Monday, January 19, 2009

Beaten : FarCry 2 - And a Warning

I finished FarCry 2 this morning, after over three weeks and 49.5 hours of game time, and lots of exploring and driving around. I did not get all of the game's 221 diamond briefcases (a very challenging collection quest), all of the weapons and upgrades, nor all of the Jackal tapes.

As I stated in my previous review, the game is not stingy with save points, but something every XBox 360 owner should know is that there is apparently a corrupted game save bug where some of your saves will lock up the whole console when you try to load them.

It began for me in Act 2, mostly at save points that occurred when completing a mission. I surmised that perhaps it was the fact that, in those situations, I was still embroiled in combat and action on the screen when the pop-up for the save materialized.

However, in Act 3, the corrupted saves began occurring more regularly, even at normally quiet save points. The only ones that seemed to be free of this glitch were the ones that occurred in safe houses, so after several frustrating repeats of previous missions (and travelling to those missions), I began a strict practice of making my way to safe houses to make backup saves.

So to those XBox 360 owners who decide to play FarCry 2, be warned. Make multiple saves at safe houses after each major event. I also found one glitchy roadside checkpoint that I couldn't scout, and I tried many, many times, so I ended my game with 56 out of 57 of those scouted. At least I was able to unlock all of the safe houses.

In spite of these minor issues, I really did have fun with FarCry 2 - it had the right mix of exploration and action to keep me hooked. I may go back to previous saves and do some more exploring, and I may also try out the online modes.

Fable 2 : Knothole Island Quick Review

I finished Fable 2 last fall, and while I enjoyed the experience, I thought it was too short and a bit too easy. After beating it I explored the land more thoroughly, and had a great time finding things in all the nooks and crannies. Still, the world felt a bit small.

Last week it got a little bigger, as Knothole Island was opened up via downloadable content for the game, at a cost of ten dollars (800 Microsoft points). It had a new town and a new quest, which I explored and went through pretty fast. There's also a sort of a scavenger-hunt quest and a collection quest to do.

Other than that there are some new weapons, clothes, and other items, as well as one really cool thing that I cannot spoil. Knothole Island isn't much, but it's done a good job of making me interested in the overall game again, at least for awhile. Whether or not such an add-on is worth the time to some gamers is entirely subjective, but I've enjoyed it and hope that more such additions are on the way.

Circuit City Clearance Acquisitions

Tragic as it is, Circuit City is closing all of its stores, including the one just down from the street from my apartment. Monique and I stopped in yesterday to see what kind of videogame deals were there.

Games are currently at 10% off of their regular price, so mainstream titles aren't that big of a deal yet. However, in the bargain bins, I found 2 Nintendo DS games and one Game Boy Advance game that I wanted, each priced below ten dollars. I picked up Picross DS, Nanostray 2 (also DS), and Marble Madness / Klax for the GBA.

Picross DS is a particularly great find. It's a challenging logic-puzzler that I'm really getting into. Nanostray 2 is an old school shoot-em up, and looks really good on the DS. Marble Madness / Klax are classic arcade game translations that make great additions to our GBA library.

There were a few XBox 360 and Wii games in that bin that were priced in their teens, so I'll be going back to Circuit City in a few days to see if the prices have dropped again. It may take some time, patience, and luck, but I'm hoping to score a few more deals out of this unfortunate circumstance.

My best wishes go out to all those Circuit City employees and managers who have to endure the craziness of this closeout.

More Proof That The Nintendo DS Rocks

Here's a picture of my wife Monique using Personal Trainer Cooking for the Nintendo DS to put together a shopping list for last night's meal. The DS also sat on the counter as she prepared the meal, taking her step by step through the cooking process, utilizing the microphone to move forward via voice prompts. The meal turned out really well.

In addition to recipes, the program also has instructions on knife techniques and such, presented in video form. I just thought it was cool. I love having productivity applications as well as games for our portable game systems.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Club Nintendo and the Game and Watch Collection

Awhile back, I decided to register all of my Nintendo consoles and software on their website, which was called "My Nintendo" at the time. That's five pieces of hardware (GBA SP, GBA Micro, Gamecube, DS, and Wii) and nearly fifty titles for those systems.

So when they announced that they were bringing Japan's Club Nintendo over to these shores, with its points and rewards, I was pretty happy. I figured that I'd have enough points to get one of every prize they offered.

Not so much. It turns out that you have to both resiter a game AND fill out a survey for it to get the points. So did I have to fill out fifty-plus surveys? Becuase, I would be willing to endure that for free stuff.

Again, not so much. Not everything you register has a survey, and thus, not everything you register can get you points (or, as you might suspect with Nintendo, the points are "coins"). So only a portion of my registered games (and none of the hardware) elicited a survey. Most of the surveys were for very recent releases.

It was still a pretty tediuos task. Each survey had five questions, the last being a mandatory write-a-comment section. I got fifty points for every Wii game I was surveyed about, and 30 for each DS game. Looking at the available prizes, there was only one I was truly after.

The only actual game they offered was the Nintendo Club exclusive Game and Watch Collection. Game and Watch was a series of LCD handhelds created by the late Gunoei Yokoi, who went on to create a handheld revolution by inventing the Game Boy. This DS game was the one of the two most costly items available through Club Nintendo, going for 800 points.

Once I had gone through all my surveys, I was short on coins. Story of my life! Then I remembered that there were a few new purchases that Monique and I had made since I originally registered most of our collection with Nintendo, so I sought out those titles. And sure enough, I had exactly 800 points when I was done.

So the exclusive (did I mention that already?) Game and Watch Collection game came for the DS today. It has a faithful reproduction of three Game and Watch games from the Multicreen series, which is a natural choice since the games in that series of handhelds featured the same two-screen clamshell design that the DS sports today. The games included in the title are Oil Panic, Donkey Kong, and Green House.

They're all presented authentically on the DS, down to the slight after-images of the LCD displays that aren't lit up. And they're fun to play, offering that simple 80s arcade game thrill that us middle-aged gamers still cherish. My only gripe is that they call three games a "collection"? Really, with the power of the DS they could have put most of the Multiscreen series on this cartridge, obviously excepting the licensed properties such as Mickey Mouse, Popeye, and Snoopy that appeared.

Still, it was a free DS game, and an exclusive, so I guess I really can't complain. I hope by the time I get another 800 Club Nintendo points, though, they have some other great selections like the Game and Watch Collection.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Game of the Year Awards

At last, the time has come to pick my Videogame of the Year, as well as three runners-up and my pick for best new hardware. This tradition goes back to 1981, when I was 15 years old and had just gotten an Odyssey 2 for Christmas. Why I started it and continued it through all these years, I'm not sure. But the show must go on!

It was a banner year for great videogames, with many of the games that I beat this year all likely nominees. But I had to narrow it down, so here's what I came up with. Keep in mind, the award has always been for the games I personally played in that year, which does not necessarily mean that the game was released in the same year.

Winner : Grand Theft Auto IV (Microsoft XBox 360)
2008 was the year of the open-world "sandbox" type of game for me, and GTA IV was the biggest and baddest of them all. No one has ever made a larger, more detailed virtual world (much less a sprawling metropolis) that can come close to what Rockstar Games achieved with this title. But it's not just the size - the sheer number of things that your character can do in this game also adds to the value of this package.

And if all that weren't enough, the story and the characters are well produced, eliciting sympathy for the lead character and his friends, even though their in-game actions could certainly be considered sociopathic. Grand Theft Auto IV is really the whole enchilada, and the four months it took to beat it are a testament to its polish, playability, and sheer fun.

Runner - Up : The Orange Box (Microsoft XBox 360)
Not since Sppedway/Spinout/Crypto-Logic for the Odyssey 2 has a three-pack of games so completely defined my first days with a new videogame system. Included in The Orange Box are Half-Life 2 (plus its expansion episodes), Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Portal itself was the most amazingly innovative game I played in 2009, a first-person puzzle and action game that challenged my brain in ways no other game ever has, and offered one of the best endings in game history. Half-Life 2 and Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 and 2 were stunning first-person shooting bliss of the highest order. And the class-based Team Fortress 2 provided a lot of online multiplayer fun.

Runner - Up : Dead Space (Microsoft XBox 360)
Survival-horror games have, ironically, been done to death, so it takes a new approach to really stand out in the crowd. Dead Space puts the player in the role of an engineer on a derelict spaceship full of horrific creatures, and the game's innovations work well to refresh the genre. The undead "necromorphs" require the player to shoot off their limbs to stop them, instead of headshots. The game's weapons are for the most part innovative and fun to enhance, and the zero-gravity sections of the ship work amazingly well. Dead Space was a blast to play, was graphically impressive, and offered many scares along the way.

Runner - Up : Bully : Scholarship Edition (Nintendo Wii)
Another one of Rockstar Games' "sandbox" titles, Bully puts the player in the role of tough kid Jimmy, dumped by his parents at a strict boarding school divided into factions of nerds, jocks, preppies, greasers, and townies. Jimmy not only has to survive all of that, but he has to actually attend school as well, with the Wii's motion controls being utilized to their fullest to do things like dissect frogs in Biology class. Exploring the school and the local community was as much fun as exploring the game's social aspects, like juggling girlfriends and learning fighting moves from the local hobo. There was a lot to do in Bully, and the game's hilarious sense of humor made it all worth the time.

Best New Hardware : Microsoft XBox 360 Pro System

And those are my awards. Your mileage may vary.

Farcry 2 Review

Remember back in July of last year when I was enjoying Half Life 2, in particular the level where you travel along a remote coastline in a dune buggy. The feeling of openness and exploration was refreshing in my own personal first-person shooter experience, as most of those games take place indoors in cramped hallways.

Farcry 2 is that level of Half Life 2 times a thousand. It's an open-ended sandbox FPS, with all sorts of missions, both main story ones and fun side ones. You travel along dusty roads, through run-down African towns, jungles, wide-open savannahs, sandy deserts, rocky terrains, and swamps and rivers. How do you travel, you might ask? In various trucks, officially licensed Jeeps, boats, and other special modes of transport that shall remain unnamed because they are too cool to reveal.

Getting around is made easier with a great built-in map system, but the game also comes with a helpful paper map to use as well. Grand Theft Auto IV did this, too, and it really warms an old-school gamer's heart to see paper maps included in videogames once again.

So the explorer in me, probably the biggest part of my gaming psyche, is in heaven. How are the graphics and gameplay then? Well the graphics are just stunning. I've never seen such great visuals on plants in a game before. This African nation is gorgeously realized, from the aforementioned fauna to the run-down look of the huts made from scraps of metal debris, to the wildlife such as zebras and gazelle.

I stood there the other day watching a zebra grazing through my sniper scope, it's movements natural down to its ears twitching and its head picking through the grass. There are moments like that all through the game (I'm at 23% completion now), like the sun rising and waterfalls splashing.

The combat is pretty standard FPS stuff, but the enemy AI is certainly worthy of note. It's very off and on. Enemies will do amazingly smart things, like flanking you, and crawling away when injured to hide in wait until you get closer, but sometimes they are incredibly dumb and won't even see you when you're right next to them. Mostly, though, they are cunning and offer a good fight.

And fight them you will. The two warring factions of the game seem to have an endless supply of these ragtag soldiers, as an outpost you clear out will be restaffed when you come back, as long as you go a good distance away.

While we're on the subject of fighting, now might be a good time to talk about the game's weapons. You have three slots - a pistol slot, a rifle/machine gun slot, and a big gun slot for rocket launchers and the like, plus a grenade slot. Realism is the design choice here, and in the case of tiny little African wars, the weapons are rusty old hand-me downs from previous conflicts, so the ones you find on fallen foes tend to jam on you at the worst times, or even break in your hands.

The solution to this is the game's weapon shops, which allow you to purchase better ones, as well as upgrade them. You get a free restock of ammo at these places, and for the most part, ammo can be found pretty readily at most of those checkpoints that you'll clear again and again (remember the restaffing speed I mentioned earlier). You can also buy storage crates, so that extra weapons can be held in reserve at the many safe houses you'll unlock.

At those safehouses, which also upgrade through normal gameplay, you can save and restock on health and ammo, and you'll almost always find a vehicle there. The game is not stingy with save points in general, nor vehicles, so the frustration level is very low when you fail a mission. You maintain an entourage of "buddies", who will come to your rescue if you fall in battle, reviving you and giving you a second chance to finish things. You might have to heal them, too, though.

The world design has all sorts of hidden pathways and things in it that are a joy to discover, but I won't spoil them here. The story is gritty, of course, and the characters are pretty well fleshed-out, but not all that deep. Nonetheless, when I failed to save one of those buddies that had rescued me a half dozen times before, I felt somewhat saddened.

Like Grand Theft Auto IV, Farcry 2 gives players a great game experience set in one of the most visually impressive, breathtakingly enormous, and brilliantly designed virtual worlds I've ever seen. 2008 was certainly the year for that kind of thing, wasn't it?

Friday, January 2, 2009

Happy New Year

Welcome to the third year of Middle-Aged Gamer. A few announcements:

My Roadrunner homepage seems to have been wiped out by Roadrunner. All the links to the left that take you there just lead to a blank, blue page. It's strange, because I pay my bill and all that. I don't have the time to investigate it right now, or build a replacement.

One of those links that no longer work is to my annual Game of the Year awards. I usually make the announcement of those awards on January 1, but I an holding off on this until I've had some more time to go through my Christmas games, because I am beginning to suspect that one of them may be a contender. So stay tuned to see the tardiest 2008 Game of the Year award ever gifted on the internet!

Finally, one of my New Year's resolutions is to do more creative things, instead of just sitting there gaming all the time. So look for that, too. It's very likely that those creative things will have to do with gaming and take place on the internet, so none of that means less time writing about videogames, really.

Hope you all had a great 2008, and are looking fine for 2009. It should be another boisterous year for videogaming, barring any further collapse of the economy, or civilization itself.