Photo by Dan Siney
STAR OCEAN: THE LAST HOPE
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Square Enix
About every hour, Star Ocean: The Last Hope shows me one of two things: either a) something really cool, that impresses me and leads me to decide it’s a good game and I really like it, or b) something incredibly stupid, that depresses and angers me and makes me want to quit playing. The cool things keep getting cooler and the stupid things keep getting stupider, prolonging this process long after I should by all logic have become jaded to it.
Star Ocean: The Last Hope is a JRPG in semi-traditional style—random encounters, healing items—if you’ve played a Final Fantasy game the structure should be familiar to you. It differs in that the combats (though they take place in arenas separate from the map you wander around in) are real-time, and the setting is nominally science fiction. I say nominally because there are Space Elves (“Eldar”) and magic spells (“symbology”) and lizard-men and dragons and things, so it’s more space fantasy than sci-fi. The protagonists travel to various planets in their space ship, and a lot of those planets resemble medieval Europe as envisioned by fantasy anime.
The actual gameplay I like a lot. The combat is strong—with a party of four, you control one character directly using your rhythm-game instincts to pull off combos while the other three are guided by acceptably smart partner AI, switching the character you control with the left and right bumpers. It ends up being an enjoyable brawler; you can cast spells and use special abilities by going into the menus, or by mapping them to the left or right trigger while out of combat. Outside of fights, inventory is handled through an item-synthesis process, where you research new recipes, find ingredients, and use them to make the standard JRPG array of healing items, weapons, armor, accessories, etc. Taking orders from shopkeepers and creating items for their customers nets you gold and XP. It’s a well-integrated sub-system, and I enjoyed fiddling with it.
Here’s the problem with the game: I hate all the characters. Whether it’s intolerable neurosis, personalities like blocks of wood, or just awful voice acting, there’s not a single character I actually want to see succeed. It’s not often that a game shows me one of the most annoyingly voice-acted characters I’ve ever heard (hi, Lymlie!), and then two hours later introduces me to another one who’s even worse (hi, Sarah!).
With a game as story- and character-based as this one, characters one wants to slap is something of an insurmountable problem. As much as it’s full of stuff I do like, it’s just so grating in so many other ways I can’t recommend Star Ocean: The Last Hope at all.
TOM CLANCY’S H.A.W.X.
Platform: Xbox 360
On the one hand, Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. is fun, and it scratches a gaming itches I don’t get the opportunity to scratch that often anymore. On the other hand, it’s short (I beat it in one day) and not deep.
It’s an arcade dogfighting game—arcade in this case meaning the planes carry hundreds of missiles and take a huge beating before crashing, and you never need to bother with keeping track of fuel or landing—where the player takes on the role of David Crenshaw, a US Air Force fighter pilot who finds a job with the Artemis Private Military Company after his *sigh* High Altitude Warfare eXperimental squadron is disbanded by the brass for budgetary reasons in 2012. Despite the “High Altitude” in the name, the game tends to focus on support of ground assets, so you’ll spend most of the game either attacking enemy ground forces, or shooting down enemy planes that are trying to attack allied ground forces or trying to stop you from attacking enemy ground forces. This isn’t a complaint—it’s nice to see a dogfight game that tries to portray air power as it’s used in actual conflict.
This being a Tom Clancy branded game, there’s a lot of emphasis on cool future tech—in this case, the Enhanced Reality System and Assistance OFF. ERS is a context-dependent onboard computer system that will chart attack or defense vectors for you and display them on your HUD as a series of rings you need to fly through. Want to attack a tank obscured by skyscrapers? Hit the X button, and the game will plot a course for you that’ll bring the tank into view. Under attack by missiles yourself? Hit X, and the ERS will plot an evasion course. It’s both an interesting way of integrating the traditional video game “Fly through these rings” flight challenges into normal gameplay and effectively communicates to the player that Captain Crenshaw is at the helm of top-of-the-line military equipment.
Assistance OFF is the opposite—double-tap one of the triggers and you’ll enter a third person mode where the camera is angled to display your plane and the enemy’s. Your plane becomes much more maneuverable, with the justification that Assistance OFF represents turning off the plane’s limiters, but this also means you can stall and crash if you don’t fly well. Since ERS is useless against more skilled enemy aces, I found myself moving to Assistance OFF during most dogfights, and using ERS against many ground targets. It’s a neat experience.
It’s just not one that produces lasting amusement to a jaded gamer such as myself. ERS and Assistance OFF together make the game very easy—it very nearly plays itself. With shallow multiplayer and shallow single-player, this game doesn’t have a lot of appeal. It is a great rental, because the game overall uses its interface to create a novel experience, but I probably won’t ever play it again. it does accomplish its goals well, though, and someone who hasn’t been playing dogfighting games since before they fell out of fashion last decade might find more lasting appeal in it than I did.
STEPHEN LEA SHEPPARD