Thursday, 28 October 2010

My games wish list.

OK I figured I should put myself up a list of games I plan to try out and review. Still got a lot of the tax man's reimbursement in my account so might as well put it to use bit by bit and go on a gaming spree. Not really had one in a long time and doing these blogs has reignited an old habit of games binges that killed my social life as a teenager.

So, what is in my cross-hair for blogging and maybe just good old fun? I have some old titles on here but a few new ones too, and some I won't be getting just yet. I have some idea on what order I will play them though but won't be sharing that. Being like a magpie, I tend to drop the juicy worm I have for lunch because something new and shiny grabs my attention and on the spur of the moment I grab it.


New(ish) stuff.
Castlevania: Lord of Shadows
Fallout New Vegas (Might get this when some multipack with DLC's come out instead of being sucker punched for DLCs a month after release. Also, a large mod library should build up soon, so see my Fallout 3 comments for why I would wait for this)
Halo Reach
Enslaved Odyssey to the West
Fable III (Might need to set a load of time aside for this one..)
Starcraft II (Heard mixed things about this, so want to see for myself)
Red Dead Redemption: Undead DLC (Zombies in the wild west? It's either 'Ohh hell yeah!' or 'Ohh dear god... no....')

Older stuff.
Mass Effect 2 (Yes, I need to play this badly... but as I said I am a bit of a magpie...)
Bioshock and Bioshock 2
Alpha Protocol (OK not that old but by the time I get there it may well be so I will pre-empt it and file it here.)

Also I have a small set of some games I am playing still, some of them on and off, or replaying slowly.

Fallout 3's DLC packs
I still havea couple of backs to try out on FO3, however I am running XP64 on my gaming rig and you can't get SP3 for it. And now Windows Live does not work on SP2 since a few month back. I need to upgrade to Win 7 soon enough. I had this planned for my media server I am planning and if Windows made their family 3 pack again I would go for it in a heart beat... maybe their relaunch will have the 3 pack again. Also as you know, I like the mod scene for this game and I like to replay the campaign very slowly to explore the vast wastes with new mods I will try out on the way, or even make a little mini-story out of using and uncovering the mods. All in my head, of course, reflected in the game play like finding a new weapon as if I were going on a quest for it.

Dragon Age: Origins
Keep putting it down for a few reasons too long to list and worthy of an actual review. But I don't plan on it. So I guess I will keep playing with it and reach the end at some point.

Gratuitous Space Battles
Just a fun indie game with no real story beyond unlocking new ships and weapons for them. There are some mods too so I might check them out in time.

Stand by for a bog on this after Halloween. If you don't know what it is, check out their home page. But my blog will include an intro to this.

Dawn of War 2
I played this as far as I could be bothered before the campaign chase got on top of me and taking down an ork boss fight was near impossible with the XP cap on the units already reached. There is a challenge in games, and then there is silly. I have never been big on games with in combat health management being more than half the time of the fight and the boss fights were just this. I might return to it some day but I might not.

Dawn of War: Dark Crusade
I never finished the Dark Crusade campaign with my Necron army. I had pretty much all the map under my control and all but one HQ unit destroyed, leaving only the Orks I think and a few occupied territories to take over. When I made my new games rig I did not backup my game saves for many games, mainly because I was forced to reformat the old hard drive after a silly move in building the PC. My motherboard drivers deleted and the system needed resetting from the partition, wiping the data and my saves. I never got round to reinstalling it but I still look at the box wondering if I have time to stick it back on or if I should retire the game completely from my games rotation.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Dead Rising 2. Frustrations in Fortune City

It has been a while between work and other stuff but I have finally taken the chainsaw to this review and remade it a little. I always try to get near the end of a game's story before I review it but this one is a little different. The story is not all that big story wise, but we will come to that in a bit and why it might take you a long while to finish it.

So, here I am now with the game I should have picked up before Front Mission Evolved. Dead Rising 2 is, naturally, the second in the Dead Rising games, save for a short interlude in the form of Dead Rising: Case Zero. I have not played this one so I don't know what it is all about except that it involves your character from Dead Rising 1 and 2.

The basics of the game are this. Your character is Chuck Greene, former motorcross champ who's wife was killed in a zombie outbreak and his daughter was bitten. He was fortunate enough to have a shot of something called Zombrex on him at the time and this staves off zombification for about 24 hours but then you need a booster shot. When his career hits rock bottom he cannot afford the boosters without doing some odd stuff, like participating in the Terror is Reality show in Fortune City. He and a bunch of zombie killers are pit into an arena like gameshow where they mow down zombies by the dozen on bikes with chainsaws and get cash prizes for winning. Most of this money goes to buying the girl her Zombrex.

Simple, yes? Well, not really. Like all big and simple turning cogs a single wrench can screw it all up. Your first taste of the game comes in the form of the afore mentioned slice and dice with motorbikes so the game does not mess around and puts you in the thick of the blood bath pretty early. Then it halts for a second for the sake of the story as your make your way through the back stage areas with your winnings to find his daughter before all hell breaks loose and the zombies in the arena break out. You fight your way through them to the green room and pick up the girl and run for the door, finally getting to a shelter where some old police officer has the beds all warm and the coffee brewing in the corner.

However, you still need the next dose of Zombrex for your girl and the only place that has some is back outside. Luckily you find a way out of the bunker on a mission to find the Zombrex in the mall and this is where your game, as advertised, actually begins.

Now I say 'your game actually begins' but really it has already begun. There was a glaring lack of tutorial and adjustment to the game controls to begin with, and you pretty much figure it all out yourself. This is a theme that, annoyingly, persists through the game at all levels. If you are anything like me you have a quick skim through the manual, forget it all in an instant and return it to the box content to muddle through the controls. So I would hardly call the introduction the typical tutorial phase but, hey. Zombies wait for no man.

The game itself is all on a timer, with 72 hours of game time (not real time though, which might have been nice, but I will come to this later) before the army gets to town after sealing it off. And your only goals so far seem to be finding a shot of Zombrex every 24 game hours and maybe locating survivors to escort back to the shelter. This is facilitated by a Zombie rights protester (yes, you read that right) who also made it into the shelter. She is watching through CCTV in the shelter's security room and when she sees something interesting she will radio Chuck and give him a waypoint. This could be anything from a potential survivor to suspicious activity. Eventually these waypoints will expire if you don't act on them and you could miss out on a few things like weapon combo cards or a shot of Zombrex, saving you the job of locating one later. Though, if you have not got one by the time her shot comes around it is your own fault because a few hours before it is due you will get a message hinting you will get some Zombrex for going somewhere and doing something, But you should be prepared for a harder fight to get it.

Back to the timer thing though, and the whole mission structure as well as random encounters are completely choreographed by the game's passage of time and all have and expiry attached to them. Most of them will not affect your overall game though there is a central strand of missions too that will fail if you let them run without action. These will divulge the emerging plot where Chuck is framed for the outbreak and you need to find out who really did it and why by chasing down the reporter in town that broke the initial story on an anonymous source that tipped her off.

At first, my reaction to the timing based missions was not good. I fully expected a GTA/RDR style mission system where you have an open world to please yourself in, that maybe unlocks better stuff as you progress, and you could instigate missions in your own good time. As much of the game elements like crafting of weapons and exploring areas of the map or even playing the gambling mini-games in the multiple casinos speak of a sandbox open world, and throwing a timer in there seems like a horrible mismatch of gaming styles.

After the initial mission of finding Zombrex, as well as a detour to rescue a couple of survivors here and there, I was thrown at the first real mission that would eventually expire if I did not act on it. I found the reporter who put out the story of Chuck releasing the zombies, did her little job and once done I realised the mission system would not unlock the next mission until a certain time of day still to come. So I had a lot of spare time meanwhile to do that whole sandbox thing.

Since the games infuriating lack of documentation on how the missions are handled, my advice to anyone would be to tackle the central missions as soon as you can, because you don't know how long they will take you, and you won't have it hanging over you the whole time as you explore, level up and find new weapons to beat zombies in the face with, Also, you will always have to take time out to get the ever rare Zombrex from somewhere, be it a pawnshop run by looters with a very capitalist philosophy of supply and demand, or helping people who might give you some for free or a clue to the location of a stash elsewhere.

There is also a levelling system for the character, as you hack through zombies and gain.... not xp but 'pp'. I know... not sure what pp stands for and I don't care. It amounts to the same thing really. However, your character auto-levels and his attributes change themselves without your input. I find this entirely annoying as I like to control my play style and feel this being taken out of my hands as being against the spirit of this minor RPG like aspect. This as well as other frustrations in the game makes me wonder if the developers knew what kind of game they wanted to make and some elements should have just been left out in favour of others that gel better with the core gameplay. Again, I will come to this soon.

Other frustrations with the game, besides the lack of documentation and tutorial, is the combat system in general. It feels kind of clunky in more precision engagements, like when you take on a small gang of armed men in one mission you have no duck and cover system, no diving rolls (at least until you level and unlock the ability, again at the game's whim), no shooting back round corners and even worse, no sprint. OK when surrounded by zombies who shuffle along with the speed of growing grass for the most part, and you are armed with a wide and wild swinging battleaxe that cleaves everything it touches in two with ease, this is pretty much what you want. It will put many fine dedicated hack and slash games to shame. But when you want a little more control you find it lacking and it has cost me dearly. Maybe the PC version of the game will be better with weapon aiming for guns and such, so I will keep an open mind on this, but again the developers now mainly cater to the console market and the kind of gamers that enjoy co-op and multiplayer parties as a more social gaming experience than PC games can deliver. So why not cater to console gaming controls too?

Also, the timer based system of mission activation and expiration becomes a teeth gritting pain when you lose the mission and die and you realise your last manual save, and you can only save manually in toilets that are too spread out for my liking, was some time before the mission activated. You can have entirely too much fun and forget to save and then have to do it all over again if you are not careful, waiting for missions to become available. And you will die a lot on some of the encounters at first.

There is an emerging difficulty curve that drop kicks you in the face when you least expect it. I did note early in my play time that the game had no difficulty setting that it asked me to select at first so I figured given the more playful and light hearted nature of the game set by Capcom that they were aiming at the casual gamer and the only difficulty would come in the missions and the occasional race against the clock. After all, between missions you are simply in transit from one location to another as you please. Your first encounters with the Psychos is a little different though, and they will kick your arse very fast on your first play through. Again, the control issues do creep in but so does their clearly scripted behaviour in combat. I noticed that when attacking one of them she would take three hits before they automatically knock me down and I have no defence for this at all. And what followed was a good 2-3 health drop as controls are taken from you and they deliver another automatic blow.

There are means that the game compensates for this when you die, and I am not sure I like it because it smacks of poor balance and idle development. Essentially, you could do with the game giving you the option to restart the mission at the beginning of the encounter, but that is conspicuously absent and you are forced back to your last save point in the loo. Or you could just restart the whole story again from the beginning. The advantage in doing this is that you start with all your levels and skills where you left off. Some might call this a means of giving the player a helping hand when they begin to fail a lot, but a game should not be unplayable to the end on the first run and there should always be a means to complete it even if it is hard. And sure there is with this one too but you have to ignore a lot of stuff in the process and just get on with it and die a hundred times. I don't play games to die repeatedly and rely on blind luck to pass the next stage and a lack of skill based victory seems to become a more frequent theme in games.

Another gripe I have is with the dialogue system outside of cut scenes. To speak with people you approach and press the correct button, but there will be no voice acting unless it creates a cut scene. Not in itself a bad thing, if a little tacky overall. However you have to do this often with survivors fighting off zombies by the dozen to get their story. The game will not halt while you speak, and you will get a short bit of back and forth between your character and the other person. All the while you have to read this and attack zombies that get too close. And the text waits for no man as it moves on to the next dialogue with barely time to read and digest what is being said. However, the final annoyance comes when you realise that the conversation has stopped abruptly and you need to, once again, press the talk button to continue speaking and get more info. I am not sure why this is. Maybe the game wishes you to see what is happening a little first before you decide to help the person or not. But one guy needs literally convincing he has much to live for and after the 9th click of the B button he finally accepted my help and came with me.

Maybe Capcom needs to understand the target audience of such a game. There will be people that know they will want to help right now and go talk to the person, have them follow them to the shelter and reap the rewards and karma etc. And there are people who will either carry on walking or sit back and laugh as they get swamped by the undead. I don't see people picking their decision to help people based on some random and fast moving dialogue like 'I was out shopping for shoes when all this happened!' That is not going to move me to an emotive decision of weather this person it fit to live or die. I doubt I will find someone who will say 'I was lurking by the potted plants near children's play pen, slowly abusing myself, when suddenly zombies broke into the Mall. Please help me.' so I am not sure what I will read that I will make a choice on and all the extra clicking under these circumstances just torments those who want to do it all or who have a kid soul in the bleakness of the zombie apocalypse, shining like the last bastion of civilisation and hope.

Even more confusing in this system was the cop in the shelter telling me he would help by giving me the key to the maintenance rooms (this unlocks crafting) so I am like all 'yeah cool, thanks.' Only to find that the pause in dialogue happened and I had to actually speak to him again just to get the damned key off of him! Again, it makes no sense to me why this is and maybe the game is actually glitchy like this or perhaps Chuck has an on-off case of ADD and looses concentration if he is not driving a baseball bat with nails glued to it into the pallid face of the nearest zombie.

On the note of weapons and crafting custom weapons, all your weapons have a durability which, to me, is way too short or should have been handled different from what it is now. I would have liked a system where some weapons, naturally wood based ones and toys and such, do break after a time. It is only to be expected. But others like chainsaws and drill motors should only fail if used too frequent and need a cool down time. If observed they will be cool for a while again and you can go on mincing the moving corpses at will. But go too far and it might break down and be useless. These things will cut down half of the Amazon but they will only last for about 20 zombies? Give me a break here. Also, the crafting is good but if your lovely weapon of death like the wheelchair with a lawnmower on the seat is going break after you push it through only half of the main street or even less then let me carry some of the items in bulk so I can craft on the fly. Example, nails. A box of nails fits in a backpack nicely. I gather a few of these here and there and when I find a baseball bat or propane tank I can get into it instead of having to equip them to my small weapon bar and take them to a crafting bench, and then do the same again for a baseball bat. Though I guess this system keeps it to using what you have to hand, which is not always a bad thing I guess. But it gets old after a while.

DR2 dropped another point for me when I was suddenly, after a dozen times of waggling the left stick on my controller to shake off a zombie that latched on too tight, confronted with a different quick time event. This time, as I instinctively began shaking the left stick I realised too late I should have been mashing the Y key instead, and then it asked me for the left stick action once more. This sent me back to the end of my last mission after I had spent a good hour or so playing and stocking on some good weapons so I was not impressed.

So I have summed up al of my dislikes about this game. Lets move onto the likes as I tend to leave my blogs with negative comments lately and I don't want people to think I do not like these games because I do. The world is well presented, the animation in the cut scenes is pretty good, even if the characters are all stereotypes, and despite the clunky combat in the boss like fights where I think I can only win on blind luck or a lot of grinding to level up on a reply from the beginning, I do like the fact that nearly everything is a weapon. Even kids toys like a foam hammer or a police helicopter. I was overjoyed when I realised you did not just beat them over the noggin with it but you could set it running and leave it in the air like a chopping dervish to cover your back from hordes of the undead while you maced the faces in front of you.

You can craft a few few of your own weapons by combining one with another and by using them you will level up faster. But that is only if you have the combo card for it, which you find by doing missions, leveling up or rescuing people. You don't need them to experiment with crafting and if you find a combo you can use it but don;t get the benefit of double pp from your kills. However, as pointed out elsewhere, it is odd that you can combine a machete with a broom, but not a kitchen knife. Or why can I not simply equip nails into the leaf blower in splatter some undead to the walls even though I can put jewels inside to sand blast a million dollar smile into their faces.

Either way you will find the weapons to be entertaining. I accidentally discovered the firework lizard mask. I noticed that some fireworks draw the zombies away for a while and the mask is another way of doing it at the expense of another victim zombie. Stick it on one of their heads and the fireworks lodged in the mouth of the mask will draw in the zombies while the wearer walks around without knowing how ridiculous he looks.

Finally, there is a means of enhancing your player, and I fear I will descend into a rant about how it is poorly executed but here goes. You can mix drinks to gain boosts to certain aspects such as movement speed or damage resistance. And drinking them too often will cause Chuck to be sick, which in itself is funny. Even drinking normal alcohol will cause this and the resulting slippery mess on the floor will cause zombies to slide down on their arses and flail around in the chunky carrots. There is even one drink combo that causes this as the primary effect. However... and here comes the slight rant, as with the rest of the game you have little clue what the drinks will do for you since there is no documentation of them. Discovering a drink combo does not give you something like a combo card so you can remember it later or even describe the effects. So when you make a Painkiller you wonder... does this just heal a lot of health or does it give me damage resistance? More than likely damage resistance. But what about Nectar? Anyone know what this does? You need to go look at some strategy guides online to discover their uses and it seems like half the lack of documentation is designed by Capcom to make you buy one. This is hardly the usual JRPG game that has so much stuff to do it warrants buying one though. Also you have no visual reference letting you know how long the drink effect works for.

The other buff you have is magazines. You carry these with you and they give you bonuses to things like gambling, driving or weapon durability. Once again though, there is a downside built in with them since they take up one of your weapon slots so you cannot carry lots of them, forcing you to pick one you feel is best for your play style. This is no bad thing either, however ones such as weapon durability, in my opinion, are essential and it would have been better executed if there were a limited number of them dotted around that you actually consumed by reading them and gaining a permanent boost to that attribute. And if you go back to play through again, and continue levelling, you either lost their boosts, and needed to collect them again or you kept the boost but the magazine was no longer spawned. And this could have been more of a theme with the levelling system in general. In my Front Mission Evolved review I did rant a little about how I did not like the difficulty curve being matched by an increasing stock of better weapons and parts you did not have to work for, so it might seem like I am no advocating a similar system as a fix for another game. But I would have liked my actions to enhance my character rather than a levelling system, or even have it run along side the pp gathering aspect, and give me control of what attributes move, leaving other bonus buffs to be presented to me as I explore or complete side missions like psycho battles and survivor escorts.

Dead Rising 2 is not what I expected, and clearly I am disappointed overall with it. Though I am not a great multiplayer fan and being subjected to retards on XBox live from around the world does put me out of my comfort zone when gaming. So the social gaming side may well be better overall than the campaign, and competing in the minigames online to gather cash and more pp for single player gaming could open a whole new dimension for me. But I will leave this to other reviews to disclose. The pure visceral part about cleaving through hordes of slow moving zombies is still a joy and some weapon combos will make you cackle with evil glee as you test them out so it is worth getting if you are not put off by my rants about the failings of the game. It just could have been so much more than what it became and given a choice I would not have paid full price for it. Pick up a pre-owned maybe or wait until it goes budget buy.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Coming soon, after some hack and slash editing...

Dead Rising 2.

I was meant to have this out mid week after a short play through, however, Dead Rising 2 has been anything but a short play through. After having played a little deeper into the game and finding stuff out for myself, I come to realise what I love to hate about the game and my original review will need a rewrite.

I might have been a little unfair in my first draft and while everything I say will stand in my rewrite, it was entirely too negative. Essentially, DR2 is a game that does not reveal itself all at once, and not all in the first play through. And this is something I want to talk about a little as an amateur reviewer.

It is easy to judge many books by their covers, and people that do so are easy to spot for people in the know. Many film and game reviews I have seen take games I do like and make big deals of their flaws as though they are the only thing that the game delivers.

By the same token, it is easy to paint a reviewer who gets things wrong with this same tar-sodden brush. As not every reviewer will get a game review right based on a game that, like Dead Rising 2, does not tickle their fancy in the first couple of days. Like a good wine or a piece of cheese DR2 takes time to mature before you can appreciate it. It may stil taste like cheese, but it is at least good cheese and this depth needs to be explored in context as well.

Hence, my latest review taking a little more time between my work and more work. Like the many zombies of Fortune City, the cleaver must come out and much chopping and hacking is in front of me before I am completely happy.

Until then.... my three or maybe four dear readers.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Front Mission Evolved

Yes, something as new as new gets. As recent as your last breath. As.... current as a box of currants.....

Anyway, I picked up a copy of Front Mission Evolved this weekend, developed by Square Enix. What is it? Why did I get it? I would not be surprised if many people had not heard of the Front Mission games, as they have not been rapid with their releases over the years, but their origins can be traced back to the likes of the SNES console, but mainly in Japan and the US. The only Front Mission games I have seen in the UK have been Front Mission 3 and also a reboot of that game for the Nintendo DS, simply called Front Mission.

Essentially, if you like giant mechs with huge machine guns spitting bullets the size of a fat person from a gun the size of a truck then this is for you.

Front Mission 3 was my only other experience of this game on the PlayStation many years ago and took a prideful place among Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil Nemesis as well as one or two other titles from my old PlayStation library when I got a PS2. I kept them for the backwards compatibility and disposed of the other games I was not interested in. The story is set in the future of Japan where the main character is an engineer for a weapons contractor delivering a prototype WANZER (ohh wait, not that Wanzer, these are a Walking Panzer) to the JSDF when all hell breaks lose and the base is attacked by unmarked forces.

It was one of the few games where you had some limited differences in story based on decisions you make in the game. Early you were presented with the option of staying put and keeping out of the fight, only to be dragged in by one faction, or heading for the front lines in search of your sister who works on the base, and getting tangled up with another faction. From that point your opponents would differ and the story would be told from a different perspective, only to join together near the end with a different ending. And even during game play, where you are going through the story, you could be given a choice such as the left path or right path in the road, and face different odds, though your end point was the same regardless and only the fight was different.

The combat was turn based, you could equip your Wanzer and the Wanzers of other team members between phases in the story, you could visit bars looking for work on occasion or to catch up on gossip or look for key characters and intel, and by or sell Wanzers and weapons at black market and official merchants depending on your character's path so far. There were RPG elements too, with characters gaining experience points and levelling up, training skills and getting better at fighting. You could capture enemy Wanzers and break them down for parts, or blow bits of them to make them impotent in combat. Pilots would eject from their Wanzers too and be vulnerable, and it was sometimes required for the mission to do this, by either activating something on ground level or even capturing a Wanzer.

So, when I heard about Front Mission Evolved last year I kept an eye out for it. So far I have not been disappointed, save for a couple of small issues with the game, and one large one that I discovered not long ago as I played through more.

It has much of the same game play as the last game on the PlayStation, with the combat feeling very inch of it's size. But there is one crucial difference and that is the combat is simply live action rather than turn based. Also you do not control the whole team like you could in FM3, and the other Wanzers in your squad are controlled by the computer. However you can still blow off chunks of the enemy like their legs to slow them down, or their arms to reduce their accuracy and damage with the mounted weapons. Aim for the torso and you blow them away completely etc etc. There are even sections where you leave your Wanzer and go into a building.

Now when this first happened, and I knew it would since I had seen the screenshots of over the shoulder shooter sections, I was steeling myself for major disappointment. Like 'OK the Wanzer combat was good, so this is most likely going to be the steamy turd on the delicious cheese cake.' We all know what this is like when we played Mass Effect and 'Woah we can drive around in a tank dropped from the air? Sweet!' and the inevitable 'Urgh.... these controls really really blow!' thing. However, the game developers at Square Enix have done as good a job of the combat on the ground as they have in the Wanzers. (Saying Wanzer never gets old btw) Especially a moment when an enemy Wanzer come storming into a hangar while you are looking for something and begins ripping the place up with a machine gun as big as a car. You really o feel naked and vulnerable, except for your missile launcher slung over your back.

However, the storyline is on rails and I have not encountered any character choices to be made by me in the occasional cut scene between fighting. And the story starts pretty much the same. Wanzer test pilot working on a prototype when New York is attacked by unmarked forces and you go looking for your Dad who works at a government military building. You are drafted into the military quickly after assisting some Wanzer army units heading in your direction and encounter a boss fight with a mercenary Wanzer piloted by a cocky and talkative arsehole who gives way too much away with his gloating. So the story does suffer a little from elements like this. Not to mention the obvious romantic subplot that emerges between the main character and the female army Wanzer pilot giving jealous looks at the pretty and intelligent engineer from the testing labs.

And it seems even zombies cannot keep their noses out of futuristic giant mech shooters when the merc leader shows up and somehow uses a system that you also have in your Wanzer, called EDGE, to resurrect and control the dead Wanzers around you. Not bad for a module that is meant to slow down time a little (or rather increase pilot awareness and reflexes, but slowing down the game is a gameplay mechanic used to simulate this). Also, when you shoot a Wanzer until it explodes, I expect that the machine cannot function due to physical breakage... so how they suddenly got up and fought on is a mystery to me. Finally, the female army pilot seems to have some kind of secret and horrible past she does not like to talk about and gets overly dramatic about as she has panic attacks every time the merc leader shows up. The drama is pretty overblown all round with two of the mercs being evil baby-eating kitten-strangling gibbering psychos talking about the symphony of destruction or the coming of the Valkyries.

Despite the odd storytelling and character types the controls are very good, though the aim speed is a little too fast for my liking on the XBox. This is where the PC version might be better with a mouse as movement speed is constant anyway so the digital input of a keyboard is no issue there.

However, after the stars in my eyes vanished I could see a few little problems. They do not emerge until you get a short way into the game, and you are moving through a mountain road with lots of trees around you. When you turn sideways the trees get in the way of the camera, even when you zoom in with the precise aim mode, and you cannot see what is happening. Not good when the road turns 90 degrees and enemies are waiting for you. Also, you do not have the options to capture enemy Wanzers and break them down, and the available body parts and weapons increase only as the story advances. So it seems more like you are simply being given these things because you will need them, and not because you captured them and earned them. It makes this part of the game tat I loved in FM3 seem unfocused and shallow and they really might as well have left you with one single Wanzer type and ask you if you would like dual machine guns, a rocket launcher or the rifle and send you on your merry way.

Now comes the huge problem that made me see red when it emerged. So far I had done the first couple of chapters and spent a little time upgrading my Wanzer between fights before the story moved on and I did not notice that the game resets your Wanzer and configures it for you at the start of a mission. In FM3 your Wanzer would not change unless you changed it and you had to hope it was good enough to get you through the next combat phase. If not then go back and reconfigure and try again with what you have. However, while this is a little annoying and tolerable, since each time you would make changes anyway to kit out the new stuff you have been given, the real wet fart in the face came when I found the default setting of one mission - a rifle, missile launcher and agility backpack - was useless and I craved my twin machine gun, twin missile launcher configuration back. But when I did this and tried for the 5th time to beat this opening engagement it would not let me fight unless I had the rifle. No you must have the rifle! How else would know what fighting with a rifle is like?

It sucks! That is what it is like. My launcher takes out the ranged targets on the shore better than the rifle, and I know two machine gins will not reach them but they will chew up the Wanzers air dropped on top of us as well as the gunships flying over head better than both. Let me have it my way!

Same goes with the hover and quad leg attachments. OK the one mission where you need the hover legs, because there will be a need to cross water, leads you into using them in the pre-mission cutscene with a logical argument. So you kind of go 'Yeah ok, I will use those. It sounds cool.' and don't even notice you cannot use anything but those unless you try to change them. However, when a mission forced me to use the quad legs when they were introduced, the argument was 'you can carry more guns' given their power system boost. Again, I saw this as a good thing but the quad legs are slower with a shorter skate time. (Skating being a fast means of movement and strafing) But when I passed this mission I wanted to get rid of them and back onto two legs that I was used to. After all, bipedal mechs are why people buy these kinds of games in the first place. And for no logical reason I could determine, I was not permitted to use the two leg system. This, again, sucked.

Seems some games try to behave like your mother and still try to feed you sprouts. You get what you are given, and you clean your plate! Want does not enter into it. So as I said, the game might as well give you a pre-built Wanzer to do each mission with and drop the pretence of being able to customise them beyond the weapons you can take, based on certain restrictions like power and funds. I don't find myself mixing and matching the same as I did with FM3, and last night I realised why not. In FM3 different Wanzer parts were good for different things like close combat vs machine guns, vs rifles etc. Some bodies gave boosts to ranged accuracy while others gave power increases or critical hit and stun chance modifiers to power fists and batons. And while some of this is still present, it has been watered down heavily.

You can equip weapon mods called 'battle skills' where a chance based activation gives different properties to your weapons like more damage, EMP stun, extra limb damage and so on. It is kind of like Mass Effect's weapon mod system with multiple slots available on higher class weapons. And while some arms have increased accuracy over others, the worst in class do not drop below 90% which is something I can live with if it means I have more armour and can carry the weapons I wish. Again, this makes picking arm A over arm B a done thing an there is a clear line of good, better and best between them. The configuration sections seems more like busy work and useless labour, even if it does not feel like one of the circles of hell as such it is not a good thing either.

One final thing as I have been playing and writing this breakdown. Have you ever played one of those games where you have NPC allies but every enemy on the map seems like they are only interested in you and you alone? And your allies are completely useless in causing damage to your enemies and you have the sole task of killing everything that hits the map? If you find these as annoying as I do then you will be annoyed with Front Mission Evolved since is does this too. Maybe it is because I launched right into the hardest setting that does this and when I reply to unlock more of the hidden stuff it might be a different story. But as someone that values a little realism in my gaming I find these mechanics to break the credibility of a game.

Overall, Front Mission Evolved is not quite the game it succeeds from a few years ago, and in some ways it is a good thing, though I cannot help but feel if they re-jigged the old game to modern standards, even with turn based combat, and kept the depth of character building and Wanzer capturing,as well as the meaning behind the customisation process, it would not have been worse. Was this ultimately a bad reunion for me with an old friend? Not really, no. The pace is fast in fire fights which keeps you thinking and moving and the chunky feel of the heavy metal combat is something that can only be rivalled by the imagination of a child playing with his robot toy collection stomping all over the small plastic army men and tanks.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Yes, another old one. Fallout 3: The game and gaming

So, I figured since I raised the issue of Fallout 3 in a previous blog, and the last blog being about PC gaming as an industry, it would be appropriate to dust off an older PC game that still shines like new today. And with Fallout New Vegas ready for release soon, we should all get back in the mood for Fallout as a series. I will not only review this game, which I will try and keep shorter than the last breakdowns, because I will also try and squeeze in some more thoughts in PC gaming in general.

In the last blog, people will remember I linked Chris Taylor's podcast interview with G4TV's X-Play where he threw down a gauntlet to the anti-PC game crowd and the doom-sayers who hail the passing of PC games in general. As I watched the interview one game jumped into mind that highlights PC games, and that game was Fallout 3. The reasons for this were not picked up by Chris, who used examples of MMOs and digital distribution methods like Steam and D2D as key to PC game's resilience, though I stated them as another unique aspect of PC gaming. Modding. And as I talk about FO3 in general you will see why this is a great aspect of PC gaming experience on the whole.

So, to put much of that into context and flesh out the bones of that argument, let us look at Falout 3. A game on both consoles and the PC. First, the story is that of post-apocalyptic America, where people saw the war coming and society geared towards survival. VaultTech, a corporation specialising in fallout shelters, creates a large network of 'Vaults' around the country and people apply for a seat should the bombs begin falling. People are selected and when the day comes they all file into the vaults for a life below ground. Fallout games of the past have involved this concept in their story and take place a long time after the war where the surviving society above ground has degenerated into tribal life and small settlements living in fear of raiders, slavers and mercs.

Essentially, you are presented with this scorched playground in Fallout 3 full of ambiguous moral choices with consequences and character building as a classic staple of and RPG. Gain experience points and increase your proficiency in various aspects of wasteland life from small and heavy weapons and explosives, to lock picking and sneaking, to charming personality traits that will leave npc characters beaming wide as you pick their pockets.

The campaign is pretty open, like the world that is also full of smaller jobs and quests you can pick up and defeat in many different ways. Some of them give you different rewards for different outcomes, while others don't make a distinction. Others open up a branch where you have an optional secondary quest not always apparent to you unless you talk around to the npcs. Approaching such a game requires you break down your expectations based on other more linear games where you are expected to behave in one way or another and only one outcome will do for your employer. See Red Dead Redemption for an example of what I mean there.

A case in point is soon after the enforced tutorial stage in the vault itself, where your stats are established along with the story of our hero, you are nudged towards the nearby settlement of Megaton (a bunch of walled off houses built into the impact crated of an unexploded and still live atomic bomb) where you wandering around and chatting to people about the first thing in your mind will most likely see you interact with a Mr Burke. It takes a little observation on your part to find this job but you most likely will. In a way I feel Bethesda put this job into the game at this stage the way they did to really give you a taste of what Fallout 3 will offer you time and time again. Mr Burke will wave you over from his little corner of the bar in Megaton and ask you to plant a pulse fusion charge on the bomb so he can detonate it and wipe it off the map for his very wealthy employer. Of course, you and refuse the job and never get the chance again to accept it and just carry on as normal, or you can go ahead and do it and become an instant dark side evil monster of a man.

However, you can also say to Mr Burke you will help him and then go running to the sheriff of the town and tell him about it too. I won't spoil much for anyone that has not played it, but the essences of doing this means you occasionally get ambushed by Talon Company mercs who have notes on their bullet riddled persons that you will dispatch with glee issuing a bounty on your head due to your goody goody actions.

Another example would be the encounter with a nutty scientist who was trying to make giant mutant ants smaller again and ended up making them breathe fire on people and destroy a whole town. He asks you, rather dispassionately, to go help him render the current bath of eggs impotent in the ant queen layer so he can start again with his mutagen batch. Since he showed little compassion for the people killed in the town above the tunnels, I saw fit to also press the button I was not meant to press that would destroy his mutagen sample so he could not do this again. He was rather unhappy at this and refused my payment. So I shot him in the face and took what I wanted from his lab. What the hell, not like there are laws any more to either stop me or bring this man to account, right?

So, you see what I mean by the moral choices, which I really like with a game and has been a rare treat to find. Other features of Fallout 3 is the unique aiming mode called V.A.T.S where you pause time and your targets are divided up into choice cuts on your HUD, each one with a percentage chance of hitting and damage state. You can cripple the arms or legs of an enemy, weakening their aim or slowing their pace. Cripple their heads to disorientate them or even just go for the head splattering brain fragmenting kill shot. This might sound like it critically breaks the flow of your action but you will surprised how much you use and and how it does have drawbacks. Because while you are treated to the head-splatter, limb detaching slow motion kill sequence of one bad guy, his friends are still slowly wrecking your shit and your controls are locked for a few seconds. And each shot you line up takes away action points that regenerate slowly so you have to use them sparingly when encountering a gang.

The ruins of DC doe a good job of herding you into choke points and ambushes to keep the difficulty fluid, and blundering around a corner into a raider outpost early in the game will really ruin your day. The options to run and hide are there but they may choose to search for you if they are certain you are still around. And sooner or later they go home. Keep this in mind for my secondary topic of PC gaming in general as I will come back to this.

Back on the difficulty curve, eventually it will seem more like a gentle slope as you advance in level and unlock more bad-ass means of breaking skulls, from awesome weapons to mad skills. However, the respectable DLC library will keep the challenge going. I had found the wastelands to become tame, as even the fearsome Deathclaws cower before me when I pick them off with a .44 cal hunting rifle and VATS assisted headshots. Then I got Point Lookout for the game and the first scrawny swamp mutant I came across gave me a real run for my money. Emptying nearly two clips from my assault rifle saw him off finally, as I mistook their heads for being the usual weak spot while they were quite resilient in the old noggin. And this was with a top level character with really good weapons. Another point I will revisit in my PC gaming section.

It is not, however, all sunshine and happy days as it seams, as occasionally I encountered some little annoyances with the game. As with many RPG games, inventory management would be a pain and this was no exception. While overall better than many others such as Mass Effect, you only had to press the wrong hot key and all the items you have in your store boxes will flood back into your personal inventory, leaving you to pick out the stuff you didn't want to keep on you once more and put them back into the box where they came from. Also, as you gather your loot from roaming the wastes and exploring that old burnt out town, you realise you accumulate more stuff than you can sell without some effort of travelling around, though there is a fast travel that helps for the most part. The vendors in various settlements slowly accumulate currency, in then novel form of bottle caps, but between your looting and hoarding of weapons and odd bits and bobs, you quickly outpace them and before you know it you have more stuff than you can shift. Again, this is the way RPG games have been and is no major deal on the whole.

However I also felt there were some missed opportunities with the game, and this is where I come onto PC gaming on the whole. I said in the blog about Chris Tarlor's that games modding is what sets PC games apart. Now, before people launch into the comments section and scream 'DLC!!!11!!!1!1!!!' at me, they are categorically not the same thing. And I will explain why, right now. A DLC is made by the game company to deliver you some additional content for a nominal fee. We have had these for a long time in PC gaming too, and they were originally called expansion packs. And while they can create a better gaming experience by giving you additional functionality, they don;t have the same spirit as a good PC mod made by some guy in his converted attic-now-battle-station-command area, surrounded by empty pizza boxes and drained cans of Red Bull.

The modder has seen where a game could be better and has some potential, and endeavours to open that crack of potential into a wide and gaping valley of gaming heaven. They are the enthusiasts that love gaming to the point they want to make it better all the time, and these are the kinds of people who make games in the industry today. However, an official DLC from a game developer is like getting something from a closed club of game makers, where getting a mod gives everyone the chance to give modding a try. And while Bethesda make DLC's too for Fallout 3, they see the major modding scene thriving at their feet and feed it with substantial tools like the G.E.C.K.

Anyone that has played Fallout 3, answer me this. Would you have liked to create a camp fire, cook better food from the basic stuff you harvested, carry a sleeping bag to sleep anywhere it is clear of enemies and even reload your own ammo? Did it make sense to you that even when wearing Raider armour the raiders would shoot you on sight? Would you have liked your own mini-vault elsewhere on the map closer to your favourite hunting grounds? Now, do you have Fallout 3 on a console? If you do then you cannot do any of this unless Bethesda implemented it in a DLC, which they have not. If you have the PC game, you can by downloading much of this at the Fallout 3 Nexus site.

I could download a mod that lets you recruit your character's childhood friend, Amata, as a team member, complete with her own mini-story of how she ended up out of the Vault. I also mentioned earlier I had really good weapons. That is because I downloaded a mod that added more weapons to the game, as well as means to get them if you can. Sure there are some over balanced weapons in the modding scene, and many of them are god mods where you can melt whole armies with one shot. And if you want to go for them then that is your issue. I simply downloaded a pistol that used the .308 cal ammo from sniper rifles. It looked like a chunky middle section of an old machine gun, missing the stock and with a shorter barrel complete with a huge compensator on the end. It was not much more powerful than the standard 10mm pistol, but it looked awesome and felt more satisfying when I fired it, because it was unique an custom feeling. Something I wish the named guns in the game itself would have had going for them. You could get the special hunting rifle, Ol Painless, but it looked and sounded just like the standard rifle. I wanted it to have maybe a custom scope, or a different looking stock, and maybe a different sound too so it felt special to have it. And modding can give me that experience.

It is not just Fallout 3 that has a mods coming out of the ears to make the game much more than it was on release. Other games such as X2 and X3, which I was often disappointed with, can be modded to enhance the game experience. For X3, I downloaded a mod that would create larger battles with the navies and pirates at random, give the pirates more ships than just fighters, so there were pirate cruisers out there too! I could crate a ship factory, which could make a ship from various components in the in game industry, and even buy my own capital ship docks and trade hubs to sell my goods through. Even better, I combined this with another mod that lets me taker over any system if I destroyed the trade hubs and other stations owned by that faction in the system, and placed my own trade hub there. Any non-faction stations would then pay me rent if I wanted them to. Also, I like lasers on my ships, not these slow moving energy projectiles the game comes with. Again, modding gives me this too.

Overall, there are many other aspects of PC gaming to highlight such as their larger array of MMOs, but going over them is not really needed. Console gaming has gone from strength to strength and has a target audience all of its own. They are awesome things and have become the social gaming experience of choice for fast action, quick loading multiplayer games. They are easier to haul to a gaming night with friends than a huge desktop, unless you have a very expensive gaming laptop. They can now have DLCs to get the same expansion to games ported on the PC. This is not about if a PC is better than a console. It is about PC gaming still being as strong as before, and everything consoles are owe themselves to PCs. They have not been more innovative than PC gaming rigs, they have just caught up and kept pace with the times.

My final word? Why, yes it is.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Video dev blogging and the game development process

OK, first blog entry here that does not review a game as such, but is very much on the video game industry in general. Ahh, I feel like I am making such progress here in covering a wide array of issues and topics as I said I would in my first ever blog entry.

So yeah, I was looking back over some unwatched podcasts so this might not be news to anyone that watches X-Play games podcasts. Gas Powered Games, currently developing Kings and Castles, are doing a video blog hosted by their CEO and owner Chris Taylor.

I wanted to bring this to the attention of anyone interested in the game making process like I am, and also like me for people aspiring for a future in the gaming industry. Basically he takes a camera around the GPG office on a weekly short video tour. They are very short, like 2-3 mins each, and pretty rapid fire. Despite being goofy and not very detailed, they are a good insight into the game development process and surprisingly you don't get to see much of this anywhere. In the X-Play podcast episode I saw this on, he even states people saying how it is not a good idea to show outsiders the 'secret' development processes behind the drawn curtains. His reply to that was 'Well, why not?'

I have scanned a couple of the vids already and, as I said, they are more goofy and at first they don't sem to show much. But as they get past the first few vids they start to pick up their stride and talk about development processes in little snapshots.

Also, the X-Play podcast episode is pretty good as well, though very short, as he touches on the subject of 'PC gaming is dead' and how silly the whole philosophy sounds. Not sure I agree that everyone screeching this is simply trying to 'create news' in the hopes of people agreeing with them, like trying to create a self-fulfilling prophecy or anything. There is a big picture that die-hard console gamers will not see when they are not immersed in the PC games world anyway so you cannot blame many of them for nodding in agreement to that statement. But I do agree with his thoughts that it is not true at all given the huge industry still existing and evolving in the PC game industry with the impact of MMOs and digital distribution. Also, you only have to look at many games for the PC (and sure they could have a console port as well) and google for any mod packs for the games. You will find a plethora of mods for many games to make them great. Now ask yourself how you get those mods on you console. You simply cannot.

PC gaming is the gateway to game development, purely because of the flexibility of many games for aspiring game writers who may well start their journey coding mods for PC ports of popular games. And so it will always remain.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Halo ODST, reflections before completion

OK my last blog went on a little too long so I guess I learned that unless I am being quick and snapshot like a single blog should be reserved for a single game.

Also, I stated in the last blog that Halo ODST was Halo's 'last outing'. And I now realise this could read wrong and fanboys will be waving their home made timeline spreadsheets in my face showing the sequence of events in complete chronological detail as well as the release dates for all games in the Halo series.

Yes, I know that the latest game is Halo Reach and there are no plans to make any more Halo games. By 'last' outing I do not mean the last one they will make. I mean the one before the current one. Like saying 'last night' where there will be another night ahead of us (we all hope). So hope that clarifies things. And no, I do not own Reach yet. Actually I only just got my hands on ODST, finally. And so this is my post about my thoughts on ODST and Halo in general.

Before I ventured into New Mombasa I had to rearm myself with the Halo story since it had been a while since my last play-through. I had played Halo on the PC so much in the past that I did not need to revisit it to remember the basics of the story. But often my recollection of events between Halo 2 and 3 gets compressed together and I mix up what happened when. So I grabbed my old Halo 2 disk and put it in the XBox 360 (god bless backward compatibility) and began to relive the adventure. After I played through Halo 2 and had refreshed myself enough, I put Halo 3 in and played through that too. As I did I picked up references to Reach that they had worked into Halo 2 and 3, so clearly by the time they got Halo 1 on the shelves they knew what they wanted to do and had a lot of the history set out. Halo 2 was released in 2004 as well so this is how long Reach has been on the drawing board as a story element at least.

I would love to recap the whole story of Halo but really, you should look up a wiki somewhere and read it or better yet get the games and play them.The story is too detailed and long to go over in a few words. Basically, lets just say that the Halos are scattered all over the galaxy, made by an ancient race of humans who evolved into space long before humans we know now came out of the caves. The Halos destroy all life in a wide area if they are activated, and they can all be activated at once from the Ark, somewhere outside the galaxy and there is a parasitic race called The Flood that Halo was designed to combat. Also humans are at war with another advanced alien conglomeration called The Covenant who worship the rings and a prophecy of 'the great journey' (guess what that is...)

So, Halo ODST takes place at the same time as Halo 2 when a Covenant fleet comes to Earth looking for something, not knowing where Earth was anyway, and are surprised to find us there. The Covenant carrier anchors over New Mombasa in Africa and hangs around for a while before bugging out by opening a jump portal above the city. In Halo 2 the city is engulfed in the energy wave and our hero, the Master Chief, follows the carrier through the jump to spank their arses some more.

In ODST you play the role of an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper who was sent into New Mombasa during the fleet fight at the beginning of Halo 2, though the original mission was to land on the carrier and take it out. Half way down though the intelligence spook attached to your unit changes the plan and starts to head for the city, overriding your drop pods and dragging you all with her. But before you hit the ground the carrier jumps and the energy wave washes over the pods too and scatters them around.

You play the rookie of the team, waking up at night, like 6 hours after the drop, with no contact with the unit. Your job is to find them in the city while dodging the Covenant forces still in the area, left behind by the carrier.

This is where the game differs from other Halo games and I am not sure yet if I like it or not. As I said in the RDR review, Halo is an on-the-rails shooter with a good story. You are nudged from one area to the next as the story progresses, given an objective and off you go. The paths are pretty linear, though you can try and flank the enemy with other routes around and such. Overall you are heading in the same direction. In ODST, however, you are dropped in an area of the city with most of the ways out locked down. You are alone and have to find your first clue to the squad's location. Then, suddenly as you find a piece that your squad left behind, you are thrust into the fight that happened there hours before, from the point of view of the squad leader. This is played out more like the traditional shooter games where you have one single objective and one general path. Then when events reach the ending that leaves the clue you found as the rookie, you switch back to night time again.

After the first clue is found you are given more intel that gives you hints where the squad might be and several areas in the city open for you to roam around with a few waypoints on your map to pick from. You can explore them in any order you like, and each one puts you in the shoes of one of the squad making their way into the city and finding other squad members. If you go through them in the order they are listed on your objective screen then you will get a coherent story out of them, where if you go through them in any order you will get the pieces all the same but have to make sense of them yourself.

And that is as far as I have gotten in the story at least. I found the last objective it listed for me and am playing through the part where the whole squad is back together, except for the poor hapless rookie, and are trying to get out of the city. But little is revealed about why they were diverted by the intel spook. That, I guess, is still to come.

So, how does it feel overall?

Well, as I said I am not sure if I like this method of storytelling as a game play feature. It feels a little like they had a story made up that was not very long and the running around from one waypoint to the next to be given it in pieces is a means of padding it out. But it does have its good points too. As a storytelling method in general, I do like it where the story unfolds from retrospective accounts bit by bit. I have even written a story series myself where I use this method, though this is on paper media rather than a game. So it is a bit of a conflict for me. I just felt that jogging from one part of the city to the other and back again, being ambushed in some places by Covenant forces, was starting to draw a little thin on my nerves by the third objective.

As for the controls, they are pretty good even though I am not a fan of any FPS on a console if I can help it. Unfortunately with Halo, I cannot help it since you cannot get it on the PC since the original game. I have not encountered any major issues with the controls so I am happy there.

As far as weapons go, one my my issues with Halo has been some weapons clearly are pointless and do nothing at all, and I am not talking about the little plasma pistols and such. And with each new game they have tried to revamp a couple of weapons to make them more effective in some situations. One nice feature is the instant kill headshot for the more accuracy based weapons like the human pistol and the covenant carbine rifle introduced in Halo 2 where it was largely a pile of garbage next to other counterparts. And this little feature does tie in nicely with the ODST being a crack assault team with special silenced and scoped SMGs not that different than the burst firing scout rifle in Halo 2 but with full auto as standard now. The emphasis on the game as the rookie alone in the city is survival and evasion where possible, so stand off battles will become your choice of tactic if you are not in a rush, and ammo conservation will be a priority in the Heroic difficulty or higher as ammo drops are low. Being able to bust heads with one bullet will be a precious skill to learn and the Brutes with their powerful shield generators on their armour take a lot of punch to strip down.

However I was bitterly dissapointed with the shotgun, which should have been the close in urban street sweeper of choice with buckets of stopping power point blank. But it did very little to the lightest of targets unless I pressed it against their eye sockets and said a short prayer to the god of hot lead.

This leads me onto the AI, who seem a lot more intelligent, though I jumped in on Heroic difficulty anyway so I guess they might be pretty stupid on easy mode. Last night I was trying to get past to another objective and one of the only two routes had two big and nasty Hunters, complete with plasma lasers and rocket launchers. At a push I could kill one of them with my pretty poor selection of weapons and ammo, but would pay the price of being clubbed into the floor like a squishy nail by the second guy thanks to the toll of health damage inflicted at this point. The other direction was a square at the end of a narrow road with a few nooks to take cover in, and was filled with about 6 Brutes and a couple of sniper Jackals. And it was here where I had an epiphany.

I struggled for ages to pass this wall of enemies not being able to charge them without dying and having to pick them off one by one and use my weapons smartly. My main frustration was that if they charged me I could dictate the fight and get some kills easier, forcing them into the narrow road where I could mow them down and lob a few grenades where they had little space to evade my fire. But as I was trying to kill them in the square from the cover of the road they had manoeuvring room to dive away from grenades and the slower Covenant projectiles from their powerful plasma rifles that could inflict lots of damage on them if the volley hits home. Yes it was frustrating not being able to close to killing distance due to their numbers. But hey, that is war! They were defending the square and quite happy to let me come and assault their position. Smart!

ODST has a pretty good sound track, kind of soft and moody jazz like a film noir piece and kicks in when you are playing the night sequences and usually alone on the street surrounded by the scenes of spent battles and burning cars. The city is pretty atmospheric in this way, which the music helps to enhance. The Covenant activity is lower at night and most of the streets are empty and poorly lit, save for the burning fires and flashing lights from half broken police cars. There are abandoned army barricades everywhere, corpses littler areas riddled with bullet holes and ad-screens built into nearly every piece of open wall show nothing but static lines. Some tunnels are still locked down blocking your direct routes in most cases and forcing you to go round and overall you do feel very much alone and abandoned in a huge and empty hostile city. Covenant troop ships patrol over head and occasionally drop people in your way to secure some vital choke points.

One last thing they have added, and it fells a little out of place to me, is an Easter egg hunt where you download and collect short audio logs from data bases following the exploits of some shady character in the city as the Covenant attacks and she is trying to escape. You hear the sounds of battle in the background and the people she is talking to. And I have to ask myself.... how did these short audio clips make their way into a myriad of public phones, ticket machines and even medical dispensers to be collected at a later date? They don't really have much to do with the story of the game except to maybe deliver some idea of what it is like to have your world turned upside down by an invading alien force when your life already sucks enough. The fact they are audio only is following the philosophy of less is more, leaving a lot to the imagination like some kind of radio play. However, I feel already that this is too much and the set pieces of a burning and abandoned city street or a police station riddled with bullets and over-turned desks studded with spikes from a Brute grenade shows quite enough of what would happen to a bustling urban centre. If they wanted a little more they could have added in unarmed civilians fleeing the front lines or cowering in public buildings and grocery shops as you played as the ODST troops scattered around the city when the real fighting kicks off. Because less is not only more, but more is more too. And in this case, it would have made more sense on seeing it.

Despite the game play being handled different, this is a good instalment to the Halo series and the game balance is handled well with the AI and weapon play. The story has mystery that is unfolding and the set has atmosphere. So I do rate it as a buyable game if you like FPS on a console.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Something old or something new?

Well the something old is not going to be that old at all. And the something new is.... well, older than the old. But whatever. Time is a relative construct and as far as where I am standing, the something new is something that I have owned since Saturday the 2nd October.

I speak of Halo ODST.

And the something old, I mentioned at the end of my first blog, is Red Dead Redemption.

Lets start with the old first. As I said in my last post, RDR is the only game I bought this year that was a new release when I grabbed the box off the shelf. I think it had been out for like 3 days at the most before I dragged it home and crammed the disk into the XBox 360. All I had seen were the trailers on Gamespot and on XBox live, and read the articles in the OXM mag. And I saw all I wanted to see. That magical Rockstar games logo. Birth givers to the GTA series of games that have only gotten better with age since the humble beginnings on the Playstation with their top-down car jacking antics.

So, GTA in the wild west? Well, actually, yes. One would think that the change of venue and time period would make such a claim hard to live to by default. But when you stop to think about it the antics in GTA were always more like the wild west in modern times anyway. But I guess anyone could bang on for a while about the social conditions of a life of crime showing parallels back to god knows how far in history. A life of crime is a life of crime at the end of the day.

So onto the gaming itself. Well, needless to say, I loaded the game and lost a whole day to it. This is always a good sign. The kind of game that kills your social life completely for weeks at a time. The house becomes a mess, the dishes begin to rot on the draining board and there you are skinning your 18th wild boar somewhere near the McFarlain Ranch for another level of hunting skill. Really, the fusing of little side interests (as opposed to mini-games, which are somewhat different, but also present in RDR) is something that can make a game stand out. And it is something Rockstar does very well. Some might argue too well, looking back at the likes of GTA San Andreas where people found entirely too much to do. By contrast, GTA IV has a fair bit less but what there is left is deeper and this is where they have matured the process and applied it to RDR. And, of course, there is the almost obligatory tie in with the XBox achievement system, where by collecting 10 Prairie Poppies will earn the player something like 5 gamer score points to their heaving or minuscule total.

Still, you have the options of chilling between bounties with a hand of Texas hold em, downing a random drink like whiskey or rum at the bar after boring a hole in some cocky shmuck's face on the thoroughfare to take the edge off, or trying to sneak into the back door of a bank to crack the safe instead of riding off to that important mission where you save some fat con merchant selling snake oil to the good folks of Rathskeller Fork.

Yes, there comes a little issue with the more open world games like this with the free roaming format between main missions. Sooner or later you reach the stage where a mission you just did leaves the story with a sense of urgency to the next mission, but you have time to gather your stuff and wander around between them. For a game based on a deep storyline this creates a real impulse to press on and keep going until you leave things in a calm enough state to go beat a table full of Mexican rebels at liar's dice. So why put in all the extras between missions if you are going to postpone the hanging of an abducted rancher's daughter for as long as you will it to collect wild flowers? It is all about how frequent this happens in the storyline, I guess. And RDR pulls off a balance where the story itself seems to pause and lose urgency and your running from one corner of the wilderness to the next to find a buried bar of gold does not seem as immersion breaking. And, if a story is suitably immersive then the player is compelled to continue the story missions rather than linger too long at the bar, or get sidetracked by the hunting skill system demanding you gather a bunch of rabbit skins.

I have also played other games that did not pull this off as well, such as the first Mass Effect where the storyline was this mad dash to save the galaxy with emphasis on no time to be wasted, but you could choose to wander between missions and explore some planets a little more tagging ore deposits and hacking old technology only to be given a gun tat was worse than the ones you already had.. Overall that part of the game seemed like a tacky and bolted on afterthought with very little to actually do anyway so there was not so much motivation to press through the storyline as there was little else to do. In retrospect, ME would have been better as a simple on-the-rails shooter game, like Gears of War or Halo, to match the constant fast pace of the whole story.

Back to RDR though, and I will say that some stuff was pretty annoying, such as the controls. If you will notice a theme on my future posts where I come to the downside of any game, it will usually start or end with the control system. I find myself frequently let down by the controls of many a good game and it seems like the proverbial skidmark on the fresh britches of a game. Some are destined to get it wrong constantly. Overall Rockstar has a good track record with controls, and the only real issues come when the character you control has some strange behaviour in certain situations that usually always crop up when you are trying not to die while making sure that others around you shake hands with the devil instead.

The times I have found myself unable to jump on the blasted horse or make it turn when I want to and lose speed as it skids to a halt by the edge of a sharp drop in the terrain. Or when I have tried to shoot from horseback and suddenly the camera locks onto the wrong enemy that is right behind me instead.

Also, there is a constant rolling tutorial when you encounter something new and it will show you how to play the game again. The only trouble is that it is on a live timer so you have to read really fast, absorb the information and apply it or face death or failure or simple confusion. For the most part I absorbed quickly with one exception. The duelling system. I still am not entirely sure how it works or what effect I have on the outcome and while at first I won most duels, some I could not win no matter what I did. Though a couple of them I found out why after doing some digging and it was less to do with my understanding of the duel system and more a limited option tat was available to me.

This maybe a little spoiler but both duels are on a side quest so I guess you can go ahead and read otherwise skip ahead to the next paragraph. Basically one duel involves you teaching some hot shot actor a lesson who thinks he is now some kind of legend of the west. His producer wants you to go talk some sense into him. Instead he challenges you to a duel and naturally you know that killing him might be a bad idea so you avoid the shots anywhere that could kill. However I like to think that games are moving past the scripted requirements and shoot to kill anyway thinking I might just fail the quest when I tell the producer he is dead. But no..... you lose the whole game. Over a side quest... So I second guess the options available to me and aim for the gun this time and shoot to disarm thinking this display of marksmanship will make Mr Legend shit a square brick and get back behind the camera once more after washing his nickers. But instead, no matter how I do, I get shot and die. It was getting frustrating until I resorted to a community wiki for RDR and read the walkthrough where it seems I am not the only one to be infuriated by this lack of choice in the matter and it clears it up that the only way to work it is to shoot him in the arm. Duh! I figured that wounding him would not be a good idea as people like their actors capable of acting without bleeding on their costumes. But I guess I was wrong. But why oh why could I not jut get the same outcome by shooting the gun out of his hand like I do many of the usual suspects in the towns? The same specific requirements are applied to another duel where you have to talk a rich guy into looking after his mistress who is now pregnant and kicked out by the wife. He too wants to shoot you for presuming to get involved and of course I don't want to kill this poor sap. But it seems the only way to win is to kill him and anything less will not do. There is a reason I won't go into, so lets just say the next encounter on this little side mission requires he be dead. Whatever happened to alternate outcomes for different moral choices? Guess I have been expecting too much from having played the likes of Fallout 3 and such.

Still, with few other complaints I felt the game was worth every penny. The horses are animated wonderfully, the gun play is awesome and satisfying, the story is pretty compelling (if loaded a little with too many obvious bad guys and bastards) and it does justice to the wild west without resorting to gimmicks and dramatisations present in Hollywood. It has a dirty feel to the muddy frontier, and a walk in the woods will earn you a savage mauling from a pack of wolves if you're not careful.

One final note though, and it is one of slight disappointment, with the whole hunting side quests. I fully expected to be able to use some of the stuff I gathered and apply them to actual survival in the wilderness. You collect desert sage and fever few and the descriptions talk about making teas with them for fight off infections. There are snakes that will bite you or your horse. You can cam under the stars or on a stormy night and here I have all these furs to keep the protagonist warm. And a bucket full of chops of meat rated in quality. But the only thing I can do with them is to sell them. It seems like a missed opportunity on Rockstar's behalf but maybe speaks of most games created under the economic troubles where studios were downsizing or getting rid of production houses and developments were being cut short. RDR was one of these victims, being released earlier than predicted due to a drop in funding and the need to exploit the game right now for the cash they could milk from it.

It is still an awesome game though. Should I give it a rating? Am I going to start rating some games on a percentage scale or one to five stars? No. But the game did sit at the top of Gamespot's chart for a couple of months as the editor's choice. And this is a game that earned that, and was not paid for under the table in advance like other games have been. So as I said, it is an awesome game.

And that's all for now.... what? Halo ODST? Oh I won't be covering that in this blog. Sorry, did I make it sound like I would? Well, I was going to but this one has hammered on for quite long enough I think so I will save Halo's last outing for another day.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

So here goes nothing...

... really, nothing.

Like, this first post will most likely not be related to the blog in any way, shape or form. This is the scene setter which, as an author will tell anyone, is essential the process of establishing something. Not that this blog is something...

I have not blogged in a long while now and the last time I blogged was for a game called X-Plane. A flight sim that sucked away much of my early young adult life. Not that I mind, since you could create your own planes and it had, and still does have, an awesome community at When the site was upgraded from a simple forum with a download server to a full on social portal, blogs were added and I began moaning about anything and everything in life back then. Anything but X-Plane really, to set myself apart from the hard core aircraft developers using the blogs as a development update tool.

And so here I am again, diving on the fringes of something that most internet dwellers have been doing habitually for years anyway.

I make no commitments to this blogging, like saying I will make at least ## posts a month, and like before I might just let it fade out into obscurity and become another neglected corner of cyberspace stuffed with information and ramblings of a single person. I will, however, make a single vow to stay on topic on the subject of gaming.....

Yeah, right.

Well ok I guess most of my posting will be on the gaming industry and games that I play. And I make no apologies that I am no professional games reviewer or that I will most likely post stuff about games that people adore where I highlight the failings of the game itself on a small level. Or that I will turn around and declare my disinterest in a particular genre of games. Or even for any typos and spelling errors (that I totally put in there deliberately to see who spots them......)

I may, occasionally, post other stuff here about my life, hopefully none of it a rant or whine. Just the simple reflections of a person who is as interesting as a stuffed olive. But on the whole, I will try and post whatever games reviews, thoughts and ideas I have.

So, that is about it really. Exciting no? .... yeah, I thought you would agree.

I will be kicking off with a few blogs this month anyway, to get some good solid games stuff down that I have been bottling up for a while and to set the theme of the blog as a whole. Some will backtrack to past games influences that I would have blogged about if I were doing this xx number of months ago, but I was not and so I will do a couple of retrospectives. I will also talk about a couple of games I have recently played, though everyone else around me has played it when it came out like a year ago or something silly. I am often behind on gaming and keep trying to race to catch up others. In fact the only game I bought this year close to release was Red Dead Redemption....

Ohh there I go. I said at the start this blog was not going to be on topic and I finally mentioned a game title...

This is as good a time as any to leave this here and save this stuff for future blogs. As a scene setting goes, I think this was quite good.