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Lost Mission

by Todd Ciolek, Sep 5th 2012

Valkyria Chronicles 3 is an unlucky sort of game. Fans of the previous two Valkyria games dearly want it in English, but Sega isn't bringing it to North America. The PSP market is fading here, and there's no sign of Sega working out some deal for a PLAYSTATION Network release. There is, however, a sign of the Valkyria Chronicles 3 artbook making its way out of Japan.

Sharp-eyed fans spied an Amazon listing for Valkyria Chronicles 3: Complete Artworks earlier this week, and Udon Comics just confirmed that they'll be shipping the book this December. This certainly isn't the first time Udon's published an art collection for a game available only in Japan (more on that later), and it's an excellent way to experience the game vicariously. Buying it in droves might not convince Sega to reconsider an American release for Valkyria Chronicles 3, but at this stage it couldn't hurt.

NEWS

METAL GEAR SOLID: GROUND ZEROES IS RAINY, MUDDY, VERY IMPRESSIVE
Each new Metal Gear Solid game is a strange new piece of the franchise's convoluted backstory, and there's already speculation about where Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes fits. It stars the original Naked Snake (a.k.a. Big Boss), and it's apparently set not so long after Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, as the first trailer for Ground Zeroes shows Snake searching for the kidnapped Paz and Chico of Peace Walker. Snake's also out to show off Kojima Productions' new Fox engine, which impressed quite a few in the crowds at PAX this past weekend. The 14-minute demo depicts all sorts of stunning effects as it tracks Snake's infiltration of a rain-pelted camp. In his mission, Snake can drive unattended vehicles and call a helicopter at any point in the game. The latter of these seems a tad unrealistic, but Kojima mentioned that the helicopter is vulnerable to attacks if the player is incautious.

Of course, there are many new questions raised. What's going on at this Camp Omega? Who's the horribly scarred commander we see talking to an imprisoned boy with a hole in his chest? And who's the boy? Isn't he too young to be Chico? And is Ground Zeroes leading up to Metal Gear Solid 5? The answer to the last query is “yes,” according to Kojima, but let's keep in mind that Peace Walker was supposed to be Metal Gear Solid 5 at some point. Kojima might change his mind a few more times before Ground Zeroes arrives on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

SQUARE MAKES A FINAL FANTASY XIII GAME ABOUT LIGHTNING, HOPES YOU'LL LIKE HER THIS TIME
Square Enix refuses to give up on Final Fantasy XIII. The original game was overly linear and poorly paced, so Square made a sequel where players could roam around as freely as time-travel allowed. Yet Final Fantasy XIII-2 didn't accomplish much beyond setting up some broad trans-dimensional conflict, and now Square's attempting another Final Fantasy XIII title just to wrap up everything. To that end, Square's going back to Lightning, star of the original Final Fantasy XIII.

According to early reports, Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII focuses so heavily on its heroine that it sheds the menus and party of previous games. Lightning's all on her own in battles, where she roams around freely and attacks using a variety of RPG-ish commands mapped to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 controller's four face buttons. Particularly interesting is the game's use of time: Lightning has 13 days to save the world (above) and tie up the destructive plot threads of the previous game, and using certain spells actually costs her time instead of money. It's an interesting idea, even though the previous Final Fantasy XIII games had some equally interesting ideas that didn't soar quite as high as they should have.

PHOENIX WRIGHT RETURNS, APOLLO JUSTICE MAY AS WELL
It's safe to say that Phoenix Wright will never be retired. CAPCOM tried already. The company introduced a new Ace Attorney game where a young whippersnapper took Phoenix's place, but fans just didn't like that punk Apollo Justice as much as they did Phoenix and his circle of eccentric lawyers, cops, witnesses, criminals, and general-purpose nutcases. CAPCOM has now admitted defeat: Phoenix is not only starring in a spin-off alongside Level-5's Professor Layton, but he's also getting a new game on the 3DS.

A few things are apparently changing in Ace Attorney 5. It's set a year after the events of Apollo Justice, in which Phoenix was shown without his license to practice law. The new game apparently returns him to the bench, where he at first faces the younger brother of Winston Payne in a courtroom clash. More contentious for fans is a yellow-clad woman who serves as Phoenix's new partner, and her name and background are said to be under wraps until the Tokyo Game Show. The game's also in 3-D, much like the Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney crossover. The first images don't show any Apollo Justice characters or Phoenix's longtime assistant Maya Fey, but the most notable absence may be Ace Attorney creator Shu Takumi. He's writing the Layton crossover, so Ace Attorney 5 will be written by Takeshi Yamazaki, director of the Ace Attorney Investigations spin-offs.

INTERVIEW: LOST PLANET 3'S ANDREW SZYMANSKI AND MATT SOPHOS

For a prequel, Lost Planet 3 isn't particularly tied to the past. While it's set 25 years before the original Lost Planet, the third game in CAPCOM's action-survival series sets itself apart from what came before. Lost Planet 3 finds humanity in the early phases of colonizing the frigid, harsh world of E.D.N. III, and prospectors use towering robotic Rigs to explore the inhospitable landscape. The game tracks a colonist named Jim as he pilots a Rig, sends his paycheck back home to his family, and uncovers all manner of strange things on the planet.

As with Dead Rising 2, CAPCOM turned to a Western developer for Lost Planet 3. The game's overseen by Lost Planet creator Kenji Oguro, but development's handled by California-based Spark Unlimited. For a look at the changes in store for Lost Planet 3, we talked with CAPCOM producer Andrew Szymanski and Spark Unlimited's project director Matt Sophos.

How did the idea for Lost Planet 3 come about? Was Spark Unlimited involved from the beginning?

Andrew Szymanski: When we were wrapping up Lost Planet 2, [Kenji] Oguro came to me with…not even a concept, but more of a core idea for Lost Planet, the idea that we wanted to explore some of the past roots. He really wanted to go back and do some of the things that he wanted to do back in the first game, which was more exploration-based combat. More of the struggle of the colonists to eke out an existence. Trying to be early on 360 hardware, he wasn't able to achieve all of those goals. He came to me and said that in order to achieve these goals, we should work with a Western developer.

Spark really stood out for a number of reasons. They had a really impressive internal prototype for an unreleased game that they showed us, and it definitely showed that they understood combat and control. Even more important, they showed that they would be open to the idea of having a true collaboration. A lot of times in this industry, egos come into play, and we needed to make sure that we could meet both ways.

That's kind of how things got started. Oguro-san and some members from the Osaka team that did the first two games flew out to L.A., and we did weekly brainstorming sessions. In the early concept phases, we brought a lot from both sides.

So you'd put Lost Planet 3 closer to the first Lost Planet than Lost Planet 2? Is that in terms of narrative and multiplayer?

Szymanski: Well, the first game was more of a narrative-driven experience with a competitive multiplayer mode. The second game was a campaign that was fully for four-player co-op. It was much less character-driven, much less narrative-driven. It was just “hey, let's get four guys together and do some crazy bug hunting.”

We're doing multiplayer again this time, and we'll be covering that in the months ahead. For the campaign, as it were, we knew we wanted to focus on a strong main character and the story of Jim, our protagonist.

How'd you develop Jim as a main character? Did you keep an international audience in mind?

Matt Sophos: He's very rooted in Western ideals as far as the Everyman goes. The main thing about Jim is that he's gone to E.D.N. III to provide for his wife and child back home, and that's a universal motivation. We didn't go the route of deciding that Jim would be a guy who Western gamers would love. We're sticking to themes that are important to all of us and to the main character, which translates across the board. And CAPCOM and the guys in Osaka have had the same feedback.

Szymanski: When I've shown the game to the Japanese press, they've immediately gotten the character. We've gotten a lot of great feedback about how Jim is a great character. It's good to see that it's a universally accepted idea.

Sophos: We have certain wrappings that are tailored toward Western audiences, but I think it's a part of fleshing out a character and making him feel alive, making him feel vulnerable. A big part of it is “write what you know,” and we hope that people do get it.

Lost Planet's main character was based on Lee Byung-hun. Was Jim inspired by any particular actor or literary character?

Sophos: Jim was inspired by a couple things. You can look to other media, like Kurt Russell in The Thing. His name came from my uncle, who had leukemia during the game's concept development phase and ended up passing away. He was a big inspiration.

As far as the character's look, we've gone the digital double route. For the actor playing Jim, we've scanned his head and scanned his face. He's doing all the mo-cap, and our animators have to go in and work pretty hard to match his performance. So Jim looks like our actor.

Did you look for actors who had experience doing voice work or stage work?

Szymanski: And also theatrical work. Because the performance capture is done on a single stage. You're doing body capture, face capture, and audio all at once. And in many cases, the actors are acting with each other on stage. And if you're familiar with traditional voice-over work, you just have one guy in a booth reading lines. Matt's directing Lost Planet 3 in real time, and it makes for a much more believable experience.

Sophos: And even in a lot of traditional motion-capture, you're kind of locked off in a booth. We've tailored our pipeline around getting the best performances that we could, so that the actors could do it almost like they're in a theatrical performance.

And you've done the same thing with other characters?

Sophos: Yes, all of the primary and secondary are scanned actors, with one exception, and that's because of language issues.

And how many major characters are there?

Sophos: I want to say about eleven major characters. And we have NPC characters who aren't really scanned.

Szymanski: Any character that's going to have a close-up in a cinematic is an actual actor who's been motion-captured that way.

For Lost Planet 3, how's the on-foot gameplay going to compare to previous games?

Szymanski: It's going to be a bit controversial for franchise fans because we've gone in and streamlined the controls. We've removed the straight-up jump feature, so you can't just jump anywhere at any time. We've kept the grappling hook, which is a franchise hallmark. In the single-player mode it's going to be used as a traversal mechanic. In the multiplayer, I think people will see that the grappling hook is much more prominent. That being said, it might be controversial for very hardcore Lost Planet aficionados, because it isn't as arcade-y, where you're bouncing around and you can grapple onto anything. It was an intentional decision in the first two games because they were done by Japanese developers who hadn't done shooters before. They'd only done action games. I think we've taken that more to the shooter side of the spectrum by making the controls more standard shooter controls, making the feel more of a standard shooter feel. We're keeping the elements that make Lost PlanetLost Planet.

I do think that could ruffle some feathers. I want to reassure people by saying that those choices were intentional, and we're not just saying “screw Lost Planet.” With Lost Planet 3, we want to push the boundaries of the franchise. And maybe it's a selfish objective, but we want more people to play it. Sometimes people treat accessibility as though it's a dirty word, but if someone's already played a shooter, making Lost Planet easier to pick up and play will only increase the fan base.

So the grappling hook was scaled back to emphasize the shooting?

Sophos: In a lot of ways, we're trying to make the action more grounded. It wasn't an idea that we didn't want to have grappling. It was just “let's make the player progress in a more realistic way instead of Spider-Manning around.” It was just making sure that every action felt believable in the world we're creating…well, as believable as you can get in a world full of giant creatures with orange body parts you have to shoot.

Szymanski: Just to reiterate, the grappling hook will be more prominent in the multiplayer. I know some people are reacting to what they've seen from the single player, but we'll be showing the multiplayer in due time, and I think everyone will be happy.

How would you compare the mechs in Lost Planet 3 to those in the previous games?

Sophos: It's very different. It's very much the idea that evolution leads to miniaturization. Since this is a prequel to the other games, it has a big, 50-foot construction Rig. In the first two games, the Vital Suits were these mechs that were loaded down with chain guns, rockets, and things like that. They weren't drastically bigger than a person. We've gone and increased the scale, we've gone first-person when inside the utility Rig, which is our precursor to the Vital Suit.

With the first-person view, it's melee combat. We did that to emphasize scale. When you go third-person with something that's big and you pull the camera out, it all stays the same, except you're further out. You have the option of playing on foot with the tried-and-true shooter mechanics that Lost Planet has, but inside the Rig you've got intense melee combat.

And you're able to switch between the Rig and the on-foot gameplay at any time?

Sophos: Absolutely. When you're fighting creatures, there are lots of things you can do. You can grab it with a claw or with a drill. But when you grab it [with the Rig], you can get out and take shots at it. You can choose to stay in the Rig where you're more protected, but we want people to play around with it.

There are some big bosses, but the creatures that you encounter on foot…they're what we call Cat-M or Cat-L creatures, to use Lost Planet parlance. They can be a challenging fight for Jim on foot, but when you're in the Rig they're like bugs that you can pick up and squash.

Szymanski: When you're traversing long distances, people will want to use the Rig just because it's faster. But we tried to keep as much freedom as possible. Getting out of your Rig to explore is a consistent theme, whether that's story-driven or just part of the environment. There's a lot of cool exploration-based stuff.

The original Lost Planet felt a bit like a cheesy summer movie. Are you going for more of a hard-science tone with Lost Planet 3?

Sophos: It's definitely a little more rounded. The science of it isn't as important as the family aspects of it. When Jim gets to the planet, he's there for his family. He's joining a mission that's two years in process, so he's an outsider. When he adapts to that group, they become an extended family. So it's about keeping those themes important.

Certain characters get into the science of it. We tried to explain what needed explaining in some respects and make it feel believable even when, you know, it's basically Star Trek with Dilithium Crystals. As long as it feels true to the game, that's what's important.

Because this is a prequel, how will it tie into the original Lost Planet?

Sophos: Several ways. We have certain creatures that are ancestors of creatures from the original game. One of the characters you've seen in demos and trailers is Gale. People who know the franchises know that he's the father of Wayne, the protagonist from the first game. He's the motivation for Wayne for most of that game. For us [in Lost Planet 3], Gale is twenty-five years younger, and he's this lovable, over-caffeinated grease monkey who's building rigs for Jim.

You mentioned an unreleased game that Spark Unlimited showed to CAPCOM during the pitch for Lost Planet 3. What was that game like?

Sophos: I can't be too specific, but for us it was to show what we could do as a developer.

Andrew Szymanski: I think a lot of response to the initial Lost Planet 3 coverage...when people saw the Spark Unlimited name, they were like “Well, those are the guys who did Legendary and Turning Point, and those games…sorry, Matt, but they sucked.”

Sophos: [laughs] Whoa, I wasn't there.

Szymanski: And Matt wasn't there! So people were wondering, one, why did CAPCOM hire them, and two, “wait a second, all the stuff we're seeing for Lost Planet 3 sounds pretty good. How did that happen?” And there's a lot of stuff as a consumer that you don't see in the background.

After Legendary and Turning Point, Spark knew that they had to get their act together, so they did an internal prototype that had a level of polish that they had never before achieved in their games. And Matt was in charge of that, and it was very much a reborn Spark. A lot of the leads and management at the studio had been replaced.

So I go there, I see this prototype, and it's amazing. Software doesn't lie. You can cheat in a screenshot, you can cheat in a piece of concept art, but when you're sitting there with a controller, it doesn't lie. And that was the impetus that made me think these guys might be an undiscovered treasure.

Sophos: Each game development is its own kind of animal. And each development team is most likely very different from the last game. Like Andrew said, I wasn't there for Legendary or Turning Point. Our art director, he was on Tomb Raider and Soul Reaver. Studios shrink to survive, and when you start up a new development, you don't always get the same people back. So Spark can be a very different developer in a lot of cases. We have a lot of people from previous groups who are amazing.

Another aspect of why Lost Planet 3 has been received so well: it's all about the partner that you have. On the previous two games, Spark was working with Gamecock and Codemasters. It's a very different animal when you're working with CAPCOM, who can leverage their expertise and familiarly with the franchise.

NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES

DOUBLE DRAGON NEON
Developer: Wayforward Technologies
Publisher: Majesco
Platform: PLAYSTATION Network/XBox Live
MSRP: $9.99 (free for PS+ members)

Double Dragon's overcome quite a lot in its attempts to reinvent itself. There were mediocre sequels, a terrible cartoon, an even worse movie, and at least three now-obscure fighting games. But it still has a name that people remember from the height of late-'80s arcade culture, and that name sends some developer back to Double Dragon every few years. This time around, the new Double Dragon comes from Wayforward Technologies, makers of the Shantae games and Mighty Switch Force. It returns to the same idea that propelled the 1987 original: martial-artist Billy Lee's girlfriend Marian is punched and carried off by a street gang, sending Billy and his brother Jimmy off to save her. It's still very much The Warriors bred with Streets of Fire, and Neon plays up the game's 80's roots with its glowing décor and synth-rock covers of the original game's music. The brothers' overall journey appears to diverge a bit, however; it begins on the streets, but later stages include a hi-tech laboratory shodown with a whirling geisha assassin, and even a battle aboard a space station. When a game's villain is named Skullmageddon, all bets are off.

Unfortunately, Double Dragon Neon simply doesn't look all that good. The game's built with 3-D models and 2-D gameplay, and it lacks the charm of Wayforward's hand-drawn sprites. Between the polygon characters and lumbering pace, footage of the game resembles the dated PlayStation brawler Fighting Force. But perhaps the gameplay will surprise us. It builds on the same walk-and-punch mechanics of all Double Dragon sequels, but players can also use team-up attacks, trade life-bar energy, and employ all sorts of scenery to their advantage (including a conveyor belt that'll look familiar if you spent long hours on the NES version of Double Dragon). And in the game's most amusing '80s throwback, new moves are unlocked by collecting songs and adding them to a mix-tape. Whether it turns out to be a clever tribute or another Double Dragon setback, Neon at least has a sense of humor.

TEKKEN TAG TOURNAMENT 2
Developer: Namco
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360
MSRP: $59.99

You probably got some strange looks if you picked Tekken Tag Tournament as your first game from the PlayStation 2's late-2000 launch. “You bought a new system just to play another Tekken?” is the sort of snide remark you might've heard. Yes, Tekken Tag Tournament didn't seem all that different from previous Tekken titles. Yet it has a unique tag-team system and a good foundation, leading many in the fighting-game community to hold it high. It's such an enduring fighter that Namco greenlit a sequel even with Tekken 6 and Tekken vs. Street Fighter around. So you're vindicated, Tekken Tag Tournament buyer of twelve years ago. Go find those naysayers and point out that no one's making a sequel to, say, Evergrace or X Squad.

For those who studiously follow Tekken's storyline, Tag Tournament 2 is decidedly not in whatever passes for series canon. That's why you'll see all sorts of nonsense: Julia Chang posing as a masked wrestler, a younger version of patriarch Heihachi Mishima, and the return of many old faces removed from mainline Tekkens. The dinosaur Alex, the formerly-thought-dead Jun Kazama, the shiny Protoype Jack, the previously retired Michelle Chang, the laser-spewing Angel, the afro-sporting Tiger Jackson, the ninja Kunimitsu, the towering bosses Ancient Ogre and Unknown, and the lovable little Combot all appear. The gameplay broadens the combos allowed by the original's tag-team system, and it's now possible to bounce opponents off walls and other pieces of a stage. Aside from the usual single-player mode and multiplayer battles, there's a variety of extra items and costumes to discover in the game's bonus modes. Reserving the game gets players an extra stage featuring Snoop Dogg, plus swimsuits for the game's playable cast. That includes men, women, and bears.

ARTBOOK GALLERY: SHINING FORCE FEATHER: DESIGN WORKS

Publisher: Udon Comics
MSRP: $39.99

Shining Force Feather: Design Works prompted a double-take from me. As far as I knew, Shining Force Feather was never released in North America. It arrived only on the Japanese DS back in 2009, yet another modern piece of Sega's Shining series confined to its native land. Had I somehow missed Shining Force Feather's quiet debut on these shores some three years ago?

It soon dawned that I wasn't mad or professionally negligent. Shining Force Feather only saw release in Japan. Yet that didn't stop Udon from licensing a compendium of the game's artwork and publishing it here last month. It's not terribly hard to see why: regardless of Shining Force Feather's low profile on these shores, the book stands on its own quite well.

Sega's recent Shining Force titles frequent sport the art of Tony Taka, but Shining Force Feather brings together a different team: pako and Noizi Ito. pako previously worked on Shining Force EXA as well as recent anime like Rental Magica and Un-Go, while Ito's best known for illustrating the novels for Shakugan no Shana and that Haruhi Suzumiya thing that everyone was talking about five years back. Together they form a giant robot-ish figure of modern anime's lean forms, big eyes, and spikes or streams of flowing hair.

Ito specializes in drawing young heroines, and she went all-out on the game's female lead: a girlish, long-slumbering android named Alfin (I'll thank you all to withhold Chipmunks jokes). Ito gives her a multitude of costumes, and the style bleeds over into the other female party members, from a catgirl to a rival android. Even the standard-issue animal sidekick, a pup named Pipin, turns into an Ito-designed human girl later in the game. For all of Ito's cute frills, her designs are fairly elegant, particularly when compared to the more suggestive Tony Taka pieces that decorate the latest game in the franchise, Shining Blade.

Elsewhere in Shining Force Feather's art, pako's designs stick with subdued takes on the usual RPG suspects: a treasure-hunter hero named Jin, an elf archer, and an opposing lineup of imperial generals. Shining Force games often wander a little further into fantasy-race diversity, however, so Feather also features centaurs, minotaurs, and a demon sorceress who does her best to hide her horns.

In presenting all of this, Shining Force Feather: Design Works marks itself as one of the most impressive books in Udon's stable. It exhaustively covers the game's promotional art (including gags like a polygonal Virtua Fighter sketch), background design, story scenes, and even the audio dramas that followed the game. The sketchbook section gives each character a different entry, complete with early designs and a brief mock-interview that expands their profile in ways routine descriptions really couldn't. Not that the book's translation lacks at all. It handles all of the text rather well (screenshots are translated, even though the game wasn't), covering such subjects as a centaur's hairline and the design similarities between dark-elf warlords and corporate middle-managers. Special mention must be made of the paper quality in this Design Works volume. Three different types were used, including glossy stock for the full-color artwork and a more textured kind for the sepia-toned sketch pages.

It's all quite a nice package for the game, but there's one lingering problem. As I've mentioned enough already, Shining Force Feather was exclusive to Japan, and it didn't inspire any major fan carping for Sega to localize it. I can't help but wonder if there aren't enough domestic Shining Force Feather fans to appreciate a Design Works roundup, no matter how well done it is. Perhaps this book is more for the fans of pako and Noizi Ito. All that aside, it's an excellent look at everything that went into Shining Force Feather, and it's enough to make you wish that the game itself was just as easily available on these shores.


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