Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Halo Infinite Campaign Review

Developer: 343 Industries
Publisher: Microsoft
Platforms: XBO, XBSX, PC
Version Played: PC
Price: $60

There are those who said this day would never come. What are they to say now? After a couple of disappointing Halo games, 343 was about to strike out with me if Halo Infinite was not a hit. I think they finally got it right, though. Not by trying to do what Bungie did again, but by doing something different with Halo.

Halo Infinite is not a reboot, but it does feel like a new starting point for the series. It’s an open world Halo game. You’re not going through a linear set of levels, but there is a story to follow and an order in which you have to do things to open new areas. There are also boundaries keeping you from traveling between the 4 major areas of Zeta Halo until you do the main story missions. It sounds kind of like a Zelda game on paper, but it’s just a different way to bring you the same great Halo FPS gameplay.
The game starts with a very traditional Halo level, but once you make it out of there, you're free to explore. The surface of Zeta Halo is a lot like other open world games. There aren't enemies everywhere constantly shooting at you, they're spread out in camps and bases. You have plenty of room to fight without running into another group and plenty of time to breathe in between battles. It's kind of like Destiny. This is very different from other Halo games, where it’s pretty much non-stop action all the time, yet it constantly reminded me of Halo 1. There's something about the pacing and how big the world is that feels very similar to that game.
There are 4 mission types in the overworld of Zeta Halo besides the traditional story levels; targets, Banished outposts, Marines to rescue, and FOBs. All of these missions are designed to keep putting you back in the action. There's vehicle battles, the Warthog run, and big set piece battles, just like in previous Halo games. Doing these missions unlocks fast travel points, new points of interest on the map, weapons and vehicles at FOBs, and stronger Marines to take with you on missions. Or you could just make a beeline for the next story mission, I guess. Your call.
It's when all these things come together that Halo Infinite truly shines. Calling in a Warthog and loading it up with Marines, taking specific weapons on a mission, planning out how to take down a target or outpost, and then getting it done, even if things don’t go exactly as planned, is always fun. There's so many different ways to do everything. That's a huge part of what makes this game so good.
The only problem is that a lot of these missions lack a unique personality. Sure, the big levels feel different because they have all the story scenes, and the high value targets all use different weapons and vehicles, but all the FOBs, Marine rescues, and Banished outposts kind of blur together in my mind. There just isn’t much setting them apart. I feel like I pulled some switches to open doors and then blew something up in every Banished outpost.
It also doesn’t help that everything looks the same. There really isn’t much variety in the environments. There’s mountainside pine forests and burnt down mountainside forests. Every Banished outpost looks like a post-apocalyptic junkyard, and every Forerunner robot factory (or whatever they are) looks like the same blue metallic Halo level, repeating rooms and all. I get that this is just one small part of a huge Halo ring world, and there's more coming, but even Halo 1 had more varied biomes. Simply throwing in a beach or snow area would have gone a long way. Of course there can be a beach on a Halo! That's what the Silent Cartographer was!
Missions aren't the only thing to do on Zeta Halo, though. There's also skulls, Forerunner Artifacts, UNSC audio logs, and a bunch of lockers with upgrade points and multiplayer cosmetics to find all over the place. Some require you to climb a mountain with the Grapple Shot and some are just hidden around in missions. You don't have to get any of this stuff, but it's fun to hunt down. I highly recommend getting the Spartan Points to upgrade your equipment, at the very least.
As you upgrade your equipment, you reduce your cooldowns and add new moves and effects to each piece. You can add a Predator-like cloaking effect to the thrusters, for example. My favorite is the move you get by upgrading the Grapple Shot. It lets you grapple onto an enemy or object, zip towards them, and punch them really hard. It usually sends enemies flying and it's incredibly fun to watch.
Halo Infinite's equipment is basically the same items from multiplayer except you get to keep them permanently. You get them during the story and they have cooldowns instead of limited uses. There's the Grapple Shot, Drop Wall, Threat Sensor, and Thrusters. You're never required to do anything crazy, like switch between the Thrusters and Grapple Shot to jump somewhere, but there are a few fights where switching between items helps a lot.
It's just too bad that you have to switch at all. The Grapple Shot punch is just as important as the grenades, in my opinion. The game feels like it was designed around you always having it equipped, so when you switch back and forth, it feels a bit clunky. There just aren't enough buttons on the Xbox controller for everything, though. I was able to switch pretty quickly with a keyboard, but maybe there's a more elegant solution.
When you first saw Halo, were you blinded by its majesty? Not quite. I don't think Halo Infinite is a bad looking game at all, but it looks like an Xbox One game. That's probably because it literally is an XBO game and it has been in development for about 6 years, but it's kind of underwhelming. This is the Series X's flagship game after all. The performance on PC is also not amazing. I was able to get it to run at a somewhat steady 60FPS at 1440p at pretty high settings on a 3060, but not without resolution scaling. Hopefully, the game gets some optimization updates soon.
The soundtrack; however, is great. The remixes of classic Halo themes bring back memories of the older games and there are some rocking new songs in there too. I also love how the music kicks in at the beginning of a battle and seamlessly ends when it's over without just fading away. It makes it feel like they wrote a song just for my battle. It really helps give the game that big sci-fi action movie feel. I think the voice acting for the new Cortana-like AI, the Weapon, is really good, and Master Chief always sounds comically heroic and tough, but I can't stand the cowardly pilot guy. I'd be OK with leaving him on Zeta Halo.

The story in Halo Infinite is all over the place. You start the game in the middle of a battle. The UNSC fleet is destroyed, Chief is the last Spartan alive, there’s a splinter group of not Covenant called the Banished hunting humans on Zeta Halo, Chief gets a new AI, and he needs a weapon to finish this fight. It’s chaos and it's a lot to try and piece together. I had no clue what was going on for half the game. The game tries to fill in the blanks through audio logs and cutscenes, but it still left me feeling like there was a prequel novel I had to read to understand what was going on. It's such a confusing way to tell a story.
Halo Infinite is far from perfect, but it's just so much fun to play! I really love it and I feel good about the series going in this direction. It's a bummer that stuff like co-op, Firefight, and Forge are not in the game yet, but what is here is awesome.

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl Review

Developer: ILCA
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Switch
Price: $60

Before Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were announced, there was a lot of excitement for Gen 4 remakes, and with good reason, some of the best games in the Pokémon series have been remakes. That hype really died down once Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl were finally revealed, though. Previous Pokémon remakes had graphics on par with the latest generation, added new content, and even featured new Pokémon which were not available in the originals. That's not the case with Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl. These games are about as safe and unsurprising as remakes get.

The main thing that killed my hype for BDSP was its graphics. BDSP doesn't have cinematic camera angles, like Sword and Shield, or a 3rd person camera, like SwSh’s expansions. Instead, it has a slightly angled top-down camera perspective, just like the DS games did. That’s disappointing because I really wanted to see how Sinnoh would look if it was made in the style of SwSh. The only time we get to see the overworld from a different angle is during cutscenes, and I almost wish it didn’t do that because that’s when you really see how ugly this game looks up close.
BDSP's textures are embarrassingly bad. They are very low in detail and in a very low resolution on top of that. The lines on character's faces look like they use a total of 1 pixel sometimes. The same goes for the background textures. And as if the textures weren't blurry enough, there's an ugly depth of field effect that kicks in around the back of the screen and around the front of the screen if something is high up and close to the camera, like a building. I guess they're trying to go for a cinematic look, like the Link’s Awakening remake, but BDSP isn’t going for that realistic toy-like look to begin with. It’s overdone and looks ridiculous during cutscenes when the camera switches to cinematic angles. The actual performance of the game is fine for a Switch game. It's 720p and 30 FPS, just like SwSh.
I'm not a fan of the chibi character art style they use in the overworld either. I get that they're trying to mimic the style of the older games, but this isn't how they looked. These characters look more like Nendoroid figures. I think something more like how Ness looks in Smash Bros would look much more like the old sprites. The proportion of the environments does capture the look of the original games, though. The battles look fine, at least. They use the same Pokémon models as always, alongside regular anime proportioned characters that look very similar to SwSh's.
The music in BDSP is really good. It’s one of the best parts of the game. It’s the same songs as in the DS game, except in much higher quality and played with real instruments. Diamond and Pearl have one of the best and most memorable soundtracks in the series and it sounds better than ever here. I absolutely love the Jubifile City theme. It’s one of the first songs that comes to mind when I think of Pokémon music. The remixed classic Gym and Battle themes also sound fantastic.

If you can get past the graphics, there's a solid old-school Pokémon game here. This remake is basically the DS game with only a few of the most annoying things removed or updated. For example, there's no need to teach HMs to a Pokémon, you can access the PC from anywhere, and the judge function is available. HMs work kind of like they do in newer games; you just get the move and some Pokémon will come in to help when you use it. In this game, it's usually a Bidoof because Bidoofs were the designated HM users of D&P, and they just won't stop with the Bidoofs until they've run this meme into the ground.
On the other hand, random battles are back and the encounter rate is pretty high, so you'll probably want to stock up on Repels. I definitely haven’t missed that. The only place you can see wild Pokémon running around is in the Underground. There are also no XP boost items, the move deleter is only in 1 town, and Heart Scales are required to remember moves. Completely customizing a Pokémon and leveling it to 100 is much harder here than it is in SwSh. So much so that I don't think I'll bother with it. There's no going back to the old grindy Pokémon training for me.
The actual journey through the story is as Pokémon as ever. You battle tons of trainers on your way to the next town and battle even more trainers in the Gyms while collecting the 8 badges. There’s no overbearing story or sappy characters, which I appreciate, and there's a bunch of Legendary Pokémon to catch in the postgame. There's nothing new or mysterious about it, but if you like catching ‘em all and being the very best, like no one ever was, you'll probably enjoy playing through it.
I have a complete Pokédex in Pokémon Home, so I’m not really looking for any specific Pokémon, but it’s worth noting that there’s a bunch of Pokémon in BDSP that are not available in Sword and Shield. Most Gen 1-4 Pokémon are obtainable in either Brilliant Diamond or Shining Pearl, so if you’re looking for any of those, this will be the easiest way to get them into your Home collection. I think only a few mythical Pokémon, like Celebi, Darkrai, and Arceus are missing as of right now. Maybe they’ll be added in through Mystery Gifts, though, or maybe they’ll wait until Legends Arceus.
I should also mention that this game doesn't have support for Pokémon Home yet. Last I heard, it'll be patched in some time in 2022, after Pokémon Legends Arceus is released. A lot of the trading and battling features from SwSh are also missing here. There are local and online rooms where you can trade and battle and that's it. No Battle Stadium, Surprise Trades, or Raids of any kind here. Also, there is no GTS here because that's a Home feature now.
There is still quite a lot to do in the postgame here, even without those things. I just don’t want to do much of it. I’ve already caught ‘em all, so I don’t need any of the legendaries for my collection, and training Pokémon here is way too much work. The majority of the post-game legendaries are also tied to stuff in the Underground. You have to play a mining minigame to get stones, which are the currency you use to buy the pedestals, which you use to summon the legendaries in another location. I don’t really like the underground. I spent hours there and I only found 3 spots to mine, so I just gave up on it. The progression was too slow and I’m just not that interested.
I had fun going through the story and revisiting Sinnoh before diving into Pokémon Legends Arceus, and I loved the music, but that’s really all I got out of this game. This is definitely not going to replace SwSh as the main Pokémon game, and I don’t think it’s meant to. It’s not a bad game, but it’s just too old-school for its own good. I’m not going to spend hours training Pokémon here when I can do the same thing in 10 minutes in SwSh. But if you’re one of those people who thinks Pokémon was better before they "dumbed it down for casuals", maybe you'll love this.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Metroid Dread Review

Developer: Mercury Steam
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Price: $60

Metroid Dread is that sinking feeling I've had in the back of my mind since playing Samus Returns. This game was all but announced in the Chozo Memories in Samus Returns, so its announcement at E3 2021 was no surprise to me. I knew it was coming. I just hoped that by some turn of events Mercury Steam wouldn't be involved because Samus Returns was one of the worst Metroid games I've ever played. They are the developers, though, and sadly, they didn't learn much from Samus Returns’ failures. Metroid Dread doubles down on all the questionable design choices from Samus Returns and piles on Metroid Fusion's on top of them.

The way Metroid Dread is structured is by far my biggest problem with the game. Metroid Dread feels like a game made by people who really wanted to remake Metroid Fusion. It's very linear, constricting, restricting, and segmented. It’s all the worst things about Metroid Fusion times a hundred. Every zone in the game is off on an island by itself and it’s only connected to the others by teleports, subways, and elevators. There isn't even a central hub area. These zones don't play like your usual Metroidvania dungeon or Fusion's zones either. You only get to play in a small chunk of each zone at a time. After beating the boss or getting the item in that area, you're allowed to leave. But not before the game closes off areas so you can't explore them with the new item you probably just got.
It feels like the game is funneling you down a path. The game is constantly locking the door behind you, closing off parts of the environment you've already been to, and sending you through one way doors. You’re confined to one small section of a zone throughout most of the game, so if you ever get stuck, you’re not only stuck, you’re also trapped. You only get to freely explore a few times in between zones towards the end of the game and at the very end of the game. It’s very frustrating as a fan of older Metroid games, and Metroidvanias in general, which give you the freedom to go wherever your items can take you. I will say that running around collecting all the items after beating the game is pretty fun. It’s just too bad the game takes so long to get there.
OK, the real reason why this game is called Dread is because of the EMMIs. They’re the big robots all over the game’s art and marketing. They are unkillable by normal means, and if they catch you, you have to pass a fairly difficult QTE sequence to get away. I guess you’re supposed to dread running into them. Well, they’re not as big of a deal as they were made out to be. They are mild annoyances at best. They are confined to small sections of the map, so it’s not like they’re always hunting you. They're also pretty easy to outrun, and if they do catch and kill you, you’ll only be sent back to the entrance of their zone and not to your last save. The QTE is also not impossible to learn. The timing is super strict, but it is possible and it gets easier and easier to do it as the game goes on. At least it did for me. EMMIs are not a super fun mechanic, but I don’t think they ruin the game either.
One of my biggest complaints about Samus Returns was the controls, and while they have been improved upon in Dread, I still don’t think they’re right for a Metroid, or most 2D action platformers for that matter. They feel very loose, unresponsive, and overly complicated. It feels like they're trying to make controls that feel familiar to people who only play modern 3D games. The most annoying thing about them is that they still force you to use the analog stick to move and aim. There isn't even analog movement in the game. Samus always runs at full speed. The only thing that actually uses the analog stick's sensitivity is the 360° aiming. So, we’re giving up the responsiveness, accuracy, and ease of use of the d-pad so we can aim in any direction? Doesn’t seem like a good tradeoff to me. Somebody at Mercury Steam obviously knows the analog stick doesn’t work as well as a d-pad. That's why wall jumping doesn't require any directional input anymore and why they give you a button to quickly use the Morph Ball on ZL. You can still double tap the analog stick down to use the Morph Ball, but it’s nowhere near as quick and responsive as it was with a d-pad in older games.
Metroid Dread also has no control options of any kind. Or any options aside from brightness and rumble for that matter. If you have a problem with the awkward use of the shoulder buttons, I guess you can change them in the system settings, but that's not going to change the in-game button prompts.
If it were up to me, Samus would never punch anything outside of Smash Bros games. Not after Other M. Melee counters are back again in Dread, though, and they still suck. They’ve removed smaller enemies that require melee counters to kill, and you can get past some bosses without doing their melee counter QTE sequences, but you’re really handicapping yourself by not using them because they’re the most powerful attacks in the game and enemies have a ton of HP. That’s another thing that bothers me about this game. Samus never feels like the walking weapon of mass destruction she was at the end of Super Metroid because almost every enemy in the game is a giant bullet sponge.
Another baffling thing they’ve carried over from Metroid II and Samus Returns is the scattered stations. Teleports, recharge, and save stations are all separate and scattered all over the place. There is no excuse for this. This is a Metroid II problem that has already been solved. I don't know why they're bringing this back for the second time.
Mercury Steam really tried to do something different with Samus’ abilities in this game. I’ll give them credit for that. Samus gets new abilities that let her climb on special walls, turn invisible like the Predator, and a blink move that’s basically a dash/air dash. They also gave her a slide because they didn't want to give you the Morph Ball too early and Metroid can't crawl. They’re cool looking moves, but they are overshadowed and mostly made irrelevant by Samus’ returning moves, like the Morph Ball, Screw Attack, and Space Jump, by the end of the game.
Metroid Dread is the last game in the Metroid timeline and is supposed to wrap up the story of Samus and the Metroids. That’s a pretty big deal, so I was hoping the story would answer all my questions and pay everything off, but like the rest of the game, it was a big letdown. I think they paid off the story they set up in the Chozo Memories in Samus Returns, but I don’t think it’s a satisfying ending to the Metroid saga or a satisfying sequel to Metroid Fusion. I still have questions about the Federation, Metroids, Chozo, and Samus herself. This also obviously isn’t the end of the Metroids if Samus has Metroid DNA within her. The storytelling itself is also pretty bad. Most of it is told through a couple of huge story dumps near the end of the game. There is a little bit of environmental storytelling, but nothing like Super Metroid. I don’t need Metroid to have a bunch of cutscenes or anything, but they really didn’t deliver on what they built up.
I think Metroid Dread is a great looking game. You won’t find many Metroidvanias with 3D graphics that look better than Dread on any system. It runs at 60FPS most of the time, it’s not 1080p, but it runs above 720p while docked, the lighting looks great, and the environments are full of little details and animations. The planet of ZDR is constantly changing. Areas freeze, flood, and break as you progress through the game, changing the look of the environments as well as where you can go. I just wish the game had some more variety in the environment designs.
Metroid Dread’s soundtrack is incredibly underwhelming. The best tracks on it are just worse remixes of songs from previous Metroid games. A lot of songs are more like ambient sounds than music. Like howling winds with scattered sounds of tree branches hitting metal. When it does try to do something original, it sounds like a sad imitation of Metroid Prime's music.

Metroid Dread is not the worst Metroid game, at least? Metroid II still holds that title. I also like Dread better than Samus Returns. That’s about the highest praise I can give it. Nice graphics can only get you so far. There were moments when I thought that if the game kept up the level of fun, it could end up being great, but the way the game is structured just kept bringing it back down.