melee combat basically boiled down to holding down the attack button and waiting for things to happen. In the sequel, holding the button has been replaced with mashing furiously upon the button. It adds no depth or tactics to the game at all. At least the character responds immediately when you hit the button, unlike in the old game, but it still feels like it lacks any kind of depth. Pausing and playing is still probably the best way to go. The graphics have also been improved, but the environments remain unimpressive. At least the art style is more distinctive than the generic fantasy look that the last game went for.  

    
 The graphics may have improved, but don't call it pretty. Also, Issac Clarke 
 The graphics may have improved, but don't call it pretty. Also, Issac Clarke 

   
Overall, I'm not incredibly impressed by Dragon Age II so far. The plot lacks momentum, at least in this stage of the game, and the combat and graphics, while marginally improved, are still not up to the normal standards of this generation, or even of Bioware's other recent games. Of course, I'm still somewhat early in the game, and most of these things have the potential to improve. Plus, party interactions and item crafting are as cool as they ever were, so it's not like this is a bad game. It just feels like its losing itself at times trying to imitate its more successful older brother. 
 

Crysis 2

 
Like Bulletstorm, Crysis 2 shakes things up a bit in the realm of console shooters. It's not as drastic a reinvention as the skillshots system present in Epic's big release, but it's enough to keep the game from feeling like another stagnant Call of Duty ripoff. The main reason for the game's success is the Nanosuit. This suit allows players to cloak themselves, gain temporary super strength, leap tall buildings in a single bound, and withstand inhuman amounts of gunfire. It's basically like you're playing a FPS from the perspective of the Incredible Hulk. Only he's invisible sometimes. If that sounds fucking awesome, that's because it is.  
 
 Hello, beautiful
 Hello, beautiful
The best thing about Crysis 2 is that it never funnels you through its content. Games like Activision's aforementioned shooting giant always give you an objective and then tell you specifically how to attain that goal. Those guards up there? You have to sneak up all stealthy-like and cut their throats, or they'll raise an alarm and then it's game over. Those barrels over there? You've gotta run up and plant C4 on them before kicking them down into the trenches. Crysis 2, on the other hand, tells you what it wants and then sets you free. Those guards up there? They're blocking your path. Now do whatever the hell you want about it. In fact, in most cases, you don't even have to kill the guards. You could play Sammy Sneaky and just bypass the encounter entirely, if you're skilled enough at using the cloaking mode. Alternately, you could bust out the max armor power and go to town on them with a grenade launcher, or use the cloak to silently take them out one by one, or cloak yourself and snipe them from multiple vantage points to keep them on their toes, or unleash your inner Hulk strength to crush them with a car, or... You get the idea. Each encounter in this game can be completed in multiple ways, and while that's pretty standard fare for the Crysis series, it's rarely seen on consoles, and it's exhilarating.   
 
Sadly, the story is utter, nonsensical shit. This probably has a lot to do with the fact that I never played the first Crysis game, and a lot of the characters and events seem to rely on some past knowledge of this world. This makes it rather difficult for a new guy, like myself, to keep up with it all. I found myself skipping through most of the cutscenes. The AI is also questionable, which stands out in a game so otherwise polished. I've seen lots of enemies, both human and alien, bug out and start running in place, or repeatedly running into walls, or chasing their tails in a circle. It breaks the illusion that the rest of the game works so hard to create. 
 
Luckily, the game is still a ton of fun to play and probably the best shooter I've encountered so far this year. It's positively gorgeous on the Xbox 360, the controls are nice and smooth, the multiplayer is fun in the vein of the original Modern Warfare, and the campaign is lengthy, especially if you opt for the stealth option as I did. Again, I have to agree with Jeff's assessment of 4/5 stars. There are a few bugs here and there, but overall Crysis 2 is a fantastic shooter. 
 

The Nintendo 3DS

 
Ok, this is getting to be a much longer post than I intended, so I'll try to keep this brief, and upload some more detailed impressions later. You've all seen the unboxing video that the GB crew did by now I'm sure, so I'll spare you the details on the contents of the box and jump straight into my impressions of the system itself. I got the Chrome Black version, a choice that I recommend for prospective 3DS buyers, as the Blue color looks weird and disjointed up close. The shiny finish on the Black system looks positively sexy, though, and the curves of the system are subtle but effective. In case you couldn't tell from the fact that I'm essentially talking about this system like it's a human being, the 3DS is quite an attractive little piece of hardware.  
 
The 3D effects themselves took a bit longer to grow on me. Upon booting up the system for the first time, it gives you this countdown from three and then throws up the Nintendo logo in 3D. It builds up a lot of suspense, and I guess Nintendo intended it to be a "holy shit" kind of moment, but I was unimpressed. Yeah, that logo looks like it's kind of moving away from me a little bit. Oh, and now it's coming back. My eyes hurt.  
 
The integration of 3D into the actual games is far more impressive. Super Street Fighter IV (the only game I have at the moment) looks fantastic in three dimensions. Although it doesn't impact the gameplay in any significant way, it truly does look 3D and it adds a lot of flair to the proceeding fights. With every great advancement there must come a detriment, though, and for the 3DS that detriment is the battery life. Prior to launch, Nintendo was throwing out estimates of 3-5 hours for a single charge with the 3D all the way up and the wireless settings on. We all know how liberal those kind of estimates can be, though; of course Nintendo wants to exaggerate the length of the battery a bit, they're trying to sell us a system! In order to get a more accurate feed on the battery life, I conducted a few tests. Please note that for the following tests, I simply turned the system on and let it rest on the desk until the battery was completely gone. I wasn't actually playing the games this whole time.
 
Playing SSFIV with the 3D all the way up and wireless settings on, the battery lasted me about 2 hours and 53 minutes.  
Playing with the 3D settings and wireless off, the battery life jumped to around 4 hours. 
Playing Pokemon Black, a Nintendo DS game, again with 3D and wireless off, yielded a battery life of about 4 hours and fifteen minutes. 
The initial charge of the system, straight out of the box, lasted under a half hour with all of the settings cranked up. 
 
So there you have it. While the battery life will clearly vary depending on the game and how high the 3D is turned up, don't go into the 3DS expecting to get 4-5 hours out of a charge. If you travel a lot or really hate charging your system, Nyko is selling a chunkier battery pack that is supposed to double the battery life.  
 
Other than the frankly awful battery life, it's hard to find fault with the 3DS. As someone who has always gone out and picked up early copies of Nintendo's handhelds, I can safely say that this is the most sturdy and sexy first generation handheld to come out of Nintendo. It really feels good in my hands, and the screens look great, so if you're considering a purchase and don't mind the shitty battery life, it's a purchase that I would recommend. 
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