Saturday, May 25, 2013

3DS Review: "Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D"

Since it was first revealed, the 3DS has often been said to be powerful enough to effectively serve as a portable Wii.  In theory, the console is able to play games that are just as large, just as detailed, and just as good as Nintendo's now previous-gen home console.  As of yet, that promise has largely gone unrealized.  As per the norm, 3DS iterations of home console games tend to still be simpler, more basic adaptations of their home console cousins with less detailed graphics, less features, and a much smaller scope.  Some games purpose-made for the system, like Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon, provide console-quality experiences, but even they still usually feel smaller and more limited in design.

Well fortunately, Donkey Kong Country Returns, one of the finest games ever released for the Wii, has returned once more as Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D and at last delivers a full-blown Wii-quality experience on the 3DS.  With very few exceptions, nothing has been compromised in the jump to the handheld.  The same brilliant, beautiful, and incredibly challenging platformer that you loved on the Wii is exactly as you remember it on the 3DS, with a handful of new features thrown in to boot.  If that's all you needed to hear, you can stop reading right now and go buy it.

For the uninitiated, Donkey Kong Country Returns and its 3DS port are much like the New Super Mario Bros series in that they revive the same sort of side-scrolling platforming action popularized in Rare's mega-popular Donkey Kong Country series for the SNES.  Now in the hands of Retro Studios (and Monster Games for the 3DS version) DKC Returns isn't just content to revisit the past as the New Super series does.  It does have all the old school throwbacks one would hope for, but brings a substantial amount of new content to the table as well.

Donkey Kong, as a character, is incredibly fun to play as.  It's obvious that a great deal of time was put into making sure he played just right.  DK is agile, and the levels reward you for attempting daring acrobatics, but he's also heavy.  It does make DK seem very powerful, but you need to make your jumps count, or DK will drop like a rock into a pit.   Bust open special barrels and DK's little buddy Diddy Kong will hop on to DK's back.  In addition to providing some extra health, Diddy has a jet-pack that allows DK to hang in the air a bit longer after jumping.  A second player can even hop in and play as Diddy independently, should they have their own console and a copy of the game.

I really can't stress enough how good DK feels to control.  In fact, he's even easier to control in the 3DS version than he was in the original Wii version, as the waggle-based moves, such as rolling, have been reassigned to buttons.  And, thankfully, the developers resisted adding any stupid new gimmicks, so you won't have to put up with any blowing into the mic nonsense or anything like that.  It's just straight-forward traditional controls.  The circle pad is perfectly adequate for the precision movements required, but the game also offers an alternate control scheme using the d-pad should you prefer to use it.

The level designs are masterful.  This game makes heavy use of large set-pieces and nearly every one of them is memorable.  From giant octopus attacks, crumbling ruins, rolling spiky boulders, swarms of killer insects, and sunset levels that render everything as silhouettes, almost every single level has some sort of gimmick to call its own.  You really never know what you're going to run into in any given level, ensuring that the game feels fresh all the way through.  The only real fault that could be leveled at DKC Returns' level selection is that it is perhaps a bit too saturated with mine-cart levels.  Though a staple of the series, having them sprinkled throughout the game and having an entire world devoted to them feels like a bit much.  As a whole, though, DKC Returns boasts one of the most rock-solid collections of levels ever to be found in a side-scrolling platformer.

Of course, if you played the Wii version, you already know that.  DKC Returns 3D is largely a straight port of the original game.  There are a few new elements introduced here and there, however.  Most notably is "New Mode."  In this mode, DK and Diddy are both awarded an extra heart of health, and Cranky has a few new items in his store, like a balloon that saves you from falling into a pit and a DK barrel that you can use to bring out Diddy whenever you'd like.  Given that the original game's level of challenge bordered on being a little too frustrating at times, New Mode is a welcome way to take the edge off. 

Don't get me wrong, DKC Returns 3D still offers up a considerable challenge, especially if you're trying to track down all of the collectable K-O-N-G letters and puzzle pieces.  You will die a lot.  But New Mode is perfect for those who found the level of difficulty in the Wii version a touch too daunting but did not want to resort to letting the Super Guide beat the levels for them.  That said, Albino DK is still waiting in the wings, ready to hop in should you fail too many times on a single level.  And, if you're a purist, the game does offer up an "Original Mode" which lets you play through the game exactly as it was on the Wii as well.  DKC Returns 3D also features a handful of new levels to entice those who already mastered the Wii version. But, given that they are locked away at the end of the game, veteran players will have to slog through a lot of familiar territory before seeing anything new.

Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was, in my opinion, second only to the Mario Galaxy games when it comes to graphics.  The game was gorgeous.  In fact, if you'll recall, I compared New Super Mario Bros. U to it in my review of that game and found that, despite running on much more powerful hardware, NSMBU couldn't surpass how good looking DK was on weaker hardware.  When the 3DS version of DKC Returns was announced, I assumed the graphics would have to be downgraded considerably to get the game running smoothly on the handheld. 

I'm pleased to report, however, that the visuals appear to be virtually identical to the Wii original.  If there were any compromises that had to made to recreate the graphics on the 3DS I certainly haven't noticed them.  This is about as good as any game has ever looked on the 3DS.  Every level has tons of detail, and given how much the levels focus on featuring multiple layers of scenery and having interaction between the foreground and background, the added depth of the stereoscopic 3D really suits DK well.  This is a gorgeous game. 

Admittedly, the game's framerate is not quite as silky smooth as the Wii original, but unless you're comparing them side-by-side, you'll probably never notice.  Monster Games did an incredible job maintaining the visual brilliance of the original on the 3DS, and the result is the best looking game for the system thus far.  The sounds and music are also perfectly preserved from the home console original, which is good, as the game's soundtrack offers up a nice mixture of familiar tunes from the SNES original and a substantial amount of new compositions as well.

Donkey Kong Country Returns was already a great game on the Wii, but it's even better on the 3DS.  Being able to play it anywhere makes tracking down all the game's collectables a much more manageable task, and New Mode offers up a great way to experience the game in a slightly less aggravating form without having to tone down the challenging nature of the level design.  Admittedly, if you've already played the Wii version to death, there's not a whole lot of compelling reasons to return to Donkey Kong Country Returns again unless you just want to have the game on the go.  But for those who never experienced the home console original, Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D is an absolute must-buy and one of the only 3DS games to truly deliver an uncompromised home console experience on the handheld.  It's as good as side-scrolling platforming gets and you won't find a better looking game for the 3DS around.

Now then, Nintendo, how about Kirby's Return to Dreamland 3D next please?

Sunday, May 5, 2013

3DS Review: "LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins"

LEGO has long had a strong presence in the realm of video games.  Starting with LEGO Star Wars in 2005, the company hit upon a simple but effective formula that has banked them obscene amounts of money for ever since:  Make a basic platformer with lots of stuff to destroy and collect, add a well known license, throw in some tongue-in-cheek humor, and voilĂ .  A surefire hit for all ages.

But there was a time when LEGO games did not revolve around popular film licenses, and did not just consist of collecting little studs, looking for red bricks, unlocking characters and the like.  Back in the late 90s through the early 2000s, LEGO actually created a remarkably diverse collection of software.  Based on a variety of their original themes, LEGO games from this era covered all sorts of genres, from kart racing to chess to train simulations.

By far the most significant of LEGO's various franchises from this time was the LEGO Island series.  Consisting of three games released in 1997, 2001, and 2002, the LEGO Island series was primarily based the on the various "city" themed sets and put you in the role of Pepper Roni, a pizza delivery boy, who was tasked with stopping the dastardly deeds of notorious criminal The Brickster and his minions.  Though the gameplay varied between the titles, all three games provided an open world to explore, missions to complete, and all sorts of goodies to collect.

Now, over a decade later, LEGO has come full circle.  LEGO City Undercover is primarily based on the various "city" themed sets and puts you in the role of Chase McCain, a police officer and detective, who is tasked with stopping the dastardly deeds of notorious criminal Rex Fury and minions.  The game provides a huge open world to explore, missions to complete, and all sorts of goodies to collect.

Of course, open world games are all the rage these days.  LEGO City is unique, however, in that it caters to a family audience.  All the trappings of a game like Grand Theft Auto are present and accounted for here but, thanks to the LEGO branding, are presented in a non-threatening kid appropriate way.  It means you get all the fun of having a sandbox to play around in with none of the less desirable content so often associated with the genre.  Really, it's a brilliant move on LEGO's part given how virtually no other games are trying to do the same thing right now.

Today I'm looking at The Chase Begins for the 3DS, a prequel to the storyline told in the Wii U LEGO City game.  As of right now, I haven't played the Wii U game, so my impressions of this game are based solely on this game alone, as I can't compare it directly to it's home console counterpart.

And my impressions are quite good!  The basic gameplay mechanics are carried over from the various licensed LEGO games of the past few years.  Silver, gold, and blue studs are still the collectable of choice, and grabbing up as many as you can is still as compelling as it's ever been.  In keeping with tradition, nearly any object in the world constructed out of LEGOs can be destroyed, revealing plastic pieces to collect.  Chase is the only character to play as, but his various disguises provide him with moves similar to the various character types in previous LEGO games, such the ability to use grappling hooks or interact with certain objects.  The game also includes some basic combat, as always, which is fun but extremely easy, causing it to get a bit tedious after a while.

The open world gameplay makes things feel quite distinct from previous LEGO games, however.  LEGO City is yours to explore, though a series of missions is present to keep the story moving.  It's not a very compelling narrative, and it ends on a very unsatisfying cliff hanger to set up the events of the Wii U game, but the story is mostly a means to an end here.  The story-based missions take under eight hours to complete, but constitute only about a quarter of the content The Chase Begins has to offer.  Playing the missions opens up more of the world to explore, and as you do, you're free to ignore the missions and do whatever you please.  If you'd like to keep the plot moving you can.  Or, if you'd like to go punch some flowers for a half hour to rack up some studs, you can do that too.

This is a game that really caters to players who like to goof off in a game's world and simply see what they can do and where they can go.  The city is positively riddled with nooks and crannies to explore, and while some of these locations don't lead to much in particular, most do have some kind of collectable tucked away inside to reward players for poking around.  The LEGO games have long relied on this sort of collect-athon mentality, but it's much more compelling in the context of having a huge world to explore at any time.  Players are also free to hop into any vehicle they come across, and careening around town in various cars adds a whole new spin on seeing what the world has to offer.

So, indeed, for those who like to explore game worlds and collect lots of goodies, The Chase Begins is portable bliss.  There are, however, a few unfortunate technical issues that pop up thanks to the handheld nature of the game.  TT Fusion did a phenomenal job packing in the same gigantic city to explore that is offered in the Wii U game, but it's very clear that the 3DS is struggling to handle it at times.  Draw distance for characters and vehicles is a bit screwy, often causing them to fade in and out of existence while they're right in front of you.  Additionally, the whole city is covered with a dense fog.  Since your viewing distance is often obscured by buildings and trees and such, this isn't a huge issue.  That said, when up in a high place or a particularly open area, it can look a little odd to observe nothing but blue fog out in front of you.  The world is also divided up into several areas, and crossing from one into another means a lengthy load time, up to a minute long.  (Again reminiscent of the LEGO Island series, particularly the second installment...)

Sounds and music are also a little bit odd.  The game features some incredibly funny and clever writing, but with voice acting being limited only to key story moments, the humor does seem rather subdued at times.  Sound effects are pretty solid, but music is strangely scarce.  Driving vehicles, combat, and certain missions are accompanied by score, but the rest of the game is largely silent.  A little ambient music would have gone a long way here.

So, in the end, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins does have its shortcomings.  It tries to be a full-fledged console style sandbox game but, thanks to some technical limitations, it isn't always able to fully succeed in that goal.  The missions tend to be pretty simplistic and the combat gets old fast.  That being said, the world is still extremely fun to play around in and there's plenty of hours of content to enjoy here.  The story is pretty flimsy, but it clocks in at a length that would acceptable for a full handheld experience, and it's only the tip of the ice berg here.  If you're a handheld gamer looking for an exploration heavy home console style experience, The Chase Begins will scratch that itch nicely.  It has some rough edges that may irritate some, but the underlying experience is great fun.

Now, how about we bring back LEGO Island proper next time?  I'd like to see what Pepper and company has been up to all these years.  Please?