Monday, April 27, 2009

Birthday Games Flood

So, my 43rd birthday was last week - yes I'm inching closer to renaming this blog "Elderly Gamer", thanks very much - and I acquired quite a few games to add to my already huge backlog of unfinished / unplayed titles. I haven't had time to try them all out yet, but I'd like to log a few initial impressions, and later, if they warrant it, I'll write more about each one.

Guitar Hero 3 - Legends of Rock (XBox 360)
I've tried this game before, while visiting friends, and while I enjoyed it, I wasn't sure if it held enough appeal for me to spend the seventy dollars to buy it for myself. Enter the Circuit City liquidation sale back in February, where my wife Monique and I saw this game at half price. I told her I wanted it for my upcoming birthday, and she went back and bought it, hiding it from me the whole time.

I suck at this game. It requires the use of my left hand's middle, ring, and pinky fingers, which normally are dormant during game sessions. Plus, it's a rhythm game and I have no rhythm. Nonetheless, I have finished a career on Easy mode and am having a great time. It's a lot of fun and I now understand the appeal of these games. When you get it, get into a good streak of unbroken playing, it really feels like you're rocking out. All the bells and whistles attached to it - songs to unlock, things to purchase, boss battles - make it a much deeper experience than I'd anticipated.

Mirror's Edge (XBox 360)
My brother-in-law and his wife got me a $20 gift card from Target, and there I found Mirror's Edge for the XBox 360, marked for clearance at that exact amount. It's hard to believe this game came out last fall for three times that much and has dropped this far in price.

I played the demo last fall and, like Fracture, I decided to wait for a price drop. I didn't think it'd be this soon, because this is really an excellent and original game. It's a first-person platforming game with some mild combat elements thrown in. Players run across rooftops and through buildings, often with the police in pursuit. It's stylish, challenging, and fast-paced. But it's a game of trial and error, and I go splat A LOT.

Grand Theft Auto : Chinatown Wars (Nintendo DS)
My mother-in-law got me a Gamestop gift card, which I used to get this amazing DS title. Like the earliest GTA games, it offers a top-down view, but this time at an angle that allows the city to scroll by in a gorgeously rendered 3D display, with remarkable detail.

Rockstar has once again crafted an amazing rendition of Liberty City - nearly the same one as in GTA IV, minus the western third part of the map (Alderny). I've only done a few missions, but the formula of the GTA series - fun gameplay with strangely compelling psychotic characters - works well. Throw in some DS touch screen features like using the stylus to hotwire cars and play scratch-off lottery tickets - and you've got an awesome, fully loaded GTA game that's portable. More on this one later.

The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion (XBox 360)
My sister-in-law and her family sent me an e-gift card for Target, which I turned into this game. I had heard whispers, rumors, and rumblings among the dozen or so people worldwide who love the King's Field games that this expansive and gorgeous RPG has the same first-person gameplay and appeal.

They were right - this is a modern King's Field, and I couldn't be happier. I completed the tutorial mission and have been turned loose on what I can only assume is an enormous world of swords and sorcery. I can't wait to sink my teeth into this one when the time comes.

Assassin's Creed (XBox 360)
The weekend after my birthday brought a sale at Gamestop - buy two used games and get the third one for free - and this was the first title I picked. It's a strange story of an assassin (duh!) in the Holy Land during the crusades, sneaking around gorgeously rendered ancient cities like Damascus and Jerusalem.

Assassination is just part of it - there's clunky combat against gangs of hostile guards, collection quests out the wazoo, awesome platforming aspects, and side missions. I'm not sure how much I like it yet - I've done an assassination assignment in Damascus, and moved on to Jerusalem for another, and already the gameplay is feeling repetitive. The stealth aspects of sneaking around are also getting on my nerves. Maybe this title just needs some more time to grow on me.

Saint's Row (XBox 360)
The second game I got at Gamestop's sale was this early, pre-GTA IV sandbox title, which offers many similar elements, but also throws in territory acquisition, a la Just Cause. In this case, it's gangs fighting over turf, and so far it's a lot of fun.

It has occurred to me that I may be a sucker for these sandbox games. Time will tell if I can get into this one as much as I did GTA IV and Just Cause.

Condmened : Criminal Origins (XBox 360)
The free game I choose at Gaemstop was this one. Condemned is some sort of detective-horror game that came highly recommended by a few co-workers, but I haven't tried it out yet.

All in all, not a bad birthday! Seven games that should keep me busy until at least June - except Oblivion, which will probably keep me busy until the end of the year.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Milestones : Crush, Crumble, and Chomp

Back in the early 1980s, or the Golden Age of Videogaming as I call it, everyone in the gang had a console. Most of them had the Atari 2600, and I was saddled with my poorly supported Odyssey 2. It was clear early on, though, from the articles that we were reading in Electronic Games magazine, that some of the best videogames of the time were coming out only on personal computers.

These games had more sophisticated graphics and gameplay, and often had new concepts. But none of us had parents that either could afford nor actually want a computer. The Apple 2 was selling for over a thousand dollars, the Atari 800 not far below that, the Atari 400 was around $500, and the Commodore computers came in not far below that.

But we talked about how we'd like to play some of those games. Once, in a conversation we had about how some of the games were loaded from cassette drives, my good friend Andy dismissed the loading time as no big deal - he said if he had a computer with a cassette drive, he'd come home from school, start loading the game, go make a sandwich, and return in time to play.

That scenario resonated with me for some reason, and after my parents finally got me a Commodore VIC 20 computer in the summer of 1983, I got to live it out.

I found a copy of Epyx's Crush, Crumble, and Chomp in a messy, disorganized glass cabinet at a department store called Swallen's in Mansfield, Ohio. There was only one copy, it was slightly buried under other titles in the mess, but it was the game I wanted. I had done my research on the game by reading a review of it in Electronic Games magazine and it sounded like just the sophistication I was looking for.

I had to also buy the 16K RAM expander cartridge to play this game on my VIC 20. It was the only game I ever had that required it, but the additional memory was useful for other applications. Still, I was plopping down quite a bit of my less-than-minimum wage paycheck on the deal. It was worth it.

Crush, Crumble, and Chomp was the predecessor to the much more polished Movie Monster Game Epyx released in the later part of the 1980s. Players choose from six standard movie monsters archetypes, plop them into one of four famous cities, and select from five different objectives, making the game more replayable and varied than anything else I had at the time.

The aforementioned sandwich-making loading time meant that each game session had to be taken more seriously. The turn-based action had to be meticulously handled to maximize the time before being overwhelmed by the military response of the puny humans who got strangely offended when you came into town.

This game was for me exactly what I needed to really open my mind to computer gaming. By 1983, the home console scene had grown somewhat stagnant, with games that were mostly variants of arcade games, and very few titles like Adventure coming out. Computers were clearly the way to go.

Crush, Crumble, and Chomp was also beautifully packaged in a sturdy box. Inside was a plastic tray to hold the cassette, six monster cards with bios of the beasts, and a thick, glossy, instruction manual.

With this game my path was set for the rest of the decade - I would be playing deeper, more challenging, and more unique games, all on Commodore computers. But on its own merits, Crush, Crumble, and Chomp was very, very fun. And yes, I could finish an entire ham and cheese sandwich in the time it took to load.

Friday, April 3, 2009

It's Hard To Find Fault With Fracture

I first played Fracture for the XBox 360 last fall, when its free demo came out on XBox Live, and I thought it was pretty cool. However, with Dead Space, Fable 2, and Left 4 Dead just around the corner, I decided that it wasn't worth the sixty dollar price tag.

And I was right - those other three games are better. But Fracture is still a really good game, as I discovered after picking it up two months ago for a third of its release price ($20) in a Wal-Mart bargain bin. I've been playing it on and off ever since, progressing to what I think is two-thirds the way through the game, and it's been a great ride so far.

Fracture is a third person, over the shoulder shooter, easily comparable to Gears of War and the like. The hero is your typical tough guy future space marine dude, with the silly name of Jet Brody. The U.S. in this climate-changed future is - get this - Fractured into two factions, one that's into cybernetic enhancements and the other one into genetic modifications.

The hook of Fracture is a good one - players have terrain-altering abilities built into their guns or maybe their armor - oh hell, it's on the left and right bumper buttons of the controller. They can raise and lower terrain, creating mountains or pits right in front of them, with what they call "the entrencher".

The applications of these abilities and the whole "fracture" theme are well-woven into the game. In combat, players can raise the ground in front of them for cover, or lower it to dig a foxhole, or raise the ground the enemy is on to disorient them for a few seconds. It works well, looks cool, and never gets old.

There are terrain puzzles, too, to solve with the entrencher and the terrain-altering grenades, one of which is particularly useful in that it creates tall spires that rise straight up. Raise some ground to fix a broken bridge before crossing it. Or use the entrencher to dig under a closed door.

The weapons are for the most part pretty standard (versions of the assault rifle, shotgun, sniper rifle, and rocket launcher), but still cool, and there are some new ideas here as well. The "Black Widow" is a good example - you shoot up to six charges out towards a group of enemies, and then detonate all of them at once. The vortex grenade is also fun - it creates a powerful magnetic vortex where you throw it, pulling in enemies, crates, rocks, and the like. It's always funny to watch it go off.

Combat is gritty and nearly constant, with few quiet moments, as the player slogs from area to area. Enemies get tougher and bosses show up later, but there are enough checkpoints and saves to keep it from getting too frustrating. The music playing during battle is really good, and adds to the tension. Big points for the epic soundtrack.

There's a vehicle section, too, with the strangest all-terrain vehicle I've yet seen in a game. The gun on it is automatic, leaving the player to drive it around, which is quite a challenge in itself as the controls are a bit off-putting. The left stick is used to give it the gas or hold back, and the right stick steers. It felt very awkward, but it was a short sequence and had more terrain-altering fun as the player used the vehicle's abilities to make ramps or dig under doors while driving around.

Look, if you're a rock-hard sell on this generation of gaming, with the standards set very high by Gears of War, Call of Duty 4, and GTA IV, you might find fault with Fracture. This middle-aged gamer stands on softer ground and has found it to be a solid, polished, gem of a game, certainly worthy of the twenty dollars I spent and enjoyable as a title to pick up and take a crack at from time to time.

Did I get enough bad puns into that last paragraph? Hmmm...maybe I should just split while I'm ahead.

Beaten : GTA IV : The Lost and Damned

The feeling of "Whoa, you get a lot of content for a download" quickly fades to "Awww, that's it?" when you ride into the sunset of Grand Theft Auto IV : The Lost and Damned, which is a testament to how much fun it all is. It isn't that short - and there's still lots of content I've yet to finish, just as there still is with the main game - but the climactic last few story missions are epic enough to leave the gamer hungry for more.

I don't have much to add that I didn't cover in my previous post about the game. I'll just reiterate that this is the way to do downloadable expansions. There's another chapter coming this fall, according to the game's makers, but if there were one a month I'd buy and play them all.

The story wraps up well, and once again the exemplary writing skills of the staff at Rockstar make the player somehow care for and empathize with a bunch of sociopaths on a rampage. The characters are quirky, funny, and real in many ways, even as they are shooting rocket launchers and riding through the streets of Liberty City.

In short, this was a purchase well worth the price. I'll be going back again soon, I know, to tie up any loose ends - even the trivial ones - because this game world and these characters are timelessly fun to play with.