HD remakes -- yay or nay? Depends on the game I say. I've made no secret of the fact that playing the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection has been one of my favourite gaming experiences of 2012 so far. Michael Hart has been playing through my second favourite HD collection, the ICO and Shadow of the Colossus HD Collection.
Take it away Michael!
ICO And Shadow Of The Colossus HD Collection
I should probably hand in my gamer’s badge for admitting this, but I never played the original PS2 versions of ICO or Shadow of the Colossus. Two of the supposedly best PS2 games slipped me by so when the HD re-releases were announced for PS3 I looked forward to getting stuck into them. So just so I’m clear, this review is looking at these games for the first time, without any kind of memories or nostalgia attached to them at all. To make this review easier, I’ll review each game separately but give a verdict for the whole collection at the end.
The Good Using your head -- It’s refreshing in this day and age of first person shooters that a game can be genuinely challenging by actually making you use that thing between your ears. Much of ICO’s gameplay revolves around solving environmental puzzles as you find a way to escape a massive old castle, and it does this in a way that no other game genuinely does.
Simplicity -- Sometimes the less complicated approach is the best one. There are not a tonne of button combinations to remember in ICO, and ICO himself is quite simplistic. He can’t jump very high, or perform death-defying mid-air somersaults, or run along walls, or rewind time. You are fully aware of his capabilities which makes the puzzles even more satisfying to solve. The game has a very simplistic approach to combat too. Some people may criticise this, but I found it good as it’s not the game’s primary focus so it doesn’t really distract you from the problem solving.
Blue Steel -- The HD remastering of ICO has been very well done. While it doesn’t look as good as a full-blown PS3 game, it’s quite obvious a lot of care has been taken to make the game look good on HD displays. I’d actually go as far to say that ICO’s HD remastering looks better than SotC’s (more on that later). I wasn’t quite sure what I expected it to look like, but I was genuinely impressed by how good the visuals were knowing the game’s roots.
The Not So Good Not quite Blue Steel -- The camera in ICO is quite frankly...bad. That’s the nicest way I can put it. The game has an auto camera to follow you around, and also gives the player a degree of control. The problem is the camera often doesn’t allow you to see what you want to see. It seems to be restricted to about a 270 degree arc from where ICO is standing, and quite often I found that the camera would stop moving right before it got to a point I wanted to examine in closer detail. On several occasions it also hindered my navigation as well, so I was unable to see where I was actually supposed to be going until I moved ICO around a bit so the camera “reset” itself. For a game that focuses much of its gameplay on environmental puzzles that require you to survey your surroundings, I found this quite jarring. There’s no invert-y option either, which made things doubly confusing for me as I always play inverted. While I realise this was a PS2 game, I honestly played PS1 games with better camera controls than ICO.
What does this button do? -- There’s quite literally no in-game tutorial of any sort at the start of ICO. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself as that’s how most games were done back when ICO was first released in 2002, but we’ve become so accustomed to just popping the disc in and learning how to play a game in the first few minutes that it seemed a bit odd to need to actually read the manual to know what button does what, and find out you can do stuff like swing on chains and throw bombs. I’ll admit I got stuck once or twice simply because I wasn’t aware I could do these things before looking at the manual more closely.
Shadow of the Colossus
The Good The Thinker -- Like ICO, Shadow of the Colossus has a large emphasis on problem solving. In SotC though it’s in a completely different context. There are virtually no environmental puzzles to solve, the puzzles and core gameplay come from the combat, which is the complete opposite idea from ICO. The goal of SotC is to take down sixteen massive colossi, and each one requires different tactics and approaches to be killed. Figuring out just how to reach their weak areas so you can stab them with your special sword is the whole challenge of the game, and like ICO, it’s always satisfying when you solve the problem. Despite the fact they are all defeated by stabbing them somewhere, your methods of reaching their weak spots are all unique. Sometimes you’ll need to hurt them first to expose a way to climb up, sometimes you’ll need to use the environment to your advantage, sometimes you’ll need to utilise the services of your trusty steed, sometimes you’ll need to find a way to crack open some armour covering them first.
My what big... "everything" you have -- The sense of scale in Shadow of the Colossus is very impressive. The colossi are suitably all massive, with your character often barely reaching the creature’s ankles. The first thing you always think when you encounter them is “Okay, where’s its weak point? Hmm, all the way up there huh?”. It’s rare to have complete interaction with enemies of this size in games, but that’s what you get in SotC. There isn’t really any repetition with the colossi either...each one is different, from bi-peds wielding giant swords to electric aquatic serpents to air-born pterosaur lookalikes to wall-crawling lizard things, and they all move realistically and fluidly too. The colossi look particularly impressive in HD.
The Not So Good Not quite Blue Steel revisited -- Unfortunately, like ICO, the camera in SotC isn’t the best. It is much better than ICO’s though, providing full 360 degree movement (most of the time) and providing both invert x and y options. It does however still have some strange quirks that make moving the camera and some navigation needlessly difficult. The horseback controls in particular are also somewhat awkward at times. Despite running on more powerful hardware and having the HD makeover to look much nicer (and running at 60fps - something the PS2’s hardware apparently couldn’t achieve), there’s unfortunately some noticeable technical issues with SotC. ICO managed to mostly avoid them by only needing to load generally smaller areas at a time, but with SotC’s open world the problems are obvious, including high LOD and high-res texture pop-ins, as well as occasional oddness with the draw distance. It seems strange that they opted not to spend a little time trying to do some optimisations in this area during the “HD-ifying” process.
Coo-eee! -- SotC’s world is much larger than ICO’s, and a fair bit of time will be spent traversing it as you search for each colossus. However, aside from looking for fruit trees and white-tailed lizards (to increase health and stamina respectively), many of which you’ll find en route to each colossus anyway, there’s not much reason to explore it. The world is mostly empty apart from the game’s huge namesakes and there’s nothing else really interesting to discover. I should also point out here that I only discovered I could increase my health and stamina with fruit and white lizard tails because of the internet, as neither the in-game tutorial nor the game’s manual mentions them at all. If it wasn’t for someone pointing it out to me, I probably would have rode past them without a second thought.
ICO and Shadow of the Colossus are two games that are kind of strange to review. If you played them when they were first released, they would have been awesome. Looking at them now, they are still fantastic, just slightly less awesome. Both games look great in HD, it’s just a shame that aspects like the camera, controls and technical issues (especially in the case of SotC) weren’t also looked at in an effort to improve the overall experience. Each of them are kind of lacking in story and aren’t the longest games you’ll ever play, but make up for it with atmosphere, creative gameplay and emotion that few other games can match. If you missed out on them the first time around like I did, I’d highly recommend you pick this collection up to experience them now. If you did play them on the PS2, there’s plenty of elements such as the HD visuals and trophies that make them worth your while to experience again. You absolutely can’t go wrong with the bargain of getting two fantastic games on one disc, just be prepared to overlook some cracks that have appeared in their walls over the course of time.