Thursday, March 31, 2011

Back to the Future: The Game - Episode 3: Citizen Brown

Giving an Episode-by-Episode review of the Back to the Future game by Telltale is no easy task, especially considering that there is a month-long gap between episodes. While I can't really complain about this business model, I still get a little impatient at times while I wait. Now, last time I said that Episode 2 met some of my expectations, but failed to meet others. After another month of waiting to play this episode, I can say that still not much has changed.

To give a quick summary of the story is actually quite easy. Marty McFly has landed in an alternate 1986 caused by the events of Episode 2. After escaping from the DeLorean, which has crashed into the side of a billboard, Marty quickly notices that everything about Hill Valley has changed, from the aesthetic and cleanliness of the city to the look and personality of Jennifer, who has dumped him in this timeline for being too much of a "square". It turns out that as a result of not watching the movie Frankenstein, Doc Brown is now married to Edna Strickland and is in full control of the city, which can be described as a Municipality thanks to various law and tax loopholes. It is now up to Marty to find a way to get a council with Emmet Brown and convince him to see the error of his ways.

Again, the story is still well-written, with a great twist at the end to fuel the next episode, and the voice acting is as top-notch as ever. However, the puzzles are still incredibly easy, making for another two-and-a-half hours of gameplay. While I did like the story, I was able to notice the game become a lot more straightforward and linear, but I can't say whether or not this borders on railroading. And again, the graphics have not changed at all, but I did notice a couple of hiccups in the gameplay. These instances are the camera staying on a close-up of Doc Brown for about 3 extra seconds and Biff Tannen standing up while Marty is still going through the motions of struggling with him. While this was rather odd, I don't think other people will encounter the same problems, but it is something to watch out for.

True, the game felt longer than before, but instead of being excited I actually almost fell asleep in front of my laptop, as did my brother who was merely watching. And I hate to sound like a broken record, but I kept wishing for the puzzles to be more difficult, rather than being pathetically easy. It may be too much, but I can't help of think back at how interestingly engaging the puzzles were in Sam & Max, wishing I could at least have something like that. Anyway, I think three episodes in, Telltale would be ready to take a small risk in the gameplay rather than continue to play it safe. It's not getting any better like Strong Bad's Cool Game For Attractive People (SBCG4AP) did as it went on, but I still expected something more.

I would still recommend the episode to be played by continuing players, and people still waiting to buy it should still take a purchase of the full season into consideration. When the whole thing is through, there will be plenty of game to go around, enough to last you an afternoon. But as far as this Episode-by-Episode analysis is concerned, I like what Telltale has been doing so far with the game, but they really need to up the ante in the gameplay for those waiting a month to see the next part of the story. Frankly, I wonder how much longer the magic of the Back to the Future license will last for this game. I guess we'll have to wait for Episode 4 to look for any improvement.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown - Hail To The King, Baby!

Total Meltdown.jpg

If you have ever played a Duke Nukem game in your life, there's a very good chance it was this one. Released in 1996, Duke Nukem 3D was, and still is, the most popular Duke Nukem game on the market. In fact, there still exists a huge following of the PC version's level editor to this day. It's also the game that introduced Duke to the Mature rating, and has consistently remained with each installment. This game was originally brought to the PC through DOS, but has also been ported to the major consoles of the time it was released; it has also been recently ported to the Xbox 360 and iPhone. With so many versions to pick from, I have decided to play and review the PS1 port, Duke Nukem: Total Meltdown.

The story of Duke Nukem 3D takes place immediately after the events of Duke Nukem II, which is explained in the manual of Total Meltdown (the PC version has it on-screen). After the defeat of the Rigelatins in the last game, Duke has hijacked one of their ships, making his way back to Earth for relaxation. As fate would have it, his ship is shot down by unknown hostiles, forcing him to eject. He lands miraculously on the roof of a skyscraper, vowing revenge on the aliens that attacked him.

Like the second game, you get a choice of difficulty settings before you start: Piece of Cake (Easy), Let's Rock (Medium), and Come Get Some (Hard), with an unlockable Damn I'm Good (Very Hard). I played on Piece of Cake, not only for the sake of efficiency, but also because I'm not very good with FPS games. Even then, the game provides a bit of a challenge, often leading me to come up with creative ways to kill aliens on very low health. This game also has an improved Save system, allowing you to Save permanently or Quicksave temporarily at any point. Even on Piece of Cake, I recommend using Quicksave as often as you can, since you can easily die if you're not careful.

You start off the game with a Pistol, but over time, you can pick various weapons, including a Shotgun, RPG, and Chaingun Cannon to name a few. At times, you will see a crack in a wall, so it's good to have the RPG or Pipebombs on standby. You can also use your Mighty Foot as a kick attack, which can also be used on glass or trashcans to conserve ammo. In order to advance to certain areas, you must also gather keycards, colored yellow, red, and blue. Power-ups in the game include, but are not limited to, Portable Medkits, Steroids, and a Jetpack, and can be found not in crates, but in the open, behind secret compartments, and inside trashcans. In a change of pace from the first two games, this third installment is a First-Person Shooter, but remains the only one in the series aside from the upcoming Duke Numen Forever.

The controls are tight and respond perfectly, though it can get a little awkward depending on how you use them. Total Meltdown, even though the box doesn't say, is Analog Compatible (recommended), with the Left Stick for normal movement and the Right Stick for strafing. You can move the camera up and down using L1 and L2, which can lead to the aformentioned awkwardness, especially if you are facing a ledge or tall platform. Fortunately, you can center the camera by pressing both Left Shoulder Buttons at once. Aside from that small hurdle, the controls are, as stated, perfect.

The game comprises three episodes (L.A. Meltdown, Lunar Apocalypse, Shrapnel City), with a fourth one (The Birth) for owning Duke Nukem 3D: Atomic Edition. Total Meltdown has its own fourth episode (Plug N' Pray), but I only played the first three as they are universal to all versions. Each episode is comprised of many levels, 7 for the first and 11 for the other two, each with a couple of secret levels. Each episode has its own challenges, but you can also find videos on YouTube on how to progress through each level much quicker, given this game's massive following. Every episode also has a Boss at the end, the first two of which you must find, which prove to be quite a challenge, and can take some time to figure out how to kill in the most efficient manner.

A notable thing about this game is the number of movie references it makes. For instance, the cover is a reference to Evil Dead, and at one point you encounter the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. However, you actually have to know the references in order to get them, and a couple of times they are required in order to advance in the level. At one point early in the game, you see a poster that covers an obscure pathway. I didn't know this was a reference, let alone that I had to go through it, so I had to find that out with an online walkthrough. I was aware of the 2001 reference, but I didn't know I had to go through it, and again I found that out through a guide. Newer players, like me, are likely to miss a lot of these references, so they are more prone to looking them up in a walkthrough. Still, the jokes are funny when you know the references.

The graphics are a big improvement over Duke Nukem II, although they are sort of pixelated in Total Meltdown compared to what I've seen of other versions. To create the 3D effect, levels are constructed in the style of DOOM, with enemies, women, and objects being rotating 2D sprites. Despite the downside of the PS1 port, they're still rather impressive, and still seem to hold up to this day. Since the music seems to change depending on the version, I will say that the music of the Total Meltdown variant is pretty well-done, and you are able to to listen to a few of them by using the PS1 disk as a CD (though the manual warns against playing Track 1 because its really a data file). The voice of Jon St. John suits the Duke Nukem character quite nicely, and it's nice to know that he treats this role with great admiration and respect. My only complaint about it is that some sounds that should be playing at the end of each episode are left out of this port, so I had to look for them on YouTube in order to know what they were.

One last thing I should mention is that this game has a multiplayer function called Dukematch. However, since Total Meltdown, the only version I have, requires two PS1 consoles, I am unable to comment since I only own one.

Duke Nukem 3D is a game I would whole-heartedly recommend. It's fun, even for those like me who don't excel at its genre, and provides a bit of a great challenge. As said with the first two games, it has a lot of trial-and-error gameplay, presented in an enjoyable and satisfying way. It's good to play the first two games so that you know the story better, but this can still easily be one you can pick up and play. As said before, this is a game that has a large fanbase to this day, and chances are, after playing it, you will become part of it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Duke Nukem II - Not Quite 3D Yet

About two years after the release of Duke Nukem in 1991, Apogee launched the first sequel of the series, simply named Duke Nukem II. As with the original, it was released as a Shareware title (offer a portion of the game for free and then pay to play the rest) for DOS. Is it any better than the original? And more importantly, is it worth paying attention to today?

For starters, there is more of a story in this game than there was in the original. Here, a year has passed since the defeat of Dr. Proton in 1997, with Duke promoting a new autobiography, humorously titled "Why I'm So Great." During a news interview, Duke is taken aboard a spaceship occupied by an alien race known as the Rigelatins, who wish to extract his brain and use it to plan an invasion. Duke escapes from the ship and has to save Earth by fighting on the Rigelatin home world. Again, this is more fleshed out than before but seems more like an excuse plot than anything else. What helps though is that the pixel art is improved and players are accompanied by a static cutscene at the end of each episode as a way to lead into the next. The dialogue from Duke is actually very humorous and well-written, providing the only, but great, source of humor for the game. Then again, it's a game from 1993, so I probably shouldn't be complaining much about the story. After all, the technology wasn't very advanced compared to what we have today, so it suits the time it was made.

Unlike the first game, there is now an option to set a difficulty level when you begin a new episode between Easy, Medium, and Hard. For this review, I played on the Easy setting for the sake of efficiency for this blog's project of playing through as many Duke Nukem games as possible before the release of Forever. The game is fairly challenging by design anyway, with the only main difference being the amount of enemies on screen or how many power-ups you can obtain in a level.

Speaking of power-ups, while they exist in this game, they are, thankfully, not required in order to advance through the game. Instead, power-ups include four different guns with limited shots. These guns are a Laser, a Rocket Launcher, a Flamethrower, and Normal, which sets the gun back to the default one you carry around. Each gun has its own special effectiveness. The Laser can go through anything, including multiple crates and enemies at once; the Rocket Launcher will destroy any enemy in a single hit; and the Flamethrower has a wide range and is the only gun that can continuously fire without needing the Rapid Fire power-up, plus it can act as a makeshift jetpack when pointed at the ground. Health items come in the form of Cola, Turkey, and Atoms, each which boost your Health by one section. However, you can refill six sections with a Six-Pack, or refill by two when you grill the turkey, which now runs toward you instead of being a drumstick, by shooting and then touching it.

All of these power-ups are contained in crates of four colors. Red (Health or harmful Napalm bomb), Blue (Point Items and Atoms), Green (Weapons), or Gray (Essential items or nothing). The placement of these items is not random like one might assume from playing modern games, but rather set in stone. Because of this, it is fairly easy to memorize the placement of certain essential items should you die and have to restart at the beginning or at a handily placed checkpoint. Thus, you can bypass large amounts of crates to get to the essential ones quickly and avoid the crates with bombs more easily.

The game is a platformer by nature, and the last in the series for about ten years to be so. There are eight levels for each of the four episodes, each which seem should get progressively harder as they go. That is actually not the case here. While the first game could get really difficult in the later stages, this game actually has certain "types" of levels, which seem to follow a patterned placement for the first half of the game, but the second half has them placed in a nearly unpredictable fashion. I'm sure this was for challenge, but even that doesn't distract from the fact that the game has a very erratic difficulty spike between levels. The crowning example of this is Episode four, which starts with a difficult platforming segment on the outside of a spaceship, but then the next level is essentially a breeze. Then the game is more difficult but in a way that seems to level out in a very consistent fashion. The penultimate level of that episode, however, requires you to have mastered the platforming of the game to a degree that you will require inhuman reflexes. While I could get used to the game's platforming in the masterfully designed levels, it still doesn't make me less annoyed at the game’s erratic difficulty.

The end of each episode has an entire room dedicated to a boss fight. These fights puzzled me, but in all of the wrong ways. For one thing, there is absolutely no variety in the bosses, save for their pattern of movement or their attacks. Otherwise, they all look exactly the same. Secondly, every single one of them is a total breeze. Their patterns are very easy to figure out and adjust to. Sure you may take some damage during the fight, but they seemed to actually get easier as the game progressed, rather than more difficult. In fact, I purposefully grabbed a power-up in the fourth fight and died just so I could come back with the gun still in my hand and take down the boss with minimal damage. Still, I applaud the developers for making the fights at least somewhat challenging. The first boss requires you to have catlike reflexes to dodge the pattern of nukes and another requires a lot of ducking to stay alive. It may not be much, but I still managed to get some enjoyment out of beating them, if only so I could see another wonderful ending cutscene.

The controls for this game are exactly the same as the first, so I was able to just pick up and play the game with ease. However, some of the platforming can get awkward, since you need to be dead center to climb up poles or chains. This likely stems from the game using blocks of space to determine location instead of individual pixels, so it's really more because of limitations than anything else, only becoming annoying when asked to do this in midair.

Now, the graphics are done very well for the time it was released and vastly improved over those of the first Duke Nukem. The variety of the enemies really shows this, as well the backgrounds standing out better and combined with better textures. However, my hardware would not allow me the pleasure of listening to the music, so I am unable to personally comment on that. It should be noted that Duke's appearance here is much closer to his iconic image from later games, as well as the final time we see him without his shades. His voice is also only heard once at the very beginning before the Main Menu screen, albeit a different one.

So is this game worth your time? I would say that it actually is. Duke Nukem II is significantly improved over the first game all across the board, even if they aren't completely perfect. While there is a large amount of trial-and-error gameplay going on, I can say that Apogee knew how to do it right and is thus a game worth checking out, especially if you have played the first game beforehand. The 3D Realms site has the first episode for free download if you want to try it out first before deciding to buy the full version. Like the first game, there is a word of warning: The game may not work on newer operating systems, so it would be a good idea to unearth an older computer, up to Windows XP, for full enjoyment.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Duke Nukem - Introducing the King

After 14 years of development hell, Duke Nukem Forever will finally see the light of day. To celebrate its release on May 3rd June 14, we on this blog shall play and review as many Duke Nukem games as possible, in order of release. Now, let's start with the original 1991 DOS game, simply called, Duke Nukem.

Before I begin, I should mention the backstory behind the name. The game was originally going to be called "Duke Nukem," but was temporarily changed to "Duke Nukum," since the intended name belonged to a villain in a cartoon, Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Thus, the game was released with the changed name. However, Apogee, the developers, found out that the name "Duke Nukem" was actually up for grabs, so they went back to calling the game what they wanted. This is even addressed on the 3D Realms site in order to settle any confusion buyers may have.

To talk about the actual game, the story is rather simple. Duke Nukem must defeat the evil Dr. Proton in order to save the Earth. The game is split into 3 episodes, each taking place on Earth (Shrapnel City), the Moon (Mission: Moonbase), and Earth's Future (Trapped in the Future!) respectively. Not much else to say, really, although the fights against Dr. Proton are rather easy.

Each episode has a few items, which you must collect each time in order to advance. They are the Super Jump Boots, which allow you to jump higher; the Robohand, which lets you activate certain switches; and the Grappling Hook, which lets you latch onto certain ceilings. Your weapon is a Nuclear Pistol, which can be upgraded during gameplay to allow more shots to appear on-screen at once. In order to reach the next level, you will need Keys and/or Access Cards in order to unlock certain doors or get rid of certain hazards.

Power-Ups in the game include Cola Cans and Turkey for 1 Health (shooting the Turkey makes it Cooked Turkey for 2) and Atomic Health for Full Health, while hazards include spikes, dynamite, and lasers. You can find certain things in a variety of boxes that come in 3 colors: Blue (for bonus point items), Red (for Cola Cans or Turkey), and Grey (for Atomic Health, dynamite, items, or nothing).

I'm not sure what to say about the graphics or sound, since this is a rather old game, so I'll just say they're good for when it came out. There are a couple of small issues I have with the graphics, though. For starters, it's sometimes hard to tell at first what you can or can't interact with, depending on what you expect at the moment. However, it becomes easier to deal with as the game progresses. The other issue I have is with the environments. They work at first when they're on Earth, but it's a little hard to accept when the setting becomes the Moon in Episode 2. However, I just went with it, since it's something best not dwelled upon.

The only actual complaint I have about this game is with the controls. They work well and respond as expected, but sometimes an issue comes up with the timing of the button presses. For example, there's a level in Episode 3 where your timing has to be perfectly accurate in order to ascend a column of blocks. In order to go up, you have to jump and go right at the same time, then immediately go left when you reach the next block. It takes a frame for Duke to turn around, and you have to be careful not to apply too much force to the left key or he'll go right across and fall back down. Once you figure it out, though, there's a feeling of accomplishment when you make it through.

Overall, this is a great game that serves as a good introduction to the Duke Nukem franchise. There are some difficult moments here and there, but it's all about trial and error. If you have any interest in playing this game, I suggest you download the first episode for free off the 3D Realms site to see if you want to play any more. Before you do, I should mention that the game might not work on newer computers, so you might want to dust off your oldest one, up to Windows XP, if you still have it.

Sunday, March 6, 2011



If you've kept up with movies for the last decade, chances are you've seen or heard of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. These movies were directed by Gore Verbinski, who you also might know as the director of the classic MouseHunt and the American remake of The Ring. If you've seen the Pirates series, you also probably remember Johnny Depp, who played the memorable Captain Jack Sparrow. This year, these two work together again to deliver Verbinski's latest outing, Rango.

The film centers on a pet chameleon, played by Johnny Depp, who spends his time performing to inanimate objects in his cage. After this brief view into his personality, the car he is riding on the back of hits a bump and causes his cage to crash onto the road. It is then he finds the bump was an armadillo, who was trying to reach the other side while seeking the "Spirit of the West," and advises the chameleon to search for his purpose in life. While crossing the desert, and narrowly escaping a hawk, he meets a female lizard named Beans, who takes him to a western town named Dirt, populated by other desert animals. Soon after getting there, the chameleon enters a saloon, where he adopts the name "Rango" while telling a story about himself; he took the name from part of the name of a bottle he drank from. What follows is a story revolving around a murder, linking to a massive water shortage in the town.

This movie was overall better than I expected, as I wasn't sure what to make of it from the trailers. The story was actually well thought-out and easy to follow, if a little slow at times. I should mention, however, that the majority of the plot is similar to the 1974 movie, Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski. While I haven't seen it yet, I don't think that's neccessarily a bad thing, since this film stands out on its own rather well. Some parts of the movie also include subtle references to other classic movies, as well as one to another Johnny Depp film, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A notable reference is the appearance of Clint Eastwood as the aforementioned "Spirit of the West," though it was disappointing that the actual Clint Eastwood didn't voice him. These references didn't take away from the story either, rather serving as easter eggs for those who get them.

The effects of this movie were also rather superb, portraying the animals in a realistic fashion while also being very fluid in movement. While this does cause it to nearly dip into uncanny valley, it doesn't really distract from the story, and actually serves the movie well. On the acting side of things, Johnny Depp's performance as Rango is done fantastically, making the character more believeable. The other characters' voices match their appearances quite well, with excellent delivery, making their interactions with the titular character much better.

One thing about Rango that deserves special mention is the sound design. Everything in this movie is given the sounds of its real-life counterpart, from the animals to the environments, and even objects, making for one of the most realistically-sounding movies out there. This aspect helped to enhance the experience further, helping to make one believe its desert setting. One example of this design would a scene at the beginning of the movie, where the chameleon hero's cage shatters on the highway. You can hear every sound from the glass breaking to the shards scattering about and sliding against the asphalt.

But as with every good movie, there are a couple small issues with it. While the plot was straight-forward, there were some important things I could see coming from a distance, which would be better not to spoil. The only real issue I had with this movie, however, was the use of bats. There are scenes where characters are flying bats for transport in broad daylight, even though bats are nocturnal. While (at the time of this writing) there may be a species of bat that can fly in daylight that I don't know about, I decided to take it as willing suspension of disbelief.

The final verdict of Rango is that it's an enjoyable movie. The plot is a little slow, but easy to follow, backed up by great acting and realistic sound design. While this is a family picture, I would more recommend it to Gore Verbinski/Johnny Depp fans. Younger movie-goers should be accompanied by an adult tough, as this movie has some dark moments and really stretches its PG rating as far as it can. Aside from that, Rango is a must-see and delivers a memorable visual experience.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Back to the Future: The Game - Episode 2: Get Tannen!

From what I had played in the previous episode of Telltale's Back to the Future Game, I had some expectations for the now available Episode 2. The first one had some rather easy puzzles, but was faithful to the spirit of the original Back to the Future movies, including a great score and talented voice acting. Did this episode improve on the first? Well, I would love to say it did, but in the end I don't have much to say.

“Get Tannen!” begins immediately where “It's About Time” left off. Marty is in danger of disappearing from the timeline and has to make a necessary alteration to ensure his existence, at the same time avoiding his other self and 1931 Emmett Brown. He succeeds and returns to 1986 Hill Valley, only to find that things aren't the same from when he left them. To undo the Tannen family reigning over the town, Doc Brown and Marty return to 1931 Hill Valley, 2 months after Episode1, to restore 1986 to its original state. The new events of the story take over from here.

The story is still written extremely well, and it was still interesting to me how it explores the prohibition era. This time in American history is portrayed excellently, as far as I can tell, and influences a good majority of the puzzles. While we get a couple of new characters to take into account for the entire episode, they are handled in a way that doesn't make them annoying or otherwise unlikable. On the note of voice acting in the game, the quality of it is consistent with the previous entry, but there was a scene with Kid Tannen and Edna Strickland near the end that seemed to have an underwhelming delivery. Other than that, they did a terrific job.

I can't say anything about the graphics, but I can remark that the gameplay hasn't changed. The puzzles are still simple as ever and the episode still only took about 2 to 2-and-a-half hours to beat. While it may have been a little longer, I can't help but think of how the puzzles in Sam & Max, another Telltale series, got more elaborate over time. Even so, I enjoyed the puzzles as a way of seeing what would happen next in the story, which is actually the whole point, really. I commend Telltale for playing it safe, but it would be nice to have more of a challenge come Episode 3.

Overall, the game is more of the same, but in doing so it sticks true to the charm of Back to the Future and should be enough to satisfy any continuing player. I have my expectations again for the third episode, but I am mostly looking forward to the team at Telltale expanding on the big twist at the end of the episode. For those who have purchased the full season already, I don't really think you'll be disappointed with this entry. If you are still on the fence about it, I suggest that this is a good time to purchase the season now. It's simply hard to not like this game.