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.