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Video games, PC games, or other interactive media that's currently caught my attention ...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Conan (Xbox 360)

Conan's going through a resurgence.

Besides the Dark Horse comics and collectibles, he's got not one, but two games coming out -- Funcom's MMO Age of Conan next March(ish) for the PC and Xbox 360, and THQ's hack-n-slash fest, Conan for the Xbox 360 and PS3, due out at the end of this month.

This latter game has a demo out, and I played through the Xbox 360 version a few times.

If the demo is any indication of the rest of the game, I think Conan will get fair to middling reviews, and I think this will be selling the game short.

To be honest, the game is pretty, and may end being one of the prettier hack-n-slash titles to date. Add to that what looks to be a faithful recreation of the Robert E. Howard mythos, and I think this game may be a solid pre-holiday game offering. And definitely something that will fill my Rune gap until the new Golden Axe comes out from SEGA.

It's straight-forward hack-n-slash, but with decent throw and combo mechanics. The demo felt a bit too easy, but I'm assuming the full game will have adjustable difficulty levels. The game's definitely mature, which I'd argue is required for a faithful representation of the Hyborian world.

I'm bummed there doesn't seem to be multiplayer, but this is a single-player, iconic kind of IP.

I'm looking forward to the full release, and hope THQ prices it competitively to keep it from being lost in the holiday shuffle.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Clive Barker's Jericho (Xbox 360)

I played the Xbox Live single-player demo for Clive Barker's Jericho from Codemasters / Alchemic Productions / Imajica Productions, Inc. (not to be confused with the TV series).

Not bad.

It's a "supernatural shooter", and I think it will probably do a passable job.

I mean, I like Clive Barker. At least I liked the Nightbreed movie, The Thief of Always book, and the game, Clive Barker's Undying (perhaps the best sound landscape in a game).

And it's Clive Barker, so there's a deep mythos built under Clive Barker's Jericho.

The game doesn't look bad at all -- let's call it "gross pretty". Gameplay is a bit run-of-the-mill, with one "standard" weapon (with primary and alternate firing), and special / supernatural abilities.

It's a squad-based game, so each of the six squad members have different weapons and supernatural abilities, and you can switch between them on the fly (the demo lets you switch between just two).

The switch is supposed to matter, but after playing BioShock, having to switch between different people (where in BioShock all of my weapon and power options were in the same body) felt a little wonky.

Of course, it's going to depend on the gameply and level design. If the game is built in a such a way that switching between various squad mates matters, or if you can use different people to solve problems differently, this should work out. But if switching doesn't matter, the mechanic will likely feel contrived, and I will be irritated.

There are also button-matching "mini-games" (called "life moments" or something), where you need to match the on-screen buttons to survive gruesome attacks. Fail, and you suffer a gruesome death.

I'm mixed on these sequences (think an analog of the Frost Giant fight in Marvel Ultimate Alliance) -- I tend to not like them, because they remind me I'm playing a game, and take me out of the moment. But I do like the frantic urgency they invoke.

We'll see how it all comes together when Clive Barker's Jericho releases next week).

(You can also download the PC Demo.)

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Halo 3

I finished Halo 3 a week ago, and am just now getting around to posting my thoughts on it.

Brass tacks?

If you love Halo and Halo 2, you'll love Halo 3.


Actually, if you really enjoy twitch shooters, you'll likewise enjoy Halo 3. If you enjoy tactical shooters, I still think you'll get a bang out of Halo 3 (sorry).

I was little rough on the game in my first impressions, and softened a bit in my second.

The fact is I consider this third iteration of the game a fantastic title. There's the single player, the multiplayer, and the extras.

The single player campaign mode is a fun romp, and even more so with 4 player online co-op. I'm bummed that it's a max of two players on the same box, but that's a concession Bungie decided to make.

Graphically, Halo 3 is a good-looking game on the gameplay side of things. We're talking gorgeous at times. It may feel like it comes up a bit short if you do like I did and play it back-to-back with BioShock, but that's not a fair comparison (and not because of the game engines).

BioShock and Halo 3 are doing different things. The former is a tight environment, has a contained number of NPCs, etc. The latter makes use of long-draw distances, arguably larger trajectory calculations for weapons use, vehicles, etc.

Halo 3 looks really good, and I particularly like what they've done with some of the outdoor environments. Snow, trees, and other environmental additives look great, and indoor environments (especially the metallic ones), look slick and appropriately reflective.

Less so for the cutscenes, which are wildly inconsistent. If the scene has Master Chief or the Arbiter, they're pretty slick; but in some of the cutscenes the people look like the original Half-Life (which was great nine years ago; today, not so much) -- they're stilted, and they move unrealistically. I find that surprising in a now-gen game.

The gameplay itself is great. I like the new mechanics for multiple grenade types and the addition of special equipment is pretty slick, but using the bumpers to do everything is really screwing me up -- I constantly drop a piece of special equipment when I mean to reload (thanks to the remapping of Halo 2's X Button to the right bumper). Of, course, I'm probably making this worse by switching back and forth between Halo 2 and Halo 3 (Monday nights are H2, Wednesday's are H3), so I'm not going to belabor it. I also like the addition of Quake-like "Man Cannons".

For the most part, levels are well designed, with the exception of Level 8. That one wicked sucks.

And there are some usability shortcomings in Halo 3 that I find surprising.

For example, while playing four-player co-op through a level, one of our members had to quit -- which killed the game and made the remaining three of us have to restart from the beginning of the level. That's pretty poor.

Likewise, I had a buddy playing local co-op with me, but we were doing Xbox Live co-op mode in case friends wanted to join. When he quit and left, I couldn't continue the game, because it kept asking me to reconnect the second controller, even when I quit Halo 3 and restarted. Turns out the problem was H3 was still looking for the player for the Xbox Live Guest Account we'd logged into so my buddy could play. I had to quit out to the Xbox 360 Dashboard, logout of all profiles, log myself back in, then restart Halo 3. Yeah, that's inane.

Not sure how those two kinds of things got sign-off while Bungie was finishing the game.

And story-wise, the game is OK, but it's not spectacular. I know other reviews have lauded the story, and I'm trying to figure out if they're doing that relative to stereotypically sub-par writing in games, or if I'm missing something.

I mean, by Bungie's own admission (earlier; they changed their story later), Halo was never meant to be a trilogy. I think that's what makes Halo such a great story, and Halo 3 (for me) less so -- it really struggles to carry out the "finalization" of the story arc.

Add to that some kludgy moments that are meant to be profound, some WTF dialogue or scene transitions, and some interruptive devices that always elicit expletives or derogatory comments from my campaign co-op brethren, and the story (for me) is one of the weak points in the game.

And there are marketing impacts that undercut the game's story, too.

First, (for me) the "Believe" video advertising campaign is top-notch and moving. It set a high bar for emotional impact the game didn't match.

In addition, Something happened to the Marvel comic book tie-in that was supposed to bridge Halo 2 and Halo 3, and was supposed to complete before the game was released (so far, only issue #1 has seen retail). Unfortunately, Bungie or Microsoft violated an entertainment product rule: Don't make something outside the product required in order to understand the product. It's a rule because when violated it creates a sense in the consumer the product is incomplete or "broken" in some way.

Which creates something Microsoft doesn't want -- a product that is less accessible to people outside of the "Halo Nation".

Oddly, none of this lessens the overall fun of the campaign mode.

Multiplayer needs another, probably separate write-up, but it's wicked fun (so far, I've got no personal time logged, as I've been playing on other people's boxes and tags). I like things like the new swords mechanic (bouncing off a swords dual that creates the need for a quick B Button smash), and I like the limiting of the life of a sword, so a guy can't repeatedly pwn me from halfway across the universe.

And Forge freaking rocks.

And, true to Halo 2, Bungie is already tweaking playlists. And while this sounds ungrateful, their recent tweak reducing the "Shotty Snipers" variant (shotguns and snipers) feels a day late and a dollar short. Having played the beta and trolled the forums, this was a largely hated gamegtype then, and Bungie didn't respond to the feedback until it increases proportionally to the release install base. See, this is my getting spoiled and selfish as a Bungie consumer. Shame on me.

On the product packaging side, I bought the Legendary Edition, which I regret. If you need a recap of the versions, go here, but the net of it is the The Legendary Edition has an extra DVD disc and comes in a miniature Spartan replica helmet.

I like the insight from the Bungie folks on the remastered cinematics from the older Halo games, but I will be angry if those videos I paid for ever show up for download on Xbox Live or from Bungie or Microsoft. The Legendary Edition also does not contain the hardbound art and fiction book of the Special Edition, and while the helmet is much larger than I expected, I'm in essence paying an $80 premium for a plastic prop (proudly displaying made in China, so I'm not licking it). To me, that's not worth it. It's a cool (unlickable) prop, though.

Overall, the game rocks, and me flagging these shortcomings is just my way to balance what are in my mind overly high reviews of the game.

That said, I will probably replay the single player portion of this game more often and log more online multiplayer hours than any game this year and next.

Rent: Yeah, but why?
Buy: You better believe it. Standard Edition if you just want the game; Special Edition if you want the art book and extra DVD; Legendary Edition if you want an unlickable mini Spartan replica helmet.

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Tuesday, October 02, 2007

BioShock (Xbox 360)

BioShock, quite simply, is the best game I've played this year, and maybe the best the last two or three years.

The game looks gorgeous, has interesting play mechanics put together in a way that matters, a great story, top-notch voice acting, stellar sound design, and diversity that kept me engaged throughout.

What kind of game is BioShock? At it's core, it's a shooter (First-Person Shooter), but it's a "shooter-plus" -- a shooter plus adventure game (so much fun exploring and figuring things out); a shooter plus RPG (what plasmids am I going to upgrade? Change out? Remove?).

Built on the Unreal Engine 3 (but given the nature of game development and customization, who knows how much of the UE3 is really still there), this is a pretty game. The fifties-deco vibe is well done, and gives a sense of what futuristic technology would look like in that era; and the signs and adverts are hilarious.

Water (one of the things for which I look in a now-gen game) is fluid and conductive (which means I can electrify baddies sitting in water, and get zapped myself if I'm not careful). If you light an enemy on fire, they'll throw themselves into nearby water to but themselves out and come back to attack you.

Which speaks to another strength of the game -- the AI. Enemies alternate between attacking and fleeing when you (for example) light them on fire. Sometimes they sneak up on you (via the ceiling, which creeps me out); sometimes they charge you. The designs of the "Splicers" are horrific and diverse enough between classes to visually cue me in to my attack or defense mechanism.

And there are a lot of options on this front. There are eight slots for weapons, and most have three different ammunition types (standard, anti-personnel, and armor-piercing for the machine gun, for example; or trip mine, fragmentary grenade, or heat-seeking RPG for the rocket launcher).

Then there are the plasmids -- basically your super powers that range from fire to telekinesis -- and those are just the combat plasmids. There are also sets of mechanical (safe hacking, etc.) and attribute plasmids. And you don't have enough slots for all plasmids, and you usually don't have enough Adam to purchase or upgrade the plasmids you want. This limitation (plasmids, ammunition, wallet for money, etc.) creates an RPG-ish mechanic that makes the game more than a straightforward shooter.

There is also a lot of diversity in the title. Far from just combat, there's exploration, puzzle solving, and a recurring mini-game in the form of hacking that is surprisingly engaging and white-knuckling at times.

The other thing the game does well from a design mechanic is that "just 5 more minutes" mechanic. More than once I'd go an hour or two beyond what I'd intended because I wanted to explore something new, take someone down differently, re-listen to audio cues or Foley, and so on. And there are 4 plasmids I still haven't found or unlocked.

And I actually like they way they implemented syringes and snacks and health stations scattered about Rapture. I also liked the various audio diaries and radio intrusions that added to the story (some other reviews have complained about these as too intrusive).

Of course, for me, a stellar story has to be married to top-notch gameplay, or I get peeved (except in multiplayer, where I just get peeved at the idiotic anonymous, socially challenged masses).

Anyway, BioShock delivers on the story front in spades. I don't know how much of this is Ken Levine, and how much is Susan O'Connor and other contributors, but the story rocks. It's full-featured, accounts for the fluidity of the game medium, and moved me along as a player. Stuff of this caliber shouldn't be so rare in video games.

And sound? Symphony orchestra for the score? Mixed (and balanced) surround sound? Some of the best voice acting since Carpenter in Hunter: The Reckoning? Great stuff. I'll try to post more about it on the acting side of my Website, if I can get permission to post one particular clip from the Sander Cohen character, and verify the voice actor.

Is BioShock a perfect game? No, but it's super close.

I mean, it's not all that innovative. Telekinesis? The evolution of Half-Life 2's gravity gun (or Jedi Knight's Force Push). Speaking of Jedi Knight, the electricity plasmid is akin to a certain Dark Force power.

But the way these things are put together matters, and is great fun. Light a Big Daddy on fire, then hit him with heat-seaking RPGs? Freeze an NPC, then bash him with the wrench? Set up trip wires, capped off by a proximity mine near some propane tanks? Good times.

And there are some minor missteps in otherwise great level design. I like how the map is implemented, but on the Arcadia level, the map and the level design caused some problems in smooth navigation that made me pretty frustrated.

And while I like health stations scattered about, I think health packs could have been left out, which would have made for a more frenetic, urgent experience (but leave the snacks, and the related plasmids).

And near the end of the game there's a type of mission that I don't like if it's not implemented well, and while it's implemented pretty well in BioShock, it's not good enough, and frustrated me when it felt like it wasn't possible to complete it with my (and, I suspect, most people's) definition of success.

But honestly, these are nits.

BioShock is a great game, and definitely the best I've played this year, and probably the best I've played in the last few.

Rent: Yes.
Buy: Oh, yeah.

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