Saturday, December 26, 2009

Sword of Fargoal For The iPhone!

Sword of Fargoal for the iPhone! Sword of Fargoal for the iPhone! What more do you need to know?

Okay, fine.

Sword of Fargoal is a classic Commodore Vic 20 and Commodore 64 game by Jeff McCord, a dungeon crawler of intensely hard difficulty but addictive gameplay. I've mentioned it before on this blog.

The iPhone version, with updated graphics and a save feature, is a masterpiece, recreated by McCord and a few others with deft craftsmanship. The gameplay is the same classic top-down dungeon exploration and combat, but enhancements like the epic music and lighting effects really add to the experience.

But all that I really should need to say is that SWORD OF FARGOAL IS ON THE IPHONE! If you are a middle-aged gamer like me, or a younger pup who has any appreciation for the classics, this is THE game to get for your iPhone. Sword of Fargoal remains a fantastic and challenging game that has stood the test of time far better than most.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Beaten : Alien Invaders - Plus

Every Christmas, I sit down for a few minutes with the Odyssey 2 game Alien Invaders Plus, the first game I got (other than the console's pack-in game Speedway/Spinout/Crypto-Logic) for the system, twenty eight years ago today. I play the game each year until I beat back the alien horde, which isn't too hard.

Alien Invaders Plus is the Odyssey 2's answer to Space Invaders, and it's nowhere near as good. Each wave of invaders the player faces count as a round. Beat ten rounds or lose ten lives and the game is over. The three rows of aliens consist of a small barracade row, which is indestructable, a gun, and an alien soldier. Shooting either the gun or the soldier stops them from shooting you, but the round only ends when all the soldiers are dead and the mother ship is destroyed.

The only other unique aspect of Alien Invaders Plus is the fact that once your gun, depicted at the bottom of the screen as a pyramid, gets hit, you flee as little soldier yourself, vulnerble to alien fire. If you get to one of your three barracades unhurt, you can transform it into another gun and keep fighting.

The firing patterns and movements of the invaders all came back to me after a few minutes, no doubt stored in my brain all these decades, and I again beat back the aliens. I'm sure they'll be back next year, though.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Borderlands - Polished, Playable, Perfect

Borderlands is a real gem in the bustling Fall 2009 videogame release schedule. It's a first-person shooter with some light role-playing elements, gorgeous cell-shaded graphics, and character and style in droves.

Players pick from one of four character classes, each with different skills and abilities to develop. Cast onto the desolate and largely abandoned world of Pandora, a long quest unfolds amid the carnage, character development, and showers of loot that the player experiences. The rocky, barren landscape is dotted with human settlements and scrapyards, inhabited with strange critters, bands of hostile rogues, and really cool robots called Claptraps.

The world is divided into many zones, most of them fairly large, but easily accessable vehicles and teleporters make travel a snap. There are plenty of side missions that take the player into these areas, and a crude map feature makes finding your quest's destination also hassle - free. Everything that is done floods the player with loot, loot, and more loot, and a lot of time has to be spent in sub-screens comparing weapons and other items. All of these screens are well designed and accessable, and in no time the player will be zipping in and out of them with deft navigation.

Graphically gorgeous and stylistic, Borderlands looks good and moves fast. The story is light, but the missions are varied and numerous, and the characters you meet along the way are wacky and good, clean fun. There are some great pop-culture references in there, too.

Polished and playable, Borderlands is a top-notch FPS with just the right amount of RPG tossed into the mix. There's lots of loot and exploration to complement the endless action. And the first downloadable expansion, The Island of Dr. Ned, offers even more fun. It's one of those games where the player is compelled to do every side quest just to keep it from ending. Yes, Borderlands is that damn good, and I suspect that a lot of us who enjoyed it are hoping it gets a sequel.

Brutal Legend - A Strange Mix With A Great Story

I haven't updated in awhile - great new games are coming out fast, I went to Dallas for a few weeks for know, screw the excuses, let's just start catching up.

Brutal Legend is a heavy metal hybrid action/real time strategy game that tells the story of roadie Eddie Riggs, who finds himself cast into some bygone age where everything looks like an epic metal album cover. He starts out with an axe and a guitar, one for slashing enemies in melée, the other for rocking a few riffs from a distance, bringing bolts of lightning down on his target. The guitar also can play a few speciality riffs in a sort of sideways Guitar Hero-esque button sequence, with varying effects such as summoning Eddie's heavy metal hot rod.

The countryside opens up in stages, with plenty of side missions to explore, either on foot, by hot rod, or by riding around on the back of some of the wildlife. Most side missions are the same, but there are a few exceptions. The hack and slash action is a blast, as is the story that unfolds as you play. After awhile, the band of rebels you're traveling with goes on tour, and the gameplay changes to large real time strategy stage battles. Eddie, as a roadie should, manages these battles like a concert, creating and deploying units and managing things around the battlefield.

It's quite a shift in the gameplay tempo that works surprisingly well. It's frantic and challenging, and accessable even to someone like me who does not play those sort of games. Brutal Legend pulls this risky gameplay mishmash off seamlessly, and the player from this point out moves between the two genres as the genuinely brilliant heavy metal story unfolds.

The open world remains accessable as the main story plays out, and after the game is won. This allows the player to finish side missions and collection quests, including those that upgrade weapons and the hot rod, and most importantly add songs to the awesome metal soundtrack. The hot rod had a radio tuned into this soundtrack and I found myself taking the long way to my destination just so a classic song would finish.

Brutal Legend is a bold and refreshingly unique game that succeeds on a lot of levels. It's not perfect, but the fantastic story and the surprisingly fun gameplay brought a smile to this former headbanger's face.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Milestones : Adventure Construction Set

As a college freshman whose dreams of being a videogame designer were dashed upon the realization that he sucked at math, I welcomed the arrival of Stuart Smith's Adventure Construction Set. Previewed during the spring of 1985 in an issue of Computer Entertainment magazine ( which was what the legendary Electronic Games magazine had transformed into after the Great Videogame Crash), it was one of the titles that I had to have once I had acquired a Commodore 64 and a disk drive.

Adventure Construction Set was the complete package. The presentation style was that of Ultima, and indeed that of Stuart Smith's previous games, the classic top-down tile-based one. Included were three small tutorial adventures, which served as an excellent guide to the set's unlimited potential, as well as the epic Rivers of Light, a full-sized adventure that was so good that it could have been sold as a separate product.

So what greatness did I construct with ACS? Sadly, there was no epic forthcoming from me. Oh, I dabbled for years with it, creating small environments, objects, and monsters from time to time. One game I was working on had an item that I had called the Godkiller Gas, a potion which I had cleverly concealed in the very first room of the game, and when used by the player could kill any creature encountered thereafter. It was an exercise on my part in creating a diabolical Easter egg. And while it was all fun creating such things with ACS, I never made it through the whole process and created a finished product.

I had realized that it wasn't just the math that I lacked that was keeping me from being a videogame designer. It was a lack of design discipline. At the time I was nineteen years old, working my way through college, and partying probably too much for my own good. My focus and attention span were nowhere near what they needed to be to create a cohesive adventure. In addition, ACS had some of the longest loading times of that era, further making the construction process one that required patience and commitment.

One other thing that ACS taught me was a sense of appreciation combined with pity for the designers who create these fantastic worlds that we play in. The meticulous process of world-building that I saw hands-on in ACS made me realize that the folks who made games like Ultima IV, The Legend of Zelda, and King's Field will never know the same joy that we as players know exploring them. Every hidden secret and every epic encounter that I remember was someone's line of code.

Adventure Construction Set put the power of a game designer in my hands. Like some pompous Marvel Comics supervillain cliche, though, the power of a god was too much for me and I ultimately failed to hold onto it. But it was a milestone in my personal gaming journey, and was still a lot of fun while I had it.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

iPhone At Last!

All that overtime has paid off, and the reward is a brand new Iphone 3GS. This weekend will be mostly dedicated to learning how to use it's many features, such as this onscreen keyboard and the ability to update this blog from the road.

So far, I'm loving this amazing device. Long ago, this is the sort of thing we all dreamed that the future would hold for us, along with flying cars and world peace. I guess one out of three ain't bad!

Monday, September 28, 2009

What I've Been Playing, When I'm Not Working

Starting back in August, I worked an 11 day stretch, then was on vacation in San Antonio, Texas for six days. When I got back from that, I had a few days to play videogames before going back to work six days straight, then one day off, then six more. To summarize, I've had little time to play and less time to blog. So it's time for one of those quick-review wrap-up articles like I used to do.

Harvey Birdman : Attorney At Law (Wii)
I picked up this title (at last) when I saw it at a Half Price Books in San Antonio while on vacation. It lacks some of the depth of a Phoenix Wright title, but none of the difficulty. I'm stuck about halfway through it. It could be that I'm out of practice. The game looks just like the wacky cartoon and offers the same offbeat humor.

Mazes of Fate (Game Boy Advance)
This obscure GBA title was one I've been looking out for for awhile, and I got it at the same Half Price Books for less than ten dollars. I've only scratched the surface, but so far it's just as I'd hoped - and old school first-person dungeon crawler.

Retro Game Challenge (DS)
At a Gamestop in San Antonio, Monique and I each got ourselves a new DS game. Mine was this title, a mere twenty dollars. Retro Game Challenge is just was it says it is. Players play through challenges on old-school games. I've only unlocked two of the games, the first being a Galaga-style game that's better than Galaga, and the second an NES-era side-scrolling action platforming game.

The gameplay takes place on the top screen of the DS, while on the lower screen, you see yourself as a small child, sitting in front of the TV as you did so long ago, with your friend watching you play and offering encouragement. The whole experience is a nostalgic reminder of those simpler, more innocent gaming days. There are even videogame magazines lying around where you can read about the games you are playing and even get cheat codes and strategies. Awesome.

Space Bust-A-Move (DS)
Monique picked up Space Bust-A-Move for the DS, also for $20. In her words, it's great. It starts out easier than the other two versions we have (PS1 and Wii), but gets progressively harder, with boss battles and such. The space part comes from cosmic backgrounds and levels taking place on different planets. The stylus controls are also good, according to Monique. We have yet to try the single-card multiplayer, but I'm sure that it's fun too.

The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion : The Shivering Isles (Xbox 360)
The Shivering Isles expansion takes the already huge world of the main game and adds another vast area to explore. The Shivering Isles, a place divided between Mania and Dementia, are ruled by the charming and often hilarious Sheogorath, who rambles on in a Scottish accent as he tasks you with stopping the Greymarch. It's a great quest, more challenging at times than the main game, with new monsters and items a'plenty. I played it on and off for a few months after beating the main game, and finally finished it a few weeks ago at the end of my vacation.

Halo 3 : ODST (XBox 360)
Last week I picked up this spin-off adventure in the Halo universe, where players play a rookie Orbital Drop Shock Trooper during the attack on New Mombasa in Halo 2. I think. Regardless of my tenuous grasp of Halo continuity, I had a blast over the last few days playing through the game's campaign mode on Heroic. The ODST is no Spartan like Master Chief is, and thus the gameplay has a few differences. He heals through healthpacks rather than waiting for himself to regenerate. He can't jump as high or melee very well.

But all these differences make the game, which has the same enemies, weapons, and vehicles as Halo 3, really refreshing. Also new is the visor that helps the rookie see better at night, and adds a nice red outline to ememies. The setting is also great - the rookie walks around the battle-scarred city at night, ducking Covenant patrols (or fighting them), and looking for clues as to what happened with to the squadmates that he got seperated from at the start of the game.

When the rookie finds such a clue, the game shifts players into the role of that squadmate, and what happened to him during the six hours the rookie was out cold. It's a very good storytelling method that really got me interested in the characters, in a way that Halo 3 completely failed to do with Master Chief. Each character's adventures aren't all that new - there's a Warthog driving mission, a sniper mission, and so on - but they're still all good fun.

The multiplayer aspect of Halo 3 : ODST comes with every expansion to Halo 3 on a second disk, as well as the all-new Firefight mode (a survival mode, I think), none of which I've tried yet. Halo 3 : ODST is a great package and well worth the price for fans of the game.

Ultime Online (PC)
Yep, I'm back in UO during the current Return to Britannia program. I'm not staying. All I've done so far is sail around the changes they've made to Avatar Island in Trammel with the Stygian Abyss expansion. They basically raised a volcano on the northwestern edge of the island.

All I can say is, man, I'm glad I sold that beachfront villa I had placed there back during the Trammel Land Rush of 2000 when I had the chance. All of that pristine beach is gone, replaced by cooled lava. None of the Stygian Abyss stuff looks like anything that would bring me back to the game on a permanent basis, but as long as it's free, I can sail around for old time's sake.

Well, that wraps up what I've been playing lately. My work schedule doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon, sort of like the fall videogame release schedule, so I'm not sure if my next update will be like this one, or back to single-game reviews.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Batman : Arkham Asylum Committed To Design Excellence

I'm tired of all my reviews beginning with "Beaten". Looking back at my blog, almost every one of the reviews over the last year has started with that word. I'm going back to bad headline puns (wherever possible), and I'll just mention whether or not I've beaten the game in each review.

On to Batman : Arkham Asylum, then. The dark night of mediocre - to - good releases of 2009 is finally over with the arrival of this game, the best new game of 2009 so far, probably the best licensed superhero game ever made, and one helluva polished product. This game is great on every level, and yes, this morning I beat it.

Like Ghostbusters : The Video Game, the player gets to really feel like Batman in this game. Let's make these two games the watermark of how to make a licensed property work on that level. Arkham Asylum pits the Caped Crusader against the Joker and his sinister plot at the famed institution, where all the costumed villains go to get therapy (or just imprisoned). The story is fantastic - good enough to be its own movie or comic book - and unfolds with twists and turns throughout.

The gameplay has Batman walking, running, and grappling around the island and its various spooky environments in third-person view, normally, with the camera changing angles during fight scenes, and a few 2.5D side-scrolling gameplay sequences thrown in for good measure. Batman gains new gadgets, combat moves, and other upgrades throughout his adventure, and at almost all times has access to a "detective vision", sort of a tactical X-ray, night sight, and environmental analyzer rolled into one, that is so useful that I rarely turned it off.

The detective vision shows other people as skeletons, letting the player know if they are friend or foe, armed or unarmed, and dead or alive. It can be used to track wiring to security boxes, see weak points in walls, and so forth. It's a shame that it's so good at times, as the graphics of the game are also so well done that it's a shame to miss them. The voice-acting is also very good, and not to be missed.

Ah, combat. This game is the prime rib of action-brawlers, with the fighting moves that the Dark Knight has being fine-tuned to an exceptional degree. It has a simple button layout, but allows for the development of powerful combo attacks and free-flowing combat, leaving the player gleefully punching and kicking through hordes of henchmen like a whirlwind. Combat can also be honed in the optional challenge modes, short scenarios that are great for practice, as well as having XBox Live leaderboards so the player can see how poorly they fare against the million or so other players who've scored higher.

Stealth is the bat's best choice in many scenarios, and really the only way to take out rooms full of armed foes. Sneaking around in the rafters, taking out the henchmen one at a time - it never gets old. Watching their reactions, and hearing the Joker's comments to the over the loudspeakers is a joy.

While the main villain is the Joker, of course, there are appearances by other classic Batman foes, some as boss battles, and some as mere cameos of sorts. Of special mention is the Riddler, who has set up an amazing collection-quest set of challenges on the island. Batman's full arsenal of gadgets is required to get them all, and fortunately finishing the game does not prevent their acquisition.

Most of them are simple tasks like find the glowing question-mark trophies, or smash 20 of the chattering, wind-up Joker teeth laughing all around the grounds, but others require some thinking just to figure out what sort of puzzle is going on in the first place. It's by far the most satisfying collection quest I've seen in a game this generation, and I was proud to figure them all out on my own. Searching around for them is made easier by discovering the maps of where they all are in each section, but the map doesn't just hand the riddles to Batman.

Much of the collection quest opens character files and trophies, each adding to the lore of the cast of characters. The bios of each character explains their stories and abilities, and even lists their first comic book experience. Awesome.

There's also something that I can't spoil that occurs at one point in the game that filled me with absolute fear and then absolute glee. It was pure design brilliance, a totally insane moment where the developers mess with the players to a degree unprecedented in the history of videogames. Hats off to them for doing this thing. Players will know it when it occurs.

Everything about Batman : Arkham Asylum is design brilliance, though. There's great combat, a fantastic story with twists and turns, gorgeous graphics, tons of exploration in moody environments, lots of gameplay variety, files of lore to experience, and a sense that the player is really Batman for the entirety of this lengthy quest to stop the Joker.

Word is that some downloadable content is just s few weeks away, and with all the challenge modes I've unlocked, I can say that even though I've stopped the Joker's sinister plot, my time at Arkham Asylum is not quite through. The Fall 2009 videogame season has kicked off quite well with Batman : Arkham Asylum, a game that's polished and playable in every way.

Beaten : Crackdown

I finally picked up a cheap copy of Crackdown, an open-world third-person game that I tried out last year when a co-worker loaned it to me, and a few weeks ago I finished it. Crackdown is yet another game in the XBox 360's growing library of classics, and while its spot on that list is well-deserved, it's a game that gets so much right while missing some greater opportunities along the way.

Crackdown casts the player as a genetically enhanced super-cop in a vast city where three gangs - a Latino one, a Russian one, and an Asian one - have all but taken over their respective turfs. The player has five abilities - agility (jumping and running), strength, firearms, explosives, and driving - that raise through natural gameplay, increasing the amount of chaos the player can cause.

The player gets to enjoy the feeling of being super-powered in many ways - making unreal jumps off of towers, picking up trucks and throwing them at enemies, and so forth - and it's really a refreshing feeling of empowerment. There are standard weapons and grenades, and they all work well in combat, pretty much.

Driving takes some practice to get used to, as the sheer speed happening on the screen often leaves the player little time to react to oncoming traffic and terrain. To be honest, I spent most of my time running about, as the enhanced running and jumping was such fun that traversing rooftops seemed like a better way about. Your mileage may vary.

The action is chaotic at times, but absolutely fun. The targeting is very rough, though. The player must manually target enemies and then lock on, as just pressing the lock on button will usually lock onto a civilian car a block behind the enemy one is facing instead of the obvious choice.

The city is a masterpiece of design, not just large horizontally, but vertically as well. Almost everything is climbable, including the vast Agency Tower at the center of the map, rising to heights so dizzying that my real-world acrophobia was kicking in and my hands were shaking. There are lots of sights to see in Crackdown, and things to collect in its many nooks and crannies.

Where most games have solid boxes as their buildings, Crackdown often constructs them with intricate passageways leading to the rooftops, and the game's several collection quests will lead the player through many of these areas in search of power-enhancing orbs. It's a city of colorful design, and it all fits well with the game's cartoony-but-detailed cell-shaded look.

So Crackdown has fantastic gameplay, great graphics, and awesome level design. What it's lacking in is story and characters, really. Sure, it's got files of lore about the overall story of each gang and its bosses, but these people are just targets and their stories are background, not having much impact on the gameplay. It doesn't take much from the game not having that depth, but it would have been nice.

Crackdown is like cake without icing, still delicious and filling, but not as sweet. And there's a twist at the end - which I won't spoil - that lead me to think that a bigger battle was about to occur, but then - nothing. The game ends, leaving that unresolved twist to a sequel. Which is on the way, so maybe the sequel will pick up the ball and run with it. Crackdown does so much right, so it shouldn't be too hard for a sequel to really shine. We'll find out next year.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Six Years Ago Today

Six years ago today was the unveiling of Ultima X Odyssey, and as is tradition, I'm the only one in the world still remembering that game and honoring the anniversary of the event. I was there, it was amazing, and it shall be remembered, here at least.

I almost missed it. Really, the interview I did last year with some of the UXO team pretty much wrapped up the lingering mysteries of its cancellation. There's been no new developments, of course, over the last year.

Except one. Back in April, some promotional CD appeared on Ebay that had the musical score of Ultima X : Odyssey, as well as music from Medal of Honor : Frontlines and one other game. I foolishly thought I was the only one interested, didn't bid high enough, and got sniped. I was very much hoping to get my hands on that artifact and hear that fantastic music once again.

So here we are, six years later. Ultima X : Odyssey is just a memory, EA apparently has no plans to do anything with the Ultima franchise, other than churn out another Ultima Online expansion for their few remaining players, and all that's left of the hard work and dedication of the Ultima X : Odyssey team is one lone fan, raising a toast to them all and their unrealized vision.

What a game it would have been. Roll the movies:

We entered the hall at Yerba Buena and this is what they showed us to introduce the game:

Here's a short film about the game's music:

Here's one I hadn't seen before from Liquid Development, about world building. Some of these environments have never been seen before:

Here's EA's film of the event itself, which DID NOT happen at any E3, in spite of the title:

Finally, let's wrap it up with my own tribute film:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Beaten : Eat Lead : The Return of Matt Hazard

Released back in March of this year to mediocre reviews, Eat Lead - The Return of Matt Hazard was nonetheless a game I wanted to play very much. Trailers like this one, as well as the voice acting by Will Arnett and Neil Patrick Harris painted a picture of a game that didn't take itself too seriously, and was an artistic parody of much of the last two decades of videogaming.

At fifty dollars, though, I couldn't justify picking it up. It eventually dropped to thirty dollars a few months back, but it wasn't until last Saturday, when I saw it at Wal-Mart for twenty dollars, that I took the plunge. For that price, I can say the game was a very satisfying experience.

Eat Lead : The Return of Matt Hazard is a third person shooter at its core gameplay, with a few quicktime events thrown in here and there. Technically, it is below this generation's standards in gameplay, if not graphics, but neither is an unforgivable issue when taken into the context of the delivery of the game's content.

There's a great cover system, but sometimes it misses what surface you want to hide behind. Enemies throw grenades at you, but you can't do the same (Matt even jokes about this design omission). Levels are big, checkpoints are frequent enough, and loading times are rarely an issue. Boss battles are often intense repeated-death sessions where it takes a lot of time and luck to figure out what to do.

As a comedic effort the game succeeds quite well in its parody of the videogame scene. It's not the Airplane of parodies in that the laughs don't come a mile a minute, but after beating down waves of repeating foes, when they do come it's a welcome reward.

Enemies come in the form of everything from construction workers to cowboys, zombies, Wolfenstein 3D-style 2D sprite-Nazis, water-gun toting commandoes, space marines, and more, each packing their own kind of in-character weapons. Speaking of which, the weapons and ammo dropped are never too scarce, and in a few places they respawn.

The story of Matt Hazard, a washed up videogame character who gets set up by a bitter software mogul, is perfect for the task at hand. There are a lot of moments in the game worth mentioning, but they are best left revealed to the player during the gameplay, and not through spoilers revealed on some obscure blog like this one.

The game even mocks the achievement system, granting achievements for just starting the game for the first time, pausing for the first time, an watching the end credits. Their names are fun, too, like the Russian Attack achievement, granted for using the AK-47 for a certain number of kills, a clear shout-out to the arcade classic.

So here's where I'm at with Eat Lead : The Return of Matt Hazard: It was worth the twenty dollars I spent on it for a weekend of fun gameplay and a few great laughs. I personally value what the game's developers were trying to do here, and in great measure they have succeeded. I got all the jokes and the tongue-in-cheek look at not just gaming, but game development. In spite of the game's poor sales, I hope there's a sequel, and I hope that other developers won't shy away from such concepts in the future.

For the average gamer looking for just another shooting game, and not too interested in the parody of our hobby, I can't recommend it. Like me, anyone playing Eat Lead must be more into the message than the gameplay for the whole package to work. And work it does. Eat Lead : The Return of Matt Hazard was great fun and a refreshing change from so many games that take themselves too damned seriously.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Beaten : The Darkness

Two weeks ago I delved into my local Gamestop's bargain bin, and pulled out a ten dollar winner, The Darkness. Based on one of those Spawn-type, dark vigilante comic books, the Darkness is a first-person shooter with a very original twist, and a story that's one of the most emotionally engaging ones of this generation.

Players assume the role of young mob assassin Jackie Estacado, who on his 21st birthday finds out he has these inherited darkness powers. These powers are cool - there are tentalces that you can send out to scout and attack foes, another tentacle attack for close-range combat and moving objects, darkness guns, and a black hole you can summon to mess up enemies. Your darkenss powers are increased by devouring the hearts of downed foes.

The powers also allow him to summon four kinds of darklings - little demon followers each with a different function. One's a brawler, one's a gunner, one's a suicide bomber, and the other goes around zapping light sources. Oh yeah, these are darkness powers after all, so as the player explores areas they have to shoot out every light source they can. The powers will cut out at inopportune times until the player gets in the habit of shooting out light sources.

Back to the darklings for a moment. Yes, they're cute, they way they jabber to each other and make little daemonic comments about things, but man are they dumber than a sack of doorknobs. You can send them to places that you target by pressing X, but they rarely do what you want. I used them sparingly, usually as cannon fodder.

The story, as noted previously, has warm and compelling moments in spite of all the bad mojo going on. I won't give away any spoilers here, but it's a masterpiece of interactive storytelling. There are great and memorable characters to meet, from old mob family members to folks in the subway who give you side quests.

There is a really cool collection quest here, too. There are scraps of paper with phone numbers on them that can be gathered. When the player finds a pay phone, they can call all of them up. There are lots of silly, humorous answers on the other end of those phone numbers, and each one unlocks some sort of bonus content. There are letters, too, that can be found and later mailed when one comes across a mailbox. I barely found half of the 100 numbers and letters hidden in the game.

In terms of level design, it's almost an open-world game, in that there are many neighborhoods, all connected by two subway hubs. Some don't open up until later chapters, but many can and must be revisited as the game progresses. The game consists of five huge chapters, two of which take place in a hellish World War I battlefield that has to be seen to be believed. Graphically and technically, that area is a gamescape unlike any other I've seen.

There are all sorts of other design brilliances that make The Darkness stand out from other games. The loading screens are little vignettes of Jackie, sometimes talking about an area the player is about to enter, sometimes about the characters, and other times just fooling around with his guns.

The televisions the player sees here and there contain actual real-world content - an old Flash Gordon serial, old Max Fleisher cartoons, a few movies and music videos. Again, this is actual content, not a facsimile. I fell asleep with Flash Gordon on, and woke up a few minutes later to see it still playing, much further into the episode. I really think that the whole thing is in there, if one wanted to watch it all. An impressive technological feat.

It took me about a week of playing to beat the Darkness. It was challenging, and never unfair, with lots of twists and turns in the story to keep me interested. This is the total package - great gameplay coupled with a compellingly crafted tale. There's a sequel in the works, but Starbreeze Studios, the ones who created this incredible game, aren't the developers. Whoever is out there making a new Darkness game had better pay close attention to what Starbreeze did here, for anything less would be a travesty.

Beaten : Halo 3 - No Really, I'm Playing Halo 3

So a few years back, I had an original XBox for awhile. I didn't play much on it - The Bard's Tale, Doom 3, Stubbs the Zombie, and The Warriors are about all I ever bought for it, other than the first Halo game. I had heard so much hype about how awesome it was, so I picked it up.

I thought it was a mediocre first-person shooter at best, nowhere near what the hype had made it out to be. It was fun, it was polished, but the big story behind it all felt entirely detached from the shooting. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when the hype swept me up once again, and I took the plunge and picked up Halo 3, the XBox 360's flagship title.

I read up on the story elements of Halo, to refresh my memory of the first game and to fill in the blanks on what happened in the second installment. Once again, the story seemed complex, and I hopped right into Halo 3's "Heroic" setting (the game described this setting as "how Halo was meant to be played", or something).

Once again, the story was there, unfolding between bullets, but it all seemed irrelevant. The solo campaign was short, but certainly challenging and dotted with moments of spectacle. Since Halo 3 is put on such a high pedestal by the gaming community, I'll be judging it more harshly than I normally would.

The story, as I've already mentioned, is a wacky, overwritten bag of sci-fi lore that has little impact on gameplay. There is really stupid ally AI at the few points in the game where there are allies. You get an alien sort-of sidekick, who at one point got stuck in a rock when jumping down from a ledge.

The game is a shooting gallery of the same enemies over and over. Some levels repeat, too, or more specifically, you backtrack through a part of a previously-cleared level at one point. The bodies and guns from your previous journey through that level are wiped by the same ninja janitors that sneak in and out of lesser games. In addition, old Master Chief doesn't manage to keep the guns he's holding onto between levels. Tsk, tsk.

So there's my harsh criticism of Halo 3. Let's face it, though - Halo 3 is a multiplayer game, and the solo campaign is just there to - um - finish the story, I guess. As a "noob" in the Halo 3 multiplayer world, I've been getting "pwned" by all sorts of pleasant people (mostly kids) from all over the world.

Multiplayer is Halo 3's bread and butter, and it's a complete package, with lots of maps and options to enjoy. I'm still, weeks later, just getting my feet wet with it all, not winning much, and slowly ranking up a little. I've resolved myself to get more multiplayer fun out of my XBox 360, and Halo 3 certainly has a large community of players whose sole purpose is to keep me humble as I progress, so it's a great place to play around.

Halo 3 has a forgettable single player game, but its real value comes from its vast multiplayer aspect. Another Halo game, ODST, arrives in September, and if I'm enjoying Halo 3 enough by then to warrant the purchase of that spinoff game, I may consider diving even deeper into the Halo universe. The story, from what I've heard so far about ODST, seems a little more compelling, and I'm sure it will expand the already vast array of things to do with the multiplayer game.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Quisp Is Back !

A few weeks ago, around the time of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, I ran across a sight in my local Anderson's General Store that blew me away.

During that bygone era of constant space missions, where I was raised believing that mankind's future in space had truly begun, one breakfast cereal perfectly complimented the time : Quisp.

The delicious corn cereal featured a little space-guy mascot with a propeller on his head. Along with Tang, which the astronauts drank, my breakfasts were filled with my own dreams of a life of space travel. As the 1970s moved on and the space program wound down for awhile, Quisp lost its popularity and was taken off the store shelves.

I never saw it anywhere again, but remembered it fondly, not just for the childhood memories, but because it really tasted great, too. It was like a less sugary (and less sharp) Captain Crunch, with better corn flavor.

So there it was, here in 2009, at the Anderson's. Dozens and dozens of boxes. I bought two boxes the first week, and three in each subsequent week. The boxes are small, you see. Last week, though, there were less than a dozen boxes of Quisp left.

I'll probably find out this week if the Anderson's is going to restock this legendary, delicious cereal, or if it will disappear for a few more decades. I've learned, though, that I can actually order more of it online from the website, should I desire it.

Hmmm. Ordering vintage breakfast cereal through a website. Is there anything the internet can't do?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Beaten : Condemned 2 : Bloodshot

It's taken me a few weeks after encountering the Condemned 2 Lost Saves Bug to get back to the game, taking every precaution to avoid a recurrence, but now that I have I can say I'm glad I did.

Condemned 2 : Bloodshot is a true sequel, taking place some time after the first game, with the main character now a smelly drunk. He again gets pulled into the city's worst neighborhoods for a creepy adventure that, thankfully, explains some of the unsolved mysteries of the first game while taking the story into a whole new direction.

When I say a whole new direction, I mean it. The story that unfolds is fantastic, with characters that come and go and motives that are revealed over the course of the game. As with the first Condemned game, the adventure takes the player through some unique and varied levels, such as an abandoned doll factory and a derelict bowling alley.

There's even a cool revisit to a part of a level from the first game, which might sound like a lazy design decision at first, but instead makes sense in terms of story, as well as earning a lot of points for having the corpse of an enemy boss from the first game lying right where you left it.

The melee combat that made the first title a refreshing landmark is expanded on greatly in the sequel, with all sorts of combo attacks added, as well as quicktime event kills and environmental kills to keep things interesting. There are more guns on some of the levels, so much so that the player can complete the level fully armed.

Sadly, but probably smartly, the taser got nerfed. It has limited charges in Condemned 2, so batteries must be found much like ammo. And when aiming anything, it's a good idea to be a little drunk. That's right, not since The Bard's Tale games has the player actually needed to keep drinking to play more effectively.

The investigative stuff is back, this time with four selectable items : A GPS, a spectrometer (it picks up sounds and smells), a UV light, and a digital camera. All of them are used in creative ways to get through the game, and the player is scored on their investigative prowess. Investigations really add a lot to Condemned games, but with both of them I was left wanting more.

The game's autosave system works well enough, but sometimes has rough checkpoints that put the player strangely far back from a critical point. Another complaint is the lack of a target reticule for throwing items. There are times in the game where an item must be thrown very precisely, and only the flashlight can provide any guidance on where to aim - and it sucks for that.

I dub Condemned 2 : Bloodshot as "The Game That Doesn't Want You To See", as the player is often in areas that are so dark that the flashlight doesn't help, or subject to sonic waves that distort everything, or forced to wear a scratched-up, vision-impairing oxygen mask. It's just silly sometimes, but I suppose it all makes sense.

Another minor complaint is that the character of Rosa has changed from a chunky, motherly, African-American woman in her thirties to a skinny African-American woman in her twenties. None of this is explained.

Minor complaints (and the major one) aside, Condemned 2 : Bloodshot is a great sequel that certainly expands on the combat, the characters, and the story started in the first one. The ending sets up for one hell of a sequel, too, and I certainly hope that there is one in the works. The two titles of the Condemned series make up this gaming generation's premiere horror experience, and there's certainly potential for it to become a trilogy that will be talked about for years.

Beaten : The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion

Well, it wasn't King's Field, but it was still an epic, well-crafted gaming experience. Back in April I took the plunge and picked up The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion : Game Of The Year Edition for my XBox 360, and a few days ago, I finished it - for now.

When I first bought it, I only played through the tutorial, and then set it aside to play some other games I had received for my birthday. I knew that Oblivion would have a steep learning curve as well as bucketloads of content, so I put it off until about a month ago, only stopping for a week to play Ghostbusters.

Oblivion has a vast land full of cities, people, and points of interest, all meticulously engineered to create a richly complex virtual world. People come and go about their daily business and the player does, too. None of this is particularly new in adventure games, but the depth and detail in Oblivion really set it apart. It is without a doubt the premiere fantasy RPG of this generation.

There are quests just pouring out everywhere you go. In addition to the main storyline involving an invasion by the nightmare realm of Oblivion and its denizens, I quested through the Fighter's Guild, Mages Guild, Arena, Thieves Guild, and Assassin's Guild storylines, each almost big enough to have made their own game. You get missions with each of these, and as you progress an over-arching storyline emerges. The Thieves Guild was my favorite of these, with a great twist-ending.

There's so much to do beside these quests, and even though I beat the game, there are many more of these standalone tasks I've left unfinished. In addition, the Game of the Year edition I purchased comes with both expansions, which I'm sure offer even more hours of gameplay. I finished all the main game and guild questlines in around 70 plus hours of play.

The player can go about all of this either in first-person (like the above-mentioned King's Field), or third person, and the combat is in real-time, with swords swinging and spells flying. The inventory, map, and other screens are a complex set of interfaces that take some time to master, but it's not overly clunky or cantankerous.

The game advises players to save frequently, and I couldn't agree more. Make multiple saves, too - don't just allow the game's autosave mechanism to write over the same ones, as the game's hyper-complexity can create situations where you wish you had a earlier save available.

For example, I took on one of the side quests early in the game, which sent me to a tomb full of vampires. In this game world you can become a vampire by just swordfighting with one, and I contracted vampirism. A few days later, sure enough, my life became a nightmare, with people running away from me and a serious aversion to sunlight making my normal questing and travelling a living hell. I found out that there was a cure, but I was required to gather so many items that I found it insanely hard. I choose to go back to a save before taking on that original quest, losing about two days worth of play. I really didn't want to play as a vampire.

The game had some challenging parts and some easy parts, all of that determined by what skills and items I had, as the creatures you fight are generally scaled to your own level. The ending was epic, if brief, and the game goes on, with so much more to do and see, that it's almost like an MMO.

I'll be returning to land of Cyrodiil for more adventures at some point, but after nearly a month in that land, I need a break. The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion is a massive masterpiece, complex but fun, rich and full of detail. My only disappointment is that it wasn't a King's Field game, but then again, only From Software can make a King's Field game, and they're not doing that anymore.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Beaten : Ghostbusters The Video Game

Almost a quarter century ago, I was enjoying the first Ghostbusters videogame on my Commodore 64. At the time, the graphics, gameplay, and especialy the sound were all impressive, and it certainly conveyed the feeling of actually being one of the ghost bustin' crew.

And here we are again. I picked up Ghostbusters : The Video Game for the XBox 360 at its midnight release at Wal-Mart last week (which got me a code for an in-game gold proton pack and a CD of three songs) and can happily say that this modern title once again puts the player fully into the jumpsuit of a Ghostbuster for a great ride.

Players assume the role of a new recruit to the team in a whole new story, written by Harold Ramis and Dan Akroyd, who, along with Bill Murray, Ernie Hudson, and several other stars, round out the fantastic cast. It takes place in 1991, and offers much in tribute to the two movies, as players get to re-create the battle with Slimer in the hotel and the iconic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in Times Square.

The story is good and flows well, and the laughs are certainly there. Bill Murray's character style stands out once again, as it did in the movies, but the player will enjoy some one-on-one time with each of the other team members in turn throughout the game's progression. While the script and voice acting are great, the synching to the in-game talking of the characters themselves is not, often resulting in a Godzilla-movie sort of look.

The gameplay in Ghostbusters is generally pretty good. One of the plot points established early on is that the player is not just a new recruit, but one hired to help test out some new equipment. The good old proton packs that the Ghostbusters have been using get a few upgrades along the way, selected using the d-pad. Some of them are even used for a few minor environmental puzzles, which was nice.

Actual busting of a ghost is a surprisingly fun and unexpectedly more complex game mechanic than I thought it would be. Players zap the ghost with the proton pack and wear it down, and then switch on the capture stream, and then wrangle it into the trap. And since they put up a fight, the whole expereince really feels like wrangling a ghost.

In addition, the proton pack is a piece of equipment prone to overload, so players must be careful to vent the thing lest it overload and be out of commision for a few seconds. The pack also is used like the suit in Dead Space, to convey the player's health bar and equipment status meter, which works well since the game is played in a very good third-person viewpoint.

Another pleasant surprise is the complexity of the PKE meter device. During gameplay, it is used to track and scan ghosts and ectoplasmic residue. The device is held out in front of the player, who then dons goggles to assist in the scanning. When the game is paused, the PKE meter is pulled up and viewed like a PDA, with access to game save features and options, as well as the lore of each scanned ghost. It's a good place to check for each ghost's weaknesses, and the lore itself is entertaining.

The game has some spooky environments to explore, but it's honestly very short. There are seven levels, essentially, and it took me less than ten hours to beat the game on the normal setting. There are checkpoints throughout each level, making starting over not too bad.

However, there are points of high frustration in the game where I found myself dead quite a few times. When a fellow Ghostbuster falls in battle, the player must run to them to revive them, and if they're alive they will return the favor. Sometimes the action is so fast an frenetic that players can get locked into a cycle of 90% revival (you revive them, they revive you, repeat, with little time to do much else like, say, bust some ghosts), and this can get quite tedious.

In spite of these few shortcomings, the game delivers on exactly what I'd hoped for - I got to go on a whole new adventure with the classic Ghostbusters and had a great time doing it. There's online multiplayer available, too, but I have yet to try it out. I hope Ghostbusters does well enough to warrant a sequel, because if the game's developers took what was here and improved on it - more levels, less teammate healing, driving the Ectomobile, better voice-synching - they'd have a real winner.

As it stands, Ghohstbusters The Video Game delivers what any fan of the movies would want, and I found it well worth the price. As for gamers who don't necessarily geek out on the Ghostbusters but are looking for something fun to play, I'd recommend keeping in mind the brevity of the game when considering a full-price purchase.

Condemned 2 : Bloodshot's Unforgivable Lost Save Bug

After thoroughly enjoying the first Condemned game for the XBox 360, I decided shortly thereafter to pick up the second one, Condemned 2 : Bloodshot, when I saw it in the twenty dollar bin at Wal-Mart. I got in a solid day of playing with the game and haven't touched it since thanks to what I consider a catastrophic, unforgivable bug.

I had just started the fifth level when I decided to quit for the day. As I often do, I simply shut the system off, knowing that the game was saved at the end of the fourth level. The next morning when I started up the game to resume playing, all my save data was either lost or inaccessable.

It was there, on my XBox's hard drive - save data for the game. But the game program itself didn't acknowledge it. Four levels, a whole day of play, lost. I felt sick to my stomach, because an entire day's worth of playing - some of it very hard - was lost.

The consensus on the internet I found when searching for other cases of this bug was that the player MUST end their play session through the game's own menus, not by simply shutting the system off, to prevent this bug from happening. This seems so insane in light of the fact that every other game, including the first Condemned game, doesn't seem to destroy entire save files or access to them when the player just shuts the system off.

Damn, I wonder if a power outage during a play session would do the same? Scary.

An email sent to the game's creators, Monolith Productions, has gone unanswered for over a week. I asked them if they were aware of this bug, and if so, why hasn't it been patched in the last year-plus following the game's release. I also suggested that, if a patch was too much, then why not a simple warning message to keep players from exiting their games as I did? The lack of response has said volumes about what the company considers as support for their products post-release. Shameful, I'd say.

I consider the ability to wipe out one's own saves a completely catastrophic, unforgivable bug of the highest caliber. This should not have made it past testing, and certainly not to release. Once released and reported, this should have been fixed with all haste.

Monolith's failure to fix or even acknowledge this bug calls into question their other products for years to come. I enjoyed Condemned : Criminal Origins, and was having fun with Condemned 2 : Bloodshot up to this point. Both games were good and scary. Continuing to play this second title with the ever-present fear of losing all my saves, though, is really pushing the horror genre just a bit too far.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

One Year With The XBox 360

One year ago this evening I was enjoying dangerous amounts of alcohol with my closest friends who honored me with a bachelor party. It was at this event that they presented me with my XBox 360, a most generous gift that I've certainly gotten a lot of play out of since then.

One year with this generation's, um , well it's not the best selling console(that's be the Wii), and it's probably not the most powerful console (that'd be the Playstation 3), so let's just call it this generation's coolest console, yeah. Anyway, one year with the XBox 360 has taken me to so many worlds and given me so many memorable gaming experiences that it seems like a whirlwind.

I blasted through this generation's most epic and cinematic first-person shooter when I played Call of Duty 4. I fought through City 17 and its surroundings in Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2 Episode One, and Half-Life 2 Episode 2, a gaming experience rife with moments of absolute joy. And Portal, ah Portal. Original, refreshing, innovative, challenging, and fun, with such a devious twist at the end, and then an end credit sequence that brought tears to my eyes it was so awesome. Portal alone justifies the price tag of the XBox 360.

I tried Bioshock, and it was cool, but didn't grab me. Perhaps because it was a game a co-worker insisted I try. I bet I'd like it if I bought my own copy, and I might yet do that. Then it was Grand Theft Auto 4. Nothing ever made can compare to its size and scope, its accomplishment as an entertainment product, and its sheer amount of fun-to-play gushing from every screen. Four months, on and off, to beat it, and then later, it's downloaded spin-off The Lost and Damned.

The XBox Live service itself has been a highlight, especially when they offer up titles like Duke Nuken 3D, perfectly translated and still a blast. My wife Monique has found plenty of puzzle games on the service, which suits her preferred gaming genre.

Dead Space was another highlight. Dark, moody, challenging, with stunning visuals and well-made gameplay innovations, my romp on the Ishimura was very memorable. As was my trip to Albion for Fable 2, which had some flaws, but not enough to keep me from playing both of its subsequent downloaded expansion packs.

And then there was Left 4 Dead. From the makers of Half-Life 2 and Portal, this pure action game threw hordes of zombies at players, alone or online, with fantastic results. Of all the fleeting online expereinces I've had on XBox Live, the time spent with Left 4 Dead was the most memorable.

From the zombie apocalypse I headed to Africa for Farcry 2, another gorgeous first-person shooter, this one combined with the sandbox play of Grand Theft Auto 4. It's a formula that worked quite well and offered weeks and weeks of gunfights and exploration. Next, I was pulled aboard another alien spaceship for Prey, and after that it was off to a vast island nation for another sandbox masterpiece, Just Cause.

I spent some time in the shaky future of Fracture, and after that I returned to Africa for an all-new Resident Evil epic (the 5th one). What worlds were left to conquer at this point? Quite a few worlds, actually, as I took off for the stars in Mass Effect, a game where the whole galaxy is the friggin' sandbox. Size and scale are relative, it seems.

Most recently, I enjoyed some more lighthearted fare with Guitar Hero III : Legends of Rock and The Maw, and for more sandbox fun I headed for the city of Stilwater in Saint's Row. The crusades were the setting for the stunning and original Assassin's Creed, a game of strange designs yet memorable gameplay. Finally, I've wrapped up my first year of XBox 360 with the spooky first-person melee masterpiece Condemned : Criminal Origins.

Currently I've taken a dive into a deep and massive RPG with The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion, and started on the sequel to Condemned, called Condemned 2 : Bloodshot. Oh, and tomorrow night at midnight I'm hoping to score a copy of Ghostbusters at Wal-Mart, because bustin' makes me feel good.

Many worlds behind me, and many more beckon. The XBox 360 has been a gateway to some of the best game experiences of my life, and I can't wait to where it takes me next.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Beaten : Condemned : Criminal Origins

Condemned : Criminal Origins was a very early XBox 360 release, which is why I got it for a very low price at Gamestop back in April. However, its age is no indication of its quality - Condemned is an excellent first-person gaming experience with a lot going for it, and one I'm glad I took the time to explore.

The game excells at many things. First and foremost, I can proudly say that, unlike any Resident Evil since the first, Condemned actually made me jump a few times. It has the music, it sets the mood, and it provides the environment for all-out creepiness. There are levels here not seen before in my gaming memory, such as an abandoned department store where some of the mannequins may be more mobile than you'd expect, and a derelict school with a demented lunch lady chasing around with a cleaver.

In addition to the creepiness factor, this game has some of the best first person melee combat I've ever seen. All sorts of things are used as melee weapons - from pipes to sledgehammers to flaming 2x4s, and the scarcity of guns and ammo in the game makes learning the melee combat a must. Hitting with the right trigger and carefully timed blocking with the left are the essentials. The block in particular is tough to get right, because it's a temporary block - you only hold the block for a second before it pulls back, so you have to time it so that your foes' shots connect with it.

All hope is not lost, though, as melee combat is made somewhat easier with the assistance of a taser that you get for much of the game. Using the left button activates the taser, which when properly aimed can stun an enemy, giving you a chance to land a hit, or even take away their weapon while they're stunned. You have to know when to use the taser, though, because it's got a long recharge time.

But wait, there's more. As a detective, you've got some cool crime scene tools to use, too, at certain points in the game. You get to scan walls and floors for stains and prints, collect samples and send them back to the lab, zero in on decaying bird coprses with a sort of smell detector, and take pictures with a digital camera.

The decaying birds, along with metal pieces, make up the game's two collection quests, and these items can be very cleverly hidden. Learning to look around carefully becomes a key skill, not just for getting these items, but just to find a way through a level.

Condemned has a great story that builds to an epic confrontation at the end, and that last level is quite difficult. I had played through every other level using only melee weapons, but had to pick up a machine gun during my penultimate battle of the game. There are some environmental glitches that can get a player stuck, but autosaves once again take some of the pain out of restarting once this happens.

I even encountered a glitch which gave me an achievement that I really didn't deserve, but I'm not about to feel guilty when they've had over two years to patch the damn game. There are also some primitive videogame anachronisms, like obstacles that really shouldn't be obstacles - a shin-high fence that I can't step over, for example.

All of this is forgivable, as Condemned : Criminal Origins joins an ever-growing list of XBox 360 classics that I'm just now catching up to - and yes, like Saint's Row, there is a sequel already out there, and already available at bargain price, so it may not be that long before I revisit the creepy world of Condemned.

Monday, June 1, 2009

The 2008 - 2009 TV Season Wrap-Up

It's been awhile since I've blogged about television, so I thought it'd be a good time to take a look back at the 2008 - 2009 season and share a few thoughts. There were plenty of good shows once again, and sadly some of them didn't make the cut. Stupid network executives.

Still the best show on TV, it was tragically cancelled last week when the CW announced its horrifically shallow fall line-up. Reaper, if you didn't know, told the story of the son of the Devil, sold out by his parents at birth, who is forced to hunt down escaped souls on Earth. Sharp writing and stellar cast chemistry made Reaper a unique and special treat every week. There's a slight hope that this show may survive in syndication, and if it does, I'll be watching it once again.

Life On Mars
First there was Journeyman, and at the same time, the BBC had on a show called Life On Mars, after the David Bowie song. It was about a modern-day police detective who, after being hit by a car, wakes up as a police detective in 1973. It was touted by some TV critic at the time as "a smarter Journeyman", although the two shows were very different.

So, ABC decided last fall to make an American version of Life On Mars, this time with New York police detectives, and scored Harvey Keitel and Michael Imperioli for the cast. This show kicked total ass. Each week was a detective story of its own, usually, and the overarching story of how the main character found himself back in 1973 was also there. Its ratings stunk, so the network cancelled it, but gave it the chance to finish out the season with an absolutely mind-blowing series finale. Life On Mars was, by far, the best new show of the year.

Battlestar Galactica
Battlestar Galactica wrapped up its final season in grand style this spring with an awesome, epic ending. Overall the shows pace picked up in the second half of its two-year-stretched-out final season, and all actually was revealed, I think. It finishes remembered as one of the best sci-fi shows to ever grace our television screens, and will hopefully inspire future makers of such shows to remember that while spaceships and explosions are indeed cool, its the characters that make it all a good story. Farewell, Battlestar Galactica, you will be missed. The spinoff movie (or possible miniseries), Caprica, airs this fall, I think.

Heroes had grown very stagnant during the first half of its season, but the episodes that aired in the winter and spring showed some promise. The problems I have with the show are the endless "there's some terrible future that we have to stop" plotlines, and the fact that it's totally unrealistic, given the prevalence of cell phone cameras and other such devices in modern times, for someone, somewhere, to NOT have posted a YouTube movie of someone flying, or shooting lightning, or SOMETHING. Basically, after all this time, the whole damn world should know that there are super-powered people running around.

Heroes returns this fall, and while the characters are interesting enough to keep me watching, I'm hoping for some dramatic new stories or some new direction to make me glad I tune in.

Chuck consistenly proved entertaining throughout the year, with the same elements that made its first season so much fun : a great cast, cool stories, and evolving characters. Guest stars at the end of the season included Chevy Chase and Scott Bakula, and it wrapped up with an ending that could make season three very interesting. This show barely got renewed for a half-season, starting next March, and with a smaller budget, so hopefully it will still be good.

Terminator : The Sarah Connor Chronicles
It's hard to feel too upset about the cancellation of this show. It wasn't all that bad, really. It had a second season that just got bogged down with too many characters and too slow of a plot. I fell asleep a lot when trying to watch it. But they were trying - too hard, I think - to make this a smart and complex show. The problem was that it's Terminator, and when you veer this far from the established continuity of the movies and then add a bunch of extra stuff, it's hard to really get into it.

The fourth movie, which I saw a few weeks back in the theater, is pretty good. Why they makers of both the TV show and the new flick didn't get together and use the show to build up for the movie is one of those things I'll never understand. I think they call it "synergy" or something.

Jack Bauer was back, this time kicking terrorist ass in Washington, D.C., and it was actually a really good season. Some of the old characters were back, and were good to see again, and the plot that unfolded genuinely kept me guessing until the last episode. They even - briefly - hinted at a larger plot that has been going on over the entire show's run, which kind of made sense. But it was a brief hint - will the writers remember it next year and expand on it, or let it go and just start a whole new thing?

They did fall back on some of their old story crutches that I had hoped I'd seen the last of. There was a - gasp - MOLE at the FBI office! Wow, never saw that one coming. And, once again, Jack's daughter is threatened by his enemies and used as leverage against him. At least THIS TIME she acquits herself well in that situation and kicks some ass of her own. Hopefully the writers will read this and not put those two things in the next season of 24.

The XTacles
This excellent and hilarious spin-off of Frisky Dingo only aired two episodes as a experiment, and after that it was cancelled, and so was Frisky Dingo. Both shows were just plain funny, and very original, and will be sorely missed.

All Those Cartoons
The Venture Brothers had a great third season last summer, and is slated to return in November of this year. As is the Boondocks.

The usual Fox Sunday night line-up was consistently funny - The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Family Guy, and American Dad all provided sporadically - scheduled laughs. Joining them late in the season was a new cartoon from the creators of Arrested Development called Sit Down Shut Up, and it was a pretty decent addition to the lineup.

King of the Hill, sadly, has enjoyed its 13th and final full season and has been (somewhat) cancelled, as far as I can tell. There are two to six new episodes to air, but when and where they will air has yet to be determined. In its slot this fall will be The Cleveland Show, a Family Guy spin-off, which I'm sure will be funny as hell.

South Park as well continued to be over-the-top and hilarious in its thirteenth season. And although it looks like Code Monkeys won't be returning for a third season, overall it's never been better for animated comedy on television.

And there we go. Tune in next year for another annual TV season wrap-up, and find out what you should have watched.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Beaten : Assassin's Creed

My tour of old XBox 360 classics has brought me to Assassin's Creed, one of the more interesting and refreshingly unique games I've encountered during this generation. It's a graphically gorgeous adventure game with combat and stealth elements, as well as collection quests, and a bizarre, bookended storyline that's just plain goofy as all get out.

Let's start there, with the story. One might look at the box or the screenshots of Assassin's Creed and think that it's the adventure of a medieval-era assassin. A safe assumption, until you begin playing and find out that you're actually a hoodie-wearing slacker in the near future being held hostage by a gruff middle-aged scientist and a hot assistant chick.

See, you're the descendent of an assassin. Yeah. Apparently you're also a disgrace to the bloodline, because you don't even try to snap the scrawny scientist-guy's neck and escape, you just accept your imprisonment and do what they want you to do, which is lie back on a table that allows you to play the real game.

The real game is that of the assassin Altair, who is sent by his guild master to take out a bunch of supposedly bad guys who are all plotting some evil thing together. You ride to one of three stunningly realized ancient cities - Jerusalem, Damascus, or Acre - and do all sorts of side missions in order to learn what you need to know to make your assassination.

You can spend a lot of time just sneaking about, trying not to get noticed at all by the guards, who get really pissed if you do anything wrong, like running through the streets or climbing up the side of a building. When the stealth aspect of the game fails, you'll have to fight, and the combat in Assassin's Creed is another one of its innovative designs.

Simple button-mashing will end the game very quickly. No, this is the antithesis of button-mashing, as you must watch the combat very carefully and execute precisely timed counter-moves. It took me awhile to figure this out, but once I did I was fine for the rest of the game. The guards get increasingly complex moves as the game progresses, and will in many cases break your attempts to block thier blows, but still, that counter move was all I needed for the remainder of the experience.

It's very satisfying to pull these moves off, and once you're good you'll find yourself enjoying the flow of battle, and not being afraid of any number of guards you encounter. And you'll encounter them a lot, as the sheer size of the game's nine main missions means you'll be doing all sorts of things to piss them off.

Another cool aspect of the gameplay is climbing the towers in each area to get an overview. Some of the vistas seen from up there are breathtaking, and doing so adds icons to your map for that area. When you're done looking you can make a safe dive off your perch and into a pile of conveniently-placed hay. The climbing and jumping of this game are also revolutionary and spot-on. Instead of pressing a button to jump, Altair knows when you're running along a rooftop and you come to a ledge, that it's time to jump. If you're not running, he'll stop. A great design choice.

To gain information about your assassination target in each area, you'll interrogate, pickpocket, and eavesdrop on the townspeople, and you'll do jobs pawned off onto you by other members of the assassin's guild. Apparently Altair is the ONLY member of the guild who's not afraid to do an honest day's work. Every other assassin you meet is a lazy, cowardly piece of crap. On top of that, all the jobs they give you are cheap-ass time limit tasks - like, say, kill the three guys the lazy assassin was supposed to kill in three minutes, and he'll give you a tip about the guy you're supposed to kill. We're all in one big happy guild, huh? Right.

In addition to the frustrating time-limit missions, there are tedious flag-collecting missions everywhere, with no apparent reward, so I only did the first and easiest one of those. Repetitiveness premeates this game's design, as tasks like saving citizens from pushy guards, pickpocketing throwing knoves, and hell, everything else basically repeat nine times, forming the body of the gameplay.

All of these gameplay aspects are enjoyable enough, but for individual gamers I suspect that their mileage may vary, and some won't find the repetitiion enjoyable all through the ending. I did, though. Barely. The ending was cool, and not difficult at all, having mastered the previously mentioned counter moves.

At least the ending of Altair's story was cool. The ending of the hooded slacker descendent of Altair, cowering in the future, was however completely unsatisfying and thoroughly stupid. Only a sequel could alleviate some of the lingering questions of the unresolved future-story, and fortuantely, one's coming this fall.

A few minor complaints do come to mind. This skilled assassin and acrobat I'm playing can't swim? Seriously, a dive into a shallow river in town means death? What is this, 1993 all over again? And there was once a window ledge I found that, once I'd grabbed onto it, I couldn't let go nor climb up on it. I was literally left hanging and had to restart at my last save point. It wasn't too big of a deal, as the autosave system, unlike, say, the SWIMMING system, is modern. Loading screens are also a bit on the slow side.

In spite of the repetitive gameplay and some very odd design choices, Assassin's Creed works and is a visual and gameplay masterpiece. Enough of it is so refreshingly unique - the controls, the setting - as to offset any of the inherent tediousness of the tasks presented over and over. I am looking forward to the sequel, if only to answer the many lingering questions about the unfinished story that bookends the tale of Altair and his fellow assassins.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Beaten : Saints Row

Last week I finished a three week long tour of duty in Saint's Row, an early XBox 360 release that yeah, I'm just getting around to playing. Yes, my blog has become, for the forseeable future, a site that reviews old XBox 360 games. Everything I write about a game like Saint's Row has probably been scribed by much more timely bloggers years hence.

Anyway, Saint's Row is another great sandbox game, like Just Cause and Grand Theft Auto IV. It seems as if I'm getting fixated on that genre. Saint's Row is really a lot like GTA IV, with some new aspects that make it far more than just a clone.

Sure it has vehicle theft, driving, shooting, violence, a huge city, missions, side missions, and lovable sociopaths as characters, just like GTA IV. But Saint's Row has a vibe and feel all its own. It's fun, colorful, and so over-the-top as to be a nearly satirical look at its competitors.

The game has a great gang mechanic, with players doing things to help establish their street gang as the major player in the town. There are three competing gangs, and missions act as a framework for the all-out turf war that wages between your gang and theirs. Neighborhoods are taken, and have to be defended, in a play mechanic similar to Just Cause's guerilla war.

The side activities range from the standards like street racing and car theft to innovative and hilarious ones like escorting hookers around with their clients, making sure to keep away from pesky news vans and paparazzi, and others like collecting insurance fraud money by falling in front of cars in traffic. These missions are all fun and get very challenging in later levels.

Another interesting design choice is that these missions - at least some of them - must be done to fill up the player's respect meter. Once the meter is full, the player may take on the next story mission. So there's really no bypassing the side content (although there's so much of it that players can skate through the game doing only the tasks they find easiest) and just running through the story mode.

The game has a challenging but not impossible vibe throughout its play. There are no mid-mission checkpoints, so failing a mission can mean restarting, driving to the mission, and facing some parts of it over and over. It's not too harsh, though, and the game is so much fun that it's worth the struggle.

Derivative in many ways, innovative in others, Saint's Row is just simply another enjoyable game world to explore. The music throughout the game is utterly fantastic, and the ending is epic - so good in fact that it's got me thinking about picking up the sequel, Saints Row 2, which came out last fall. Hmmm, maybe after the price drops a bit.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Beaten : The Maw

The Maw is a cute little 3D action-puzzle game released a few months back for the XBox 360 via the Live service, and it's really a great, quick, and low-frustration diversion from the usual fare found on the system. I took a few days off from playing Saints Row to visit the world of The Maw and had a fun time.

Players play as a small alien guy who, like the Maw, has been captured for reasons unknown by faceless alien soldiers and thrown into a cage on a spaceship. The adventure begins with the ship crashing and the alien guy and Maw finding themselves together at the crash site. A believable bond of survival and friendship quickly forms between the duo as they begin to explore their surroundings. The alien guy drags the Maw around by a sort of energy leash, and the Maw starts to eat everything that moves, including cute little pink blob critters.

As the Maw eats, he has growth spurts, increasing in size throughout the game but remaining loyal enough to the alien guy to not eat him, too. In addition, certain creatures that the Maw eats grant him differing abilities, from breathing fire to stampeding over foes, and these new talents are required to navigate the game's environmental puzzles. Level after level unfolds this way until the climatic finish with the now-gigantic Maw.

It's a blast. There's exploration and discovery throughout the game, and no death. Saves are made after every level for convenience, and the levels can be revisited at any time once they are unlocked. I forget how many Microsoft Points this game cost, but it wasn't that much and it was totally worth it. There are three "deleted scenes" also available for the Maw (extra levels to download) that I will probably be checking out at some point as well.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Fable 2 : I've Seen The Future, and It's Still Dogged By Bugs

I downloaded the Fable 2 : See The Future expansion pack this morning and played through the whole thing in a few hours. It's got more of the same kind of things in the same kind of places, with a few new elements, but unfortuantely nothing that addresses the game-dampening glitches that have dogged my experience.

Those readers who have not played Fable 2 or its two expansion packs yet, skip this article. It's going to be spoiler-heavy, a regrettable but necessary function to elaborate on the issues I have with the game. If you're just wanting to know if See The Future is any good on its own merits, I can safely say that yes, it is enjoyable and well worth the price if you've enjoyed everything about Fable 2 so far and want more.

Okay, on with the spoilers then. You've been warned.

At the end of Fable 2 the player has to make a choice of three possible conclusions, two of which (including the one I took) leave the player without the remarkable pet dog that has accompanied the hero through the game. At the time it was a hard sacrifice to make, and the storytelling impact weighed heavily on me, as I'm sure it did to other players.

The problem with all of this is that there can still be things to do in the world of Albion after completing the main game that require the dog. There is a Demon Door in Rookridge, for example, that can only be opened with dog tricks. The designers clearly thought of this, though, and when players go to that area, they encounter the ghost of their dog, who can indeed do the tricks required to open the door.

Inside the door is a ghostly realm called Memory Lane, and from that point on the ghost dog resides there. If you get a book with more dog training or tricks, you can go there and teach him, but the ghost dog can never leave. So, if there are still dig spots out there (buried treasures that can only be discovered with the dog), or if the player hasn't completed the Archaeologist Quest, then they are out of luck.

To me, this was at the time an acceptable loss as a consequence of the choice I had made at the end of the game. However, when the first package of downloadable content was released in January, things changed. In my short review of that expansion, I mentioned one cool thing that I didn't reveal, and that feature in particluar was, for me, certainly worth the price of the deal. On Knothole Island, you could resurrect your dog. I was once again able to explore and dig with my faithful companion.

However, shortly after writing that review and then setting out with my dog to explore the world anew, I made the mistake of taking him to Memory Lane. At which point he returned to ghostly form and could not leave the area. Returning to the doggie resurrection thingy, I found it no longer functional - it was a one-time use item, it seemed.

So my dog was dead a second time. I forgot about Fable 2, disgusted by such a terrible glitch. I searched the internet to see if this had happened to anyone else, and only found one other person who stated that the same thing had happened to his dog, but no one seemed to have any solutions.

And this new package of content didn't fix it either. Some of the new items available are breed-changing potions, so I took the bloodhound one to Memory Lane and turned my ghost dog into a ghost bloodhound, hoping that maybe it would snap him out of ghost form, to no avail.

See The Future was short-lived fun, and more of the same, but I'd sincerely like to see Lionhead Studios spend the next few months working on bug fixes rather than more content. I've still got a glitched home that I can't sell or rent, too, so all I see of the future are unfixed bugs and content I can't fully explore with a forever-danmed ghost dog.

And no, I don't like the game enough to start over and lose my castle and four million in gold, thanks very much.

Dead Space : Downfall DVD

I picked up Dead Space : Downfall, an animated prequel to last year's survival horror masterpiece, during the Circuit City closing a few months back. I recently watched it again and found it to be really quite good.

Perhaps I'm starting to jones for more Dead Space, and with the next game slated to be a Wii title this fall, and a rail shooter at that, it might be awhile before I get to really stomp around like I did last year. So, this movie is all I have.

As stated, it's a prequel that picks up the story at the point where the marker is found on the planet's surface that will eventually drive everyone nuts and turn them into those life-of-the-party necromorphs. It's soon after that when the Ishimura arrives to crack the planet - which is a cool sequence that we get to see - and the action begins.

The main story revolves around the Ishimura's security chief, a standard sci-fi tough chick, who leads her team against the transformed members of the crew. In futility of course, since anyone who has played the game knows how it ends for them all.

Still, it's a good ride - action packed and gory. We see some familiar locales like the bridge and the mess hall, and some familiar enemies, who they soon figure out need to be shot in the limbs to slow them down. There are also references to the lore of Dead Space, such as the Unitologist movement and their designs on the marker, but noting revelatory beyond what was told in the game. It all ends with one final heroic act, just as the rescue ship from the game arrives, signalling the start of the game.

Dead Space : Downfall isn't oscar-worthy, but for fans of the game it's a recommended dose of more Dead Space that can hopefully sustain them until we see more, and hopefully learn more, about this fascinating and well-crafted universe.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Star Trek : Initial Impressions

It's a busy week for me, with the approach of Mother's Day and all that, but tonight at 9:30 it hit me. There was a new Star Trek movie in theaters this evening, and I was about to just let it slide until after the weekend.

Um, no way. I had to see it, exhaustion be damned.

And I'm glad I did. This re-invention of the classic characters, cleanly explained through the plot, really knocks it out of the park. It's two hours of good storytelling, fast paced and at times funny.

There is one deep part of the plot's very foundation that seemed to be shaky, but it is only touched on for a moment, so I will withhold any comment on it until I see it again and listen more carefully to what I thought was said there.

Other than that, I walked away from the theater at 2:30 AM with the glorious feeling that Star Trek is back, and the future is looking good again.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Coolest T-Shirt Ever

And here it is...

Don't get it? It's from the movie Tron. One of my personal favorites, although almost everyone else hated it. The main character, Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges), owns an arcade and wears this shirt around.

It seems silly when I explain it like that. But to me, it's cool.

Beaten : Mass Effect, a.k.a. the Moon Patrol RPG

I spent most of April playing the Platinum Hits version of Mass Effect, which I don't normally go for, except that the twenty dollar package includes a bonus disc with the extra mission "Bring Down The Sky", as well as game trailers and developer commentary. It's quite a value for such an incredible game experience.

Mass Effect is an action-RPG offering complex character development, richly crafted lore, and original alien designs that put the species found in both Star Wars and Star Trek to shame. As expected with an RPG, the player will spend a lot of time in menus and sub-menus, adjusting stats and upgrading weapons and armor. Fortunately, the design of these menus is fairly flawless and intuitive.

And that's good. The player controls a party of three at a time, with the main human character plus two members chosen from an eventual pool of six. There's a lot to juggle, as alien members of your crew require alien-specific armors and, based on their skill sets, will have different abilities that need developed. All of this item and character development work soon becomes second nature and doesn't really slow down the action overmuch.

A great feature added to the game to make item choices easier is the "Compare" button, which allows players to compare a new item's stats with the ones already equiped. This can be done with items just picked up as well as items in stores, even before the player purchases them.

The story starts out with a tutorial level that's a full part of the story, with the player thrown right into the action. The player encounters moments along the way where moral choices must be made through speech selctions. It's a basic good/evil character development tool, with consequences along the way that can have an impact on the story, but for the most part the choices felt like "be cool" versus "be a dick" to everyone.

Completing the tutorial lands the player on a gigantic space station that is the central hub of the game, with hours of exploration, lore to discover, and side quests to complete. Experience can be gained from learning lore and even opening crates, not just through combat, so I found the payoff for the tediousness of this part of the game worthwhile in the long run.

Finally, after all of that, the player is given a starship and turned loose on the Milky Way. That's when the game really opens up, and the previously linear pace of Mass Effect becomes a galactic sandbox. While there are three main story missions present at this point, there are also around fifteen star clusters to explore, each with up to five star systems, and each of those with not just planets, but some moons, asteroids, and other spaceships to check out.

It can be a bit overwhelming at first, but keep in mind that generally, there's only one planet in each star system that the player can land on. Some planets can be surveyed from orbit, which can yield minerals and other items that are presented in various collection quests. So in reality there are a lot less places to visit than at first glance at that galaxy map on the ship's bridge.

The ship itself doesn't land on the planet, rather it flies low and drops off the player and his two chosen companions in the Mako, a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle that is a major part of the gameplay. The Mako is armed and can take damage, and OFTEN requires time-consuming repairs while out exploring. Using the buggy for battle against gun turrets or the giant, wormlike Thresher Maw critters found here and there can be challenging. I found hit-and-run tactics good for these encounters.

In addition to the guns on the Mako, it also sports some rockets on the bottom that can give it a quick boost into the air. This feature baffled me at first. Was its intended use to jump chasms? No. Was it meant for getting the vehicle unstuck in some of those rugged mountain areas? It worked for that, but did not seem essential.

No, it wasn't until I got the mission to Luna (Earth's moon) later in the game that the rocket-boost feature on the Mako made sense. It was a feature added to the buggy as a tribute to the arcade classic Moon Patrol. Driving around on the moon in that buggy, jumping with the boost for no apparent reason, made me think of Mass Effect as a modern day Moon Patrol RPG. Just sayin'.

When the player lands on a planet, there isn't a whole planet to explore, either. Rather, it's a large square patch of a planet in most cases - the exceptions are those main story missions, which can offer different, more directed areas to visit. The planets with the square patch offer lots of exploration. On the map there can be different things indicated - debris, settlements and bases, and the like - but only through thorough exploration of the bug square patch will the player find hidden mineral deposits and other surprises.

It does get tedious doing this on planet after planet, but the rewards are worth it. If the player is not into this sort of playstyle, however, the option exists to simply go to the main story mission worlds and rush through the game. The cost is not only missing out on hidden outposts and titanium deposits - all of the discoveries made during these expeditions equal experience, and in my through playthrough I was able to reach level fifty by doing this.

Experience does not come easy at first in this game. There's nowhere to "farm" it, and I found my party ill-equipped to face a hidden mercenary group I stumbled across on some remote world early on. After getting experience (as well as better guns and armor) from doing one of the main story missions, though, I was able to go back and get revenge.

Some things found on alien worlds will require someone in the party to have a high electronics or decryption skill, and fortunately any experience gained by party members on the ground is shared with those stuck on the ship. The opening of decrypted crates, the recovery of electronic items, and the surveying of mineral deposits all use a quicktime event where the four controller buttons are displayed. The player must hit the lit-up button on the screen fast enough to succeed in the sequence. Most of the ones I did on the first try, so the timer on these events may be more forgiving than found in other games.

If the player wants to skip the quicktime stuff, they can spend omni-gel on it. Omni-gel is acquired through normal gameplay, and every item acquired can be converted into it. So, instead of selling off all of the extra guns the party acquires, it might be a good idea to use some to make omni-gel. It also is what is used to repair the Mako, and to be honest that's where most of mine went.

Technically, the game is gorgeous, although indoor environments repeat throughout the game, and many of the planets one lands on look the same. I encountered a few glitches in my 42 hours of play. There was some lag on loading, one instance of a system lockup, some indoor snow on one icy world, and one frustrating expereince where I exited the Mako and was stuck in the terrain. Nothing too game-breaking though.

The characters and story are just fantastic - epic in fact, and as good as any sci-fi movie or television show to come around in recent memory. The four weapon types - assault rifle, shotgun, pistol, and sniper rifle are made more interesting by varied ammo types that have different effects. There's a whole range of "biotic" powers, too, but I did not explore their use in my playthrough.

The bonus mission, "Bring Down The Sky" is just one world - an asteroid actually, and can be done at any time once the player has the spaceship. It's a worthy addition and highlights one of the alien species not seen in the normal storyline. The bonus disc also has a feature about the future of Mass Effect, which seemed to indicate not only a sequel that's due out this fall, but more downloadable content for the first game. In addition, players of the first game have been put on notice to keep their saves - they will play a part in the starting of the second game, it seems. Awesome!

And I look forward to it all. Mass Effect is one of the finest games I've played this generation - a highly enjoyable RPG with lots of action that takes place in a masterfully crafted galaxy rich in history and lore. For the three weeks it took me to play it through, I couldn't put it down. There's so much more story to be told in that galaxy, and I can't wait to see what happens next.