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

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Halo 3: ODST (Xbox 360)

(Here are my single-player impressions for Halo 3: ODST. I'd like to give co-op and Firefight impressions as well, but my yahoo friends who also bought the game never have time to play this title, so updated impressions will have to wait.)

First, to get things out of the way, I'm a bit of a Halo Whore. This is partially because of the gameplay, universe, and mythos; partially due to my being impressed with the cohesive marketing juggernaut behind the franchise; and partially due to my affinity for alliteration.

That aside, Halo 3: (I-should-have-been-called-Recon) ODST is a great game -- and an uneven one, all at the same time.

The game is genuinely fun, has some depth, is genuinely different than the previous Halo games, and has more polish as well.

Those strengths are also weaknesses, though, because there are expectations around the Halo franchise, and losing the über-bad-assery of Master Chief takes some getting used to, in addition to the gameplay feeling a bit gimped by removing the the Halo 3 "X-button specials" (especially since enemies still have them).

But I've admittedly got a bit of a skewed perspective, because you have to play a bit more cautiously as an ODST than as a spartan (health doesn't regenerate), and I recently started playing on a level above normal on games (so, "Heroic" on ODST), which made the gameplay and "easy-to-die" experience waaay more stark than it might otherwise have been.

And while the engine feels visually tweaked, and for the most part I really liked things like the HUD mechanics, Modern Warfare or the Frostbite Engine are kind of the technical bars for cutting-edge FPS games, so I'm really looking forward to Microsoft's and/or Bungie's making a break from their current tech to do something technically even more exciting.

Going back to the positive aspects of gameplay, there are some intense, almost amazing moments where you have to retrench in intense firefights that genuinely made me feel good when I finally busted loose and wiped the floor with wave after wave of Covenant. My criticism is I wish the checkpoints were more deterministic, because while playing the game on "normal" mode would make replaying inconvenient, replaying on "Heroic" or "Legendary" is a non-trivial time-suck.

And while I said I mostly like the HUD mechanic in the game, it is a bit confusing, and I can't tell whether the mechanic is slightly different for each ODST member, or if it varied based on environment, or what the issue was, but there were times when it felt like both the standard and enhanced HUDs were versions of unusable in the heat of battle. Which sucked a bit.

Oh, and game designers (all of you), please stop with sucky-ass escort missions. I get irritated enough at bone-stupid AI either running too far ahead or falling too far behind, but when I'm doing a mission where Buck is my gunner, and it's not an AI, but a pathing issue that gets him stuck for 15 minutes in a box corner? Give me a break.

This a rambly, back-and-forth assessment ODST, but make no mistake, it's a really good title, and I'm glad Bungie tried something variant from their previous formulas, and included a lot of the mechanics from other titles (theater, file share, etc.).

Is it worth $60? No -- no title is. But wait until I try out the Firefight and online co-op modes before I decide whether it's any worse than other over-priced sixty-buck games. Oh, and no one should pay $60 for games, between promos, Amazon pricing, etc. -- I try not to spend more than $40-50 for 360 titles, and $30-40 for Wii titles.

And for Halo 3 fans who haven't bought all of the add-on maps, you do get 24 additional maps as part of buying the game -- the 21 previously released, and 3 all-new jobbies. Not bad.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Marvel Ulimate Alliance 2

(First Impressions.)

OK, I need to spend more time with Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 ("M-UATU", for those who have been paying attention).

I've been looking forward to it for a looong time, and it's ambitious as all get out -- multiple combinations of players and powers; two continuity arcs re-imagined; truly taking advantage of next-gen hardware (the last one was early in the hardware cycle); hitting multiple platforms and control schemes; and the whole "licensing IP that has rabid fanboys" thing.

And it's fun. But it's not as fun (for me) as the original MUA. I'm trying to figure out if that's because it's not new like the first game was (which wasn't new, per se, but was a good franchise evolution over the excellent X-Men Legends titles). Maybe it's that it's competing with too much coming out at the same time that I'm playing (including stellar same-genre (IP, not game) offering Batman: Arkham Asylum).

Maybe it's because all of the stuff that I mention above is too ambitious, and the project struggles a bit under all of that weight.

For whatever reason, out of my current game queue (which also includes Batman, ODST, Bowser's Inside Story, Scribblenauts), MUA2 is last on the priority list. And I don't know if I'll be able to get it cleared out before I move over to Modern Warfare 2, Brütal Legend, L4D2, and New Super Mario Bros.

What I haven't done yet is multiplayer. Since I'm a big co-op fan, the "fusion" gameplay mechanic looks tailor-made for it, and it feels like they've fixed the camera over the original MUA, this may be a serious additive grace for the game.

Hopefully, more detailed thoughts soon.

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360)

I'm playing the new Batman: Arkham Asylum game on the Xbox 360, and I've been pretty impressed so far.

This is a solid, dark treatment of the license, the full game is more polished than the demo (which itself was a good concantenation of a few segments of the game to show scope and diversity), the detective mode has been tweaked (and is pretty slick), the art direction is cool (and consistent), fanboy unlockables are solid and slickly implemented, and I like the progression, the open-endedness(ish)ism of the title. And (yay!) the video tweak settings let me brighten the game without washing out the graphics -- very important for playing on a projector.

Mark Hamill (who is the Joker) and Kevin Conroy (who is the Batman, at least until I am), are fantastic -- as is a lot of the primary voice acting (some of the secondary (like the guards) doesn't come close to the caliber, which is unfortunate). Good voice acting makes a game; bad kills it. This is stellar stuff.

And I like that there are subtle things like me being able to move Batman around during an in-engine cutscene, downed enemies are still breathing (they're unconscious, not dead), and the brief (at least one so far) first-person implementation (hey, you get it for free with the tech; might as well play with it; which most licensed fair refuses to do).

It's got a few shortcomings, but nothing that kills the game for me.

First off is I'm not crazy about the muscle-bound nature of ol' Bats -- feels a bit over-done, put - a -space -marine - in - a - batsuit. Also, the skinning of the game is a bit of a weird mix of shiny and muddy, but that's stereotypical of the Unreal Engine (right or wrong). Also, I'm sure I'm in the minority, but I game on a projector, and at that size Rocksteady's particular implementation of the third-person camera causes a bit of a problem with slight queasiness that most other games don't cause.

But overall, the game is solid, I'm enjoying it, kudos to Rocksteady for getting it right, and I'll be tooling through it for a while.

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Saturday, August 01, 2009

Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe (Xbox 360)

I'm a bit of a Mortal Kombat fan. I'm a comic book fan. I sooo wanted to be a fan of Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe.

Unfortunately, so many things worked against the title for me, that I'm not a fan.

Granted, since I'm a fanboy, I had expectations. And they were dashed.

The fighting is frustrating, it devolves to button mashing that's not even fun (like Soul Calibur is fun), feels unpolished (art to animations to transitions to performance), the dialog and expositions are stilted and heavy-handed, and it just didn't do it for me.

Now, that said, it is fan-fare -- So I dig seeing my guys and gals in tights in a new setting. And while the characterization and dialog is challenging for the most part, a lot of love was obviously spent just on the Joker -- and he comes across well. There is one cut-scene moment Joker reaction when the main baddy is announced that is money, and makes the whole game worth it. Actor Richard Epcar doesn't take the place of Mark Hamill's joker for me, but he sells it.

The other thing to note is I played the whole thing on the Xbox 360 using standard controllers, and the 360 D-pads are crap -- especially for fighting games.

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Friday, July 17, 2009

Conan (Xbox 360)

OK, Conan is an oldish 360 game, and I finished it months ago, but I've been meaning to write about it ever since. Reason for the delay is the final boss battle (more on that later).

This a the kind of game that makes me irritated at game reviews/reviewers.

This is a solid licensed title that is ambitious and has so much going right for it, that -- especially given the stigma for a licensed title -- it's great.

Nihilistic Software should be commended shoving so much stuff into the game -- from the basic hack-n-slash to the much deeper combat and combo system, to entertaining and stretch Xbox Achievements (50 grapple kills, 100 dismemberments, etc.), to technical implementations like environmental cloth and destructibility.

Its tale is knit together by game writing great Susan O’Connor, and has a stellar score from Michael Reagan (Twisted Metal: Black, God of War / II, the underrated music from Brute Force, etc.).

Besides, the fact that you can pick this game up for ~$10 bucks anywhere should make it a no-brainer for Conan franchise fans.

Since few games are perfect, here are a few of the rough edges Conan does fall into: camera, platforming, polish, gratuitousness, and quick-times.


Seriously, I have had very few good fixed cameras in third-person titles. When the camera is not good, don't make it fixed. Conan uses a fixed not-good third person camera.


I like platforming -- in platformers. I don't like platforming in third-person actioner titles. I'm fine with the puzzle mechanic, and lightweight platforming-esque maneuvers that complete said puzzles. But jumping from ledge to ledge with the above fixed-camera implementation? Anger-inducing.


Like I said, kudos to Nihilistic for putting so much into the game. It does feel like in places the polish falls down, with unexpected clipping, some texture issues, etc. that almost made the game feel unfinished to me in places. That may be a horribly unfair assessment, and the reality is all games (unfortunately) have some level of bugginess and rough edges.

Other than that, a few of the environments feel a little bland -- and they feel that way because other areas (think a hall populated with rich props, interesting textures, cloth banners, etc.) are not bland at all.


Some people are probably going to call prude on me for this one.

I'm not talking the violence (which most games let you dial down) -- I'm talking the topless girls you rescue throughout the game. It'd be nice from a philosophical level to be able to "turn off nudity" like you can "turn of gibs" in so many games (and hey, in essence it's the same mesh and animation sets across most or all of the girls, so it should be easy). There are some tween kids I'd say could play a game like Conan despite the violence, but I wouldn't endorse the title for that same demographic, because of its obnoxious titillation.

Quick-time Events.

Developers who use quick-time events, I am convinced, hate gamers. That's my bias, but other than Resident Evil 5 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance coming close to making not totally sucky QT events, I hate these things. What's worse than a cut-scene? A cut scene where you can't passively watch, and can't really control. The industry calls these "quick-time events".

And Conan? While most of the QTs are irritating, the final boss battle implementation is horrific. I finished the game months ago, and it's taken me this long to write the review, because the QTs in that fight pissed me off sooo bad -- and not in a Ninja Gaiden "this is hard and is kicking my butt and I am going to beat it" kind of way, but in a "you are f***ing kidding me? Another cheap interruption?" kind of way.

See, where Conan is strong is its implementation of combos (X+X+X+Y, for example). But to make the final boss quick-time events "harder", devs decided to shrink the time you have to hit the button that you're supposed to mash. Problem is, if you're in a combo, it has to finish out before it registers the QT button, and usually stomps on it. This is maddeningly infuriating, and made me almost hate the game, even though it was just that last, bad implementation that soured me.

Devs: Quick-times are bad. Stop using them. Thank you in advance.

Anyway, pick up the title if you can. At sub-ten-bucks, it's a fun, brainless brawler at the least, and a deep combo license treatment for franchise fans in the extreme.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

Gears of War 2

I'm digging that this year's sequels (Fallout 3, Call of Duty: World at War, etc.) are so top-notch.
I'm really enjoying Gears 2, but taking freaking forever to get through it, since I decided to play through the thing only on a co-op only with one friend who is not as irresponsible as me (look, the gutters are already plugged, they're not going to get more plugged... Sh##, they're more plugged).

Anyway, I like the upped visual fidelity, the great design, and the fact that this time, they didn't throw away the professional writer's story (and this one's an occasional impressive kick in the gut).

A lot of the technical stuff I like in the game isn't from Epic, per se, (though it wouldn't happen without the game engine vehicle and the top-notch art talent). It's actually NVIDIA PhysX -- their licensed physical simulation tech that gives gamers everything from tear able soft bodies to destructibility to particles and fluids, probably implemented through an APEX-like integration. Go, NVIDIA ...

Microsoft so wants this game to be #1 for the year. And impressive initial sales aside, this'll be a version of "throw-more-money-and-get-elected", as launch weekend promotions for the title (gift cards, collectibles, incentives, etc.) were insane -- and far away and above anything I've seen this year for other contending titles. I still think Fallout 3 will take GoTY, which is a bit problematic, since there are so many good games of different genres out there.

Gears 2 isn't perfect yet (but what is?). Co-op sessions have really ticked us off as me or my partner get stuck in a bounding box, can't move and have to reset to a checkpoint. And we ran into a weird disconnected camera situation while driving a tank, made worse by the tank clipping through the hard surface terrain in a noticeable (and ugly) way.

But those aren't enough to detract from how much I'm enjoying the game. I am curious to see how long it lives in my Xbox, though -- there's a lot of good stuff out there now.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Halo 2

Monday nights are weekly Halo 2 fests online with known friends (Wednesdays alternate between Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4). Camaraderie as we're all now scattered to the wind, my tie to my Austin buddies, and avoids the inanity of the online anonymous dumberatti.

Last night was a riot, with the best games being swordball on Lockout (24 medals, baby!), and CTF on Relic, which had us so evenly matched, the game lasted freaking forever (yeah, we had 4 to their 3, but our 4th was gone most of the game, and was basically cannon fodder; for them and us).

Good times ...

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Dragonball Z: Burst Limit

I'm about an hour and a half and three chapters in to Dragonball Z: Burst Limit.

This is a solid licensed fighter, but limiting it to that would be a disservice.

For fans of the creative intellectual property, DBZ: Burst Limit finally gets it right (at least in relation to the recent spate of games).

But for fanboys -- you may wet yourself (I'm dry, but just barely).

DBZ:BL (like that?) is a decently deep fighter, contains IP (and genre) signature tropes that I totally dig (for example, sub or dub purists? You can play with English voice dubbing, or in Japanese, with English subtitles.

On the feeling empowered / pushing myself "as the character" front, I really felt like Kaioken x3 was the shizzle (relax, x4 was a cutscene, so it didn't do the same for me); I can't wait to hit super, let alone take on Freiza (and Cell? Please? Majin Buu?).

And while I genuinely suck at button mashers, I genuinely feel like the controls for DBZ:BL are more intuitive, and I find myself doing things "right" more often than with, say, Soul Calibur (much as I love that franchise, I get pwned more often than not).

Don't get me wrong, this DBZ game isn't perfect -- the camera at times seems a little floaty, I can't figure out why they made some of the stage and cut-scene transitions, the rating system is overly complex, and I have a love/hate relationship with the unlock notifications.

But those are trivial detractors from a great overall package.

C'mon Atari -- you're not the love from my youth, but I'm still rooting for you. Knock out some more like this one.

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Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ninja Gaiden II (360 demo)

I so dig Ninja Gaiden, so I was stoked when the demo for Ninja Gaiden II finally came stateside (last? WTF?).

The demo gives that sense of amazing ninja bad-assery, which is great, but ...

This may be the worst third-person camera ever. I'm hoping it's just an artifact of the demo, though.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Call of Duty 4

I spend a lot of time on Call of Duty 4 on the Xbox 360. I'd say for FPSes, CoD4 is my current favorite single and multiplayer game (yea, verily even unseating Halo 3).

There are some good missions with unexpected consequences; I'm impressed with the developer's gutsiness.

More later. Possibly.

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Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Acme Arsenal

I tooled through the Acme Arsenal demo today on the Xbox 360, because (1) I was watching a bunch of classic Looney Toons cartoons I downloaded through Xbox Live Marketplace, and (2) It was made with my company's tech.

It's a decent little platformer, though I wish it let you invert the X and Y axis. Note to game devs doing demos: If I'm going to evaluate your game, don't give me a reason to not play your demo.

If I can't invert controls, I normally don't bother with a demo -- Reason (2) was the only thing that kept me playing.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Assassin's Creed

I've been playing Assassin's Creed since it came out this week.

I'm busy with a move and a new job in the video game industry, so I don't have time to do a review right now.

So, let me just say it's all kinds of awesome.

If you love Crackdown, think of it as a super sexy stealth Crusades-era(ish)(esque) Crackdown. Think of it as a next-gen Crusades-era(ish)(esque) Buffy (the great first game from The Collective), with a better game save system and fewer cheap deaths (oh, non-poisonous, non-bottomless deadly water, how I hated thee).

It's a great game. Great story. Solid gameplay. Fun. Fun.

Is it perfection?

No, but game ratings are broken, so I'll steal from the movie ratings and say this is a five-star game.

Now go play it before Mass Effect comes out this week.

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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, September 25, 2007

Halo 3

The more I play Halo 3, the more I like it.

And while in my earlier post I said in my first impressions "the graphical fidelity is a bit improved over the multiplayer beta", that's not fair at all -- it's much improved.

As a matter of fact, this is a very pretty game. Playing through lush coniferous forests is a blast, and the detailing on the trees (outer bark, inner bark, etc.) is well-done. No, not BioShock pretty, but much bigger, open, more - things - going - on - at - once pretty.

** Potential Spoilers Ahead **

There's also an attention to detail that I appreciate. Vines and cables that move when I brush past them. My shadow showing my in-hand and on-back (or on-leg) weapons (and the whole weapon - on - back - and - on -leg mechanic; my buddy is able to look at me and yell, "Use the grav hammer!"), the segmented bodies of buggy dudes, the Scarabs.

Speaking of shadows, the lighting is well-done. Kind of G.R.A.W.ish well done. Momentary blindness when coming through a tunnel and turning into the light.

Physics are much improved, too. Vehicles and guns feel and handle differently. Vehicles especially on ice.

Which led to one thing that's not perfect yet -- squad AI. It's certainly vastly improved over the previous games. I like the contextual barks and banter (some hilarious stuff this round), and it certainly feels organic. When I don't like the AI is when they're driving me on ice as I man a gauss gun. We seriously spun out and died almost the exact same way eight times. After the second time, I decided to see how often it would repeat, to see if it was scripted. Turns out it's not, because there was another place on the road we died six times as I let my AI driver do the DUI-ing. But hey, at least I've got an AI driver. That's pretty cool.

And the other new vehicles rock. The Mongoose is going to pwn on capture the flag, as are Hornets. Big Team Battle (or whatever it's equivalent is) is going to get a lot of service from the troop transport-ish jobby.

On the gun front, I'm missing not being able to dual wield needlers, but digging the old SMG being back (and dual-wield-able). I like that I can take turrets off their mounts. I adore the gravity hammer. I'm not so keen on the Spartan laser.

And the HUD is more informative and more minimalistic at the same time. Kudos to them on the usability front for that (but less so on the out-of-game menues; it should not be that complicated to set up co-op campaign).

Good times. I'm bummed I'm flying out for an interview with a games middleware company -- bummed that I'm missing Halo time; stoked that I'm interviewing with a middleware company.

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Halo 3

Yeah, I was there for a lackluster (and poorly handled) midnight launch. I have my Legendary Edition, and have been playing for around four hours.

It's great fun -- especially cooping through campaign with a friend in the same room.

I need to think more about my first impressions, and maybe I'll revisit them.

First, yeah, it's fun, and the graphical fidelity is a bit improved over the multiplayer beta. It's tough to have this game following BioShock (which I've been playing a lot lately) -- it really doesn't compare favorably on the graphics, sound, or story side to that game.

Gameplay is fun, firefights are great, and cooping feels like it matters.

** Potential Spoilers below **

But, cutscenes are ridiculously uneven in quality. Some good stuff, some really stilted, original Half-Life kind of stuff; and more time on Master Chief and the Arbiter (or armored folks) than on believable human beings. And nothing approaching Final Fantasy quality footage.

Another pet peeve is is cutscenes not matching the action. If my in-room buddy (playing Arby the Arbiter) pushes the switch, don't switch to a cutscene of M.C. doing the switching.

And what is with me ending the co-op campaign, and the game barfing about me turning off the second controller?

But my big concern is on the technical side. So many hiccups and stutters I didn't expect. And the audio mixing on 5.1 surround does not sound good. I lose voices in the music or effects, sound stutters and drops out quite a bit, and Guilty Spark is neigh unintelligible.

That sounds like a lot of negatives, but the game is good. That being said, the hype machine has set expectations. So, on some basic fronts, I was expecting a lot more.

More later.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Spider-Man: Friend or Foe (Xbox 360)

I downloaded and played through the Spider-Man: Friend or Foe demo on the Xbox 360, and the title has promise. It's kind of a mish-mash of brawler and super lightweight Marvel: Ultimate Alliance.

The demo has co-op, and Venom and the Green Goblin are co-playable with Spidey, so you get to try out how they play differently, and tag out as you like.

The combat is super basic, but engaging enough.

On the usability side, the camera is fixed and problematic. I found my self jumping off of a building unintentionally because the camera didn't switch, the level design wasn't intuitive, and the game transition didn't happen to show me where I needed to go.

The game AI isn't bad during combat, but during exploration, my AI squad partner (Venom at the time) jumped off a building a couple of times. Flying partners probably don't have that same problem.

Also on the basic usability side, while I like using the left and right bumpers to cycle through Spidey's powers, it should not stop when I get to the "top" or "bottom" of the available powers -- it should cycle to the next power (interestingly this is regular gripe of mine for a lot of Activision super hero games, MUA and X-Men Legends included).

But I wonder if the biggest problem is the hodge-podge treatment of the license. The intro plays almost exactly like the intro of next year's animated series. The Green Goblin, New Goblin, and Spider-Man's own costume are from the films. Venom and some of the tie-togethers (Nick Fury, Iron Fist, etc.) seem pretty comic-friendly. So, what is it? Is it going to draw in fans of all of those mediums, or disenfranchise each?

And while Spider-Man's voice work is very good, Venom's felt a little off. But I'm biased.

Guess we'll see. I'll be renting this first when it comes out, to see how much more polished it is than the demo -- entertaining as it is.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Call of Duty 4

I've been playing the Call of Duty 4 multiplayer beta.

I should say trying to play it, as it's been pretty much an internal grudge match to do it.

Gameplay and mechanics are pretty solid, I really like the skills and rank progression, and the ability to customize my loadouts is nice.

But the beta doesn't at all seem to care about Xbox Live mechanics like zones, or preferred players, or players to avoid. To be honest, these games have been some of the worst I've ever experienced crowded with foul-mouthed, racist, immature putzes.

I'm a pretty tolerant guy, but this has been so bad that most of my games start with me getting waxed as I'm trying to mute the worst people, then I play pretty well, then I leave the lobby to do a complaint or two -- just about those folks that egregiously violate the XBLA UA (like those vociferous, vitriolic racists; that's not something I think people should play with).

On the upside, I've met a couple of nice folks, interestingly all from outside the U.S. (but currently stateside) -- guys from New Zealand and the U.K. Nice blokes, and less gutterish than my in-country brethren. Sad.

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Monday, August 13, 2007


Been playing the BioShock demo that went up on Xbox Live tonight.

Freaking rocks. Gorgeous, stylistic game

I like adventure games. I like games with atmosphere and story. I like games that make me say, "You want me to what? By myself?"

So this moral dilemma shooter (a la Deus Ex; a shooter like that's a "shooter") has got my interest piqued. Gonna be a long couple of weeks waiting for the full game.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Eternal Sonata

Wow, if you haven't yet, you should check out the Namco Bandai Eternal Sonata demo from disc 73 of The Official Xbox Magazine, or download it from Xbox Live Marketplace.

I'm not really into Japanese-style RPGs, but this is one charming, beautiful little game. Besides, it's got a decent mix of turn-based and action RPG mechanics. You have all the time in the world to decide your attack move with your three-person party, but once you move at all (like, accidentally bumping a thumb stick), it's on, and the attack meter ticks down quickly until your turn is done. Stupid giant wild boar.

And, as far as high art goes, this game is set in Polish composer Chopin's dreams (subconscious?) as he's on his death bed. So, his music is throughout the game. So it's audibly gorgeous, too.

So what are you waiting for? Go play the free demo, slacker.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

Halo 3 (beta)

I seriously think things look graphically prettier on the beta tonight. I'm sure I would have noticed drifting snow on Snowbound, and the bases look more ... metallic ...

Sucky night for me, though, I was seriously off...

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Halo 3 (beta)

I'm having fun with Halo 3.

I'll probably put through more serious paces this weekend, but so far, so good.

I mean, it's beta, so there's really no need to complain. And they're figuring out the server load, so the interminable slowness of Wednesday, according to Frankie, "should be drastically improved" (today was better).

And if you have a problem with no text in the UI (like I did), there's a fix:

  • Restart your Xbox 360
  • Boot up the Halo 3 Beta
  • While the Halo 3 Beta is loading, immediately press up on the D-Pad and hold the A button until you see the Bungie logo. If you perform this correctly a dialog box will appear confirming maintenance has been done to your system.
  • Resume the Halo 3 Beta!

Now, the Beta FAQ, in response to the question, "Is this the final quality of the graphics and audio?"

"A: No. It is Beta software."

Good, 'cause though I know we shouldn't complain about non-final graphics or audio, GameSpot is running the Halo 3 Graphic Tour, and GameTrailers is running a comparison video.

And Frankie keeps spouting off about the water (has he played Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes?). And the beta does include a snow level, and it does have to compete with Lost Planet on that front.

So there's a watermark (*guffaw*), but it's a beta. Keep all of that in mind.

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Friday, April 13, 2007

Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia (Xbox 360)

I've been playing the Xbox 360 demo for Monster Madness: Battle for Suburbia, and it's a fun little romp.

I've been looking forward to this title for some time, and it delivers on a bunch of fronts -- funky style, fun with stereotypes (the nerd, the goth chick, the slacker, and the Valley Girl), comic book sensibilities, decent physics, and creative gameplay.

The demo's a bit limited in the gameplay area, but I get a sense of it. Interestingly, the trailer shows a lot more fun stuff (vehicles, transformations, etc.) that seem like they would have been better picks for the demo. There are, however, tastes of some of the context sensitive "traps" you can kick off (and get caught in, if you're careless), and those are decent fun.

The demo does have online and offline co-op and adversarial arena, which is cool. I want to put the demo through its paces with 3 friends, and see how it plays out.

I'm not real stoked about the camera, which is fixed, and not very "smart" -- it wouldn't shift when I got boxed into a corner. There's a needed concession for on-screen multiplayer, but some cameras and levels in this genre are implemented better (like Hunter: The Reckoning or Dungeons & Dragons: Heroes on the old Xbox).

There were also a few too many cheap deaths -- getting boxed into a corner with no weapons or ammo, and not being able to slip out or jump over baddies is irritating (but, that got to be less of an issue the more I played).

Control is a little wonky, and I hope the full version lets me switch my assignments -- mainly the left and and right thumbsticks for move / turn (and I'd like to move jump back where it belongs on the "A" button). Also, the dodge mechanic didn't seem to work at all.

This title will fill a nice needed niche in the co-op multiplayer space, but (for it's sake) I wish it were priced more cheaply than the $59.99 MSP standard for new Xbox 360 titles, since it's possible it will get looked over amid other April / May offerings. A $40 or $50 price point would likely move significantly more units.

But, overall, I'm still looking forward to Monster Madness the first week of May. It'll also be out for the PC the same date, and PlayStation 3 (in theory) in October (which is probably the launch window for which they were aiming last year, but who wants to compete with Gears of War?). I'll probably end up renting it, first, since the GameStop bonus beanie hat isn't enough to get me to purchase it outright.

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (XBLA)

Microsoft and Ubisoft just made Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the 1989 arcade, available over Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA).

If you want to read a review about what's OK in the game, go to

From my perspective, this inexpensive (400 points) title does just fine.

No, there's no "updated graphics" option (what, did Rootbeer Tapper start a bad trend?).

But this game -- this port of a 4-player, cooperative upright arcade game -- can be played 4-player co-op.

Oh, you can play 4-player online co-op over Xbox Live. But, frankly, I'm tired of online idiocy.

You can have 2, 3, or 4 people in the same room, on the same console, and play the game the way it was designed to be played.

Getting to offline co-op is a bit wonky --you have to through the "Single Player", join from a second controller, and sign into an account.

And, yeah, unlimited continues can make the game "easy" -- but the Achievements up the difficulty level.

Good, cheap, retro times ...

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Crackdown (Xbox 360)

Crackdown is an impressive, fun, and fully worthwhile sandbox game.

I was irritated about the marginalizing of Crackdown as a "Halo 3 beta pack-in", but I'm sure the cross-promotion hugely helps them both, so I'm fine with it now. Not that anyone asked.

For those who don't know the genre, an open-world or sandbox game lets you wander around the game world, doing what you want, how you want, when you want.

In this case, you can take out the first- or second-level baddies in any of the 3 gangs in any order you want to weaken the kingpins, or you can skip levels or even go right to the respective kingpins.

Or, you can spend all of your time exploring, leveling up your character (almost RPG-like), getting more powerful on the agility (fun faster jump higher), firearms (quicker and more accurate), explosives (big ol' damage fest), strengths (pick up a car with someone inside and throw it), or driving (faster and better handling).

Or, you can run around trying to collect all of the "Agility Orbs" (there are 500 of them, and I'm at ~370) or Mystery Orbs (there are 300 of them, and I'm at, uh, ~40)

You can also create all sorts of your own mini games within the larger game. Like "Volkball" (get a giant sculpture globe through a goal). Or Lightball (basketball), Rocket Tag, Urban Surfing, King of the Hill, Kick the Car, Car Golf, Huge Air, The Runs, and Jerk Sim 1.0. Or, you can just pile as many cars up as you can, and see how many blocks wide the explosion will be. Or you can pile up pedestrian bodies and see if you can walk up them to that second story (or, um, so I've heard).

Achievements are a big part of Xbox Live, and Crackdown has some of the more creative. I like to play through a game without knowing what the Achievements are (to avoid spoilers), and it's fun to get surprised by things like "Shot-putter" (10 points for "Throw any object (other than a grenade) 205 feet or more") and "Mad Bomber" (15 points for killing 500 gang members using explosives).

Online co-op play is a lot of fun in this game (and needed for a lot of the minigames above). It's fun to work through the mission mode with a buddy. And I'm bummed co-op isn't available offline -- a serious shortcoming that would give the game more legs for me (I'm a social gamer, and online doesn't count for me). I also wish there was more multiplayer, and though there's a version of it enabled by the game keeping score of player versus player kills, I'm hoping this speaks to something more formal down the road. And having 4-way co-op with fully leveled agents would be amazing.

Sandbox games often struggle with a cohesive story, and this is one area in particular where Crackdown struggles more than others. There's no story per se, just "kill all of the kingpins". This is unfortunate, because there's actually a decent story hook that gets laid on you as you finish the game -- which I'm hoping speaks to a sequel or downloadable content.

One of my pet peeves with RPGs, on the other hand, is when you can't replay the game as a leveled up character. Crackdown suffers from the same thing, and I'm not sure why Realtime Worlds made that design decision.

Something that hampers the fun of the game (and a lot of the mini games) is inconsistent in-game persistence. I can be stacking explosive barrels and cars for a mega explosion, but if I get too far away from the pile, things start disappearing. To be fair, this may be a consequence of Microsoft mandating to developers that they don't rely on the Xbox 360 hard drive being present. On the flip side, Oblivion seemed to get this right, and that's an older game.

The one thing that I don't enjoy about the game is it's nigh impossible to play the game without hurting innocents. If I want to play through the game as a "hero", it's wicked tough to do it without collateral damage. Lots of collateral damage.

Overall, a fantastic game, with a lot of longevity if you're creative and have an online friend, and hopefully there's incoming downloadable content and a sequel in the works.
Would I rent? Yes.
Would I buy? Oh, yeah!

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Friday, March 02, 2007

Armored Core 4 (Xbox 360)

I downloaded the Japanese Xbox 360 demo for Armored Core 4 yesterday.

I need to spend some more time with it, but so far I'm happy.

I'm a fan of all but the latest Armored Core entries, and this also scratches a Zone of the Enders kind of itch the 360 hasn't been able to yet reach.

I'm looking forward to the full game.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Crackdown (Xbox 360)

Hitachi Wasabe gamer card showcasing Crackdown
The demo wasn't enough, so I'm playing the full version of Crackdown.

This game'll probably seriously be sucking my life away.

And it stands on its own and rocks, so ignore the cutesy headlines faux game journalists are schilling about the game being a pack-in for the Halo 3 beta.


More later...

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Lost Planet: Extreme Condition (Xbox 360)

I'm currently playing Lost Planet: Extreme Condition for the Xbox 360.

For those who don't care about the details, here's the short version: Best new Xbox 360 game of 2007 (yes, it's the only one so far), totally worth the purchase, truly now-gen, and easily an 8/10 or 9/10 (it's one of those games that makes me re-think my "actors don't do decimals" rule).

For those who care about details, here we go.

First and foremost, I'm glad Capcom keeps shelling out the quality Xbox 360 love. Both this and Dead Rising are Xbox 360 exclusives, both are fantastic games, both really make you feel like you're playing a now-gen game, and both are critical and popular (if not AIAS) darlings. The detail is amazing (both in-game and in cut scenes). The animations for getting into a "VS" (mech') are intricate and solid. Explosions are the bomb (seriously, sorry). The buggy Akrid are lifelike and freaky (I hate anything scorpion-based; which probably stems from young Atari ST Dungeon Master exposure). Snow Pirate battles are intense, and the AI's not half bad.

Sound is amazing (the Soundelux folks are unarguably incredible). Though 5.1 is not quite as impressive as Dead Rising, it's more than solid. It's not that it's in any way sub-par -- Dead Rising just does such an exceptional job of crossing channels (for example, during cut scenes when an NPC runs from in front of you to behind, then up and over a flight of stairs from your right to left).

And the music in Lost Planet is something else. I'm so glad I picked up the Special Edition SKU to get the audio CD musical score. It does what a good movie score for a good movie does -- remind me of powerful/memorable moments from the film/game. (As an aside, there's a good interview with Jamie Christopherson about scoring the game over at

While the graphics and details are fantastic, the cut scenes don't quite measure up to those in Dead Rising, largely for cinematic reasons. Dead Rising's scenes feel like deliberate mini movies -- directed; composed, and very tight. Lost Planet stumbles a bit here, with the cut scenes tending to "ramble" (cue hero handing coffee mug to girl meaningfully).

In addition, while the overall sound is good, that's largely with the music and sound effects, or in-game audio. The voice acting in the cut scenes isn't fabulous, but I think that's largely due to the directing/composition challenges mentioned above (though there are some painful anime tropes realized in the cut scenes.

Game play is pretty good, if a bit "trudgey" at times. The main mechanic that needs some work is also one of its coolest -- being able to swap out or remove and use VS big guns. The problem is since it's the same "B" button used in all scenarios, you can accidentally get in/out of a suit, or attach/unattach a weapon -- usually as you're running from a massive Akrid, and getting out of (or not getting into) a VS costs you the level.

On the upside, checkpoints are better than I thought they were going to be, so you don't usually have to start too terribly far back. And the grapple mechanic (though I've seen it beat up other places), to me works really well and consistently. It admittedly took some time to get used to, but not much at all.

Overall, a fantastic game. Capcom released a demo of this game nine months ago, and it arguably won at the time as the most solid console demo ever released -- and they just upped the quality from there. More impressive, when they released the multiplayer demo later in the year, they actually listened to gamer feedback, and incorporated changes into the final game. They also did things like include a survey in the Official Xbox Magazine to get additional feedback. Very cool.

Again, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition for the Xbox 360 is a fantastic game, and a good play throughout.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Gears of War (Xbox 360)

I finished Gears of War some time ago, and I've been meaning to post some thoughts on it.

First and last, it's a great game -- fully deserving of all of those Game of the Year Awards its been getting.

Is it perfect? No (what game is?), but it's the best package of what it does (by a long shot), and far better for my money and preferences than a now-gen game like Fight Night Round 3 (10 out of 10? Whatever).

Again, it's not perfect. It's pretty close, and does some things spot on.

Take the look, for example. Epic hit the nail on the head with their whole "destroyed beauty" motiff. The buildings are gorgeous, and I'm genuinely saddened at their brokenness.

And the vibe? A sense of a war that is ongoing, without hope, costly, and brutal? Gears, despite it's Sci-Fi clothes, does this better than most (if not all) WWII shooters.

And, honestly, I'm great with the length of the game. There have been complaints about it's shortness, but I think it's good.

And firefights are intense, can be taken from a few angles, and aren't boring or overly repeatable (except for one sniper level, where the snipers always showed up in the same place; WTF? Why not have 5 possible sniper positions, and randomize the 3 snipers; like a "real" war?).

What I thought needs some work is the story. It was decent (and the writer, Susan O'Connor, is honestly pretty impressive), but I think this was a slightly more graceful truncation of the story than what we all got in Halo 2. I think we'll get to see the whole vision on game 2 or 3, but I think that vision could have been pushed more in the first game.

Also, Gears is not prefectly balanced. It's pretty good, but there are some insane levels that do not match the levels before. And the final boss level is tough, but I'd heard horror stories about finishing it out on the hardcore setting than it actually played out (And when I complained about it taking me 8 times to play through before completing it, Cliff Bleszinski told me, "Well, he IS the last boss after all. He's gotta be a smidge tough, eh?").

But the dark wretches that explode when they die inside a closed-in level like the train? Whatever. I dislike cheap deaths.

And I really like the whole "stop-and-pop" gameplay (as opposed to "run-and-gun"), but the cover mechanic in Gears needs some work. I do not like getting stuck against something while running, or not being able to move out from cover cleanly. Rogue Trooper has dedicated context buttons for finding/breaking from cover and blind firing, and I actually like that implementation better than Gears (I know, I know, but check it out then get back with me, then let's have a mature discussion).

UPDATED: An auto-update was released for the game April 9, 2007, and the getting stuck while do the "roadie run" has been seriously massaged. I need to play it more, but seems to make a positive difference so far.

And I'm honestly surprised how buggy Gears of War is. Knocking a Locust to his knees, then have him slide and flip while crouched unmoving, like some 2D cutout, or bullet tracing feeling like it's calculated on where it was fired, rather than where it hits, etc. (Unreal Engine 3 issue?). Minor, but there are some gripe lists out there in the Internet ether. And the previous patch (at least on paper), seems multiplayer focused; but the upcoming patch is a black box.

The other minor quibble I have is the language. Understand, I don't mind language. But the language in Gears feels forced, non-organic, and yanks me out of the moment. It's like part of the premise was "Let's make an R-rated movie, but make it a game", and that premise led the horse. Feels disjoint.

But it's easier to talk about the stuff that doesn't work than the stuff that does, if for no other reason that -- from a usability perspective -- the better the stuff works, the more unoticeable it is.

Again, this is a great game. Easily a 9 out of 10 (I'm a leader of men so don't do decimals). Buy it, play it, understand that it's for mature audiences, and enjoy it.


And check out my previous blurb.

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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (Xbox 360)

I recently finished Marvel: Ultimate Alliance for the Xbox 360, arguably one of the best comic book games to date (though it's in some ways a shiny skinned update to the X-Men Legends franchise, to which I'd given the title previously). And it may have to share that title with Rogue Trooper.

I finished the game for a number of reasons.

First, I was clearing by Xbox 360 plate for Friday's release of Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, and the upcoming Crackdown demo (then full game) at the end of this month and the end of February (respectively). Second, I want to give Raven Software some feedback on the game, and what I hope to see in the sequel. Third, I'm a comic book geek, and this game really scratched an itch.

And by "finished" I mean I finished the main story. I've also done a bunch of the training sims, but I'm missing about 4. And I'm missing two figures to unlock Black Panter. Mother.

First, a quick reminder of my past impressions:

Those two previous posts focus on some of the needed areas of improvements, so here's more of the positive. And some more areas for improvement.

Overall, this is a great game, and I think Raven really hit the mark. Being able to play with such a huge stable of diverse characters, multiplied by the number of variations that actually change their stats and leveling up, is wicked cool. And the types of costumers are real fan service, too. For example, as a fan of Captain America, it's a big deal for me to unlock the same WWII skin that's on my desk as a Marvel Selects figure. And getting to unlock the Beta Ray Bill variation on Thor is tops. Other skins aren't as great (I think the Iron Spider variation of Spider-Man, due largely to timing, isn't all that big of a deal).

I've seen the story badmouthed in a few places, which I'm not sure I understand. Pultizer-winning it ain't, but it's actually not a bad device for tying together the game, and I could totally see it as a comic book arc. There are a few artificial inclusions (like Atlantis), but better than a lot of games.

And there's a lot of good voice acting in the game, which is nice. There is also, unforgiveably, what sounds like Raven employees doing horribly bad voice over, like during simulation missions (voice over's not that easy, is it, guys?).

I also like how Raven's chosen to mix up camera angles over the traditional 3D isometric view. Occasionally, it's a bit wonky, but works most of the time.

Where the camera didn't work (and needs some serious help) is on same-screen cooperative play. I'm bummed that I introduced to friends to MUA as I finished the game on the final boss battle, which made for a wildy swinging camera, disorienting respawn repositioning of each other, and a generally frustrating, ungraceful experience for my cronies. And this was just 3-way play, and I suffered the same kinds of problems in 2-way play.

The training simulations in a lot of ways seem unbalanced. I was focused on leveling up Captain America throughout the game, but even with that, it was a long time after I found his training sim disc before it was playable. That play balance needs to be tuned quite a bit. Other levels (like Lizard), were serious walks in the park.

The whole My Team mechanic -- where I get create a dedicated super team and increase skills and reputation -- is pretty slick, but needs some tweaking as well. For example, the feature isn't unloocked until you're later in the game, and you're penalized (lose points) if you change out any of your team members. I think the mechanic should be available earlier (or outright), and you shouldn't be penalized if you switch out to characters or skins that weren't available when you first formed your team.

The replayability for the game is decent. But Raven needs to seriously fix the experience. This goes back to the "appropriate cutscene/mission briefing" gripe I've mentioned before (everyone learn from Dead Rising). To get pieces of the the same dialogue for things I've already completed is -- to me, in a now-gen game -- unecessary. Plus, I'd like to unlock some areas, or have things tweaked a bit. Going back into Mephisto's realm should be a bigger deal, because he should be pissed at my last foray into his kingdom.

Again, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a great game -- especially for comic geeks. But even if you're just a fan of great RPGs, this title should be at the top of your list.

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Thursday, November 09, 2006

Gears of War (Xbox 360)

OK, this game is amazing.

It's different -- control scheme, some mechanics I've been trained to expect (dedicated grenade button, jump, etc.), etc. -- but adjusting to that, this has got some cool game play.

The story's engaging so far, though I'm just in the first act, and getting used to the whole mini paradigm shift.

Graphics are slick (and gritty), the action is intense, I think I've adjusted to the whole "Stop and Pop" way of playing, and I really like the damage indicator.

I have not got the chainsaw bayonette or curb stomping down yet. Bummer. I'm going to get pwned in online.

The AI of my squadmates is pretty good, except for one chapter where they kept rushing in and getting killed, and reviving them was costing my life every time. I ended up having to just solo the mission, and I'm curious if it was just me, or if there's a design issue with this particular level.

Really good stuff -- in spite of Circuit City.

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Saturday, November 04, 2006

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (Xbox 360)

These are updated impressions from my last post.

This game is Fun. It's a good, solid RPG, and I'm starting to level up to the point where it matters, and starting to really kick some comic book tale.

I was worried about Raven falling into RPG tropes (grinding through dungeons, etc.), but even thought they arguably have (Mandarin's castle, "Doom's castle", Asgard, etc.), it's really well done, and there's something cool about seeing these brightly colored heroes traipsing through stonework (or in Mephisto's Lair, Planescape-ish environs). And the Arcade mini games on Murderworld are clever.

And I'm probably too biased in my love for Norse mythology to be objective, but I'm totally digging the Asgard level, and of course I'm playing through it with Thor. And Beta Ray Bill better be unlockable after this, or I'll be peeved.

Something really funky did happen between the Mephisto and Asgard levels though, and I can't tell if it's a design issue, a bug, or a usability problem that caused me to screw up.

** Potential Spoilers Ahead **

The issue is after the Murderworld level, I went to Mephisto's Lair and freed Ghost Rider. When I came back, NPC Hank Pym is talking to Ghost Rider, and asks how Murderworld was (and Ghost Rider answers, "Not as fun as you might think"). Ghost Rider hadn't been to Murderworld (he's unlocked after). Worse, when I'm talking to all the NPC's after Mephisto's Lair, all of the interactions were post-Murderworld / pre-Mephisto, including the mini-quests (which means I couldn't give Wong his requested item or get Weasel out of harm's way).

After dealing with this for 20 minutes (and multiple reloads), I gave up, and decided to re-do Mephisto's Lair (since that's where Fury and Black Widow said I was going). When I activated the teleporter, I was sent to Asgard.

Which is nice that I don't have to re-do the Mephisto level, but a pain that I don't know my Wong / Weasel mini missions were credited.

Heh. I said "Wong / Weasel mini missions"....

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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marvel: Ultimate Alliance (Xbox 360)

I am a comic book geek. And Activision's Marvel: Ultimate Alliance is a fantastic game for me.

This is just a first impressions kind of thing, as I'm pretty early into it. But having a stable of more than two dozen characters, each with different costumes and skins that changes their stats (and in many cases, their characters altogether) is awesome. The gameplay machanics are solid, and Raven has brought what worked in their X-Men Legends I/II forward into Ultimate Alliance.

That said, even with me being a comic book geek, this game is probably an 8 out of 10. Again, just first impressions, but a lot of what makes the game work for me is the content. The following is going to sound like an ungracious laundry list, but there are a number of missed steps and mistakes.

Missed steps? Oversimplification of some of the mechanics from X-Men Legends I/II. Things like if one of your party dies, s/he "rests" for a while, and you can't pay to bring them back. This can kind of suck.

Also, there are some usability issues in the interface, like not being able to change skins on the fly, like you could in the X-Men games. Granted, this is probably partly because it's not just about changing costumes -- your stats and character change, too.

I am bummed that items aren't shareable. I have special gear for Deadpool, but I need to drop it and have him pick it up to get it to him. Nice.

Oh, and unlocking the build-your-team functionality, but you lose cred if you change it up? And not all characteres/skins are unlocked? Weak.

Probably my biggest peeve is what Dead Rising got me used to (and MUA doesn't have): Cut scenes that show what's happening in the game. If I'm playing with the Fantastic Four, and the cut scene is Nick Fury talking to Captain America, Wolverine, Elektra, Spider-Man, etc. -- that's pretty poor. Or, as I'm playing throughout the game as Captain America, and I keep having these conversations over and over with NPCs (Hank Pym, Bruce Banner, etc.) about the Super Soldier Serum, and Captain America, in the third person? Yikes.

And voiceover for all NPCs? Nope. If BioWare can do this for Mass Effect, Activision should have done it for MUA. Worse, it's sporadic. Sometimes an NPC talks, sometimes not.

And the game's not next-gen. Sure, the 360 version looks good. The cutscenes look great, but the gameplay isn't doing everything I would expect a next-gen game to do. And I'm playing the game on a 108" high-def projector, so it rocks. I think this may be a more painful game on a standard size/def TV. Especially in Co-op. Honestly, I think the Dungeons & Dragons Heroes exclusive on the original Xbox was a prettier (and under-rated) game, with waaaaay better water.

And this game is buggy. Seriously, I've seen more bugs, stickings, and the like in the first 10th of the game than I saw in X-Men Legends I and II combined. In Atlantis, Iron Man wigged out, and looked like that bug in old 2D games where all frames of the sprite showed at once.

OK, so it sounds pretty bitchy, so it's a good thing the content is so good, as is the overall treatment of the license. And it's a solid RPG -- if a bit of a grind.

But it's a comic book grind. And I get to be Cap.

"When Captain America slings his mighty shield! ..."

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

LEGO Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy

Ooh ... Take a good concept, make it better, merge it with a franchise I care more about ...

Beuno ...

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dead Rising (Xbox 360)

I couldn't wait for my review copy of Dead Rising to show up in the mail, so I went ahead and bought it at Fry's ($50 bucks, baby!).

After fiddling for too long with my projector and surround sound setup (I currently can't mount my projector to the ceiling, because I need to re-route some electrical, and I had a dead channel on the audio I had to chase down), I started playing the game around 10 p.m.

Freaking awesome.

I mean, it's kind of like what I expected (and got a taste of from the demo), but it's also a little deeper than I expected. I'm also only 12 game-hours in (~1.5 real-world hours).

It's a sandbox game, but the mini-missions (and mini-game inspiring achievements) make it a lot of fun. I'm currently playing "72 Hour Mode", and since that's the only mode available out of the box, but it's selectable, I'm guessing more are going to be added.

Killing zombies in creative ways (hedge trimmers, strategically placed propane tanks, toolboxes, shopping cart, park benches, barbells, etc.) is great fun, but the fact that there's a deeper, semi conspiracy story that unfolds piece by piece keeps the pace moving. I also found myself interrupted mid-mission as I stumbled across another scenario I'd ignored, and got to choose again whether I wanted to pursue that path.

And I'm glad I messed with my 5.1 audio -- the only way to play this game. The Dolby Digital is incredibly well done, and that positional audio is key to identifying zombies sneaking up on me, and for immersing me in the story as folks run up stairs behind me, cross from the left to right sound field, etc.

Also, some of the in-game mechanics (blender, microwave, etc.) are pretty slick. I like the photo mechanic, and the intro fly by tutorial and the ass-annoying Kent "I'm-not-a-tutorial-tutorial" are decent at getting you into that mechanic without doing too much "Show, don't tell".

Speaking of "Show, don't tell", there are a lot of cut-scenes in this game. Normally OK for me, because they're decently done. But they're not great, and they keep interrupting the flow of the game. I'm getting into a zombie-killing, food-chomping groove, and (at least the beginning), had to constantly drop the controller to watch YAC (Yet Another Cutscene). I wonder what CliffyB would say about these?

Oh, and the aiming mechanic sucks. Horribly. Having to use the pistol to cap a guy running across rooftops was painful. It also speaks to a larger problem, which is the inability to customize controls. I hate that the aiming kicks you over to using the left, rather than intuitive right, thumbstick, and I can't do anything about it. And, I'd like to implement a Halo-esque control scheme when I play (what can I say? Bungie pwns me).

Some of the mini-missions are tough, and you can't turn off "friendly fire", so if you've got a survivor being eaten by a pack of zombies, you're likely to whack them unintentionally (pruning shears are not scalpels, kids!).

And the "Mother's Lament" mini mission pissed me off. Because I'm not sure it's balanced well, starting it is a beast, the difficulty makes staying sympathetic to someone we should be sympathetic to a chore, and I feel the set up is definitely over the line. But I'm sensitive on that front.

Final gripe -- fantastic audio, but where's the voice acting? Seriously, the cut scenese are well-voiced, but the interactions in between are text and Sims-like grunts and noises (I have the same gripe with my favorite X-Men Legends games). C'Mon, this is next gen -- immerse me in the experience!

That sounds like a laundry list of gripes, but it just keeps the game from being spectacular. My gut feel says it's about an 8.4 out of 10, but I need to play it some more to be sure.

More to come ...

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Monday, August 07, 2006

"Dead Rising"; "Ninety-Nine Nights (Xbox 360)

I'm playing the Xbox 360 demos for Dead Rising and Ninety-Nine Nights, and these are in my top 3 played demos so far in the life of the console (Lost Planet, a Capcom title like Dead Rising, is the other one).

Dead Rising

Dead Rising (check out my preview here), the creative zombie chop fest hiding a deeper story, plays about like I expected. That is to say, creatively killing zombies is a lot of fun, and the intro cut scene, and cut scenes that play out when you exit the demo field of play (sporting store, movie theater, or warehouse), hint at a deeper story, as I predicted. And once 7 p.m. hits, hang out for the cutscene showing things are about to get a whole lot worse after dark.

If you stay within the parameters of the game field, the demo only lets you play for 15 minutes at a time. But like the Lost Planet demo, Capcom's produced a solid little playtest. There's a lot to play with and explore, and you can whack zombies with a scythe, hunting knife, pistol, shotgun, flowerpot, stuffed bear, garbage can, nightstick, shopping cart, skateboard, and sundry other objects, including a frying pan. With the frying pan (and other "weapons" and environmental objects), you can "upgrade" -- stick the cast iron skillet on the stove, and it's a lot more lethal for bashing zombie heads. Also, check out the microwave fun ...

And there are character upgrades that let you carry more items, too (though those aren't in the demo).

I really appreciate the options being available in the demo -- I love a demo that gives full access to the game control (inversion, etc.) and settings menus that are in the full game (all demos should allow players to invert if that's applicable; I hate all demos that don't).

The controls themselves are a little wonky. I need to get used to the left trigger being the camera, but more confusing is the right trigger/aiming mechanic, that makes you use the left thumbstick to aim, to super sluggish effect. Given how close last week's demo was released to tomorrow's release, I don't have a lot of confidence this'll be fixed.

In theory, I'm supposed to be receiving a review copy of Dead Rising, but since the same folks sent me the October-released Stubbs the Zombie in December, we'll see. I had really hoped to receive the game in time for last weekend to play and provide timely review, but it was not meant to be.

Ninety-Nine Nights

Ninety-Nine Nights (N3) is getting misbilled as being like Dynasty Warriors 5 Empires, which it's not. That is to say, it doesn't suck (I'm sure I'm pissing off some rabid fanboys, but Dynasty on the Xbox 360 really disappointed me).

N3 is amazing. Racking up 5,000-plus kills, leveling up my character, switching out weapons and accoutrements in an RPG-lite kind of way, and exacting mass carnage on the orcs is a hugely good time. The level of detail is amazing, and I like battling different classes of orcs that actually play differently -- from field fodder to seasoned soldiers to wizard orcs that can do some serious damage. You can even see helmets go flying as you knock them around.

And their troll implementation is a like an adolescent, better realization of a Tolkien rock troll than that franchise's games have had. Seriously. (I'm going to rename this the "Piss off the fanboys" post.)

And ORB attacks rock.

I need to work more on commanding my soldiers, but I can't tell yet if that's because of the controls or my lack of familiarity with the mechanic.

And the voice acting (and appropriate emotional intensity) is seriously below the bar, so I'm hoping the final version -- due this month -- corrects that.

Both Dead Rising and Ninety-Nine Nights are really good demos (and available for free to anyone with an Internet connection), so check them out.

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Adam Creighton: Headshot

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