May 28, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Launch & Impressions

By Alice Stancu

Last weekend, Super Mario Galaxy 2 launched at Yonge and Dundas square in Toronto - and boy, did it ever launch. The massive event was marked by more screaming fans than Justin Bieber at Much Music, and featured a guest appearance by the man himself, Mario. Lots of goodies were given away, and there was even a guy making balloon animals in the shape of Mario, Luigi, and Yoshi!

I've only put a few (dozen) hours into the game so far, but it's a lot more engaging than I expected, considering that the first Super Mario Galaxy didn't quite manage to charm me. Part of the reason was that the levels were just too cluttered and visually complicated to be very enjoyable, but most of all was that the game's attempt at including multiplayer fell short of being... oh, I don't know, fun.

But that's changed, thank the stars of Mario Galaxy for that. 2p now has the power to subdue enemies and collect coins/1ups, in addition to their abilities in the original game. As a result, the second player becomes the tactician while the first player is the adventurer. It's been a long time since a game's made local multiplayer in a serious game this fun.

As for the new abilities... well, there certainly are a lot now. Most of them are fairly easy and fun to use, although I still haven't figured out how to get out of some of the special-ability modes without taking a hit. Yoshi is a fun addition, of course, although he's just another extension of Mario's abilities.

I'm really looking forward to playing through the rest of Super Mario Galaxy 2. I'll be writing up a review as soon as I finish the game - and between now and then, I recommend you check this game out for yourself!

May 18, 2010

Split/Second Impressions

By Alice Stancu

Split/Second is a hectic arcade action-racer developed by Black Rock Studio and published by Disney - and yes, it's the 2000s, Disney can make a killer racing game if they want to. The game was released today, so be sure to give it a try. The demo just doesn't do the game justice, as there is a limited amount of things to trigger on the map, which is a key selling point of this game.

To begin, I should explain that I am absolutely dreadful at every racing game ever made. I do nothing to dispel stereotypes surrounding my gender and auto vehicles; generally, I come in dead last, about a minute behind my slowest competitor. Split/Second is no exception, and while I enjoyed the game immensely, I don't think I'll be able to make it through the entire game in a timely manner. So instead of a full-on review, I present you with my impressions of the game:

The track, at the start of the game

The gameplay of Split/Second reminds me of Burnout, except the point isn't so much to crash other cars as it is to blow up the track, leading them to crash. The more dangerously you drive, the more points you have with which to blow things up – these “power plays”, as they're called, can range from simply creating a shortcut for yourself or igniting obstacles in the middle of the road, to wreaking absolute havoc by destroying an entire section of the track and forcing players to reroute through dangerous terrain. What makes this game truly shine is that – because of the colossal amount of things you can damage on a track – no two races will be identical. Even if you've only unlocked a few levels, you get a different experience every time.

What the track will inevitably look like about 30 seconds into the race

The game has very few low points, as far as I am concerned. While it's not very hard to maintain your position if you're ahead, it can be hard to catch up when you're far behind. The ability to blow up your surroundings is only really useful when you can actually see other racers in front of you.

The one thing that doesn't sit well with me is the storyline – rather, the inclusion thereof. Does an arcade racer really need a story? Can't we just blow things up and drive fast for the sake of blowing things up and driving fast? The premise of the game is that you are participating in a reality show in the future, which has an infinite budget. Okay – but why wasn't this theme really pushed to its logical limits? Sure, there's the gratuitous use of lens flare and bloom effects, and each episode has a “promo” before and after the racing, but there's a conspicuous lack of a cheesy host doing a play-by-play during the race. It's such a minute complaint, considering how spectacular the game is, but when a developer puts so much effort into the details of a game, it's sad to feel like something is missing.

I'd like to finish this off by showing you a video from the media launch of Split/Second that took place last week. We were driven around a track by professional stunt drivers who have been pulling off life-or-death stunts for much longer than I've been alive. It was lots of fun, even if it was a little terrifying.

May 13, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2 Launches in Style

By Alice Stancu

Super Mario Galaxy 2 blasts into Toronto next week! To celebrate, there will be a launch party on May 23rd at Yonge-Dundas Square. It's free and open to everyone - so what are you waiting for? Grab your flying Yoshi and take to the stars!

Source: Nintendo of Canada

May 12, 2010

NextGen Player Review: Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver

By Alice Stancu

A decade ago, Pokémon Gold and Silver were released as the second pair of games in the wildly popular series published by Nintendo. As the only generation that was still incompatible with the DS through either Pal Park (GBA slot) or Wi-Fi connection, the decision to remake Gold and Silver as HeartGold and SoulSilver shouldn't come as a surprise. Additionally, all four generations have had at least one revamp released soon after the original pair, often combining elements exclusive to either so that late adopters don't have to struggle to trade for their favourite Pokémon.

The gameplay of Pokémon is quite impressive for having remained largely unchanged for nearly 15 years. Instead of altering a formula that has proven successful, each successive entry to the series has simply added “side” elements that keep players entertained when they're tired of waiting for Magikarp to evolve into Gyarados. In this case, it's the Pokéwalker peripheral that makes HeartGold/SoulSilver absolutely essential. Yes, the Pokéwalker is just a step counter that lets you display your favourite Pokémon in glorious black and white. However, you can also catch rare Pokémon that might not be in your version of the game and obtain items through a mini-game. You can also “connect” with other people's Pokéwalkers, which makes for a great conversation opener with strangers.

While the level gains are small and the items might not be amazing, it's nice to know that you're still “playing” the game even when you're busy with your day to day life. Plus, it's just awesome to have your Pokémon constantly by your side in the real world.

Another addition to these remakes is the Pokéathlon, which – like the Beauty Contests before it – adds another set of stats to each Pokémon. The stylus-based mini-games in the Pokéathlon are decidedly more entertaining than Beauty Contests, and they can be a great diversion for when you're tired of getting your butt handed to you by Red yet again.

Alice's cute Pokémon artwork

Graphically, the game uses the Diamond/Pearl/Platinum engine, but adds a new “following” sprite for every single Pokémon – that's right, the first Pokémon in your party follows you just like Pikachu did in Yellow! And, complying to the standards of the last few generations, you can now choose to be a boy trainer or a girl trainer. These improvements might seem insignificant to the casual observer, but for anyone who's fallen in love with the Pokémon world, they're pretty awesome.

Overall, the quality of the music tends to be hit or miss. The battle melody gets tedious after a very short time, but since it is a portable game, the sound will probably be off if you're playing in public anyways. It's charming that each Pokémon's cry is still an 8-bit screech, reminding you that even if the game looks more realistic and polished, Pokémon are still “virtual” pocket-monsters. There is also a key item that unlocks a chiptune soundtrack - a mix of old tracks and new mixes - which I personally prefer to the “standard” soundtrack.

All in all, HeartGold/SoulSilver is a great starting point for any new trainer beginning their first Pokémon journey – and naturally, a fantastic trip down memory lane for every 20-year-old blogger who hasn't played this since she was a kid. While adult gamers might be put off by the fact that Pokémon has never quite “grown up”, being eternally favoured by the elementary school demographic (yes, Pokémon still don't “die”, they “faint”), there's no shame in delighting in this cute and complex RPG. There is enough deep strategy involved in the game to make it appeal to any age of gamer, although you are never forced to go any deeper into the mechanics than you want to. All in all, this is a great game to fill in the wait between Diamond/Pearl/Platinum and the next generation of Pokémon, Black/White. With the addition of the Pokéwalker accessory, this game is a must-buy.

NextGen Player gives Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver a...