The X Button Electronic Exponent
by Todd Ciolek,
This week marks another anniversary of The X Button, making me realize that I've written about video games nearly every week for three whole years. But there's no time to ponder just what I've done with my life, because now we're in the grip of E3.
We're smack-dab in the middle of the grip of E3, to be precise. This means that this weekly column, which goes up Tuesday night, will miss a few possibly important pieces of news that pop up in the remaining two days of the convention. In fact, a few things I write below might be directly contradicted by events in the following days, so I ask that you avoid mocking me too fiercely if this column's a little more behind the curve than usual. And let's hope that I'm wrong about Nintendo ignoring every halfway interesting Wii game that's hit Japan.
FINAL FANTASY XIII-2 SHOWS NEW CHARACTER, OLD PROBLEMS
Final Fantasy XIII-2 details were fairly light in the past few months: it was coming for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and it was apparently about an armored Lightning wandering palaces and staring into space. Fortunately, the game's new E3 trailer and demo fleshed out a few things. Lightning, heroine of the original Final Fantasy XIII and not such a grouch once you got to know her, is still roaming around in half a suit of armor and delivering gloomy narration. Meanwhile, her sister Serah and her friends are under attack by meteors and monsters. They're joined by a standard-issue Square hero named Noel Kreiss. Both Noel and Serah are playable, because if there's any Final Fantasy XIII character that we wanted to follow, it's Lightning's weepy, boring, easily manipulated sister. At least Serah gets a bow and arrow. Noel, meanwhile, gets two swords and player-directed choices in his dialogue. There's something you don't see in Final Fantasy too often.
Square also revealed the gameplay of Final Fantasy XIII-2. The battles show off character roles and paradigm shifts much like those in Final Fantasy XIII, and unsubtle button-pushing prompts show up while characters are in the thick of the fight. Interestingly enough, monsters can now join the player's party and pull of their own button-jabbing attacks. Other scenes show actual dungeons, including a bridge that lights up, puzzle-like, as Noel runs across. That's already an improvement on most of Final Fantasy XIII's straightforward stages.
Of course, Final Fantasy XIII-2 likely has less to do with fixing Final Fantasy XIII's manifold problems and more to do with making money from all of the things that Square cut from Final Fantasy XIII during development. Can't let all those unused dungeons and enemies just sit around, after all. But will fans, especially those who hated Final Fantasy XIII, even care about this sequel? Will Final Fantasy XIII-2 suffer with the departure of Toshiro Tsuchida, the man behind the original game's battle system? Will I overcome my ambivalence toward all things Final Fantasy XIII? I've got until early next year to decide.
THE KING OF FIGHTERS XIII COMING TO NORTH AMERICA AFTER ALL
Things were dicey for The King of Fighters XIII. It improved quite a bit on the flawed, character-deficient The King of Fighters XII, but SNK's financial difficulties and focus on older titles led many to wonder if they'd back another console version of The King of Fighters. At any rate, it seemed unlikely that Ignition would publish the game, not after SNK handed them The King of Fighters XII's shaky netcode and incomplete features.
Well, The King of Fighters XIII is headed for North America this winter, and Atlus is behind it. The game adjusts some play mechanics and adds many of the major characters who were missing from The King of Fighters XII: King, Maxima, Vice, Yuri, K', Takuma, Kula, Hwa Jai, and, of course, Mai Shiranui. SNK also promises better online play, in an attempt to fix what was the number-one complaint about the previous game. Well, it was the number-two complaint. Never underestimate Mai Shiranui's fan base.
Atlus also made a far less surprising announcement: Devil Survivor 2 will land in North America. The sequel to a strategy-RPG offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei, the game's out in Japan this July and arrives stateside next year.
IN BRIEF: KONAMI COLLECTIONS, TRANSFERRING, THE PSN, AND THE ESHOP
Konami may not have a new Zone of the Enders game in the works, but the first two games in the series will be reissued with HD visuals on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Metal Gear and Silent Hill get similar treatment: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater are bundled together, while the Silent Hill set has the second and third games in the series. All three anthologies will use the 'Transfarring” save system that Hideo Kojima showed off last week.
I'm sure that many readers have noticed by now that the PlayStation Network is up again, store and all. To welcome players back, Sony's offering two free games for the PlayStation 3 and another two for the PSP. The PS3 freebies are Dead Nation, InFamous, Wipeout HD, Little Big Planet, and Super Stardust HD. On the PSP, players can pick two from ModNation Racers, LittleBigPlanet, Killzone Liberation, and Pursuit Force. I went with InFamous and Wipeout. I haven't decided on the PSP games yet.
On that note, Nintendo now has the eShop up and running for the 3DS. Original Game Boy games Super Mario Land, Radar Mission, Alleyway, and the Game Boy Color's The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening DX are all now available on the online store. Shoppers will also find a lineup of DSIware games available. I suggest Shantae: Risky's Revenge. Not that I am biased.
E3 2011: PART 1
In no rush to debut any new systems, Microsoft concentrated their E3 keynote on two things: sequels and the Kinect. This left the presentation vaguely unsatisfying, but most of the sequels are visually impressive. Tomb Raider has some pretty cutscenes introducing the formative years of Lara Croft, and Gears of War 3 has giant squidlike creature with conveniently vulnerable eyes. Many of the games also have Kinect support: Fable: The Journey uses the motion-sensing peripheral to control weapons, while Mass Effect 3 employs the Kinect's voice-recognition capabilities in directing party members and choosing dialogue. It also has a higher combat-mecha quotient than previous Mass Effects. Halo 4 had perhaps the most striking trailer, but it's also the furthest away, hitting during the holidays in 2012.
The Kinect got plenty of attention on its own. Microsoft's still positioning it as the Wii's rival, in that the Kinect has a) motion-control without the need for a remote, and b) lots of family-friendly games. Dance Central, Kinect Fun Lab, and Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster (developed by Doublefine of Brutal Legend fame, no less) all fill that role. There's also a rather boring-looking Star Wars game that struggles to match even the action of The Phantom Menace. And then there's the real surprise of Microsoft's address: Ryse, a Kinect-driven combat game all about the chaotic underside of the Roman Empire. It's bloody, it's dramatic, and it's a little more intriguing than another round of Kinect Sports. Oh yes, that was announced as well.
What was missing: Few original titles were shown, making it hard to deflect those jokes about Microsoft's catalog being a jumble of space marines and grunting. The Kinect lineup was also notably lacking anything off the beaten path, and no mention was made of the Kinect games announced in Japan last year. Microsoft could've at least shown a little of Project Draco, director Yukio Futatsugi's apparently spiritual sequel to his Panzer Dragoon games.
Sony's successor to the PSP was rumored for months, and the company's E3 showing gave it a name: the PlayStation Vita. It's coming this holiday season in two forums: a $249 version with Wifi, and a 3G-capable, smartphone-esque model available through AT&T for $299. The Vita resembles the PSP more than a little, but this new handheld features a motion sensor, a touch panel on its back, and both front and rear cameras. Oh, and two analog sticks, something just about every PSP owner wanted.
Uncharted: Golden Abyss led Sony's lineup of Vita titles, featuring franchise hero Nathan Drake in situations that can be navigated entirely with the Vita's touch-screen. LittleBigPlanet also puts in an appearance, along with Modnation Racers, Acquire's ninja-action game Shinobido II, and an action-RPG called Ruin. Capcom, apparently inspired by Street Fighter IV's 3DS appearance, announced Street Fighter X Tekken for the Vita, with Cole from InFamous as a bonus character. Not to be outdone, Arc System Works has BlazBlue Continuum Shift II on track for the system. The big surprise for the Vita? Dragon's Crown, a online multiplayer action game that resembles Capcom's old Dungeons and Dragons brawler. It's by Vanillaware, and it has the same beautifully detailed style as the developer's Odin Sphere and Muramasa: The Demon Blade. Ignition already signed on to release the game for the PS3 and Vita.
Much like Microsoft, Sony welcomed all sorts of sequels and ports to its home console. The PlayStation 3 is getting Resistance 3, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, and another Sly Cooper game, under the title Thieves in Time. The two God of War PSP titles will also be enhanced and ported to the PS3 in one bloatedly violent collection. The PlayStation Move also gets a few standouts, including a mini-game collection called Medieval Moves.
What was missing: If the PSP's demise wasn't already obvious, it should be after Sony's keynote didn't reveal anything new for the handheld. Sony's lineup is also light on the RPGs, thought the company's taking a hands-off approach to the genre. Dark Souls and White Knight Chronicles II, both published by Sony in Japan, fell into the hands of Namco Bandai and D3 Publisher, respectively, for their North American releases.
Microsoft and Sony couldn't match the sheer anticipation around Nintendo's E3 address and the revelation of its new console. After all, the Wii put Nintendo back in front after the setbacks of the Nintendo 64 and Gamecube, and the company's out to maintain that success with…the Wii U. Really. Annoying name and all, the system offers high-definition visuals on the level of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, even if the console itself looks a lot like the Wii. And it should, as it's backward-compatible with its predecessor and the Wii remotes.
The real innovation lies in the Wii U's controller, an iPad-shaped beast with two analog sticks, conventional controller inputs, and a big touch-screen at its center. The controller allows games to be played entirely on its small screen, and it also displays maps and other useful information (not unlike the Dreamcast VMU and the Gamecube-linked Game Boy Advance). Beyond games, the controller handles video calls, output images and recordings to a TV, and handle web browsers and illustration programs. It can't function without the Wii U console, but the controller's still very versatile for local use. Nintendo announced several games for the new system, including New Super Mario Bros. Mii, another Smash Brothers, Pikmin, and LEGO: City Stories. Some third-party titles were revealed as well, with Sega providing Aliens: Colonial Marines, Namco offering Tekken, and Tecmo Koei making the semi-surprising contribution of Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge.
With the Wii U not arriving until next year, Nintendo was sure to promote the next round of 3DS games. Super Mario 3D has elements of Super Mario 64 and older Mario titles—including a Tanooki suit right out of Super Mario Bros. 3. Mario Kart, Starfox, and the new Smash Brothers are all headed to the 3DS as well. Nintendo also crowed about its third-party 3DS lineup, headlined by Capcom's Resident Evil: The Mercenaries 3D and Resident Evil: Revelations, Konami's Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D, and Namco's Tekken and Ace Combat. Much was made of Pokedex 3D, a Pokemon title that uses the system's AR markers to uncover Pokemon and superimpose them in camera shots. To tell the truth, though, the only unexpected announcement was Luigi's Mansion 2, sequel to the GameCube launch title that most people had forgotten about by now.
Yet it was The Legend of Zelda and its 25th anniversary that earned the opening act at Nintendo's presentation. Skyward Sword, the latest in the series, is on track for a late 2011 release, and it'll likely be the last major Wii offering for the company. It's not the only Zelda event, either. As previously mentioned, Link's Awakening is now available on the 3DS eShop, Ocarina of Time 3D is out later this month, and a port of the multiplayer Four Swords will arrive on DSi for free in September. Nintendo even plans a series of Legend of Zelda concerts for Japan, the U.S., and Europe. I look forward to hearing that Wind Fish song from Link's Awakening performed by a full orchestra.
The 3DS may be Nintendo's lodestone for 2011, but the original DS isn't completely abandoned. Nintendo plans to publish Professor Layton and the Last Specter, fourth in Level-5's line of puzzle-adventure games, for North America. It's joined by Kirby: Mass Attack, a side-scroller where players control ten versions of the puffy pink hero at once (though Nintendo missed the chance to reference trip-hop outfit Massive Attack in the subtitle). Kirby's out on September 19, and Layton has a more nebulous “fall” launch in store.
What was missing: Many were hoping, however desperately, that Nintendo would announce North American releases for The Last Story and Xenoblade, two high-profile Wii RPGs in Japan (and in Xenoblade's case, Europe). Nothing was said about them or Pandora's Tower, a violent brawler-adventure just released for the Japanese Wii. Solatorobo, a 3-D action game for the DS, is also absent from Nintendo's last round of North American DS releases, even though the company's European branch will bring it out this summer.
Sadly, NEC held no press conference, marking the 16th straight E3 to go by without NEC announcing a new console in the TurboGrafx and TurboDuo family. So we must assume that next year's E3 will see the company re-emerge with a new system, stunning the modern industry just as the TurboGrafx-16 did the game market of the early 1990s. Just you wait.
NEXT WEEK'S RELEASES
CHILD OF EDEN
You've all played Rez, right? You should, just so you'll understand why it comes up so often in those discussions about Games As Art. That's not Art in the literary or cinematic sense, but in the kaleidoscopic hybrid of music and visuals, and Rez had plenty of that. It was a rail-driven shooter beneath it all, but there was little time to notice when bright-hued grids and strobing power-ups had you transfixed like a fever dream. Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the creator of Rez and the similarly hypnotic Lumines, returns to the well with Child of Eden. Continuing the abstract plot of Rez, Child of Eden tasks players with protecting a program inside the virtual realm of Eden. No Tron-like computer gallery, Eden's a place of flowing, graceful colors and all sorts of bizarre imagery. Like Rez, it's still a shooter, and players use lock-on lasers and a full-auto energy weapon as they navigate Eden. Standard controllers work just fine with the game, but both the PlayStation Move and the Kinect are compatible with it. Microsoft's using the game as a showcase for the Kinect, however, so the Xbox 360 version hits two months before the PS3 one.
DUKE NUKEM FOREVER
I'll come clean: I hate Duke Nukem Forever. I hate the way it's apparently important just because of its fourteen-year development history. I hate the way people parrot the catchphrases that the original Duke Nukem 3D stole from They Live and the Evil Dead trilogy. I hate the way fans employ irony to excuse the game's multiplayer mode where women are carried around and reassuringly slapped on the ass. And I hate the fact that my complaints are just as clichéd as the game itself, just because everyone already has an opinion of Duke Nukem Forever. Running on ideas first spawned in 1997, Forever is littered with balls-out macho gunfights and crude humor, all chronicling Duke's heavily-armed attacks on invading aliens. The game's no Bioshock in its world-building, but the scenery around Duke looks impressive and lets him drive vehicles, use restrooms, punt alien eyes across football fields, shrink enemies (and himself), and swear the whole time. Forever's also quite willing to break its fourth wall, mocking its own production delays and objectification of women. It's the game version of a Rob Liefeld comic, a '90s adolescent fantasy recast in modern detail. Still, there's a guilty pleasure in its more innocuous excesses, and I'll give the game this much: once it's out, we can all stop talking about how it took fourteen years to arrive.
RECORD OF AGAREST WAR ZERO
The original Record of Agarest War will be remembered for breaking disturbing new ground in limited-edition packaging, as it came with a pillowcase and a suggestively contoured wrist-rest mousepad, both depicting female characters from the game. Record of Agarest War Zero is far milder, at least when it comes to merchandise. The limited edition includes playing cards, character cards, an art book, and a soundtrack CD—all standard-issue collectibles. The game itself, however, stays true to what Agarest War established. Zero is set a millennium before the events of the first game, but it still tells of a multi-generational war against evil forces. The story backs a hero named Sieghart at first, but he'll cross paths with many female allies. That's where the “soul-breeding” system arises once again, letting Sieghart marry and have children at the player's direction. Those children then join their parents' struggle, lending a certain scope to the whole good-against-evil rigmarole. Battles are relatively standard RPG material, but Zero adds customizable cards that influence combat in various ways. Aksys also straightened out their release plans: the original Agarest shipped as a deluxe-packaged retail game for the Xbox 360 and as a download for the PlayStation 3. There's no such confusion this time around: you'll get regular and special-edition releases for each system, with extras that won't raise many eyebrows.
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