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Archive for February, 2012

[Review] Darksiders

I’m sitting here wondering what my counterpoint to the glowing review I’m about to give Darksiders could be. It’s a stretch but maybe the art direction? Might that be a bit too cartoon-y for my taste? Maybe that playing the horseman of the apocalypse who goes most of the game without a horse is illogical in the extreme?

These would all be straws to grasp at since as far as I can tell Darksiders is the perfect game, or at least as close to perfection as can be reasonably expected. Core gameplay is satisfying, there’s solid exploration and replayability, production values are astronomical and it’s just the right length. I honestly can’t think of a place where development misstepped and so if this ‘review’ reads more like a list of things that the guys at Vigil Games got particularly right let me apologise in advance.

Bosses

Sucker for a good boss fight as I am, this game had everything I needed. The Jailor and Tiamat, the first bosses in the first world set the tone for those to follow; big in scope, multi-phase battles that rewarded knowledge of the mechanics you’d been using in the lead up to the encounter with an admirably minimal amount of QTE. Take a look at this and you’ll see.

Combat

One button combat. I thought you couldn’t really cull it down past the two-button ‘light and heavy’ approach every title and its dog uses today but Darksiders found a way. Direction buttons and timing are what dictate the attacks and admittedly there’s a retinue of secondary weapons accompanying the awesome ‘Chaoseater’ but you can mostly forget about them when cutting throught he rank-and-file. And hell if it’s not satisfying.

Exploration

Collectathons and the like that have crept into every other game have never been my favourite ways of padding length. Luckily, although there is a retreading fetch quest in the game’s final act, all the new abilities War has obtained let you see the world in new ways using that great design template Metroid pioneered (not a certain other Nintendo title I won’t deign to mention).

Story

While every new IP goes to some length to establish its world and backstory (gravitas and all that) Darksiders appears to have gone an extra mile. It manages both to establish a deep canon and mythology with a greater looming conflict while also making the self-contained story in the game also feel like the war to end all wars (pun intented?).

Now here’s where I might surprise you. The truth is, despite all its achievements, I wouldn’t pay top dollar for Darksiders even had I known how good it was going to be. I said it wasn’t too short and wasn’t too long – about 10 hours. The perfect length. And yet is that worth an $80 asking price? Not that I intend to quantify games by how many hours it takes to get from end to end but I really think this kind of experience is grossly overpriced as is.

That’s why I feel a new IP like this one is such an odd proposition – clearly no expense was spared in this delightful production and yet, even for perhaps their target audience, there was never any real opportunity for a massive return. Sure they pulled in enough to greenlight a Darksiders II, but  it wasn’t on any top 10 lists for revenue. As I said in my review for Splatterhouse I’m more than happy to pay $20 for these games and indeed I’d reckon Darksiders is worth more than that game was. How much more, I couldn’t say, and that’s the problem.

I’ll close by saying Darksiders is a phenominal breakthrough title that lays foundations for what is no doubt going to be a cracking sequel come June. And for that reason I’m glad someone is buying games like these at release for full RRP even if that person isn’t me.


PlayStation Vita Impressions – Interface

A number of years ago, Sony introduced an at-the-time revolutionary new interface. It was the XrossMediaBar (XMB) and its stated intention was to navigate a breadth of devices cohesively while supporting a wide variety of inputs. Touch, for example, was something the XMB was supposed to do down the road. PS3s, PSPs and Bravia TVs have all come and gone with this interface and it’s come to be a sort of Sony hallmark in vastly different sectors of consumer electronics. I like it.

Fast forward to today and we have the PS Vita and it’s ‘LiveArea’. I’ll say right now that I can’t stand it. It looks too childlike, is far too clunky to use and abandons too much of what Sony’s built in the past. I’m not sure what, if any, device this interface really suits but it’s certainly not a gaming handheld aimed at the hardcore. In fact, from the pull-down-to-unlock lock screen (which is entirely unnecessary) is seems like Sony’s designers have just pulled in whatever touch-based ideas from wherever they felt like with no regard for the product as whole.

First off the icons are too luminescent, too shiny and the backgrounds too vibrant. This is not just a taste thing- they push the otherwise impressive OLED beyond what it seems to be capable of. Colours side-by-side seem to have too much contrast and the reflections and shadows on the icons show far too much aliasing. Maybe this would have looked better on a higher-definition display, but even the Vita with 4x the effective number of pixels of a PSP (which had no problem showing off a smooth XMB) makes it look amateurish and unfinished. I can’t help but get the feeling this was done on a computer monitor and never tested much on the display that would go into production units.

A lot of interaction design talk of late has gone into visual paradigms and whether it is important to mimic real world gestures and textures for touch or whether that just obscures things. LiveArea, with all it’s page switching and dog-ear pulling combined with buttons and zooms is just horrifically inconsistent. At times, with regular menus and most of the stuff you find in-game, it seems like you’re going to pull out and find a clean, funtional XMB waiting for you. In actual fact you’re just going to be dumped where you started, a bunch of icons and a swathe of screen-wasting pages for active apps that not only takes up more space than it should, but is incredibly labourious to swipe through.

The problem with this really is clutter. Want to multitask? Well you first have to hit the physical home key, then swipe across pages to find what task you wanted to open. Or just go back to the panes on the left and find the icon for what you want to do. Isn’t that one step too many? Do you really have to go all the way out to the main interface to do anything? Couldn’t some sort of overlay be superimposed on the current application instead? An overlay would also solve the problem of showing all open apps on one screen, instead of having to sweep through page after page not really knowing what’s next (they’re ordered by recent activity… most of the time) or how many pages will need to be turned before you get to what you want.

As a real kick in the face none of these pages actually close on their own, even if the task or application is no longer running. It’s on the user to manually pull down each dog-ear to close an app’s page before the sheer number of them becomes unmanageable. What makes this even more ridiculous is that every other app requires closing off of others. Want to open a web page while playing a game? Gotta close the game. Want to reply to a message from a friend while doing something else? You have to come out of that, and flick your finger across any number of dead application pages before you get to the page where you left the messaging app open. Finally, as far as I can tell, there’s no option to skip all the way to the rightmost page, to quickly get back to the starting point or to close everything that’s open with one stroke. The result is inelegant and detracts a lot from the overall impression the PS Vita might give in other areas.

Do I think a touch-enabled and -optimised XMB would have been a smarter, cleaner and more impressive UI to have installed on the Vita? Absolutely and nothing would impress me more than a 2.0 choice which gave a choice between the two. Of course that’s never going to happen – LiveArea is here to stay. But so long as it is, it undermines the Vita’s hardcore, mature market positioning and smacks of a cheap kiddie-friendly interface that abandons generations of visual heritage and sets the Vita on its own, away from the rest of Sony’s CE family. That may well be intentional but I ask this; if you’re going hardcore first and casual later, what real sense is there putting something as Play School as the LiveArea front and centre on day 1?

I call this just the latest example of Sony’s right hand not knowing what the left is doing.


PlayStation Vita Impressions – Hardware

We now stand more or less a week from the international release of the PlayStation Vita via ‘first edition’ programs in the US and other pre-order initiatives in other territories. I’ve had my unit for a few weeks now and feel a few things need to be said before the internet takes a given position on this thing. In this post I’ll be looking at the hardware specifically. For better or worse and despite doing a number of things very exceptionally, I’m disappointed with the Vita overall. As to whether I think it will fail, I’d say no. I am far more convinced though that this will be Sony’s final gaming handheld, at least in a traditional sense.

Everyone who’s been in a position to play with a Vita has been in unanimous agreement that it’s a fantastic piece of technology. A quad-core processor, double the RAM of a PS3, front and rear touch pads, and OLED screen (but not a 720p one) seemed to tick all the boxes while remaining not much larger or any heavier than an original PSP.

In spite of all that it doesn’t strike me with the level of ‘wow’ that Sony consumer products such as the PS2 or PSP did when first releasedw. Maybe the capabilities – not just graphically, mind you – of the smartphones and tablets out there have raised expectations of what can reasonably be delivered. I realise it’s not fair to compare a $250~ Vita with a $500 Galaxy SII, but the fact is the screen on that device is better to look at during any practical application, it’s worlds away smaller and thinner and has a debatable lead in battery life in defiance of it’s small size. This doesn’t take much away from the Vita – the GSII is only a phone with touch controls after all – except to say that it’s ability to impress above and beyond is markedly diminished in light of such competition.

As someone with medium sized hands, not big or small, saying that doing a QCB motion on the d-pad is actually painful is however not a complement. Sure, a lot of people will play things using touch controls or the exceptional (given their size) analogue sticks, but the fact is I bought my Vita with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 with an intent to not kill myself rocket punching and plasma storming against the left hand side of the screen. Thank goodness there are double fireball motions in the upcoming Street Fighter X Tekken because that would quite frankly be a dealbreaker at this point.

Also overly small are the buttons. They have more in common with the Nintendo DS’  face buttons than those on the PSP or Dual Shock 3. This isn’t a massive issue in most games, but if I’m using the ‘Wipout’ style controls in Wipeout 2048, where X is accelerate, square is use and circle is absorb, all with the right analogue a bit close for comfort, I’m going to have serious problems hitting those things at the right times. The PSP didn’t have these control problems and if I had to pick a major point of regression on the Vita, it’s that it has shrunk everything on the face of the unit to the point of near un-usability.

Something that the mainstream of internet opinion has taken a strong dislike to is the use of yet more proprietary media on the part of Sony. Game cards, unlike the cartridge-based titles of Nintendo’s system, can save game data and DLC onto themselves without the need for additional storage. Not all games opt for this though and many have cried foul at Sony’s refusal to mandate it. It’s all the worse since their second proprietary formal of memory cards are priced into the stratosphere and ultimately necessary to fully using the device as it’s being marketed.

My complaint isn’t so much about these devious decisions so much as their poor implementation. Neither the game nor memory cards can be read by anything but the Vita and so I can’t write anything conclusively about data read & write speeds. Nonetheless I have no problem saying that loading times are pretty garbage across the board. UMVC3 takes at least 10 times longer to load 6 characters and a stage than its Xbox 360 cousin and Wipeout 2048‘s load times are just appalling at 50-60 seconds per event. Both of these anecdotes come from experiences with the game card version, which is, if reports are to be trusted, the faster of the two formats.

It seems even more obvious when you look at the UI and other interfaces of the Vita, but the hardware seems cobbled together from technologies and interests of multiple business units operating largely in silos with little regard for the cohesiveness of the finished product. As far as hardware goes the PS Vita has some serious grunt but is nowhere near as far ahead of the field as the PSP was in its time. And whether that raw horsepower is harnessed by software or not in the long run, the machine is hamstrung by capricious design decisions that let it down at almost every turn. The same is true of the rest of the elements that make up the Vita whole, but I’ll save that for the next few posts.

As a postscript I’d like to disclose that my experience has been with the Wifi only model. For a million reasons and one I don’t consider there to be any reason to buy the 3G version and as far as I know there are no exclusive capabilities unique to that model. Ergo, I didn’t think it was worth the time to say anything at length about it.


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