Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Ninja Blade is fun.
The obvious point of comparison is Ninja Gaiden II. By almost every common standard of measurement, Ninja Gaiden II is the better game. It’s got more polish. It’s got more levels. It’s got more enemies, and more weapons, and more magic, and more special moves. The combat system is tighter; tight like unto a fighting game. It’s a big blockbuster of a production. Yet I did not find Ninja Gaiden II fun. Ninja Blade, I did.
Anyway. Ninja Blade is a third-person adventure brawler game thing where you play as Ken Ogawa, a member of an elite government-sponsored ninja special ops team, dispatched to Tokyo to root out an infestation of “Alpha Worms,” a sort of hookworm that grows in human brains and causes its host to mutate into horrible monsters, ranging in scale from human-size to skyscraper-crushing. It thus joins the proud tradition of games about ninjas vs. monsters, and doesn’t seek to do anything more than continue this tradition. The fighting is a bit shallow, but viscerally satisfying—it doesn’t require ridiculous concentration and skill, but it’s not just button-mashing either.
The game makes heavy use of quicktime events during cut scenes—a button indicator appears on screen, and then you press that button with the right timing and Ken Ogawa does something awesome. Every boss fight ends with a lengthy quicktime event, and most begin with one, too. Unlike certain other games, if you mess up a button push, it just rewinds a bit, instead of killing you, so the QTEs are mostly there to keep your fingers busy while you watch the action. Some people do not like QTEs on principle, but I think they’re used well here: The alternative, which is non-interactive cut scenes, wouldn’t be any better, as there’s currently no way to create a game engine that would let you pull off Ken’s QTE moves in-engine on Ninja Blade’s budget.
It’s not a big blockbuster, it doesn’t really redefine gaming, but it doesn’t really have design flaws as such. Playing it never made me angry. It was a fun diversion. Plus, the game lets you change the colors on the protagonist’s ninja suit, which I spent more time on than I probably should have. It’s not surprising the game lets you do this—From Software, the developers, also do the Armored Core games, which allow for heavy visual customization of their giant robots. It’s a neat touch, and not something you’d normally see resources devoted to on a mainstream game.
So… thumbs up, as it were.
I have reached only one conclusion: Stay away from Pokémon: Platinum if you have anything resembling a hoarding instinct. It will eat your face.
I had never before played a Pokémon game. Sure, I caught the occasional episode of the cartoon ten years ago, when it was new, but I never owned a GameBoy back then; I only got into portable systems when my iPod broke and I ended up picking up a PSP as a stopgap MP3 player (and because Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions had just been released). For years I dismissed Pokémon as, you know, just a game I wasn’t interested in. I don’t like to claim games I’ve never played are without merit. So for years I kept hearing things like “surprising tactical depth” and “a solid RPG under all the kid’s stuff,” and now comes Pokémon: Platinum, which is the “enhanced remake” culmination of Pokémon: Diamond and Pokémon: Pearl, which were themselves the paired DS follow-ups to all previous Pokémon games on the original GameBoy and GameBoy Advance.
I figure, hey, if there’s a time to buy one Pokémon game, it might as well be this one.
Let me say this: There’s a reason kids like Pokémon. You know how small nerd children obsessively memorize the names and categories of dinosaurs? It’s an instinctual knowledge-hoarding thing. Pokémon are like that, only while dinosaurs are cool because they actually existed and you can go see their skeletons in museums, Pokémon seem/are (is there a difference?) cool because you can play with them with your friends.
Pokémon: Platinum, apparently, is the pinnacle of all the work Nintendo has put into Pokémon for a decade, almost all of which has gone towards making it as addictive as possible.
It’s my fault. I should have seen this coming. It is further my fault for going “Jesus, the strategy guide for Platinum is 624 pages long? I don’t normally buy strategy guides, but one that big I’ll pick up for novelty value alone!” The strategy guide has full entries for 492 different pokémon species (hey, remember when there were only 151?), including full explanations for why I can’t get them using Platinum alone.
So now, in addition to Platinum, I’ve got Pokémon: Emerald, the enhanced remake of Pokémon: Ruby and Pokémon: Sapphire. Emerald plugs into my DS’s GBA slot, and I can play that to pick up the Pokémon from the Ruby and Sapphire games, and then transfer them to my Platinum cartridge. But that won’t do it on its own; there are still Pokémon I’ll need to grab from Pokémon: FireRed and Pokémon: LeafGreen, and they don’t have an enhanced remake so I’ll need them both, just to get something as simple as a Bulbasaur! FireRed and LeafGreen are hard to find these days! And, I dunno, I guess I need to buy a copy of My Pokémon Ranch so I can get Mew, althought I can’t transfer Mew directly to Platinum, so I'll need to transfer it to Diamond or Pearl first. I’ll need a copy of one of those two games after all. And My Pokémon Ranch isn’t supposed to be any good...but, on the other hand, it’s Mew. I can’t not have a Mew.
Don’t judge me!
OK, honesty time. Much of the above is a lie. I didn’t actually go crazy. I played Pokémon: Platinum and thought, “Hey, this is a pretty good, but oddly paced,” because I’m not really used to games designed to be played for ten million hours in ten minute installments. I tried to pick up a copy of Emerald, no shit, but Amazon.ca wasn’t having any of it and Amazon.com won’t ship games out of the US, so fuck that. I could very easily see myself falling into Pokémon and never coming out, though—all the games, a second DS so I can trade with myself, a bookshelf full of strategy guides, the works. While the above might be an exaggeration, it’s not much of one. My hoarding instinct, though largely tamed, is still powerful, and Pokémon has a lot to hoard.
However! As any economist will tell you, this isn’t the whole story, because we make choices largely according to the incentives those choices offer us. Especially with regards to issues of aesthetics (such as which video games you like), many of these incentives are unobvious and hard to analyze, but they do exist.
I did not choose to engage with The Wheelman. I am willing to admit this is a choice I made. Nevertheless, I made this choice because after playing The Wheelman for some time, I came to the conclusion that it offers me very few incentives to engage with it. It’s a standard Grand Theft Auto clone with only a few features to distinguish it, which I will now list.
1. Vin Diesel’s voice and likeness. I’m a bit of a Vin Diesel fan, because I liked his performances in Pitch Black and Knockaround Guys, because he was involved in the creation of the inexplicably great The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay video game on the original Xbox, and because, judging from his interviews, he is a complete and total geek for Dungeons & Dragons. Unfortunately, in The Wheelman his performance as Milo Burik is very cardboard, and enjoying Vin Diesel’s quality performances doesn’t enhance my opinion of his mediocre ones.
2. The game is set in Barcelona. This means European cars, bright sunlight, decent Spanish music (the game doesn’t have many radio stations, but at least the ones it does have tend to play music you won't hear in Grand Theft Auto IV), flamenco dancers, and innocent bystanders who speak a language other than English, which disguises how often the game reuses their audio chatter. (Props to that!) But while it’s nice to see a sandbox driving game set somewhere other than in pastiches of US cities, the Barcelona of The Wheelman isn’t very lively and feels much more like a toy model of a city than the real thing.
3. Absurd action movie stunts—chief amongst them the airjack, the aim shot, and the cyclone shot. To airjack, follow behind a car, hold the B button, then release it when a red indicator turns green, and Vin will jump out of the car he’s driving, into the car he was following, kick the driver out, and take control of the car all in one smooth motion. To aim shot, build up “focus meter” then hit up on the control pad, and the game goes into slow-motion and you can shoot a car ahead of you in the gas tank to make it explode. The cyclone shot is like the aimed shot, except first Vin spins the car around and drives backwards while shooting—handy for taking out pursuers.
Now, the absurd action movie stunts are actually a lot of fun, though I’m a bit tired of chauffeur missions where I can’t airjack easily because I’d be leaving the guy I’m chauffeuring behind and would then have to stop and wait for him to get into my new car.
The Wheelman isn’t really a bad game. I’m sure I’d like it more if I liked GTA-style games more. I don’t, though—I don’t know why, but I got tired of “Tough guy runs driving missions for criminal factions” way faster than I got tired of “Space marine shoots monsters.” The Wheelman is a fairly average example of a genre I have no use for, and a famous actor, an exotic locale, and action movie stunts aren’t enough to push it above its competitors. I don’t think it’s even worth a rental. On the other hand, if you like GTA games, and you like them specifically for the driving and the shooting, and not for the characterization, humor, lively city, or interesting side quests, you may disagree with me.
STEPHEN LEA SHEPPARD