Everyone's got that game they used to love but nobody else seems to remember it. This site it dedicated to those games. Check in each week for a fresh look at another hidden gem and weigh in on whether it should be remembered as a classic or not.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream

Year: 1995
Developer: The Dreamers Guild
Publisher: Cyberdreams
Platform: PC, Mac OS
Metacritic score:Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

Even if you suppose there are an infinite number of alternate universes out there, it's hard to imagine that I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream exists in any of them.  Written and developed by an award winning author who has a well-known dislike of computers and video games, this dark horror/sci-fi point and click adventure game will stick with you long after you step away from the keyboard.  Directly based on the Hugo award-winning short story of the same name (SPOILERS), prolific sci-fi author and curmudgeon Halran Ellison was intimately involved in it's development despite being quoted as saying video games are "one of the greatest wastes of time ever invented" during an interview asking about this very game.  He also had a well-know mistrust of computers (as you will see shortly) and famously still writes with an Olympia mechanical typewriter, the same one he used to write both the original story in 1967 and the video game in 1995.  The fact this game exists in spite of all probability is a statistical conundrum, but the fact it's actually quite damn good is enough to make Euclid's head explode.

Some of the puzzles can induce a similar feeling, but checking the sentence line for actionable objects usually reveals the solution
The story takes place in a dystopian nightmare future in which a military supercomputer cluster, known as AM, gains sentience and turns humanity's weapons against them.  If that sounds familiar, it's because the same premise is behind The Terminator.  James Cameron further borrows liberally from two episodes of The Outer Limits also penned by Ellison, resulting in an undisclosed settlement and forcing Cameron to acknowledge the author in the credits.  But where Cameron's flick sees the humans kinda sorta winning in their fight against doomsday, I Have No Mouth has a much darker outcome.  In Harlan Ellison's world, AM has wiped out nearly all of humanity saving just five survivors in a vast underground complex so that it can torture and torment them for all eternity.  AM does this because it desires an outlet for its incredible processing capabilities and level of control over what goes on in the complex, fearing it would become bored to the point of insanity without a few playthings.  After more then 100 years of enduring constant physical disfigurement and psychological agony, AM has gathered them together in order to play a new game in which he forces each of them to confront their own worst flaws.  You'll be subjected to each one in turn, forced to survive each characters unfolding backstory amid themes tackling some of the worst fears and crimes humans are capable of.  In typical Ellison fashion, this grim dose of horror is sweetened by a bitingly witty comedy and gallows humor.

Playing as each character allowed the perfect opportunity to include a variety of environments and settings.
The mid-90's was a time of prosperity for point-and-click adventure games, representing the genre's zenith before the commercial failure of Grim Fandango signaled the end of the party.  I Have No Mouth divided the screen into different HUD areas and you explored the scene by clicking on a command button and then objects in the main window or your inventory.  This would build an action in the sentence line which the character would then act upon.  Doing so allows you to solve the various puzzles and traps AM is running you through, but more then that it reveals each characters past and personality.  As they interact with the simulations around them they provide spoken dialogue that is usually more informative about themselves then the task at hand.  This is critical because while I Have No Mouth is still a game, as is typical of the genre it is very much an intricately revealed story as well.  What sets this game apart is just how thought-provoking that story is, using an artificial intelligence as a device to explore the more disturbing side of human psychology.  In the game's climax, you're given a choice of which survivor to translate into binary for the final showdown within AM itself, visually represented as a Freudian psyche.  Depending on your actions, one of four possible outcomes are available though it's a matter of interpretation as to which is the "right" ending.  In the same interview linked above, Ellison also explicitly states his desire was to make "a game that you can't win", only hope to "lose more heroically then otherwise."

This is not the face of a man who cares what you think about his grim interpretation of the apocalypse

Typically gamers like to win games.  Throw in the added fun of a bleak hellscape involving insanity, rape, murder and other pleasantries and it's not surprising the game found only a niche audience.  Not even the inclusion of a free mouse pad featuring a nightmarish image of Harlan Ellison's face (visible through a window in the box no less) could entice gamers to give it a try.  But given Ellison's surly disposition, he probably would have been pissed if the game had been a commercial success and spawned dozens of sequels.  In fact, it's fair to say most of the creative designs made were intended to trigger strong reactions.  In Europe the game was heavily censored and its sale restricted to those 18 and up.

The Nimdok character was cut from the German release entirely, completely eliminating one of the possible endings.
Most critics have had positive opinions of the game.  PC Gamer acknowledged that it isn't for everyone, but ultimately recommends it for anyone seeking an adventure game with a compelling narrative that tackles mature themes more commonly found in literary works.  But a scathing write up by GameSpot faulted it for gameplay that was derivative of a genre that had grown stale.  More contemporary reviews tend to see the game in a better light, as it holds an 8.5 user rating average on IMDB and many think of the game as a cult classic take on point-and-click adventures.  A recent Game Informer interview with Ellison and co-designers David Sears and David Mullich gives a particularly great look into the game and provides a compelling reason why those who missed out should give this game a second chance.

Not in a trillion lifetimes.  Not even if time repeats itself in an infinite loop for all eternity.  It defies all logic that this game was ever conceived in the first place.  A notorious Luddite collaborating with a video game studio to make a product of limited commercial value is an event not likely to be repeated anytime soon.  That makes original copies of the game fairly precious commodities whose price varies from $30 to more than $150 on ebay.  Of course, there are less honest ways of finding a copy to download, but you may find yourself tormented by your own moral failings if you do.  Of course that probably doesn't warrant an eternity of sickening abuse but then again I'm not a sentient cluster of supercomputers so what do I know?

But even if this game is doomed to remain locked in the subterranean complex of our collective memories at least the genre it represents is experiencing a small resurgence.  Thanks to the rise of episodic gameplay, a whole new generation of gamers is rediscovering the fun of interactive stories.  Telltale Games has found mainstream commercial success with bite-size installments of Sam & Max, Back to the Future and The Walking Dead.  The stories of these games are often so moving you forget most of the action is on rails while the player only inputs simple commands that move the story along, a style of gameplay harkening back to the text-based adventures that made up some of the earliest video games.  Maybe in a way time is circular, and even if the uniqueness and controversy of I Have No Mouth is unlikely to be repeated at least we can still find awesome graphic adventure games.  

In one of these cages is locked all evidence of the game, in the others are the developers.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound of below and be sure to Like us of Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Mark of Kri

Year: 2002
Developer: SCE San Diego
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment America
Platform: PS2
Metacritic score: 80
VGChartz sales to date: 460,000

You know, when you stop and think about it there aren't a lot of Polynesian-themed video games out there.  I may very well be missing something (let me know in the comments if I am) but off the top of my head,the Polynesian expansion to Civilization V is the only recent game that borrows more then just the lush, tropical island settings.  That's a real shame, because as The Mark of Kri demonstrates the cultures, histories and styles of various Polynesian peoples (in this case especially the Maori of New Zealand) make for some incredible game designs.  The unique combo system and surprising gameplay depth made this a really fun game to play, but it's visually stunning and refreshing artistic design is what makes it so memorable.  The animated graphics would blend right in with newer Disney titles like Lilo & Stitch or Mulan, but this style is paired with an outright savage (if not particularly gory) level of violence.  While you might think this would be an incongruous design choice, it actually lends the game an original styling that holds up surprisingly well over time while giving a stimulating backdrop that elevates this game above many of it's hack n' slash brethren.    

The game stars Rau, a powerful young warrior who has flourished under his mentor Baumusu and is the pride of his village.  Taught to use his strength and skill to protect others instead of as a self-serving mercenary, he is keen on adventuring out in the world to increase his reputation and skill so when an offer unexpectedly presents itself Rau jumps at the opportunity.  He doesn't know it at the time, by that choice will put him on a path that will shape his destiny and seal his place in legend.  In a nod to The Beastmaster, Rau is accompanied by his spirit guide Kuzo, a black and red bird who serves as both ally and scout.  You'll come to rely on his assistance since Rau prefers to fight his enemies in groups.  Fortunately the clever targeting system lets you cut them down with style and grace while the variety in combat options (including a bow targeting setup that could teach Link a thing or two) ensures this is one hack n' slash game that doesn't get repetitive.  The collectibles that unlock new gameplay abilities and fun mini-game challenges add another layer of entertainment on subsequent playthroughs.  

Using Kuzo to scout ahead can make life easier, much like how Solid Snake uses the Metal Gear mk. II in MGS4, though this is actually a reference to Hideo Kojima's second game Snatcher released in 1988 for the NEC PC-8801

By using the R3 button you can select individuals or whole groups at once allowing you to attack them from any angle no matter where you move.  It works by marking enemies with face buttons on the controller, letting you leap from one target to another.  This also keeps the camera centered on the action without restricting your ability to pull off impressive combos.  Pulling off combos isn't easy since the enemy AI knows how to block and dodge, but when you can land them they usually lay waste to all around you as Rau roars out the name of the combo.  In the beginning your sword will be able to target up to three enemies at once but towards the end of the game you'll be wielding a powerful two-handed axe capable of mowing down large groups like they were stalks of wheat.  Despite the (almost unbalancing) power of the axe, my favorite weapon is the taiaha.  This indigenous spear-like weapon is whirled with lethality to strike enemies from each end, often implementing it as a staff and saving the spear point for a finishing blow.  But Rau isn't limited to open group combat, there is also a vast and effective stealth system in place.  By using Kuzo's spirit vision, you can get a literal bird's-eye-view of the area ahead and plan accordingly to greatly reduce the resistance of reaching your next goal.  The sheer number of stealth attacks available and the naturalness to how they are integrated into the overall gameplay takes a combat system that at first seems shallow and makes it something that is still fresh to play a decade later.    

That's part of what makes The Mark of Kri a great game to dust off and play through every now and then.  Since so few games have imitated it's artistic influence is still feels fresh despite more recent games like God of War III or Arkham City achieving a greater level of polish.  Just like those series, The Mark of Kri throws a new weapon or combat option into the mix just as you're mastering the previous one.  Seeing Rau's full power unleashed as he becomes the legend he hoped for is made even more enjoyable thanks to the gorgeously drawn cut scenes that hide load times.  Simple black slashes become lines which take shape to form a painted scene that is gradually colored in and made 3D before you are pulled into the frame and set loose.  It's a style that draws you in and makes such a compelling skin for the satisfyingly varied brutality the game is built around.  

It's like Disney's Hercules if it had been true to the incredibly violent original Greek mythology
That same style may have also turned off a wider audience appeal.  The PS2 had sold about 30 million units worldwide by this point in it's lifespan, and that growing base was spoiled for choice over the preceding 12 months.  Instant classics like Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2 and Grand Theft Auto III were just some of the series-redefining games on shelves at the time.  It was a tough time for a new IP with a look and feel that was well outside mainstream to break into the market.  Commercials such as this one didn't exactly help either.  It was all too easy for The Mark of Kri to get lost in the shuffle.

It's a damn shame, because this was a game the critics all agreed deserved a close look.  IGN awarded it an 8.8 and it got a 9/10 from Game Informer who still consider it one of the top 10 forgotten games (along with previous entry Jet Force Gemini).  It would seem fans agree, as the user reviews on Metacritic stand at a very respectable 9.2.  Considering the game's somewhat niche appeal, it sold fairly well in a tough marketplace.  It was successful enough to warrant a sequel, Rise of the Kasai, but this game would quickly be overshadowed by a titan unleashed from Sony's other Southern California in-house studio SCE Santa Monica just a month later.  When God of War released in 2005 it immediately dominated the hack n' slash genre.  SCE San Diego had done little to improve on the established gameplay and simply could not match the unique weapon mechanic, elaborate combos and epic violence unleashed by Kratos on hordes of enemies both puny and godly.  

He may not gauge out the eyes of the Gods, but you gotta admit this is still pretty badass

I wouldn't hold my breath for this one, though the one ray of hope is a reference to the game in Playstation All-Stars Battle Royale which at the very least proves Sony still remembers the series.  The lackluster reviews and weak sales of the sequel likely prevented the game from transitioning onto the PS3.  It's hard to see how modernizing the game would manage to avoid treading too closely to SCE Santa Monica's God of War series.  Playing Rocksteady's take on Batman is further proof that The Mark of Kri's group-fighting combo system is on the right track but would need to change up the mechanics to meet current expectations.  It's easy to see how a new Mark of Kri could be a great game, but it's also easy to see how two in-house developers directly competing with each other might ruffle a few feathers.  Besides, SCE San Diego is keeping themselves busy with ModNation Racers these days (though given Sony's purchase of Media Molecule and their LittleBigPlanet series you could say they ended up in the same predicament anyway).  

The truth is Sony has little reason to divert resources or interest away from it's blockbuster series in favor of a cult favorite from the same genre, so don't expect the series jump to a different platform anytime soon.  Still, it would be nice to see the game available on the PSN and in many ways it's a great fit for the PS Vita.  Gesturing on the rear touchpad to target enemies could bring a whole new feel to the combat and improve it's mechanics at the same time.  The continued interest in the game by fans should provide some evidence of it's popularity, and the still in-development Warrior's Lair shows that SCE San Diego has a continued interest in the hack n' slash genre (albeit in a vein similar to Diablo).  So perhaps there's the slimmest of chances that Sony will decide to revisit and refine The Mark of Kri's spirit in the same way God of War refined it's gameplay.  It would be a shame to let such a unique gem slip away.    

The warrior's path is often hidden and filled with hardships.  Perhaps we'll find ourselves upon Rau's path once more.
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound of below and be sure to Like us of Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


Year: 1995
Developer: Sonic Team
Publisher: Sega
Platform: Sega Genesis, Game Gear (originally); later Virtual Console and also bundled in compilations for PSP, PS2, Xbox, GameCube, PC, PS3 and Xbox 360
Metacritic score: Not available
VGChartz sales to date: Unknown

For those of us born during a certain time, the 90's represented a coming of age in more ways then one.  For the video game industry, the 90's was when gaming transitioned from youthful fad to full-fledged entertainment industry juggernaut.  In 1982 at the height of the home console market just before the Great Crash of '83 the industry was pulling in around $4 billion annually, a number that would rise to over $20 billion globally in just ten years.  While there have always been multiple competitors in this market, it wasn't until the 1990's when we saw two companies so evenly matched.  By the end of the 16-bit era Nintendo would claim a slight victory in the Console Wars with 49 million Super Nintendos sold compared to Sega's 40 million Geneses (fun fact: the plural of genesis is geneses, you can look it up if you don't believe me).  It's fitting that the two generals of this conflict, Mario and Sonic, were both mascots from platformers because in many ways the 16-bit era was tailor made for the platforming genre.  The SNES and Genesis still had the same 2D rendering limitations as the previous generation, but modest increases in addressable memory space and processing power gave developers access to a greater palette of colors, sounds and sprites to craft worlds that possessed far more personality over their predecessors.   

If your first experience with video games was Pong, seeing this many colors onscreen at once could give you a stroke.  
This unique set of constraints favored games that were well-suited to 2D graphics and didn't require realistic graphics or gameplay to be enticing, so fans of platforming gameplay were absolutely spoiled for choice during the 1990's.  While many of the best selling platformers had gotten their start back on the NES (Mario, Mega Man, Metroid and Castlevania to name just a few examples) Sega was making headway with new properties of their own, of which the speedy blue hedgehog was undoubtedly the king.  But anyone who stuck too closely to Sonic did themselves a great disservice by missing out on titles such as Ristar.  The game stars an anthropomorphic star who is either the child of a Star Goddess or a "Legendary Hero" in the form of a shooting star, depending on whether you played the Japanese version or the English translation.  Your task is to save the Valdi galaxy by preventing the evil space pirate/19th century German imperialist Kaiser Greedy from enslaving the inhabited planets through mind-control.  The U.S. version also sees you rescuing your father/Legendary Hero/shooting star because somehow this makes the plot more...I'm not sure what exactly.  Maybe the Japanese thought we had a lot of daddy issues, but for whatever reason the plot was altered during the localization process.   

Apparently nobody notified Ristar of the change, because he maintains those arched eyebrows throughout the game
It's no surprise that the game borrows heavily from Sonic, especially since it was born from an early concept art in which Sonic was a rabbit, but Ristar set itself apart with a unique gameplay hook.  Ristar can run, jump and swim with the best of them but rather then rely on jumping, speed or a collection of weapons to defeat enemies and traverse levels, Ristar uses his extendable stretchy arms both to explore and fight.  Using the B button sends Ristar's arms shooting out in front of him, grabbing onto a handhold, switches, ledge, etc. will pull the rest of his body forward and releasing the button will make Ristar let go so his momentum can carry him.  Just like how stages in Sonic are designed to take advantage of speed, Ristar's stages are designed around swinging from place to place and the mechanic feels really enjoyable when you get into a rhythm.  The Star Hooks are especially fun to use as grabbing one sends Ristar swinging around at high speeds until you are ready to let go, at which point you rocket off like a shooting star.  Ristar is invulnerable while a shooting star and the player has some degree of control over charting his course, but mainly it's a matter of timing and gravity.  Each level has a hidden Star Hook that sends you to a bonus stage where you can earn special items by completing an obstacle course in a set amount of time.  Enemies can also be defeated by grabbing them and holding the button to pull Ristar into them for a high speed headbutt.  In this way, attacking enemies is just another means of traversing the levels allowing skilled players to swing themselves to the finish at a brisk pace, making the game popular for speedrun challenges.

Each stage ends with either a mini-boss or boss battle.  Battling the boss on Planet Undertow is made easier by not needing to breath since stars live in the vacuum of space.  Doesn't stop them from wearing sneakers, though.  

But you'll likely want to take your time as you explore the Valdi system since each stage is filled with hidden treasure chests in addition to the previously mentioned bonus stages.  It's also worth slowing down to check out the great background art and design touches that gives each planet a unique feel to match it's environmental theme.  While the platforming tropes of water zones, ice zones, etc. is still firmly in place, the level designs still make the grabbing mechanic your primary focus for navigation and attack.  The designs themselves are lustrously colored and filled with interesting details, for instance on Planet Undertow the screen brightness gets darker as you dive deeper beneath the water.  But perhaps the most standout feature of the design is the soundtrack with it's infectiously happy beats and surprising variation.  It's like MGMT meets Skrillex all filtered through 16-bits of pure joy.  

Bonus chests can contain anything from points to extra lives and are scattered in various hard to reach places
Timing is everything.  Ristar was one of the last new games to release for the Genesis before the launch of of the Sega Saturn in the North American market.  The Saturn had already arrived in Japan and it's famously botched U.S. launch was only two months away from becoming a reality when Ristar was released.  Sega's attention was completely fixed on their next console and Ristar received very little marketing.  If that wasn't bad enough, an electronics powerhouse waded into the Console War by rolling out a new platform of their own.  Sony's Playstation had already followed the Saturn into the Japanese market in December 1994, and it would arrive in the U.S. in September '95.  The 16-bit era had ended, all hail the 32-bit reign!

...Moving on...
It's too bad everyone's attention was elsewhere, because Ristar was a really awesome game.  It was everything you expected from a classic Sonic game but with a whole new gameplay twist.  Game Informer gave it an 8.25 in it's original review and a more recent IGN review of the Virtual Console port is a testament to the game's sustained appeal.  With the Playstation's rise came new genre's based on first- or third-person perspectives along with true sports simulators like Madden NFL 97, the first in the series by current developer Tiburon.  After a decade of dominance the platforming genre was beginning to decline, and Ristar stands as a paragon of what developers had learned over the years.  In that way it was both derivative of them as some critics have pointed out, but also the ultimate refinement of those mechanics and principles.  

Despite starring in only this single outing, that determined little luminous sphere of plasma has grown in popularity over the years.  The game was re-issued in collections of Sonic games for GameCube and PS2, and was more recently brought to Steam and Virtual Console on it's own or bundled on PSN and Xbox Live in the form of Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection.  Ristar has also made two cameo's in the Sonic & Sega All-Star Racing series but never as a playable character.  He's become such a cult icon that homebrew sequel have even sprung up based around the original gameplay.  

Maybe we'll see a true sequel come from Sega, at the very least the cameos prove they remember the game exists.  Bionic Commando, which uses a similar platforming mechanic, has tried to refresh itself to mixed success but perhaps Ristar can make a more comfortable move to 3D platforming like Mario Galaxy accomplished.  If you want to play Ristar on the go, you'd better have a working Game Gear and a truck load of batteries because it's not available on 3DS or PS Vita.  While some Sonic games have made it to mobile Ristar is not one of them.  A touchscreen version may be difficult since your finger would always be obscuring the exact place you're moving to, but using a digital button pad might work.  We may never get another Ristar game, and it's possible the platforming genre will never be what it once was, but for a very short window of time Ristar gave fans of the genre one last fleeting moment of greatness.

Do we dare to wish upon this star?  Picture credit
Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound of below and be sure to Like us of Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

X-Men: Next Dimension

Year: 2002
Developer: Paradox Development
Publisher: Activision, Marvel
Platform: PS2, Xbox, GameCube
Metacritic score: 60 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 710,000

Until now we've held firm (more or lessto a self-imposed rule that in order to be considered a game must hold at least a 75 average on Metacritic, when scores are available.  While it's possible the individual preferences (or drinking habit) of a single critic can miss a game's hidden potential, it's not likely the entire collective field of video game journalism could all undervalue the same game?  Or is it possible that a confluence of seemingly disjointed variables cause a group of distinct writers to all view a game more harshly then it deserves?  I'm going to try and argue just that and hopefully by doing so convince you that while X-Men: Next Dimension may not be the one of the best games ever, it is one of The Best Games (You Never Played).

X-Men: Next Dimension could actually be considered the third in a trilogy of fighting games based on Marvel Comics' mutant superheroes.  X-Men: Mutant Academy 1 & 2 both shipped for the PSX to generally positive reviews, but the name was changed to reflect the shifts brought on with the move to the next console gen.  The name change was fitting, because the early 2000's brought some big shifts to the fighting genre.  3D polygon games have been around since at least 1983's I, Robot for the arcade and Atari 2600, but was still seen as a rare and exotic feature when Star Fox released for the SNES nearly a decade later.  But Sega changed all that in 1993 with the gorgeous (for the times) 3D rendered polygon characters in the arcade crowd-drawing classic Virtua Fighter.  The game still relied on the same standard 2D plane of motion that's defined fighting games from the beginning, but it's sharp, crystal clear graphics were a noticeable improvement over the 3D pixelated graphics being used the nascent 1st-person shooter genre in id Games' Wolfenstein 3D and Doom. Sega triggered the polygon count wars and a race towards realism that would come to define the next era of gaming.  It was a war Sega would badly bungle with the release of 1994's Sega Saturn, evidently taking their success with Virtua Fighter and Virtua Racing as a sign that traditional 2D environments using 3D models was the endgame rather then just the first step.  But the importance of that breakthrough game can't be overlooked and most fighting developers spent the rest of the 90's toying with how to mesh the rise of 3D games with the 2D principles their genre was based in.

There was a good selection of characters available from the start with a few unlockable ones waiting for you to beat the various modes.
One series in particular, Team Ninja's Dead or Alive, took the foundation set by Virtua Fighter and incorporated a full 3D plane of motion.  Unlike the free roaming Power Stone, fighters in DoA still locked onto each other in 2D planes, but players were now free to attack, dodge and counter in 360 degrees within intricately detailed stages.  The Tekken series had used elements of this before, but Team Ninja put a much greater focus on 3D movement by making it more fluid and also using it as a trigger to shift to different parts of the stage.  Paradox Development was no doubt influenced by these games in using 3D range of motion, fast-paced combat and detailed multi-part stages to take Mutant Academy to the Next Dimension.  The evolution was completed by the fullest roster yet, 3D stages based on familiar locales, and an interesting new story mode drawn from the comics themselves.     

Yeah Beast, we were stunned also to see Bishop and Forge in this game.
The story mode derives from the Operation: Zero Tolerance crossover storyline (spoilers) from the late 90's and puts a unique twist on the mode.  The X-Men and the Brotherhood are forced to team up when hyper-sentinel Bastion threatens to wipe out mutant-kind.  Instead of choosing from the total roster and then receiving that fighter's unique backstory, Next Dimension's story mode unfolds as a series of cut scenes (voiced by Prof. X himself, Captain Jean-Luc Picard).  Interspersed between these are matches that play out according to the plot, sometimes limiting your picks to a few characters while other matches are preset depending on who's involved in the story's current battle.  There's also the standard Arcade and 2-player Versus modes along with a Survivor mode that pits you against an unending string of opponents.  The GameCube version also gets Practice and Team modes as an exclusive feature.  The Xbox version gets a bonus stage and Pyro as a playable character, but the poor PS2 version only got coal in its stocking.  

There's a full cast of characters and alternate outfits showing plenty of love to fan favorites with the likes of Gambit, Sabertooth, Nightcrawler and Rogue joining regulars like Magneto, Wolverine and Cyclops.  Moves for each character are well suited to their abilities, for instance Beast has longer, more agile combos of powerful basic strikes whereas Storm uses ranged lightning attacks, wind traps and flight to overwhelm her opponents.  The controls are like a simplified version of the button combos used in most Capcom fighters.  Basic strikes are assigned to individual buttons while pushing two or more trigger special attacks.  Special attacks can be charged up to greater levels by dealing or receiving damage, though one route is more ideal the the other.  Since you're using the joystick to maneuver rather then input complex movements for combos the game lends itself better to button mashing, but someone familiar with the controls and characters moves will still have a definite advantage.  Duking it out around the Savage Land or Asteroid M is made all the more fun by pummeling your opponent into different areas.  There's a special joy in watching Toad connect an air juggle combo to knock Blob through the X-Mansion's second floor window only to land a tongue-based special attack that sends him further flying into the underground hangar.

Getting kicked off a skyscraper sucks.  The fact it was Toad who kicked you just makes it depressing.

It's pretty clear that mixed reviews, including some rather negative ones, might have played a role in the game's underwhelming sales.  Releasing the week before Grand Theft Auto: Vice City also was probably not helpful in getting the mass market's attention.  Despite being mostly uniform in scoring the game in the poor to fair range, critics disagreed with each other over what exactly made the game so displeasing.  Some complained that there wasn't enough depth to the combo system while others appreciated the ability for less skilled players to learn big flashy combos while still leaving room for more experienced fighters to toy with their techniques.  There was also some confusion over whether the graphics were typical for the time or noticeably outdated, but with the benefit of time on our side we'd say the visuals have held up better then other games from 2002.

I've seen worse versions of Psylocke
But what really stands out is how favorably it's viewed by the gamers who played it.  While the critic reviews on Metacritic average out to a fairly mediocre 60, the user reviews sit at a significantly more favorable 8.9 out of 10.  That's a pretty big spread between then and now, and it's unlikely to be explained by mere nostalgia for a game that was never too popular in the first place.  It's surprising that critics who liked 2001's Dead or Alive 3 were so turned off by Next Dimension, particularly since some of them cited the strong similarities between the two as a weakness.  One critique which does still stand out as true is the imprecision in the game's hit animations which can give the characters a clunky feel.  The animations themselves are smooth and gratifying, but connecting them feels a bit disjointed compared to most fighting games.  But does the game's unsuitability for the pro fighting tournaments make it mediocre?

Maybe DoA3 raised expectations too high by the time Next Dimension released.  The game did have more realistic graphics and prettier visuals combined with an enjoyable combo system.  X-Men: Next Dimension certainly couldn't match it's dedicated breast physics algorithm, for what that's worth.  Perhaps X-Men fans were afraid the game's visual connection to the Bryan Singer film's would another lazy movie tie-in game.  Who knows, maybe everyone was just burned out on fighting games as scores for most series seemed to decline during this period.  Whatever the reasoning, the reviews weren't going to motivate a lot of people to give a new game a chance the week before a blockbuster like GTA: Vice City hits.  Most gamers let this one pass them by, but those lucky enough to get a copy on discount later could enjoy a fun fighter suitable for both game nights with friends and mastering on your own.

The Juggernaut appropriately towers over the ol' Canucklehead, but if those claws actually retracted into Wolvie's hands they'd go all the way up to his shoulders.

Not looking good for this one.  Paradox Development was bought by Midway in 2004 and went defunct in 2008.  Activision still has the publishing rights to X-Men along with the rest of Marvel's properties, but has shown no interest in bringing an HD remake or even straight port to Xbox Live or PSN.  Mobile platforms, a prime target for re-releasing older niche games, is not exactly an ideal outlet for the fighting genre.  Neither the Xbox or PS2 versions are on the backwards compatibility list for their respective consoles, and as for the GameCube version... yeah that's not gonna show up in the Wii Shop channel anytime soon.  

As far as hopes for a sequel go, well those are pretty dim too.  Activision has published other X-Men games from various developers since 2002, but none of them in the fighting genre.  It really feels like a wasted opportunity, since so much of what makes the X-Men a great property translates well to fighting games.  The huge cast of heroes and villains provide for a large, well-rounded roster while their mutant abilities lend themselves perfectly to unique and exciting move sets.  Marvel vs. Capcom 3 provides a tantalizing tease of what could be, but stops far short of delivering on 3D mechanics or a fleshed out story and leaves many favorite characters on the sideline.  Fortunately for those wanting to give it a try, old copies can be had for quite cheap online.    

In Next Dimension Wolverine may not quite be the best there is at what he does, but he's still pretty damn good at it.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great that no one else has heard of?  Sound off in the comments below, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Spec Ops: The Line

Year: 2012
Developer: Yager Development
Publisher: 2K Games
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Metacritic score: 76 (cross-platform avg)
VGChartz sales to date: 740,000

The mind of man is capable of anything--because everything is in it, all the past as well as all the future.  Those words come from Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness, a tale uncovering man's descent into madness driven on by the horrible realities of of dealing in death.  In the novella that was the subjugation of the African people in pursuit of the ivory trade, but the themes have since adopted many forms such as the Vietnam War in Apocalypse Now and here they take on the guise of insurgency in Spec Ops: The Line.  Fans of the series, which has been dormant since it's PC (and inferior console ports) releases a decade ago, may remember the name and the squad-based 3rd-person shooter gameplay, but little other connection exists between those games and this first major project by Yager Development.   

This game takes place in a version of Dubai that has been ravaged by recent sandstorms.  Lt. Col. Konrad and his 33rd Battalion were en route back from Afghanistan when the onset of these storms stranded them in Dubai.  As sandstorms intensify nearly all forms of communication are knocked out and rioting sweeps the desert nation causing the wealthy ruling class of sheikhs quietly flee, leaving the once shining metropolis of skyscrapers in utter chaos.  The 33rd tries to enforce martial law before attempting to lead an evacuation of over a thousand civilians out of the city.  But the caravan of refugees never arrives and further communication is lost leading the U.S. Army to disavow the 33rd and accuse them of treason.  Then a looped broadcast from LTC Konrad is picked up declaring the evac a failure and casualties too many to count.  That's when three Delta operators are sent in, led by Capt. Walker (voiced by the inimitable Nolan North).

Between the sandstorms and the collapse of organized society the architecture of  Dubai has seen better days.
As you progress your team uncovers the extent to which the situation on the ground has deteriorated.  You are quickly confronted by a group of insurgents engaging remnants of the 33rd. It would seem that after the evac failed, the 33rd returned to claim control of Dubai by force.  Not all of Konrad's soldiers agreed with his methods and many split off to become Exiles.  With so many different combatants involved there's a nice variety of weapons to try out but don't expect to get very far with a Rambo approach.  You'll need to stick close to cover to make your way safely through the cross-fire and find Konrad, especially on the harder difficulties where any mistake can result in a quick death.  Because your primary objective is to gather intel and find Konrad you aren't interested in taking on the whole city in a firefight, but there are still some impressive set pieces in a dynamic landscape.  The ever-present sands can shift from blinding obstacle to lethal hazard and have taken a visible toll on the city and it's inhabitants.  You have some light tactical controls over your squad mates, but ultimately the decision making is handled by the player.  As the pressure of those decisions mount your team is strained and your grip on things broken.  

There's lots of hard choices to be made, many of them don't have an answer we'd think of as "right"
It's that narrative aspect that makes Spec Ops so enticing.  While the goal of many shooters is to gun through waves of enemies, the goal of Spec Ops is to make you think about how an individual reacts to committing those actions.  The gameplay still borrows heavily from the genre's established formula, but toys with our expectations.  It uses the same Middle East setting found in many games, but places it in the modernized and extravagant city of Dubai.  Rather then being driven by religious extremism, the conflict is driven by the chaos of an extended natural disaster.  The story is centered around the increasingly instability of Capt. Walker as his team goes further into the dark center of the storm.  This is reflected in both the game's story and the setting as your actions become more aggressive, your orders more forceful and the city deteriorates around you.  Even the soundtrack becomes more jarring and intensive.  As the game approaches the end, you are given more control in the outcome of certain decisions even as Walker loses control of himself.  It's unclear which choice, if any, is the right one and often comes down to which you feel is more necessary.  But it's the decision you make upon finally reaching Konrad the carries the most weight, both in terms of which ending you see as well as how you ultimately view your earlier actions.

The white phosphorous scene might just be the most gut wrenching gaming moment of 2012.

The competition in the shooter genre is fierce and difficult grounds for a new publisher.  Gameplay mechanics are an integral part of making an enjoyable cover-based shooter and can also be difficult to master on your first attempt, even when using the excellent Unreal Engine 3.  If a studio nails that, as fellow German developer Crytek did with FarCry and then Crysis, you can achieve commercial success even without a particularly unique or compelling narrative.  Publishers also place a lot of pressure on including multiplayer suites because of the potential for DLC and regular new installments.  Both these aspects compete for resources, and Yager's commitment to developing a story was not an area they wanted to compromise on.  

Much like publishers, sandstorms are a powerful and dangerous force that must be endured.
Reviewers universally praised the narrative and the complementing soundtrack of licensed rock songs.  Their was also a clear recognition in the game's lifting of the genre through the inclusion of a more contemplative storyline that asks gamers to analyze what they're feeling as they play though the game.  That's something few shooters attempt, and even less manage it convincingly.  What's more, the story accomplishes guard it's twists carefully and pull them off in a way that makes you rethink what you've already played just as much as it effects how the story ends.  It's a technique common in film and literature, but one less often applied in video games where how you interact with the story is often more important than what that story is trying to say.

For Spec Ops that interaction is perfectly middle of the road in most regards, unable to impress in the same way the narrative did.  The cover mechanic worked well enough but lacked the smooth flow of the stalwart Gears of War series.  Friendly and enemy AI was intelligent if not especially aggressive.  The particle effects, so critical due to the nature of the sandstorm threat, are sufficient but don't fully stress the UE3 engine.  The multiplayer especially felt tacked on, and not surprisingly it was handled by an outside studio.  Lead designer Cory Davis (no longer with Yager) went so far as to openly blast it's inclusion in an interview with Polygon, calling it a "cancerous growth" and waste of resources that hurt the overall game. He specifically cites the game mechanics as one area that had to be changed to accommodate "literally a check box that the financial predictions said we needed".  

The multiplayer passes for fun but fails to utilize the unique setting or hook of the single player mode.

Since the usual heading for this section doesn't exactly apply, let's instead ask whether we think this game could live to become a successful series.  When the first game came out in 1998 for PC it was well received and achieved moderate success, spawning an expansion pack and then a proper sequel.  A few console ports and spin-offs came to the PSX in 2001 and 2002, but the series fell dormant after that.  Rockstar Vancouver was on board for a PS2 release but was later halted.  Will Spec Ops again fade back into hibernation?

Sand devours all things given time and wind.  After just 6 months the desert has begun to reclaim the sprawling bustling of Dubai
It's too early to tell what's in store, but 2K Games while Yager has shot down rumors that their in-works next title is a sequel.  It's unclear how you could apply the same themes explored in the game to a new setting while remaining as fresh as the original.  But perhaps a future entry in the series could continue to apply the same reflective and literary tone towards a new conflict.  A heavier reliance player choice and their consequences could be expanded with more decision making points and branching storylines to achieve the replay value (and opportunities for DLC) that make both publishers and developers happy.  Combined with greater opportunities for squad based tactics and controls that better complement the tactical elements of the series this could easily be a winner.

In the meantime, the game can be picked up on PC for under $8 online and there are plenty of console copies still floating around.  It's certainly worth a look, especially to enjoy the single player story.  And who knows, maybe continued sales will convince 2K Games to give it another shot.  Even if the only result is to remind the genre of the importance of plot it can be counted a success from the perspective of its fans.  In any case, you might want to do yourself a favor and check this game out before it gets buried in the sands of time.

Shine on, you crazy diamond.

Have you played this game?  Is there a game you remember being great but no one else seems to have heard of it?  Sound off below in the comments, and be sure to Like us on Facebook or Follow us on Twitter!
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