Monday, October 27, 2008

And Now I'm Playing Fable II

One of two games this fall that I'd seen fit to pre-order, (the other being Left 4 Dead) I picked up my copy of Fable II at my local Gamestop's midnight sale, joined by about fifty other eager gamers. Another great reason to pre-order was early access via XBox Live to Fable II : Pub Games, which featured all three casino-style gambling mini-games from Fable II, coupled with the ability to transfer one's winings to their hero when they got the full game.

So I started playing Fable II last week, and have progressed steadily through the game, mostly enjoying myself. It's a game that has a lot going for it, and I like it, but I can't say I think it's the second coming of Zelda or anything of the sort. It's a great game, but not an overwhelmingly groundbreaking one, which is odd considering all the digging one does in the world of Albion.

I'll try to explain why.

On the plus side, it's got a huge world to explore, but allows the player to skip over areas when it comes time to backtrack. Once you go to another area, it's added to the map, becoming only a few clicks away on the Quests / Map tab. The combat is superb, offering hack-and-slash action that's a cut above many recent releases. One button for melee, one for ranged attacks, and one for magic, with a few added abilities for each, makes combat simple and fun, yet challenging and complex at times.

The NPCs, from villagers and guards to farmers and bards, are numerous yet very similar to each other, and react to your deeds and "renown" when they see you. There are many factors which influence they attitude toward the player, and many ways to interact with them, including marriage, sex, and parenting. The whole "Sim Middle Ages" thing is complex, but not all that endearing after messing around with it for a few minutes.

The social aspects might be a feature that I grow to appreciate more in the coming weeks as I play deeper into the game, but so far the game creates no emotional pull when doing things like getting married and having children, other than a brief, narrated cutscene about those institutions, and a few lines of "welcome home" dialogue after a notable absence.

The economic aspects of owning homes and businesses is also detailed, but so far has not been enthralling. It makes for a nice investment, though, raking in rent money from one's properties while out adventuring, and even while offline to some extent, it seems. Again I caution that I'm not that far along with Fable II to safely say that there isn't more importance to the social and economic aspects later in the game, but so far they seem like minor, albeit detailed, bells and whistles.

They do factor into the game's overarching story in terms of players being able to choose good or evil paths through the world. This aspect of the game is well done, harkening back to games like Ultima IV where moral quardries would pop up from time to time, often without clear ideas of the consequences or impacts one's decisions would make. I suspect that this offers the game much replay value as well, as some quests simply cannot be done while maintaining one side or the other.

The story and characters are pretty standard fantasy fare, with tales of triumph and tragedy and mystery, but again, so far, they haven't really endeared themselves all that much. The only character so far that has done that successfully is the much-hyped NPC dog that follows one through the game. It's a marvel and well deserving of all the praise it's been getting.

I have yet to try the innovative online co-op with any of my friends, nor do I see a benefit to it at this time. Perhaps later, when I've completed the game, there may be some parts of the game that will be more fun played that way.

Some minor complaints include slow load times between zones, graphical glitching, slow menus (with another really slow clothes-changing menu a la Grand Theft Auto IV - can't anyone make one of these that works at modern speed?), and extremely tedious work mini-games of blacksmithing, woodcutting, and bartending. I'd almost believe these laborous tasks were designed by former Ultima Online designers.

Really, all gripes aside, Fable II is a pretty good adventure game with great combat and detailed social aspects. Where it bogs down, and what it lacks, are very minor complaints that won't keep anyone from having an enjoyable run through a few towns, dungeons, or wooded areas. I suspect as well that the game will have a longer replay value than most games of this genre, so it's a good value as well as a solid title.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Stomping Around In Dead Space

I've been watching recent game releases, thinking of picking up a new game for my XBox 360 that would be worthy of the insane sixty dollar price tag. Reviews and free demos of Star Wars : The Force Unleased and Fracture made me decide to wait and see what else was coming out. Last week, I took the plunge and picked up Dead Space, an EA game of survival horror set aboard a huge planet-cracking space ship.

Now, the so-called survival horror genre kind of spent its nickel with me a long time ago, possibly as far back as Resident Evil, when those dogs come jumping through the window. Since then, nothing in gaming really makes me jump out of my seat like that, because every new room I enter, I'm remembering those dogs and am ready for it. You know the cliches, and in many of the genre's titles, Dead Space included, moody music cues you in to impending zombie "gotcha".

Dead Space does all the standard stuff very well, though. It plays with the over-the-right-shoulder view of Resident Evil 4, with your health bar running along your spine as a part of your Celestial-esque (a Jack Kirby/Marvel Comics reference, look it up) space armor. Corpses, debris, and gore are everywhere in the derelict ship, and the monsters that hop out at you consist of mutated things that claw and stab. It's the standard story of the nutjob scientist with delusions of grandeur, down on stagnated human evolution and thinking that somehow savagely violent virus-mutated monsters are the way ahead. And the spaceship is the standard design seen since those Alien movies, with dark metal halls lined with tubes and wires. Yawn.

Everything is very polished from the stunning graphics and moody lighting to the interfaces, heads-up displays, and the controls. My only complaint about the controls is that the inventory takes too long to come up, and one wrong movement on the D-pad can mean trouble if you pass over the med kit you need. The action does not pause when you're digging around in your inventory.

The game would be pretty good if it just did all that - got everything right and polished. But there are a few gameplay elements that really shine in Dead Space, the biggest one being the zero-gravity areas. Moving and fighting in these areas could have gone horribly wrong, but thankfully they got it working well. You're wearing magnetic boots, so when you enter zero gravity areas, you stick to the floor. When you need to get somewhere that's not on the floor, you aim the left trigger to where you want to go and hit the Y button to jump across.

This makes for some fun, vertigo-twisting gameplay a-la Super Mario Galaxy, when suddenly up is down. Another exceptional gamplay aspect is the need to dismember many of your enemies to take them down. Straight shots to the chest may slow them down, but only by taking off an arm and a leg (much like game makers do to us with these SIXTY DOLLAR GAMES) will you finish them off.

There's a cool stasis ability which can be a livesaver when it freezes / slows down enemies, and a kinesis ability that's use is akin to the awesome gravity gun from Half Life 2. In fact, I've used it in similar manners, shooting explosive tanks at oncoming enemies with the same effect. Both of these abilities are used to solve puzzles as well as in combat.

The armored hero has a powerful melee option, swinging wildly the gun he is holding, in a forward and return arc. He's also got a thundering stomp ability, not that useful all the time, but fun to break open crates with and pulp up the blood-splattering corpses of downed enemies.

I've reached as far as a really tough boss fight at the end of Chapter 6 of Dead Space so far, and I'm having a good time with it. Dead Space is the first really good title of the holiday season this year, doing all the conventional stuff of survival horror really well (and polished), and then becoming exceptional with some great new gameplay elements thrown into the mix.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Wii Fit It Into Our Schedule When We Can

I got the call at work, just as I was leaving. My wife, Monique, out shopping at a nearby Target store, sighted one of the rarest sights in the modern consumer jungle - a Wii Fit. Since its release in May, the Wii Fit package - which comes with the balance board and Wii Fit program disc - has been as elusive as the Wii itself in the wild. I had never seen one myself.

But this Target store is somewhat of an anomaly. It's one of the last holdouts in a consumer dead zone, an area of empty strip malls and closed stores near our apartment. Being built just one exit off of the freeway down from that doomed Target is another, newer Target store in a booming area of homes and stores that has supplanted the old one. All of this makes this Target less visited, and thus my wife saw not one, but two Wii Fits just sitting there for sale.

So she bought it, and we've been working out with it every day ever since. It measures your balance, weight, and BMI (body mass index or something like that, which means how much you weigh corresponding to your height), and then logs it so you can do day by day comparisons.

Designed in Japan, the Wii Fit has clearly been made - and I'm treading dangerously close to racial stereotypes here - for the body types found there, and not for the many shapes and sizes that might be found in our American melting pot. And it's also lacking any sense of tact when dealing with those weight variances. Step on the board and you'll get an "ohh!" from the board's onscreen avatar, which kind of comes across as "Ooooh! Even though I'm designed to handle up to 300 pounds, your 190 is really straining me, fatty."

It gets worse. The Wii Fit program, after measuring you each day, chides you for any increase at all, even when it's less than two pounds, which it states is generally the amount of weight that everybody gains or loses each day through regular eating. It categorizes anyone without the exact BMI required as "overweight" or even "obese".

It criticizes posture as well, and warns of dire consequences if you rely on one leg even slightly more than the other. Excuse my leg breaking accident 11 years ago, Nintendo. Sheesh. In addition, it gets all snippy if you don't exercise at the exact same time every day. Again, maybe life in Japan is more structured, I really don't know, but ours is a freaking circus, so we should be rewarded for stepping on the damn board every day at all, regardless of if it was an hour later than the previous day.

But wait, there's more. This morning, during my workout, the Wii Fit asked me if I'd noticed any problems with Monique's posture. It gave me four answers to choose from, and of course since she was standing there watching me work out I answered "looks good", as any husband who wants to live another ten minutes would. The question really took me off guard, though, and made me wonder if this insidious piece of plastic and circuitry was trying to start some shit between me and my wife. Hey Wii Fit - if you have any issues with my wife's posture, take it up with her and leave me the fuck out of it.

All that being said, Wii Fit is fun and yes, I can feel the burn. There are Yoga and Strength Training exercises which are the real meat and potatoes of working out, and there are Aerobics and Balance Games which are the dessert, and thus a lot more fun. There are more exercises for each category unlocked as you continue to work out each day, and it keeps and compares scores between each user, so Monique and I compete for the high score in each category.

So Wii Fit is good, and it will probably do what it's supposed to do, as long as we stick with it. The question is, will we? We're commited to do so, but if we go out of town or some emergency comes up, and we miss a day, I've got a feeling that the harsh taskmaster that is the Wii Fit program will be so snotty about it as to discourage any further attempt at commitment.

As always, time will tell.