Archive for March, 2011

Nintendo 3DS Review

Author’s note: This post ended up being considerably longer and going in a different direction than originally planned, hence the lack of pictures. There will be pictures added tomorrow.

The Nintendo 3DS has been out for five days now; the initial “ooh, shiny!” effect is over and reality is starting to set in. Early adopters of the 3DS have spent $250 on a handheld with poor battery life and even worse launch titles; has buyer’s remorse set in?

Stereoscopic 3D

The selling point of the 3DS, the system offers stereoscopic 3D, adjustable at the touch of a slider, without the need for glasses. The 3D present on the top screen is surprisingly well-done; it provides a decent viewing angle and adds considerable depth to games’ visuals. Despite the excellent implementation, launch games make poor overall use of the 3D effect. Nintendo is loathe to require 3D for gameplay elements because of some peoples’ inability to see 3D, reducing the ceiling of these effects to little more than a showy gimmick. The 3D looks awesome, it is great to show to friends, but in the end it adds nothing to current games.

Hardware

The 3DS is the next iteration of Nintendo’s portable hardware, adding features accordingly. The addition of an analog slider is a welcome addition; this slider feels great beneath the thumb, works well for both DS and 3DS games, and is overall more usable than the D-pad. Speaking of the D-pad, the addition of the slider has forced the D-pad to the lower half of the left side, making it awkward for extended use; fortunately the slider is so good that even in Super Street Fighter 4 there is little reason to use the D-pad. The touch screen is exceptionally responsive (particularly compared to the DS Lite), responding quickly to even finger presses. The processing power of the 3DS also eclipses that of the older consoles, leading to more graphical capability even without the 3D effects. Overall, the hardware of this system is excellent; Nintendo has set the bar high for their inevitable refresh.

Launch titles

While not unusual for recent Nintendo systems, the 3DS suffers from an almost complete lack of good launch titles. Nintendogs + Cats appeals to the younger audience to which Nintendo has recently been appealing and Super Street Fighter IV offers solid Street Fighter gameplay in a portable form. The rest of the launch titles have been either uninteresting or have suffered from too-significant flaws (e.g. being extremely short). Early adopters always pay a premium, but they usually expect at least some sort of advantage for doing so.

Despite the poor launch titles, there are plenty of promising 3D games on the horizon, such as The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Starfox 64 3D, Paper Mario, Dead or Alive Dimensions, and likely a Super Mario Bros 3D. Many of these titles have still-to-be-determined release dates, but the promise cannot be denied. While a perception of focus on remakes is certainly possible, one cannot blame Nintendo for re-releasing two of the most classic games for the Nintendo 64 (and perhaps of all time). Poor launch titles have likely reduced potential zero-day sales figures, but it can be counted on that the release of quality games will be in full swing by the time Sony releases their next portable.

Backwards compatibility

The Nintendo 3DS is backwards compatible with Nintendo DS games, though support for Game Boy Advance titles has faded away. Nintendo is also releasing a virtual console marketplace that will allow users to download Game Boy, Game Boy Color, Game Gear, and TurboGrafx 16 games to their 3DS. It has been said that some games will even be retrofitted as “3D Classics” to take advantage of the 3DS’s stereoscopic 3D screen. With all of this potential for playing old games, how well does it fare?

DS games

Playing DS games on the 3DS has been previously covered in this post. While the 3DS is certainly capable of effectively playing DS games, it is not the optimal way to do so. The best experience for those games is the $170 DSi XL with its large screen. Even the $150 DSi and $130 DS Lite provide at least as good of an experience as the 3DS for these games; there are no color or upscaling issues and the older systems get better battery life than a stock 3DS. If one plans to only play DS games then one could buy a DSi XL and 2-3 games for the cost of just the 3DS and get a better experience.

Virtual console

Coming the end of May, the virtual console has the opportunity to more than make up for the loss of Game Boy Advance compatibility, particularly if the advertised “3D Classics” become available. Unfortunately, until the virtual console is released, there are few reasons to expect that the gameplay will be superior to that of DS games on the 3DS; washed out color palettes and upscaling issues are certainly still a possibility. If the virtual console experience can at least match that of DS games and there are plenty of good titles available, however, it could be a real selling point for the 3DS, particularly if the virtual console manages to implement Game Boy linking over Wi-Fi (I’m not holding my breath on this one, however).

Portability

In most regards, the 3DS is no different than the DS Lite or DSi in terms of portability. It is of similar size and weight and provides the same feature set: a convenient headphone jack, wireless (WPA/WPA2 supported), and a place to hold a stylus (less conveniently located but adjustable in length). Where it falls flat on its face, however, is in battery life. Battery life tests by most reviewers have the 3DS lasting between three and four hours for a 3DS game, as much as five in a best case scenario. DS games are supposed to be better; however, still no more than eight hours of life is available (a worst-case scenario on previous handhelds). For people who travel frequently, this can be a deal breaker. Fortunately, there are options.

Charging cradle

In addition to the proprietary AC adapter, the 3DS comes with a charging cradle. The idea is that the 3DS will be placed on the charging cradle when not in use and therefore will always have a charge when one wants to play. The cradle is a sit-in variety; the system does not snap in, making it impossible to play while on the cradle (though the 3DS can certainly be played while plugged directly in) but very easy to drop in after use. Unfortunately, charging time is equally as bad as play time; a full charge from empty takes between 2.5 and three hours. These times are unacceptable for a sizable segment of the portable market; expect them to be improved in the inevitable system refresh next year.

Nyko Power Pak +

Thankfully for the traveling masses, Nyko has already released an enhanced battery for the 3DS. Replacing the stock 3DS battery as well as the system’s backplate, the Nyko Power Pak + advertises double the battery life of the original. Some torture testing by Ars Technica had this battery lasting five hours and 40 minutes under absolute worst-case usage, a much more acceptable figure. In addition, the Nyko Power Pak + adds some depth the the 3DS, possibly making it more comfortable in larger hands, though also making it not fit in the standard Cradle. Nyko is releasing a version of the Power Pak + next week that comes with a new cradle. Right now the Power Pak + is available for $20; the version with the cradle will retail for $30.

Final words

The Nintendo 3DS is a powerful portable system, providing even more features than the DSi. In addition, it provides security in knowing that game releases in future years will be playable; purchasing a DSi or DSi XL might result in missing out on that killer game (such as Ocarina of Time 3D). It certainly has its faults, particularly the battery life, however there are options available to make the most out of that situation. The system’s biggest fault is the price tag; the $250 MSRP matches the release price of the Wii and almost doubles the current price of a base DS Lite, a hefty price to pay for a handheld.

If there are killer launch titles or upcoming games that you just have to have, the Nintendo 3DS likely will not let you down. If you are content with regular DS titles and have no interest in 3D, then you might be better suited with a DSi or DSi XL. If you do purchase a 3DS, however, you should feel content in knowing that you will be able to play new releases for years to come, including some 3D remakes of all-time classics.

Crysis 2 (Single-player) Review

The sequel to the computer-owning Crysis of 2007, Crytek has followed that graphical masterpiece with Crysis 2. No longer limited to the PC, Crysis 2 deviates from many of the core traits that made the original so memorable. Gone are the advanced graphics options, the lush, open jungles, and much of the sandbox-style gameplay of the original. Crysis 2 streamlines the experience, tossing the main character Alcatraz into the spacious yet still confined streets of New York City.

Setting

Taking place four years after the events of the original Crysis, the population of New York City is being infected by alien spores. The player is cast as a U.S. marine as part of a squad being sent to find one Dr. Nathan Gould to help contain the crisis. Nothing goes as planned, however, as the vessel is sunk and Alcatraz washes up on the shore of the Hudson River. A sequence of events leads to Alcatraz becoming the owner of one of the nanosuits from the original Crysis and being the only marine left to find Gould.

Your average city street. Note those side streets are dead ends.

While the entire game takes place in the New York City area, the stages manage to remain varied. Various sequences include streets, overpasses, train tunnels, rooftops, and a high-security compound. Unfortunately, most of these settings do not allow for the tactical freedom provided by the open jungle of the original Crysis. City streets and tunnels, while larger than one might expect, still focus the direction of travel and block off many opportunities for cloaking around enemies and sneaking to tactical positions before ambushing various foes. The second half of the game provides more open spaces, including the above mentioned compound, that allow equally for stealthy assassinations or run-and-gun heroics; however, it does not compare to the sandbox feel of the original.

Environments are well-done, with the graphical excellence expected of the series. Voice acting is also surprisingly good, with most characters voiced to fit somewhat stereotypical archetypes (such as the military commander expecting to be obeyed immediately). There are also many nice environmental touches that show attention to detail; many common objects are usable (such as monitors and water coolers), toll booths reward the player with a speeding ticket when passed through while sprinting, and in one case a metal detector sounds when entered. Lighting is also superb; shadow effects are well done in most cases. Rumor has it that there is a DX11 patch coming soon to the PC that should also unlock a menu for advanced graphics settings, further improving the already great visuals.

That little bug on the right cast that huge shadow on the left.

There are a few quirks, however. Entering cloaking mode inexplicably reduces the volume of ambient sounds (very noticeable in high volume areas, such as a generator room). Manually adjusting the field of view on the PC version causes wall clipping more quickly than it should. In some cases the output of sound from a particular location (such as a person speaking) would wobble between ears of the headset instead of gradually fading between them, as if the game couldn’t reliably determine the direction from which it was coming. These issues are relatively minor and neither detract from gameplay nor reduce the impressiveness of most of the visuals.

On top of visual quirks, Crysis 2 has a campaign that feels like a generic modern shooter with a Crysis theme textured on top. Often between stages Alcatraz will inexplicably travel blocks across the city to a completely different area. The original Crysis either made the player walk or provided story-driven reasons for travel (such as helicopter transport). On top of that, Alcatraz seems to follow orders from anyone communicating over the radio. With a little bit of polish, it would be plausible that Alcatraz had no choice but to do anything he could to stop the aliens; instead, it seems like the story just changes direction with the bare minimum required of a plot hook. In addition, the game unfortunately follows the trend of the modern shooters (including the original Crysis) in being far too short; my final playtime clocked in at seven hours one minute.

Crysis 2 Playtime

This is far too short for an awesome game.

Gameplay

The gameplay of Crysis 2 has remained more or less in-tact from the original, becoming a bit more streamlined in the process. Strength and speed modes need no longer be manually selected; there is now a sprint button that uses energy for speed. Likewise, pressing and holding the appropriate buttons (jump, melee attacks) applies strength to their effects. Conversely, armor mode is no longer a passive default setting. Armor mode must now be manually activated and drains energy while it is active; the same process applies to cloaking.

Crysis 2 also introduces a rudimentary cover system. When crouching behind a barrier or standing near a corner, Alcatraz will (sometimes) automatically take cover. When behind cover, the aim button (Mouse 2 on PC) causes Alcatraz to lean around (or above) cover. Unfortunately, it is not always apparent that cover has been taken until Alcatraz will not move out of cover without purposefully backing away. Attempting to strafe around the corner leaves the player rooted in place leaning.

Nanosuit upgrades

Crysis 2 introduces an in-game currency (nano catalyst) that allow the purchase of upgrade modules for the nanosuit. These modules have a wide variety of effects, ranging from reducing the energy required for specific suit functions (mobility, cloak, armor) to providing visual tactical information (the ability to see enemy routes, the ability to see tracers from weapons fire) and granting access to additional abilities (a ground pound ability usable while midair). This currency works very well, and even the cheaper upgrades are extremely useful. Useful enough, in fact, that the later upgrades often feel lackluster considering their cost.

On the PC version of Crysis 2 there is also a significant bug present with nano catalyst: seemingly at random they will either not be accumulated or will be reset to zero. This can cause great frustration when trying to save up to 16000 catalyst for the largest upgrade, and will presumably be fixed in an upcoming patch.

Module upgrades - note that all of my catalyst is gone.

Weapons

Crysis 2 has an excellent assortment of weapons, including multiple pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, shotguns, a sniper rifle, a grenade launcher, and a machine gun. Unlike the original Crysis, however, ammunition is plentiful for any weapon. Because the main enemies are aliens that don’t fight with conventional weapons for much of the game, crates that refill generic ammunition and grenades abound. This often leads to picking the best weapons available and using them throughout almost the entire game; no longer must the powerful sniper rifles be discarded due to a lack of ammo.

Generic ammo crate.

Often overlooked in the original Crysis, the melee attack is a legitimate weapon in Crysis 2. Simply hold the melee attack button to execute a powerful attack fueled by the nanosuit’s strength that often fells enemies in a single strike. There is neither switching to a melee weapon nor activating strength mode required; simply press the melee attack button or hold it for the power attack. While ineffective against heavies, this attack is very useful against lesser aliens and the human foes that make up the majority of enemies, and should be frequently used in close combat opportunities.

In Crysis 2, some issues exist with mechanics involving weapons. One problem that was encountered throughout the game was the inability to melee, usually after reloading a game after death. There was simply no response to pressing the melee button, and the game would just randomly start allowing it again after a period of time. This made subsequent deaths more likely, particularly if close-combat tactics were employed without realizing this limitation. Another frustration is the inability to switch weapons during semi-scripted sequences (such as when the screen is displaying “Press ‘F’ to look” yet character control is retained). While this may seem trivial, some of these sequences precluded some of the more difficult encounters, and this time could be better spent switching weapons and collecting ammo.

Difficulty

Due in part to (presumably) the release of the game on consoles as well as the ammo crates noted above, Crysis 2 is a fairly easy first-person shooter experience on the PC. Aliens and humans alike fall victim to headshots very quickly, particularly if executed via the sniper rifle. A near-limitless supply of ammo that can one-shot most generic enemies (some heavier enemies pose a bit more of a challenge) leads to simply rushing through fights instead of picking apart tactical opportunities.

That guy just got one shot.

That guy just got one shot.

The latter half of the game provides a bit more of a challenge, pitting the player against more enemies with some sort of red shielding and heavy bad guys much more frequently. These enemies, particularly in large groups, do an excellent job of pinning Alcatraz down, making it difficult to pick off the smaller aliens behind cover. Besides the inclusion of a couple of large mechanical enemies called pingers (similar to Star Wars AT-STs), Crysis 2 has no more difficult enemies and no real boss fights. Also included in the game are a couple of trivially easy button-press sequences (press ‘F’ to catch Alcatraz from falling off a ramp, then press ‘W’ or ‘Mouse 1’ or ‘Mouse 2’ to crawl, etc.) that feel designed for a console audience yet seem utterly pointless except to catch the player napping. Overall, the normal difficulty of this game feels toned down to appeal to a broader audience.

Final Thoughts

After the technological marvel that was the original Crysis, the sequel ended up being a bit of a let-down. PC gamers, upon whom the series was built, were put second place to console gamers with a streamlined, easier experience with a generic campaign reminiscent of many modern shooters. Crysis 2 also suffers from more than its share of frustrating bugs that can cause issues in combat as well as lost currency. Despite these flaws, however, the nanosuit remains as fun to manipulate as ever and the FPS mechanics of the game are solid enough to complement the game’s visuals.

Overall, I would rate the game a 7.9; it solidly stands on its own, but the alienation of PC gamers as well as the limited improvements (and, in some ways, detractions) from the original cause it to lose much of the appeal it could have had.

Playing DS Games on the 3DS

The Nintendo 3DS has been heralded as the next advancement in portable gaming. Adding not only 3D, the screens of the 3DS are also higher resolution than those of their DS Lite and DSi predecessors. One might be tempted to conclude that the higher resolution screens would allow regular Nintendo DS games to look correspondingly better on the 3DS; this assumption would, in general, be incorrect.

Resolution upscaling

Because of the higher resolution screens, DS titles (designed to work on the lower-res screens of the DS and DSi) need to be scaled to fit the screen. Unfortunately, when graphics get scaled, they do not always look better; poor scaling can lead to blocky edges and pixelation. For an example of this, try taking a small image and setting it to your computer’s wallpaper (set to “stretch”). It will look awful (unless you happened to pick a vector-based graphic).

The wallpaper example given is a bit extreme; it was simply to demonstrate scaling. The scaling of the 3DS is much less extreme (more along the lines of using a 1440×900 wallpaper on a 1680×1050 monitor). The resolution upgrade is small enough that scaling done is minimal, though you might notice some odd edges and slight stretching in some cases. This is, for the most part, negligible. The alternative is certainly worse.

A DS game in native resolution

The image above is an example of a DS game running at its native resolution. This is accomplished by holding down the Start and Select keys while launching a DS game. This solution makes the game appear too small for comfortable playing over a long period of time; however, it does eliminate any issues caused due to upscaling.

Dull colors

Another issue that is popping up around the internet is one where DS games have dull or washed-out colors, particularly on the top screen of the 3DS. If you experience this issue, it will be immediately noticeable. Kotaku, however, has a fix. The idea is to turn down the brightness. If you have done some reading on the 3DS, you probably know that Nintendo had to increase the brightness of the top screen to compensate for the 3D (resulting in poor battery life); this idea could have some merit.

High brightness with power saving on

Low brightness with power saving on

This shows high (a setting of 5) vs low (a setting of 2) brightness in Pokemon Black with the 3DS power saving (in the brightness options) turned on. Note that these are taken in a very unscientific manner from a 5MP camera on a Droid. They both look fairly bland, and in fact the high brightness one might even look better (again, these are taken with a poor camera).

Power Saving

When testing different brightnesses, I remembered that I had power saving turned on in my brightness settings; the 3DS eats a lot of battery and I had wanted to make it last. I noticed when I toggled this setting, the color palette of the top screen changed. The screen took on a more yellowish tinge, instead of being a clean white. I wondered if this could be what was causing the color issues…

High brightness with power saving off

Low brightness with power saving off

Now there are some major differences. Subjectively, higher brightness looks better in person with power saving off than the picture shows, but the difference is not drastic. The real difference, however, is low brightness with power saving off. The colors really come out much more on this setting. This is not just a trick of the camera; the difference is huge. The combination of power saving and brightness really make a huge difference with DS games.

So far I have not had time to test many DS games with these different settings, but if I find anything that conflicts with this information then I will be sure to post about it. Thank you, Kotaku, for making me feel much better about my 3DS purchase than I did yesterday.

Crysis 2 and the Nintendo 3DS

The first real posts of this blog are going to be about Crysis 2 (on the PC, of course!) and the Nintendo 3DS. Look for the Crysis 2 post on Tuesday, a preliminary 3DS post on Thursday, and a more comprehensive 3DS post next weekend. After next week there may be some reviews going up of recent but not brand-new games (Dead Space 2, perhaps); I don’t buy every game that comes out, so I will review some older games to fill in the gaps. For now, here are some opening thoughts on Crysis 2 and the 3DS!

Crysis 2

The sequel to the computer-owning Crysis of 2007, Crysis 2 deviates from many of the core traits that made the original so memorable. Gone are the advanced graphics options, the lush, open jungles, and many of the endless ways of approaching a given situation. Crysis 2 streamlines the experience, tossing the main character Alcatraz into the spacious yet still confined streets of New York City.

Crysis 2’s experience is diminished on the PC by annoying bugs, a console-friendly checkpoint system, and missions that often feel reminiscent of many recent shooters. Despite these flaws, Crysis 2 was quite enjoyable and graphically impressive, if not as ground-breaking as the original. Like the original, however, the game felt far too short. Steam had 9 hours in-game on the clock by the time it was complete. The in-game campaign statistics page, however, had a very different take at 7 hours 1 minute 9 seconds; that is roughly the same playtime as the original.

Crysis 2 Playtime

This is far too short for an awesome game.

Stay tuned for the full review!

Nintendo 3DS

The Nintendo 3DS was launched in the US just this morning, and already reviews are popping up across the internet. The review you find here will not have comprehensive battery life or load time figures, but you will find a concise set of commentary on what sets the 3DS apart from its predecessors.

Hello, Gaming World

My name is Brandon, and I am, like yourself, a gamer. I primarily game on the PC, Xbox 360, and Nintendo DS; reviews and commentary on games for these systems will be the main content of this site. Video gaming is, for me, strictly a hobby; I am neither paid to proide video game reviews nor granted any special priveleges for doing so. It also means that I do not have advance access to games; my reviews won’t be out the day a game comes out. I am writing these reviews because I am passionate about gaming and frequently dissent in my opinions from the popular critics.

One thing to note: my preferred gaming system is, when possible, the PC. If a cross-platform game is released, I will likely purchase it for the PC. This means that you might receive a different perspective than a site that will review everything, when possible, on a console. My gripes will sometimes be PC-specific, and don’t be surprised to see me criticize a PC game for feeling too “console-ish.” I will try, however, to note when this is the case; if it doesn’t apply to you, or you are interested in the console version of the game, feel free to disregard these complaints.

One thing you will find about my reviews is that they are much more qualitative than quantitative. I don’t care as much about providing a generic score for a game (such as an 8/10); I would rather provide specific commentary on what was good and bad about a game than reduce everything to a score. I will attempt to place a score on games in case you don’t have time to read a full review, but the score should not be the main takeaway of my articles.

I expect to have some reviews up in the next week. You can look forward, to start, with reviews of Crysis 2 (PC), the Razer Onza Xbox 360 controller, and the Nintendo 3DS. If you like my blog, or would like to be informed of updates, you can follow @skourg3 on Twitter.