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?