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.