Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ys IV: Dawn of Ys – fan dub

(This post has been updated regarding the availability to Nightwolve's translation patches, which can be found at Ys Utopia. Nightwolve has officially endorsed the dubbing project. We apologize for the error.)

That’s right, those loveable chaps at the Voice Acting Alliance are going to be dubbing Ys IV on the Turbo Duo, and they want YOU to audition!

The Ys series is a long running one, with many awesome remakes and offshoots, the majority of which never left Japan. Most have been fan-translated (the text for Ys V on the SFC has been translated last time I checked, but the patch hasn’t been coded yet).

Ys IV is one of the best games in the series, with solid and extremely fun battle mechanics, lots of cool anime cinemas, a neat self-contained story, and a lot of polish. It’s probably the best of the older console titles before they upped the quality with the PC installments.

For more information on the Ys IV dub, visit the Voice Acting Alliance topic on the subject. They’re requesting audition samples to be sent via email, and the deadline for the next batch is NOVEMBER 21st. So get ‘em sent and good luck.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gaia Seed – PSN

(NOTE: There is now a full review of Gaia Seed on the main HG101 site.)

Out for a while now on the Japanese PSN, I review the PS1 shmup Gaia Seed - in a similar vein to HG101's Digital Pick of the Week.

I’d seen Gaia Seed, a hori shmup originally released in 1996, on the Japanese PSN a while back, and the three screenshots they included made it look interesting (why the hell don’t the US and UK PSN stores have screens for PS1 games?). But with only 2000 Yen left and the extreme difficulty of getting point cards cheaply, I was reluctant to buy it on a whim. Then Dave Halverson’s PLAY magazine had a six page feature on shmups (which is in itself an incredible event considering how it’s become such a maligned genre), where they covered each system’s download titles. Gaia Seed was mentioned as being extremely rare. A quick check on eBay showed copies for $150 and upwards, and then I realised I had some spare Hong Kong dollars on my HK account!

Unfortunately, Gaia Seed’s quality doesn’t match its high prices.

It has a few cool ideas, like a constantly, slowly recharging health bar and the fact that enemy shots continue to cause damage for as long as you’re in contact with them. This is ingenious and makes every encounter, no matter how badly you’ve done so far, feel like you can just about scrape through if you keep it together, and boss battles can get quite tense as you scrape by on the skin of your teeth. But beyond this the design is average and the game quite easy (less than hour with continues, maybe a weekend without). Enemy patterns are predictable, while their fire is slow and easily confused with background elements. Weapons consist solely of two main weapons which can be powered up and two sub-weapons, with a power-bomb-type weapon based on your currently collected main weapon. The power weapon runs off a continually charging bar, so is technically infinite if you can survive long enough.

It’s very basic 2 by 2 weapons set-up, and you’re likely to end up sticking with RED for main weapons (since it gives you a homing power attack), and GREEN for sub weapons. But this actually works in the game’s favour – shmups like Radiant Silvergun gave the player a plethora of weapons all at once, which was confusing, whereas Gaia Seed harks back 1980s-style shooters where the choices were limited. Personally I like a gradually increasing roster, ala Axelay, but hey, that’s just me.

Visually the game disappoints. The front end is poor, the intro ropey (in-game dialogue is read in English by people who have never spoken it before), and the graphics, while there are a few clever rotational tricks, are less than what you’d expect from a good 16-bit shooter. Parallax scrolling ranges from a single plane consisting of one giant, bland, moving bitmap, to about 3 layers on some levels. Not much transparency, and not much that stands out. A far cry from the glory days of games like Thunder Force IV. In its defence though, this kind of 2D laziness became prevalent across the board when people started becoming obsessed with 3D around the late-1990s. Still, I miss the era of 8-and-more layers of parallaxic fantastica.

What does stand out, and almost makes it worth the download, is the soundtrack. It’s unconventional to the point of being either refreshingly excellent or hopeless inappropriate. The music is ambient, with a lot of sampled chanting. Some tracks sound as if they’ve been ripped straight from Panzer Dragoon Saga (stage 2), others blend classical and techno, and one sounds like a machine trying to compose hip-hop (stage 3 boss). It’s eclectic, strange, and very good.

Generally, playing GS reminds me of a whole bunch of other excellent hori shmups I’d rather be playing instead. Keio’s Flying Squadron (which featured simultaneous horizontal and vertical parallax scrolling!), Biometal (with music by 2 Unlimited), Darius 2, or Einhander, which is also on PS1 and PSN, for the same price as GS. And that’s the crunch. There’s a lot of other, much better shmups on PSN, all vying for your limited supply of Yen or Hong Kong dollars.

But I don’t want to criticise it too much, because it’s doing precisely what I want from PSN: making forgotten, obscure and rare games available to the public for a low price. And considering how under-represented the shmup genre is these days, I’ll eat saccharin and call it honey if it gets my mind into that one-credit zone. Gaia Seed is fun, and certainly superior to Soldner-X (which was terrible). If you’ve already got Einhander, the Taito Raystorm/Crisis games, Darius, Cotton, Gunner’s Heaven, and hell even Cho Aniki, then Gaia Seed is worth adding to your collection – just make sure it’s low down on your PSN list.

Before finishing off, I’d like to add that there’s a clever trick to finishing the game. Each boss comes with a timer to defeat it within, and to see the true ending and final boss, you need to let the timer run down without killing him – just avoid his attacks.

Most screenshots stolen from this guy.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

I like burning hedgehogs

Contrary to the opening title, I’m not advocating wanton cruelty on animals – rather, I intend to talk you through the hassles of trying to experience Sonic Gems on the PS2 as it should be. The quick answer is: you can’t, making it possibly the most redundant compilation ever released.

With high street stores no longer stocking new PS2 games in the UK, and the second-hand selection dwindling to almost nothing, I’ve been discussing what needs to be smash-and-grabbed before the last PS2 leaves Saigon. eBay (hate it as much as I do) is rife with excellent games costing from $1 up to $20, all with free postage. This being the valley of the graph, many will inevitably rise in price. Meaning now is the time to BUY!

One game on my list was Sonic Gems, a Sonic compilation containing mainly obscure and weird crap most people haven’t played (Sonic Fighters the arcade game and a slew of Game Gear games), plus Sonic CD which has never appeared on compilation before (EDIT: I'm informed it's actually a port of the PC Sonic CD, not the Sega CD version - but I'm going to leave the cover art pics as is). A games journalist friend criticised it for containing only obscure titles - but I disagreed. This to me, made it potentially the greatest compilation ever released. Forget compilations with games which sold well - the original cartridges for those cost $1 a piece. No, reprinting a collection of retro games should - I feel - focus on those which are good yet didn't get as widespread a release. This would lower the prices that collectors demand for the originals, and it would mean the unwashed masses get to experience great games easily and at a fraction of the price. So in this respect, I regarded Sonic Gems as some form of holy gaming light - a shining beacon by which other developers could follow... And oh lordy, how wrong I was.

First up eBay UK, which has it for around $6 delivered. But then I realised this won’t have Bare Knuckle 1, 2 or 3. Only the Japanese version has them.

So I buy the Japanese version. Except it turns out that Sega, much like they did with Panzer Dragoon Orta on the Xbox, coded the Japanese version to be multi-language and select things based on the language settings of your system. PAL PS2 systems don’t have Japanese, so everything – and I mean EVERYTHING – defaulted to English, including the soundtrack to Sonic CD. This pisses me off, because the UK actually received the Japanese soundtrack for Sonic CD, and yet the UK versions of Gems boots the US soundtrack, as does the Japanese version in a UK system. So right off the bat, one of my main reasons for playing is curtailed.

If I'm going to play Sonic CD I want it to have its original soundtrack as intended by the creators. Dave Halverson gave the Japanese version a perfect score of 100, and the US versions something like 70, purely they changed the music. I can agree with this. Compare the two soundtracks and it should be obvious the original is better. It's insulting that Sega felt the need to do this.

Some people say the change in soundtracks is licensing issues. Well, I call shenanigans on that excuse. That’s like paying $40 for a game at the store and getting home to find there’s no disc in it and the developer says: “Sorry, when we finished making the game we had issues with the fact that we couldn’t magically invent CDs out of thin air.” That’s the wrong answer. What you do is, you DEAL with it. Sorting out the licensing issues for the soundtrack, over a decade after its release, should be treated in exactly the same way as staff wages or hiring the factory to produce the discs is treated. IE: it’s part of the development process. Not bung both soundtracks on one disc and then deprive all non-Japanese of the chance to listen to it. If it can still be sold in Japan, by god it can be sold in the west – it was in fact sold in the UK! Bloody numpties.

Anyway, back to google.

Googling reveals that it’s possible to rip the game and hex edit it to only boot the Japanese soundtrack. So, off we go.

I couldn’t be bothered to work out how to rip it, so instead downloaded the ISO. Several hours and over 1 gigabyte later, I was faced with how to actually hex edit it. Back to Google to search for free Hex editors. As per usual, there’s a million different utilities. The one near the top, XVI32 looks reasonable, so I download it.

It loads fine, but trying to open the ISO results in a memory failure. Maybe it’s too big I think. Or maybe I need a binary files instead. Or maybe XVI32 is actually a bit pants.

So, it’s back to Google to search for how to convert an ISO to a BIN. Isobuster can apparently do it, but after fumbling through the menus for close to 20 minutes I’m no wiser as to how to do this. Perhaps another hex editor will fix it?

Back to Google, and I get Free Hex Editor Neo. And hoho, it works! Except that instead of roman text on the far right, opposite the numbers, I’ve got Japanese moonspeak. Perhaps it’s because I set my system’s character coding to Japanese for doujin games? I’m not going to change it just to hack an ISO, so I try to change the character setting in FHEN. Well, can’t do that because it’s a trial version. Bastards.
Anyway, I search for BGM_US.ASF and luckily it turns up just fine in the ISO. Except it’s not at the numerical location hinted at on the forum which gave instructions. Is this due to my downloaded ISO not being the correct length, or perhaps it’s due to character encoding? No matter, I hex edit it and move on. All need to read BGM_JP.ASF. The ISO saves quickly.

Finally burned, the game actually loads via Swap Magic 3 and I think I’m in the clear. Except no! The game still insists on loading the godawful US soundtrack. I double check the ISO, and it quite clearly shows only BGM_JP.ASF for each entry. Damn... What went wrong?

Anyway, deciding I’ll fiddle with that later, I consider loading Bare Knuckle, except it’s not there. There’s only 2 blank slots for unlockable games, presumably Vectorman 1 and 2. But isn’t this Japanese version meant to have 5 unlockables? I check the ISO again, and it defiantly contains an MDROM folder, with BK1.cpt and upwards. So Bare Knuckle is on the disc.

Back to Google and GameFaqs. Turns out I need to play the compilation for over 7 hours before these games are unlocked. At which point sanity prevailed and I said: bollocks to this.

In total I must have spent around 4-5 hours surfing, buying, ripping, downloading, unzipping, hacking, saving, reburning, and generally buggering around on the internet. And for what? To play Sonic CD with its original soundtrack as the creators intended, and a scrolling fighter series which hasn’t been butchered? I own the original PAL Sonic CD with Japanese soundtrack, which boots perfectly on a modded Xbox with Genesis emulator, and I can force it to run in 60Hz mode so no borders. With the same modded Xbox I can load Streets of Rage 1 and 2, and the fan-translated version of Bare Knuckle 3, which would be in English, but not censored or with unbalanced difficulty. To top it off, the Game Gear emulation is appalling on the compilation, with washed out and anti-aliased visuals which don’t even fill the screen. Amateur coders are able to do better on big consoles without official SDKs, so why Sega did such a terrible job I don’t know. Drunk on shoe polish, perhaps?

Sonic Gems is a butchered mess. If you buy the PAL version you’re cheating yourself. If you buy the imported Japanese version, it will only work correctly on a Japanese PS2. The amount of effort needed to get it anywhere near acceptable is so high as to make it pointless owning. Like I said, possibly the most redundant compilation in existence. Unless you’re desperate to play Sonic Fighters.

I had considered hex editing the game to unlock the extra titles, but as pointed out on RHDN, an easier method is to download the finished save file off GameFAQs, and according to Kitsune Sniper on their forums:
You download the save files to a USB stick, you put the codebreaker/ AR / whatever disc on the PS2 (it's self-booting), you stick the USB into the PS2, you load the file, voila. That said, some PS2s are incredibly picky with their USB sticks.

Many thanks for the tip.

In case anyone cares: images stolen from all over the internet, be it Mobygames, or somewhere else.

Monday, October 19, 2009

More Troubles for Niche Games Localizations

NIS recently opened pre-orders for a UMD version of Holy Invasion of Privacy, Badman! They say that pre-orders need to meet 1,000 or it won't happen, but I'm not entirely sure of that - they'll charge you right out the gate, not when it ships, so it seems to be a reasonably done deal. (Unless it's some kind of restriction with their e-commerce site - NIS hasn't exactly had the best track record with not screwing up lately.) I'm definitely going for this, because I immediately lost interest in the localized version once it was revelead to be DD only, but it more or less brings up another concern that I suspected - NIS had problems with retailers stocking the game, and going for PSN-only was the only way to get it published.

This isn't technically the first time this has happened. Nintendo published Elektroplankton as mail-order only for awhile, although it was eventually released in limited quantities to Gamestop. Same thing with the Korg DS synthesizer. Agetec also released a party game called LOL, only available through its website, although since it's essentially a glorified Pictochat.

But these are all "non-games", more or less. A couple of other published games have had troubles penetrating into retail. Atlus' Steal Princess, for example. You won't find it at Gamestop - the only place you'll find it is likely on Amazon. Same deal with Aksys's republication of Jake Hunter. Its original release was famously botched, with cut content and a lousy translation. Aksys reconciled by releasing it again, with a new translation and everything restored - except Gamestop won't stock it either, especially since they still have new copies of the original release rotting on the shelves for $15. Why did Gamestop have so little faith in these titles in particular? Jake Hunter is easy to understand, but why Steal Princess? It certainly didn't get great reviews, but it's no worse than any other middling RPG that's come out lately. Maybe they got burned on stocking The Dark Spire?

Not knowing the ins and outs of video game retail buying, I don't know if this has been a persistent problem throughout the ages. Most of the time the blame for games not getting localized falls either on the publisher, or the console manufacturer not approving them. Now with the possibility of retailers not stocking games, there's a third wrench in the works. Given that we're already seeing excellent titles like 7th Dragon (as of current) passed over for localization, it's fairly troubling. If nothing else, it's probably time to break out the Japanese coursebooks once again.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Well, my PS3 died

Yup, just as soon as I'm actually getting into Uncharted 2, my PS3 up and suffers one of those Yellow Light of Death issues. For some reason I hadn't really heard of these very much, unlike the Xbox 360's RRODs, which were all over the gaming news sites for months. My own 360 red ringed about two years ago when Bioshock came out, which was annoying, but at least getting it repaired was free. Not so with Sony, who charges you the indignity of a $150 repair fee to get "refurbished" model, which could just as very well break again. Mine's not even that old - it's a 40 GB I bought a few weeks before MGS4 came out back in June 2008 or so.

Again, it's funny that this hasn't been publicized to nearly the extent as Microsoft's blunder. The closest I could ever find - the only time I'd heard of it in the first place - was in this article in which Sony preemptively blasted a BBC report about their inadequacy in fixing it. And that was only for the United Kingdom. It's clearly a widespread issue, as this thread on Sony's own forums can attest.

This isn't a "real" post so much as griping, but hey! Know that you have a Playstation 3, you're probably on borrowed time! Enjoy!

Interestingly enough, there are some lawyers looking into a class action lawsuit: PS3 YLOD: Lawyer Seek.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Half-minute Hero - PSP

There have been a lot of great games released recently: Uncharted 2, Katamari Forever, Way of the Samurai 3, Demon’s Souls, Brutal Legend, and no doubt others. Unfortunately, this all means that one of this year’s most interesting games will probably be overlooked. Released apparently last week, I’d totally forgotten about Half-minute Hero. I’ve only played for about half-an-hour, but already I love it.

The game starts with a blazing electric guitar intro which sets the tone for the rest of the excellent soundtrack (featuring Yuzo Koshiro as one of the composers), and you’re then given a choice of three main modes. While the game models itself on being a 30-second RPG, it actually encompasses several genres, including shmups and RTS. As you progress, further modes are unlocked. At its most basic, it’s like a hyper-micromanagement sim moulded by the specified genre – you’re constantly juggling things in rapid succession to achieve your goal in under 30 seconds (actually more than 30 seconds, since you can buy more time from the Time Goddess).

If you’ve not played the PSN demos for HMH, then the above description might sound dull or unintuitive, but the game is actually hugely fun and easy to pick up. It’s very streamlined, with minimal button presses (outside of towns you only need the directions and Square to use a healing item) and combat is automatic. And yet despite this apparent minimalism, there’s a level of depth as you debate whether to save a forest, level up, buy items, or simply head for the boss. New equipment is constantly being acquired, level-specific ranks are earned depending on your style of play, thereby encouraging you to replay each level, and there are also secret levels to unlock. So from what I’ve seen so far, there’s a lot of meat to this game.

Special mention must also go to the dialogue and localisation, which is absolutely perfect. It reminds me a little bit of Holy invasion of privacy, in that there’s a lot of send-ups based on RPG archetypes, and even some 4th wall breaking stuff. For anyone who has grown up on RPGs, it should be a delight, whether it’s the Time Goddess chastising you for selecting the “no” option (“How many RPGs allow you to progress by choosing no? Just choose yes already”), to the spoiled princess who in less than 30 seconds goes from damsel in distress to cross-wielding hell-vixen (“I don’t need no ******* tutorial!”). Genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

And as you can see from the visuals, it has a beautiful 8-bit styling – something which is coming in to vogue, and which I’m pleased about. Megaman 9, Holy Invasion of privacy and now Half-minute Hero, I hope are simply the first in a long line of such pixelicious games.

Anyway, those are my first impressions. Slick, wonderful, beautifully localised, unlike anything else I’ve ever played (maybe Outrun, there’s definitely a hint of Outrun’s race-to-goal style in there somewhere), showing great promise in terms of depth and stuff to unlock, incredibly ornate 8-bit visuals, a rocking soundtrack by known composers, and... sadly overlooked due to bigger releases. And this is sad, because XSeed might see the low sales, and figure it due to the game not appealing to audiences. And if that happens, we'll be less likely to such games in the future.

I say leave Uncharted 2 and Brutal Legend on the shelf for a week or two, they’ll sell well enough through mainstream appeal and will still be there, and maybe give Half-minute Hero for the PSP a chance. Check out the demos first, if needs be, they're ace! Otherwise I don’t think this is going to receive the attention it deserves...

Friday, October 16, 2009

Five Great (and Three Not-So-Great) Things about Tales of Monkey Island

A few months back, I picked up an adventure game called Jack Keane. "Just like Monkey Island!" it proclaimed on the cover, more or less. I played it for fifteen minutes, at which point I decided, why not just play Monkey Island? I'd beaten the first two in my youth, but only got maybe a 1/3rd of the way through the later games, and the recent Tales Of Monkey Island series got me in the mood again.

I finished those up during the summer, and while I love Curse, I'd have to agree with the general opinion that Escape is the weakest. The general theme of over-commercialization feels a bit too out there, and Monkey Kombat is by far one of the worst things in the series. It seems that some people are lumping the Tales of Monkey Island series with this one, which I don't really agree with. So, having just played through the first three episodes, here are five things I really dig about them:

Elaine Marley

Guybrush's romance with Elaine was always kind of a joke in the first three games...until they ended up married by the end of it. By the time the fourth game rolled around, Guybrush was clearly henpecked, and Elaine was kinda bitchy, and that's such an worn out theme that it's just not funny. Elaine's more restrained, less mean than more of a capable woman who can clearly take care of herself, as evidenced in the first game. And she's actually pretty charming too, as evidenced by the one scene where you can make Guybrush try to say "no" in a dozen different ways, only to end up conceding after exhausting all of them. It also helps that her British voice actress from Curse is back.

Morgan LeFlay

Morgan LeFlay is a bounty hunter - one of the best in the business - who is also somewhat struck with a case of hero worship for Guybrush. As such, she's constantly conflicted between her pride for her job, and her pretty obvious crush on the mostly oblivious Guybrush, which leads to a surprisingly heartfelt speech using ravenous manatees as a metaphor. But it's mostly her demeanor, carried through the outstanding animation and charming voice acting, that really make the character. I actually really loved the moment where you pretend you're married, and need to answer a bunch of intimate questions based on some random things she mumbled when passed out.

LeChuck's Puzzle Solving Conundrum

LeChuck's gone good? Probably not, but in the first few chapters he's actually a fairly reasonable guy, who seems to want to atone for all of the evil he's put the Carribean through. The best part with him pops up in the second chapter, where Guybrush gives him a lesson in adventure puzzle logic, slowly walking him through all of the steps to figure out what to do. ("If I stick this in there, then it looks like a cow. Do I need a cow?") LeChuck is voiced by a different guy this time around - Earl Boen was great, but the new guy doesn't need the same growling sense of menace, so he works out pretty great too.


Who doesn't love Murray? He pops here again, and serve more of a useful function than his gratutious (but still funny) cameo back in Escape from Monkey Island. While in the belly of the manatee, you come across a stranded crew who've used the opportunity to take a nice, relaxing vacation. The three of them are so contently deluded that they somehow refuse to believe that the fourth, a guy named Santino, actually died a long time ago and is now a mere skeleton. You'll need to switch his skull with Murray, in an attempt to get him to do you a favor...until he double crosses you, anyway. It's also amusing how you later learn that Santino actually was a pretty awesome dude - it makes me wonder if you'll somehow meet him later on, even though it'd probably ruin the mystery.

Stupid Face Contest

In order to get initiated with the crew, you need to best one of the men by making scary (more like stupid) faces. Functionally, it's a very easy puzzle, since you just need to walk around and look at other things (and talk to other people) to get inspired, and all you need to do is not use the same expressions more than once to win. It's remarkably dumb, but watching it all play out is gleefully ludicruous. It's even better when you need to scare one of the other crew members by mimicing the expression of the person he fears most - Sister Agnes, Director of Discipline.

It's not all great - there are a few things that kinda fall flat, or otherwise disappoint.

Manatee Flirting

So, you've made it to the manatee breeding grounds, but you need to lure the female manatee out of her cave. The male manatee is too frightened to do anything, so you need to teach yourself their language to get them hooked up. However, the only guide you have is a travel book, filled with stock phrases. The female manatee will say something threatening - you need to pick one of those fairly neutral sentences to make it sound like you're being coy and funny. It's a great idea in concept, and a nice skewering of the sword-fighting insult stuff that Telltale sweared they wouldn't do...except in practice, it just kinda falls flat.

Le Singe

Ozzie Mandrill, the villain of Escape from Monkey Island, was one of the game's weaker links. His only major characteristic, despite being evil and cranky, was randomly sticking the names of Australian animals into his speech, which also wasn't very funny. Le Singe is set up to be one of the antagonists in Tales of Monkey Island, a mad scientist who wants to experiment on Guybrush due to his condition ("For science!") Except, like Mandrill, he's just another ethnic stereotype, this time a super gay Frenchman. Still, I can't hate him too much - the part where you need to coerce a monkey to free you from his operation table is pretty inspired, and his squeaky/shrill voice acting is slightly funny.

Reused Locations/Character Models

The first chapter features not one, but TWO puzzles where you need to navigate through a jungle maze, similar to the Treasure Trial from the first game. In the second come across an almost identical looking maze! Thankfully there's no more puzzle to solve, but you still need to wander around. The reuse of locations - and character models for nearly all of the NPCs - is one of Tales of Monkey Island's biggest weakness.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Racketboy has a new podcast...

...and I'm a guest on it!

Famed retro website Racketboy just put up their first podcast, which includes interviews with myself, Nick (Racketboy himself) and the Video Game Critic (from, naturally.) My segment deals with some of the background with the site, how it's evolved, and IGN/Gamespy's treatment during our move (confusing, at best.) Please check it out!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Huh? What? Uncharted 2 is Actually Really Good

I was planning on spending this holiday season cooped up in my room, playing fifteen year old PC games (I just bought a new joystick and Wing Commander II is SO BEAUTIFUL) while complaining about dearth of reasonably interesting titles, since most of them got delayed until 2010. I was in for Demon's Souls and Brutal Legend based on forum hype and pedigree, but I really wasn't expecting much from Uncharted 2. I only got it because of the Toys R Us B2G1 free sale, and the hype from all around made it too much to pass on.

I wasn't really a fan of the first Uncharted. It was the first PS3 game I bought while I waited a few weeks for MGS4 to be released, and my feelings were roughly the same as Yahtzee's - a well made game, but remarkably bland. I actually thought it was a long running joke amongst PS3 fans that such a dull game was somehow championed as one of the best games on the console...then I realized a year and a half later that they weren't kidding.

The nature of sequels usually assumes that if the first game sold well, then there was nothing wrong with it, and may as well just write a new "script", make a few new levels and call it a day. (As much as I like the atmosphere and general feel of Halo,they still really haven't learned much about level design.) Thankfully, it's not the case with Uncharted 2 - it's a rare case, like with Zone of the Enders and Dark Cloud from the PS2 generation, that actually builds substantially on the last game. I don't know if the actual engine was improved, but the visual direction is nothing short of outstanding - and if the snow in the first chapter doesn't convince you, the Turkish landscape in the second one will. I think that's the big thing that's impressed me - instead of just being a dude running around a jungle shooting other dudes, it's really come up with some interesting setpieces, right within the first hour. Even the (fairly easy) stealth section at the beginning is pretty smooth.

Anyway, you've probably heard all of the fantastic stuff about this already, and I'd say that yeah, for the most part, it's actually true and not just overblown fluff. So let's take a bit of time to discuss where (so far) it's failing.

The plot's not great. Well, no, I haven't seen enough the plot to really say that, so let's say this - the writing's a bit subpar. Anytime anyone says "I have a bad feeling about this", then immediately cuts to a bad thing happening...there should be some kind of punishment for that. Yes, we understand what irony is, please don't do this ever again.

I'm not sure what the appeal of Nathan Drake is, but apparently he's the model of the New Action Hero - gelled hair and jeans, looking like an Abercrombie and Fitch model without the overtly homosexual overtones, with a laid back attitude and scruffy facial hair that suggests a slacker everyman who can do pretty much anything the Old Action Hero can do, except with irritating smarminess replacing cheesy catchphrases. The constant praise I see heaped on it is even weirder. I actually heard someone say that the dialogue gets better later on, and compared it to Monkey Island in its cleverness. Oh? Was this the same person that called the cringeworthy Grand Theft Auto IV script "Oscar-worthy"? I'm not very far so there's always hope for improvement, but somehow I think these people have a substantially different concept of "good writing" than I do.

Then there's Chloe. Chloe rubs me the wrong way. She reminds me a lot of Zoe from Dreamfall - black hair with slightly dark skin, somewhat racially ambiguous, with skimpy tops and a British accent. Zoe was a real character after my own heart, but Chloe's something of a negaverse version of the same basic idea, completely lacking in both charm and depth. And there's something about the way the eyes are modeled that makes her look suspiciously glassy. It's distracting. I still think it would be hilarious if Drake ended up with some fat chick as "the best driver in the business" - are female criminals all wannabe models? - but I don't really think being subversive is Naughty Dog's MO.

This criticism might sound like it's being a bit tough, and it definitely is. The writing is still several steps up from GTA4, and certainly better than the Gears of Wars of the world. But "blockbuster Hollywood movie" and "good writing" aren't mutually exclusive. That's something not even the actual movie industry has figured out consistently, though, so I guess it's a bit premature that a video game could possibly do the same thing. At least it's not a jumbled mess a la Transformers 2, so it does have that going for it. But it does seem awfully weak when compared to something like Brutal Legend. I wouldn't want Tim Schafer to waste his talents working on a summer popcorn action flick, but at some point the developers should strive to be more than just adequate.