Monday, September 28, 2009

What I've Been Playing, When I'm Not Working

Starting back in August, I worked an 11 day stretch, then was on vacation in San Antonio, Texas for six days. When I got back from that, I had a few days to play videogames before going back to work six days straight, then one day off, then six more. To summarize, I've had little time to play and less time to blog. So it's time for one of those quick-review wrap-up articles like I used to do.

Harvey Birdman : Attorney At Law (Wii)
I picked up this title (at last) when I saw it at a Half Price Books in San Antonio while on vacation. It lacks some of the depth of a Phoenix Wright title, but none of the difficulty. I'm stuck about halfway through it. It could be that I'm out of practice. The game looks just like the wacky cartoon and offers the same offbeat humor.

Mazes of Fate (Game Boy Advance)
This obscure GBA title was one I've been looking out for for awhile, and I got it at the same Half Price Books for less than ten dollars. I've only scratched the surface, but so far it's just as I'd hoped - and old school first-person dungeon crawler.

Retro Game Challenge (DS)
At a Gamestop in San Antonio, Monique and I each got ourselves a new DS game. Mine was this title, a mere twenty dollars. Retro Game Challenge is just was it says it is. Players play through challenges on old-school games. I've only unlocked two of the games, the first being a Galaga-style game that's better than Galaga, and the second an NES-era side-scrolling action platforming game.

The gameplay takes place on the top screen of the DS, while on the lower screen, you see yourself as a small child, sitting in front of the TV as you did so long ago, with your friend watching you play and offering encouragement. The whole experience is a nostalgic reminder of those simpler, more innocent gaming days. There are even videogame magazines lying around where you can read about the games you are playing and even get cheat codes and strategies. Awesome.

Space Bust-A-Move (DS)
Monique picked up Space Bust-A-Move for the DS, also for $20. In her words, it's great. It starts out easier than the other two versions we have (PS1 and Wii), but gets progressively harder, with boss battles and such. The space part comes from cosmic backgrounds and levels taking place on different planets. The stylus controls are also good, according to Monique. We have yet to try the single-card multiplayer, but I'm sure that it's fun too.

The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion : The Shivering Isles (Xbox 360)
The Shivering Isles expansion takes the already huge world of the main game and adds another vast area to explore. The Shivering Isles, a place divided between Mania and Dementia, are ruled by the charming and often hilarious Sheogorath, who rambles on in a Scottish accent as he tasks you with stopping the Greymarch. It's a great quest, more challenging at times than the main game, with new monsters and items a'plenty. I played it on and off for a few months after beating the main game, and finally finished it a few weeks ago at the end of my vacation.

Halo 3 : ODST (XBox 360)
Last week I picked up this spin-off adventure in the Halo universe, where players play a rookie Orbital Drop Shock Trooper during the attack on New Mombasa in Halo 2. I think. Regardless of my tenuous grasp of Halo continuity, I had a blast over the last few days playing through the game's campaign mode on Heroic. The ODST is no Spartan like Master Chief is, and thus the gameplay has a few differences. He heals through healthpacks rather than waiting for himself to regenerate. He can't jump as high or melee very well.

But all these differences make the game, which has the same enemies, weapons, and vehicles as Halo 3, really refreshing. Also new is the visor that helps the rookie see better at night, and adds a nice red outline to ememies. The setting is also great - the rookie walks around the battle-scarred city at night, ducking Covenant patrols (or fighting them), and looking for clues as to what happened with to the squadmates that he got seperated from at the start of the game.

When the rookie finds such a clue, the game shifts players into the role of that squadmate, and what happened to him during the six hours the rookie was out cold. It's a very good storytelling method that really got me interested in the characters, in a way that Halo 3 completely failed to do with Master Chief. Each character's adventures aren't all that new - there's a Warthog driving mission, a sniper mission, and so on - but they're still all good fun.

The multiplayer aspect of Halo 3 : ODST comes with every expansion to Halo 3 on a second disk, as well as the all-new Firefight mode (a survival mode, I think), none of which I've tried yet. Halo 3 : ODST is a great package and well worth the price for fans of the game.

Ultime Online (PC)
Yep, I'm back in UO during the current Return to Britannia program. I'm not staying. All I've done so far is sail around the changes they've made to Avatar Island in Trammel with the Stygian Abyss expansion. They basically raised a volcano on the northwestern edge of the island.

All I can say is, man, I'm glad I sold that beachfront villa I had placed there back during the Trammel Land Rush of 2000 when I had the chance. All of that pristine beach is gone, replaced by cooled lava. None of the Stygian Abyss stuff looks like anything that would bring me back to the game on a permanent basis, but as long as it's free, I can sail around for old time's sake.

Well, that wraps up what I've been playing lately. My work schedule doesn't seem to be letting up anytime soon, sort of like the fall videogame release schedule, so I'm not sure if my next update will be like this one, or back to single-game reviews.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Batman : Arkham Asylum Committed To Design Excellence

I'm tired of all my reviews beginning with "Beaten". Looking back at my blog, almost every one of the reviews over the last year has started with that word. I'm going back to bad headline puns (wherever possible), and I'll just mention whether or not I've beaten the game in each review.

On to Batman : Arkham Asylum, then. The dark night of mediocre - to - good releases of 2009 is finally over with the arrival of this game, the best new game of 2009 so far, probably the best licensed superhero game ever made, and one helluva polished product. This game is great on every level, and yes, this morning I beat it.

Like Ghostbusters : The Video Game, the player gets to really feel like Batman in this game. Let's make these two games the watermark of how to make a licensed property work on that level. Arkham Asylum pits the Caped Crusader against the Joker and his sinister plot at the famed institution, where all the costumed villains go to get therapy (or just imprisoned). The story is fantastic - good enough to be its own movie or comic book - and unfolds with twists and turns throughout.

The gameplay has Batman walking, running, and grappling around the island and its various spooky environments in third-person view, normally, with the camera changing angles during fight scenes, and a few 2.5D side-scrolling gameplay sequences thrown in for good measure. Batman gains new gadgets, combat moves, and other upgrades throughout his adventure, and at almost all times has access to a "detective vision", sort of a tactical X-ray, night sight, and environmental analyzer rolled into one, that is so useful that I rarely turned it off.

The detective vision shows other people as skeletons, letting the player know if they are friend or foe, armed or unarmed, and dead or alive. It can be used to track wiring to security boxes, see weak points in walls, and so forth. It's a shame that it's so good at times, as the graphics of the game are also so well done that it's a shame to miss them. The voice-acting is also very good, and not to be missed.

Ah, combat. This game is the prime rib of action-brawlers, with the fighting moves that the Dark Knight has being fine-tuned to an exceptional degree. It has a simple button layout, but allows for the development of powerful combo attacks and free-flowing combat, leaving the player gleefully punching and kicking through hordes of henchmen like a whirlwind. Combat can also be honed in the optional challenge modes, short scenarios that are great for practice, as well as having XBox Live leaderboards so the player can see how poorly they fare against the million or so other players who've scored higher.

Stealth is the bat's best choice in many scenarios, and really the only way to take out rooms full of armed foes. Sneaking around in the rafters, taking out the henchmen one at a time - it never gets old. Watching their reactions, and hearing the Joker's comments to the over the loudspeakers is a joy.

While the main villain is the Joker, of course, there are appearances by other classic Batman foes, some as boss battles, and some as mere cameos of sorts. Of special mention is the Riddler, who has set up an amazing collection-quest set of challenges on the island. Batman's full arsenal of gadgets is required to get them all, and fortunately finishing the game does not prevent their acquisition.

Most of them are simple tasks like find the glowing question-mark trophies, or smash 20 of the chattering, wind-up Joker teeth laughing all around the grounds, but others require some thinking just to figure out what sort of puzzle is going on in the first place. It's by far the most satisfying collection quest I've seen in a game this generation, and I was proud to figure them all out on my own. Searching around for them is made easier by discovering the maps of where they all are in each section, but the map doesn't just hand the riddles to Batman.

Much of the collection quest opens character files and trophies, each adding to the lore of the cast of characters. The bios of each character explains their stories and abilities, and even lists their first comic book experience. Awesome.

There's also something that I can't spoil that occurs at one point in the game that filled me with absolute fear and then absolute glee. It was pure design brilliance, a totally insane moment where the developers mess with the players to a degree unprecedented in the history of videogames. Hats off to them for doing this thing. Players will know it when it occurs.

Everything about Batman : Arkham Asylum is design brilliance, though. There's great combat, a fantastic story with twists and turns, gorgeous graphics, tons of exploration in moody environments, lots of gameplay variety, files of lore to experience, and a sense that the player is really Batman for the entirety of this lengthy quest to stop the Joker.

Word is that some downloadable content is just s few weeks away, and with all the challenge modes I've unlocked, I can say that even though I've stopped the Joker's sinister plot, my time at Arkham Asylum is not quite through. The Fall 2009 videogame season has kicked off quite well with Batman : Arkham Asylum, a game that's polished and playable in every way.

Beaten : Crackdown

I finally picked up a cheap copy of Crackdown, an open-world third-person game that I tried out last year when a co-worker loaned it to me, and a few weeks ago I finished it. Crackdown is yet another game in the XBox 360's growing library of classics, and while its spot on that list is well-deserved, it's a game that gets so much right while missing some greater opportunities along the way.

Crackdown casts the player as a genetically enhanced super-cop in a vast city where three gangs - a Latino one, a Russian one, and an Asian one - have all but taken over their respective turfs. The player has five abilities - agility (jumping and running), strength, firearms, explosives, and driving - that raise through natural gameplay, increasing the amount of chaos the player can cause.

The player gets to enjoy the feeling of being super-powered in many ways - making unreal jumps off of towers, picking up trucks and throwing them at enemies, and so forth - and it's really a refreshing feeling of empowerment. There are standard weapons and grenades, and they all work well in combat, pretty much.

Driving takes some practice to get used to, as the sheer speed happening on the screen often leaves the player little time to react to oncoming traffic and terrain. To be honest, I spent most of my time running about, as the enhanced running and jumping was such fun that traversing rooftops seemed like a better way about. Your mileage may vary.

The action is chaotic at times, but absolutely fun. The targeting is very rough, though. The player must manually target enemies and then lock on, as just pressing the lock on button will usually lock onto a civilian car a block behind the enemy one is facing instead of the obvious choice.

The city is a masterpiece of design, not just large horizontally, but vertically as well. Almost everything is climbable, including the vast Agency Tower at the center of the map, rising to heights so dizzying that my real-world acrophobia was kicking in and my hands were shaking. There are lots of sights to see in Crackdown, and things to collect in its many nooks and crannies.

Where most games have solid boxes as their buildings, Crackdown often constructs them with intricate passageways leading to the rooftops, and the game's several collection quests will lead the player through many of these areas in search of power-enhancing orbs. It's a city of colorful design, and it all fits well with the game's cartoony-but-detailed cell-shaded look.

So Crackdown has fantastic gameplay, great graphics, and awesome level design. What it's lacking in is story and characters, really. Sure, it's got files of lore about the overall story of each gang and its bosses, but these people are just targets and their stories are background, not having much impact on the gameplay. It doesn't take much from the game not having that depth, but it would have been nice.

Crackdown is like cake without icing, still delicious and filling, but not as sweet. And there's a twist at the end - which I won't spoil - that lead me to think that a bigger battle was about to occur, but then - nothing. The game ends, leaving that unresolved twist to a sequel. Which is on the way, so maybe the sequel will pick up the ball and run with it. Crackdown does so much right, so it shouldn't be too hard for a sequel to really shine. We'll find out next year.