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My thoughts on CoD: Black Ops so far.

Despite having a multitude of exams, papers and 2 long days of clinical, I still managed to find time to snag a copy of Black Ops. I didn't follow the release of this game as enthusiastically as I did with Modern Warfare 2; I actually woke up early to pick that game up the day it was released. I was a bit skeptical that Treyarch was going to be able to pull off making a better game than Infinity Ward did last year. But when I heard that Zombie mode was going to be included in the game, I was sold.

Having finished the single-player campaign, I can say that this game has been a pleasant surprise. As I mentioned earlier, I wasn't very excited for this release, because I didn't feel that the game would be a drastic improvement over the previous title. The campaign was designed well; and the gameplay doesn't stray very far from the formula of the last 3 installments in the series. Familiarity is by no means a bad thing in the case of Black Ops; and this means that you'll still be shooting hordes of enemies, and following scripted sequences.

Initially I didn't care for the storyline, and I found it uninteresting. My attitude changed when I saw the cutscene of Mason and Reznov in the Soviet prison. "Rezonv", the same character from World at War! That was a surprise, and I thought it was pretty neat how they showed his progression from the proud Soviet infantryman to the man frustrated by the betrayal of his country. It was a bummer however, to see the demise of Demitri Petrenko, also from World at War. The post-WWII sequence was a real treat to play through, even if it was short. The ending was rather corny, but I thought the twist of Mason imagining all the events which he thought Reznov fought along side each other was also well thought-out.

There were a few things that Treyarch added back into the game that were missing in last year's title. Notably, the game finally has some much needed gore. Firing rounds from a shotgun or a heavy machine-gun will blow off limbs here and there. Co-op is back. And Zombies have finally made their return after a 2 year hiatus.

I haven't yet found my way online, since my home wifi connection is making it difficult for me to download the miniscule 23mb update. But I am excited to see what has changed since MW2. But mostly, I'm just eager to shoot some zombies together with a team.

Final Fantasy XIII so far.

I actually bought Final Fantasy XIII on launch day, which was roughly three weeks ago. However, I haven't had much chance to play the game since nursing school is taking up most of my time.

I'm just past the point where Vanille and Sahz fall asleep on a cliffside. Lightning and Hope just defeated Odin; and there was a nice dream sequence which followed the events around Snow's relationship with Serah.

What works?

The battle system
the battle system is fairly fast-paced, and it's nice to see that SE decided to ditch the random battles once again. The battles take place on a separate field from when you encounter them, which feels like some of the older games. And another plus, after every battle, your characters are fully healed.

Lightning
I actually like the main character in this game, she has a very tough exterior, yet she's still capable of displaying emotion. Compared to previous FF games, she's neither a whiner nor a wuss.

The graphics
very little needs to be said about how good the graphics are, things run relatively smoothly, and the in-game models still look fantastic even when compared to the ones found in the CG sequences.

The paradigm
part of what keeps the battle system smooth is because of the paradigm shift; which allows you to transition from attacking to healing without losing too much momentum in your offense strategy. Its great that I can customize the paradigms so that I can have one person stick to a role (say, commando) while the other two can transition between different jobs.

The CP
in some of the older games, such as IX, when the story forced you to swap characters in and out of the party, this left some characters underdeveloped; which results in the long, tedious process of level grinding for that character to keep them up to speed. In XIII, the crystogen points carry over between segments of the story, even if certain characters are completely isolated from one another. This is aHUGErelief, having level-grinded through many of the previous installments in the series; some might argue this is another essence of FF taken away, but I say, good riddance.

Things that don't work so well. (So far,)

Lead character dies, game over
this is one of the questionable aspects of XIII, and I'm curious to why they decided to take that direction. In XII, if your command character died, you simply switched to the next character. You're given three, I'm not sure why transferring chain of command to the other two shouldn't work... which leads me to my next point.

Lead battle character; yes, just one
I love the fact that the AI does such a good job of taking control of your other two characters, and they can heal/attack when needed. However, I think it's absolutely ridiculous that SE decided not to let the player take the reins of the other characters in the heat of battle. Especially when previous installments let you select commands for individual characters, XII let you choose between the two.

The music
just about the only track in the game that seems memorable is the main battle theme, and rightfully so, because you will hear it literally hundreds of times. The soundtrack is not bad by any means, just not spectacular when compared to the previous installments.

Hope
plain and simple, the kid's a wuss. Yes, it sucks that his mother died during the purge because Snow lost grip, but its pretty bad that he can't even get the right words out of his mouth.

Hey, that kinda reminds me of...

The paradigm -- FFXII's gambit system
XIII emphasizes control of one character, while the AI takes control of your other two teammates, which feels similar to the gambit system from XII, which if you programmed properly, will attack consistently or heal you at specific cues. The only difference is that in XIII, you cannot switch between characters on the fly.

Paradigm shift -- FFX-2's dress spheres
back in FFX-2, if you wanted to take on a different strategy, you switched dress spheres, and you instantly became a different role. This is what came to my mind during the paradigm shift tutorial in FFXIII.

The Linear, story-driven gameplay -- FFX
some might not agree with me, but FFXIII isn't exactly the first game to be somewhat linear. Yes, FFX's Spira had towns and shops, but in reality, the game pushed you in a forward direction for the most part, and you didn't really have "freedom" of exploration until the airship was given to you along with the world map list.

Lightning - Cloud (FFVII)
Cloud was part of the shinra company (we all know he wasn't in SOLDIER), Lightning was part of the guardian corps. In a way, both characters seem to be up against their former organizations. They're both tough as nails, the only difference is that Lightning is bigger than her sword.

Snow - Seifer (FFVIII)
blonde hair, black pants/gloves, grey trench coat? That was Seifer's outfit back in FFVIII, I just thought there was a small similarity in their character designs. The real difference is that Seifer was a badass, and had a gunblade.

Based on my experience with the game so far, it's not a bad FF game. It's not shaping up to be one that might be a favorite. There are quite a number of things that don't work very well, and some of the design choices are questionable at best, and at worst, downright absurd. However, there are a things at the same time that do work to the game's advantage, and to a degree, XIII still retains the FF look and feel that I've experienced with previous installments in the series.

The Wii, one year later. (Part 2)

My main 3 complaints with the Wii are the following:

1.) The online just isn't up to snuff -- let's face it, only a fraction of Wii titles feature some online component, and even fewer feature online modes that work well. The friend code system as got to go, plain and simple. However, I think games like Heroes 2 powered by EA Nation were on to something good, but that was back in 2007. Its Q1 of 2009, and you'd figure by now that more games would have done the same thing... If only other developers took notice.

2.) The graphics are not as good as they could be -- okay, we all know the Wii doesn't have a "Cell Processor" under the hood, but at the very least, the system specs are comparable to the original Xbox (or so I've heard.) What does any of that mean? Think about it, the original Xbox was responsible for some fantastic-looking titles such as Doom 3, Far Cry Instincts, Chronicles of Riddick and even Half Life 2, all of which featured special effects found on next-gen titles. So, for the Wii to have almost identical horsepower, and only have a handful of beautiful looking games is just embarrasing. This is in part due to lazy developers, but also due to Nintendo's philosophy of "gameplay before graphics". I beg to differ, with the capable hardware the Wii has under the hood, is there any reason why gamers shouldn't have good graphics AND fun gameplay? For the time being, there seems to be this idea that if you want innovative gameplay, chances are you won't have good graphics to accompany it, and vice-versa. In this day and age, there is no reason why we should feel compelled to settle for just one piece of the puzzle. Imagine if every Wii game looked as good as The Conduit.

3.) 25% Quality, 75% Quantity -- Flip over every Wii title, and you will see a "Official Nintendo Seal". It used to be the "Official Nintendo Seal of Quality". But in either case, Nintendo meant for this seal to be a guarentee that whichever game you found this seal on, will work with the system it is intended to play on. But by now, all of you probably know it as well as I do, what that seal should stand for. Still not following? In a nutshell, a lot of the titles you'll find on a Wii shelf are crappy 20-dollar games. And then there are the full-priced 50-dollar crappy games. This is something that we will forever see during the Wii-lifecycle, which is quite clearly a by-product of the recent catering of developers towards casual gamers. There's nothing wrong with casual gamers, and on some days, I am a casual gamer with only 5 minutes to spare, while on other days I have quite a few hours to kill. But the main problem is that the Wii is hardly suitable as a stand-alone console if you're looking for some hardcore games. The fact is, quality, high-scoring, AAA games are hard to find on the Wii these days. In 2008, the best games released for the Wii arguably were Rock Band 2, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, No More Heroes, Mario Kart Wii, and Call of Duty World at War. The Wii had a good year, but when compared to the year that the PS3 and 360 had, the quality easily falls in favour of the other two systems, in larger numbers too. There's no denying the fact that Nintendo's machine has sold more than the 360 and PS3 combined, however, I think the quality of the game library hardly reflects the console's sales numbers. It would be great to see Nintendo focus on both hardcore gaming and casual gaming at the same time, without neglecting one or the other.

There are some great games coming out for the Wii this year, and I'm really hoping Nintendo will crank out some awesome first-party games like they used to.

Games that I would like to see on the Wii:

  • Call of Duty Modern Warefare 2 -- Sure the graphics obviously won't be as great, but it would definitely be great to see it alongside the next-gen versions. World at War was a step in the right direction, and I think that this game could work on the Wii.
  • Super (Return of) Double Dragon -- This was a Super Nintendo game made back in 1992, and I think would be a great addition to the Virtual Console Library. I would love to see this game surpass Streets of Rage 2 as my favourite VC game.
  • Goldeneye 007 -- How could they release N64 titles like Wave Race, Ocarine of Time, and 1080 Snowboarding without releasing one of the best FPS games in history? The main problem might be securing the rights to this game, since Rare is no longer as close to Nintendo as they were in the 90s.
  • A true Wii-Legend of Zelda -- Twilight princess was great on the Wii, but ironically I still prefer the Gamecube version. I also felt that the motion controls on the Wii version felt slapped on. On a whole, TP didn't really feel like a true Wii experience, rather an enhanced Gamecube port. A Zelda game developed from the ground-up for the Wii would be epic. Come on, its Zelda.
  • A Fight Night for the Wii -- The boxing mini-game included Wii Sports probably had a lot of people thinking about what could be done with some careful development and optimization of the remote-controls. Depending on whether you liked it or not, the boxing game on WS was pretty neat, and that was back in 2006. Imagine what EA could do with the motion controls with some quality development time?
  • A true Real-Time Strategy Game -- Come on now, if they can make RTS games work for the PS3 and 360, why not for the Wii? It just seems like an opportunity that somebody has yet to capitalize on. The Wii-remote could work just as well as the standard mouse for an RTS game. Point-and-Click. Simple mechanics that just seem like they belong on Nintendo's console. Hardware constraints may be an issue however.

The Wii, one year later. (Part 1)

Around the same time last year (February 2008 ), like millions of others, I bought a Wii. Back then, it was pretty common for a store to sell out its entire stock of Nintendo's popular white machine (at least in Canada I think.) I remember that mine was the 2nd last console in the store, out of a stock of 10 Wii's. So I was pretty excited to finally lay hands on one, and I even ran home carrying it in a backpack; yes the package was just that small.

Naturally, the first game I played was the Wii Sports title that was bundled with the machine. It was a pretty fun game, and it was really great to see the functionality of the Wii remote demonstrated in simple things such as rolling a bowling ball or punching somebody's lights out. It was the kind of game that you pulled out when friends came to visit, or if you had 5 minutes to kill before heading off somewhere. But it wasn't the kind of game that could keep your attention for more than a week; if that was your only game.

The first title I actually bought was Super Smash Brothers Brawl. It was almost the definitive reason for why I bought the Wii in the first place. For years I had been a die-hard Playstation fan, but was turned off by the PSP, and the then unreasonably expensive Playstation 3 (which had nowhere near as many good games as it does now.) Something about SSBB got me hooked onto the Nintendo bandwagon, and I was completely sold as soon as I saw the very first trailer in 2007. I remember logging well over 6 hours the night that I picked up my copy of the game, and I think I finally slept at 3am, after getting almost halfway through the SubSpace Emissary Mode. But what I really wanted to do was take my game online and start cracking some heads.

Easier said than done.

I must say, it was frustrating having to work around the friend-code system just to be able to play against others online. It's great that Nintendo was nice enough to give us free online functionality, but they really dropped the ball with the user-interface. Was it really necessary for Nintendo to slap a 12-digit code on every online-enabled game just for the sake of security reasons? No, not at all, and I'm not seeing why they didn't just adopt a simple friends-list similar to XBL and PSN. The thing that really sucked was that not only did you have to get their numbers right, but the adding of the code had to be a 2-way street. Meaning, you could add somebody to your list on whichever game, but unless they add you as well, they won't show up on your friends list. At the very list, a simple "Somebody has added you to their friends list" alert would have been much appreciated.

With that in mind, it wasn't too long before I had about 11 people on my friends list for SSBB, but still, the online troubles were only beginning. For whatever reason, the servers on SSBB were incredibly slow to match you up with players in free for all; and to this day I still encounter several connection issues, and dropped sessions. Sometimes I may wait 5 minutes until I am matched up with another player. And then the lag sets in, which completely wrecks what was originally a fun, smooth-playing game. SSBB was a really great game, but the online issues almost limits the multiplayer to the old 4 controller-setup. Very disappointing to see that Nintendo has not yet smoothed these problems out, and a year later too.

The next big game I bought was Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock, which was a game I enjoyed thoroughly. I spent many late nights with the volume at maximum playing this game. However, I ran into the cumbersome online experience that I went through with SSBB, again largely due to the friend-code system, and coupled with the possibility that many people were probably not playing online with this one.

Mario Kart Wii became one of my favourite games for the Wii simply because it was the type of game that you could spend anywhere from 5 minutes or 5 hours playing it and have a very enjoyable experience. I felt that Nintendo hit the online component right this time, because MK had an even better matchmaking system than SSBB could ever have. Within 30 seconds, you were matched up with other players; on a regional scale, but worldwide also. And the best part was that there was no crazy lag to ruin the session. Sure it sucked that MK still operated on the FC system, but Nintendo got just about everything right with that game. MK even featured a buddy system, so that you could go split-screen and be on Wi-Fi at the same time, doesn't sound like much to get excited for, but very few (if any,) Wii games feature this option. Perfect example of easy, fun gaming that suits just about any time constraint.

The summer of '08 was a bit of a rut however, and I began to get bored with the Wii's offering, or lack of it. Sure it was great to have MK and SSBB, but there really wasn't any games that held my attention for those long summer days that I wasn't at work. This was about the same time that I started downloading Virtual Console titles like crazy. It was really nice to get reconnected with Zelda Ocarina of Time (which I hadn't played since 2000), and several other titles like Wave Race 64 and Super Castlevania IV. Of course you couldn't do Virtual Console without downloading the first 3 Super Mario Bros. titles.

My favourite Virtual Console game to this day, is still Streets of Rage 2, which was released on the Genesis a little over a decade ago; it was just simple beat-em' up goodness, and very fun with a second player. I was mostly a PC-Gameboy gamer in the mid-late 90s, so I was really excited to be able to play some of these old games from consoles that I never had the privilege to own.

However, as time went on, the rut continued, and I was really disappointed that there wasn't very many good first person shooters on the Wii, which was a strange thing since everyone used to tout the Wii's precision motion controls, and the ability to have a FPS experience comparable to that on the PC. By October of 2008, I had already played Call of Duty 3 (terrible), and Metroid Prime 3 (good, but no online), and finally bought Medal of Honor Heroes 2.

Heroes 2 was a solid game, but to be honest, I wasn't a big fan of the controls, or the fairly unbalanced weapon damage during online play, I also thought the graphics could have been much better. Everyone says that to this date, Heroes 2 has the best FPS control on the Wii, but I think that distinction belongs to Call of Duty: World at War. Heroes 2 has the best online interface on the Wii, thanks to EA's decision to bypass the FC system altogether with the EA Nation system, smart move. Not only did Heroes 2 have a functional friends list free of digits, but it also had the lobby, and several other leaderboard functions as well. That game was a perfect example of a game that was half-way to becoming something found on next-gen platforms.

Call of Duty: World at War was a game that I was more than happy to buy in mid-November of 2008, and I gave that game a 9.0 rating, on the basis that it was a game that I felt made a solid attempt to be like its next-gen counterparts. The campaign is the same, the weapons are the same, even the ranking system with the perks and the weapon customization is identical to that found on the other versions. However, I felt that World at War on the Wii lost a few points in the area of graphics (which are obviously a technical constraint) and because of some loss of functionality in the area of online modes. It was disappointing that Treyarch was unable to include the popular Zombie mode, or the 16 player limit found on the other versions, which again was probably a technical constraint due to the Wii's lack of horsepower.

Looking back on it now, World at War was another example of a Wii game that was half-way to becoming something identical to what the other next-gen consoles offered. It had some great gameplay, and the controls were solid, but if it had MOH's online interface, I think I would have scored it to 9.5.

The game that I think comes close to being 99% identical to its next-gen counterparts is Rock Band 2. EA and the Harmonix team really pulled it together with this iteraration of the Rock Band series, and more than made up for the mess they released a year ago with Rock Band 1. Rock Band 2 for the Wii is leagues above Guitar Hero and does just about everything that you'd expect from the PS3 and 360 versions, everything right down to downloadable content which again is something that very few Wii games feature. Sure, the character models are probably lower poly and definitely aren't as high-res as the other versions, but it is forgiveable, and does not detract from the overall experience. If I reviewed this game (which I intend to do in the future), I would probably score it a 9.5 (9.9 if we still had the old rating system). Everything right down to the online integration of World Tour mode was spot-on. The best part about Rock Band 2 on the Wii was being able to use my Guitar Hero 3 controller with it. Most of my friends don't come over to play RB2, so I had no intention of buying the complete instrument set, but it was very nice not to have to purchase another 50 dollar guitar just to play this game.

Of course, my only gripe against RB2, is obviously the FC system, because I see the EA logo on the case, and it had me thinking, "it would have been great to see the EA Nation system integrated into this game". Ow well, close enough.

So thats just some of the notable experiences I've had with the Wii over the past 12 months. Overall I think its a great great machine, and I applaud Nintendo for their effort into doing something different from Sony and Nintendo.