Battle of the Backlog Episode 4: Nine Games Enter, One Game Leaves

Not my pile of shame, but not far off.

Not my pile of shame, but not far off.

One man, Harry Nezumi — some say brave, others foolish — stands against his backlog. With but five months between now and a move some 9,000 kms from home, does he have what it takes to complete all the outstanding games in his collection? Follow his quest, his Sisyphean toil, here on Sega Addicts as he tackles one hundred and seven games over twenty weeks. The journey will not be easy, the day grows dark and the hour late. Yet there is hope. After one month of near constant games, has Harry’s will (and family) deserted him? Find out below…

Completed: Clockwork Knight (Sat); Bayonetta (360); Dead or Alive 2 (DC); Ready 2 Rumble Boxing Round 2 (DC); Marvel vs Capcom (XBLA); Pandemonium (Sat); Modern Warfare 2 (360); Zone of the Enders (360).
Retired: Fantavision (PS2).

I lost my virginity this week. Twice. Not that virginity (that went years ago at a sleazy party in England’s post-industrial North) but my franchise cherry was well and truly popped. Somehow, after all these years, I’d never played either a Dead or Alive game or any Call of Duty title. One was renowned for having tits, the other for being — apparently — played by them. Neither characterization was fair. With Dead or Alive 2 I found a complex yet accessible game system that can stand alongside the giants of the genre. With Modern Warfare 2 I see the 3D inheritor to the likes of Contra. Both are worth your time. All-in-all there was much greater quality than the previous fortnight, with only one real stinker that I had to push myself to finish. This may have been the week I surpassed the 20 games completed milestone, but I also read the most ridiculous back-of-box advertising blurb. Step up Dead or Alive 2 with “8 modes of play: Story, Time Attack, Survival, Tag Battle, Team Battle, Sparring, Versus and Option Modes”. I cannot wait to ‘play’ those Options.

Game of the Week: Bayonetta (360)
Nightmare of the Week: Marvel vs Capcom (XBLA)

Only Fantavision prevented a clean sweep.

Only Fantavision prevented a clean sweep.

Clockwork Knight (Sat) — Pre-Mario 64 there was always a tension of how to integrate the brave new polygonal world with how platform games were designed and created. Clockwork Knight is a wonderful example of this as all the ‘3D’ features are really window dressing around a decidedly 2D game. Objects leap to and from the background with challenges and obstacles crossing into the main play area. It’s a nice effect but really nothing that had not already been done with scaled sprites. Where Clockwork Knight struggles is in how traditional an experience it provides. Moreover, this isn’t traditional like Mega Man, where the pin-sharp pixel-perfect experience is preserved across generations. Rather, it’s by-the-numbers and rather slow, sedate almost. Clockwork Knight’s fundamental charm saves the day and it still holds up well to this day both graphically and aurally. It’s undoubtedly polished but there is not enough of it, not enough new and nothing that sets the blood racing. 3/5

Bayonetta (360) — Dizzying, intoxicating, thrilling, dynamic, histrionic. These are just a few of the adjectives that sprung to mind when only half-way through Bayonetta. As action games go, this is pretty much the apogee of the genre. Fast and fluid with a customizable moveset that lends ownership to the character, a ridiculous story that is a nonsensical excuse for some renaissance-themed violence and a structure that lends itself to repeat play all combine to make this one of the best experiences of the last generation. It is a graphical tour de force with only screen tearing (on the 360 at least, the PS3 port was famously poor) marring the experience. This is an intense experience, especially on the harder difficulty settings, and shows, with an aplomb bordering on the psychotic, that the arcade heritage of such titles still has a central place in modern gaming. 5/5

Dead or Alive 2 (DC) — Yet another title based on the Punch-Kick-Guard model of Virtua Fighter, Dead or Alive 2 chooses not to focus upon combos, rather, it is tuned to reward technical play via its complex and deadly throw system. More than half a life bar can be taken off from these and it acts as a stark deterrent to overly defensive play. Consequently, Dead or Alive 2 becomes attack focussed, rewarding the player for finding new and inventive ways of punishing the opponent. This takes full advantage of the 3D arenas, encouraging side and rear attacks with extra damage and creating a distinct, but no less deadly, feel to the combat. Dead or Alive 2 looks great and still images do not accurately convey just how gracefully the characters move and fight. The story mode takes the traditions of the fight genre to their logical conclusion: utter nonsense. There does not need to be a narrative reason to play though, when the underlying mechanics are this good. 4/5

Ready 2 Rumble Boxing Round 2 (DC) — Having beaten Michael Jackson unconscious and quickly despatched a Prince lookalike, crazy was beginning to feel like another day at the office. Round 2 is undoubtedly created with a laser focus on entertainment ahead of simulation. Yet, all its deranged charm cannot hide the tension in the game’s design. Round 2 feels disjointed, trapped between the ‘rock’ of the boxing genre’s focus on a more technical, less fantastical approach; and the ‘hard place’ of its fun focus delivered with a flair befitting of carnival strong-man show. The control scheme maps buttons sensibly, with high/low punches on the right and left hands covered by all four face buttons. Yet combinations are hard to come by when they should flow naturally. It feels restrained by its choice of boxing, never quite marrying its reckless entertaining abandon with the sweet science it apes. The career mode (called ‘Championship Mode’ here) provides a huge amount of playtime and variety in training a boxer from scratch to take the world title. It feels like everything is in place for a wonderful game but for the mechanical shortcomings. If ever a title deserved a Round 3 it’s this, because as it stands, Round 2 falls short of the game it should have been. 3/5

Marvel vs Capcom (XBLA) — Having played and enjoyed the third iteration it was my hope that this would be just as fun, maybe a little light on features and characters, as is often the way with new titles, but entertaining nonetheless. I wasn’t prepared for how big a mess Marvel vs Capcom really is. Everything feels disjointed, slammed together with little thought as to how it would work in a game that prioritizes speed over all else. In maintaining the Street Fighter style six button layout, a layer of complexity is added with the launchers, partner swapping, team attacks and support characters for which the controls were never designed. This combines to give a severe test of memory and controller build quality and is not, however, accessible or fun. It is, after all, difficult to find entertainment when the characters are so poorly balanced. Hulk’s punches, for example, are just as quick as Ryu‘s, deal more damage and he can absorb hits whilst attacking. The AI, operating with a prescience befitting the Delphic Oracle, will attack characters the very frame they appear, charging across the screen to where it knows they will arrive. Incredibly, this happens on the easiest difficulty setting. The only redeeming features rest in the character roster, with some great heroes of the Capcom and Marvel universes, and the package that Iron Galaxy have put together, replete with a torrent of unlockables. The ill-fitting control scheme would be simplified in later titles and balance became a much-needed priority. The reputation this series enjoys for entertainment rests on the shoulders of Marvel vs Capcoms 2 and 3, there remains virtually no reason to recommend playing this ahead of its vastly superior sequels. 1/5

Fantavision (PS2) — Signifying the dearth of quality that would bedevil the system’s first year, this PS2 launch title was widely considered the best of an underwhelming bunch at the time. It’s an esoteric puzzle game clearly designed to show off the PS2’s rendering and lighting capabilities. First impressions indicate that this should be a largely meditative experience, however, the presence of a life bar and the fast-ramping difficulty make this surprisingly inaccessible, frustrating and challenging. These hurdles, however, hide a well structured game with addicting mechanics. Unexploded fireworks drift across the screen, they must be selected in chains of at least three in order to detonate. This radiant, golden shower of light is only interrupted by the whittling of the life bar, which is chipped away every time a firework spends too long on screen. If the concept fails to entice it becomes a difficult slog with the joyful visuals sitting in sharp contrast to the hectic nature of the game. This precludes the kind of mass market appeal that a Tetris or Candy Crush possesses, and I had neither the will nor the inclination to finish this. One for puzzle aficionados only. 3/5

Pandemonium (Sat) — As with Clockwork Knight, Pandemonium is another mid-90s platform game adjusting to the brave new 3D world. Unlike Sega’s charming launch title, Crystal Dynamics’ tale of two magicians on a mission utilizes the z-axis in new ways that feel like the logical extension of the 2D platformer. In Pandemonium the complexity of the levels are supported by the free-wheeling camera, it swings around the plane of movement and gives the best view of the level relative to the player’s position. This both creates an interesting visual motif and allows for more engaging courses. Importantly, this is not a mere cosmetic trick. At various points the camera is used to highlight threats chasing the player, rocks falling from above, it reveals new routes and gives a better view of complex sections. Whilst this is an undoubted step forward, the same cannot be said of the play mechanics. There is poor collision detection and, thanks to the low frame rate, the controls feel floaty and imprecise — the cardinal sin of platform games. Graphically the Saturn port is rough and is yet another poor version of a game that was converted from the Playstation. It is not as egregious as EA’s output on the format, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. These presentational shortcomings could be excused if the gameplay matched up to the design. Sadly, Pandemonium, whilst playable, fails to live up to its promise on the Saturn. 3/5

Modern Warfare 2 (360) — Modern Warfare 2’s campaign is a kaleidoscope of action and a whirlwind of mechanics. It throws a huge amount of both at the player in the hope that some of it will stick and, thanks to the strength of the underlying gameplay, it would be difficult not to enjoy the game. Unfortunately, this can be in spite of itself as the action verges on the tone deaf — repeatedly linking one preposterous, thrilling set piece to the other with run-and-gun sections — and the wanton introduction and discarding of mechanics, whilst lending variety, are poorly explained and lead to seemingly unavoidable deaths. Fortunately, the guns are distinctive, with sniping remaining a truly guilty pleasure, and lend a much needed element of agency to the mayhem. Death may come quick and easy in the world of Modern Warfare 2, but this is forgiven with the general strength of the level design and the satisfactory nature of the mechanics. All told, Modern Warfare 2 is a title that succeeds in conveying the utter chaos of war, but it does so to the detriment of making a great game. Undoubtedly these criticisms resonate less heavily with the reason most people play Call of Duty — the juggernaut of its online mode. Nevertheless, these weaknesses should be remembered for those seeking a balanced package in both single and multiplayer. 3/5

Zone of the Enders (360) — As a PS2 launch title, Zone of the Enders feels every inch a game that came early in its host’s life. It is spartan in terms of appearance, mechanics and story, yet the wonderful world in which the action is set somehow feels anything but empty. This implies a great amount of effort spent on design and a squeezed deadline for the execution. The controls, in an era when twin-sticks were not as well developed as they are now, are pleasingly simple. This makes the manipulation of the mech — called Jehuty — straightforward even though it takes place in 3D space. This simplicity, however, negatively affects gameplay as attacks are mapped to one button. There are modifiers that can be placed on the attacks to add an element of strategy, but it does make the combat somewhat one-note. Whilst Zone of the Enders successfully conveys the high speed, at times thrilling action associated with mecha anime, it does feel like it happens automatically with little player input. The restricted nature of the experience is highlighted in enemy variety, with only three main types to battle the limited mechanics become old quick. The structure of the game itself is relatively simple, with levels connected to a larger overworld and the occasional difficult choice to be made about rescue missions. Unfortunately, events are poorly communicated leaving the player, at times, to systematically check each level until a trigger event is found. It speaks to a rather austere style of story telling. Despite all this, Zone of the Enders manages to be enjoyable and not outstay its welcome over its short runtime. The world is well drawn — though seemingly devoid of people — mecha designs are creative and the up-rezzed graphics from the clean lines of the PS2 original look distinctive. It is very obviously a launch title given its limited scope and it seems evident that Kojima Productions‘ resources, and minds, were with Metal Gear Solid 2. There is, however, a compelling world to be enjoyed here. 3/5

Next Week, on Battle of the Backlog: Heavy Lifting Part 2

Next Week, on Battle of the Backlog: Heavy Lifting Part 2