Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Graphic Novel Review: StarCraft: Ghost Academy, Vol. 1

While it's not manga from Japan we enjoy all forms of graphic novels, so when the opportunity arose to check out StarCraft: Ghost Academy from Tokyopop, I naturally took it. Based on the hyped and then dead game by Blizzard, Ghost Academy comes out next week and acts as a sequel to the novelization of StarCraft: Ghost. If you're unfamiliar with the game franchise then all you really need to know is that it's science fiction and features all kinds of ass-kicking and aliens. Ghost Academy focuses more on the human aspect, and more to the point, those with special psychic powers.

Now, before I dig too far into the review of the material housed within the pages of this book I wanted to take a second to bring up the writing style and artwork. Keith R.A. Decandido penned the script here and fans of the franchise will recall his work on the Ghost novel, Nova. He does a nice job here and the dialogue flows and pops, imbuing characters with personality. Fernando Heinz Furukawa handles the visual side of things quite deftly with some great designs and loads of detail. With that being said I must admit that while his style is very nice, a lot of the faces look exactly alike, but I should digress from nitpicking. With that out of the way, on with the review!

Much like the focus of the dead StarCraft Ghost game, Ghost Academy sees a Ghost cadet named Nova as its main protagonist. Nova is particularly promising in many regards. For starters she has a PI score of 10, which is literally off the charts by comparison to some of the other members in training. Another thing she has going for her is her quick reaction time which has saved her hide on more than one occasion. The only downside we see with Nova in this installment is the fact that she's not necessarily a team player.

While Nova stands front and center in the graphic novel she's surrounded by a host of other characters who make up what's known as Team Blue. Tosh is their leader, Kath is another senior member, Lio is just kind of there, and Aal is the newest recruit. Each of the characters brings some type of dynamic to the story here. For instance Lio is addicted to a drug called Hab and just sucks all around, Aal is a cocky privileged kid, and Kath and Tosh have a relationship. There are some other characters that share some of the spotlight in this novel as well, but in all honesty the main events follow Nova and her development.

After reading through this first installment I have to say that I truly hope the series is headed somewhere. Why do I say that? Well, nothing really happens here! It's all set up, introductions, and development of the characters, but there's really no concrete story. Sure there are little pieces of conversation that hint towards something that may be coming down the road, but the entire volume consists of Team Blue going through training courses. That's it. Even then we get badgered on the fact that Nova is better than everyone else and she'd be so much better if she would just display some teamwork.

The story so far just doesn't feel balanced and there aren't many dramatic moments. Sure we get to see Nova blow some stuff up, Aal kick some butt with kung fu, and Lio have a bad reaction to hab (Drugs are bad okay? Just say no!), but that's pretty much it. Still, there are plenty of references to the rest of the franchise and diehards will appreciate the lingo and bits and pieces of information that pop up about other species. In the end this is one that is geared more towards StarCraft fans, and not necessarily something that newcomers will be able to appreciate. Even so the story here is kind of flat and the first volume doesn't exactly take off. Here's to hoping the next installment will push things to the next level!

StarCraft: Ghost Academy receives 2.5 out of 5 PI.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Xbox 360 Review: Tekken 6

When it comes to fighting game franchises, there are a few that stand out from the days of the arcade. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Soul Calibur are some of the more popular series that have withstood the test of time. However, Tekken is not to be forgotten. This venerable series has been around for 15 years and has seen numerous installations. Last year, the sixth Tekken hit the arcade scene and now the game has made its way to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 consoles.

Not that a fighting game needs a story or anything, but Tekken 6 tries to piece together something. Basically, Jin Kazama has taken control of the Mishima Zaibatsu and is looking to take over the world. In charge of the Mishima, Jin essentially declares war on every other nation. Now this ticks his father, Kazuya, off and these events lead up to the formation of the King of Iron Fist Tournament 6. Around the globe fighters come together in an effort to take Jin down. There’s more to each character’s individual plot than that, but that’s up for players to discover. All gamers really need to know is that Tekken 6 offers a serviceable story that sets the stage for the battles that follow.

The setting is all well and good, but what fighting fans are probably hankering to know is how well the game plays. Tekken 6 is very much a successful game in that arena. There are a nice variety of modes to explore, some online functionality, and overall this installment keeps up in step with many of its competitors.

For starters, Tekken fans will be pleased to know that this release holds over 40 fighters. Some newcomers are available and the home release of the game includes additional content that wasn’t available in the arcades. New fighters like Alisa, Lars, and Leo help flesh out the ranks, though this reviewer does have to admit that Bob and Miguel are not the greatest. There’s even another version of Jack for this sequel as well, so his fans have something worth cheering about. No matter how many characters the game has, though, the thing that stands out the most is the fact that every fighter stands alone in regards to techniques. There are no Ken or Ryu clones like the Street Fighter series keeps pumping out. The characters in Tekken are wholly unique.

As is the case with any fighting game, Tekken 6 lives or dies by its various modes. Just having an Arcade mode and Versus mode simply does not cut it these days, and the creators of the franchise have realized that. Sure both of those perennial favorite play types are included here, but online matches, a campaign mode, and other customization features help keep gamers coming back for more. Throughout each mode, the core gameplay remains roughly the same, and though there are a few tweaks, longtime fans will likely feel right at home. This installment of Tekken feels very much like the last, for better or worse.

Players who haven’t stepped into the Tekken arena before should note that this franchise is all about memorizing combos, having perfect timing, and juggling your opponent. Sometimes battles are one-sided and when novices are facing a skilled player it will feel as if they might as well just put the controller down and walk away. The battle system takes a lot of practice and getting used to, so it’s suggested that you step into the Practice mode first to pick up some skills and attack combinations. This is only a place to start though, and after figuring out the basics it’s advisable to tackle the Ghost mode for additional training time. With the addition of bounce moves and a rage feature, you’ll definitely want to take your time with your preparations.

The Arcade mode pits you against a tier of the game’s fighters and inevitably throws you up against a ridiculously powerful end-boss. This hulking monstrosity is arguably the cheapest boss to come about in quite some time, even giving Seth from Street Fighter IV a run for his money. His moves are simply too powerful, he ignores all of your attacks, and everything he does is virtually unblockable. Needless to say this guy makes the Arcade mode more frustrating than it’s worth, even on the easiest difficulty setting.

Luckily, the Versus mode is solid and robust enough with the aforementioned wide array of characters to pick from and several different gameplay options. The same holds true for online play and this will undoubtedly bring players back time and time again. Unfortunately, latency issues with regards to the stability of the servers are a matter of concern. Most of the time, matches will be smooth enough, but connections and ping times drop inexplicably and with great frequency making the experience frustrating to say the least. It’s a gamble playing online, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s a lot of fun to go toe-to-toe with another human player.

When not going one on one against the CPU or another person, gamers can tackle the Scenario mode. In this variant, the game becomes a beat ‘em up of sorts as it tells a story. Players will pick a character and run through a 3D environment beating up random enemies along the way. The fighting system is built off the game’s combat engine, but it just doesn’t always work 100% of the time here. Even more problematic is the camera system which gets hung up far more often than it should. Still, anyone interested in customization will endure this mode for unlocks and money to buy items and add flair to their favorite characters.

Graphically Tekken 6 is more hit than miss, but not wholly a success. For the most part the game looks fantastic, with plenty of detailed, large character designs, smooth animations, and impressive backgrounds. Sadly however, there are times when each of those areas lets you down. Some attack animations look funny (like juggling) and even some environments are bland, though that’s certainly a minority. The Scenario mode is easily the worst looking thing in this package. The graphics are horribly dated and the aforementioned camera makes playing the mode an abysmal experience at times. Overall, Tekken 6 has blemishes for sure, but there are enough positives to overlook many of its missteps.

The sound direction is more or less everything you’d expect from a fighting game. Each hit resonates, the voice acting is fairly solid (though there are a few lame performances), and the music fits the mood well enough. While the sense of immersion isn’t as strong as in other titles, it’s very good for a fighting game entry.

Tekken 6 is a worthy installment for the franchise with a lot to offer. The fighting engine is every bit as enticing as ever, the gameplay modes are meaty enough (even though the Scenario is a let down), and the presentation will impress most of the time. Unfortunately it’s just not a complete hit out of the park. The game feels aged at times, the end-boss of the Arcade mode makes it pointless, and online play is spottier than it should be. Still, fans of this fighter will want to dig in and it’s very welcoming to newcomers as well. If you’ve grown bored with Street Fighter IV and Soul Calibur IV, give Tekken 6 a chance to find a home in your fighting roster.

Tekken 6 gets 3.5 kangaroo boxers out of 5.