Thursday, January 28, 2010

This Can't Be Happening...

Look at this:

Lord of Ultima

It's either a whoring out of the legendary and STILL SACRED TO MANY OF US, EA! Ultima name for a browser-based strategy game, or I've woken up in hell. Not sure which, because I can't actually play it to see. The beta servers are full. It makes me feel like this:

If I get to play the game later and it is an awesome, deep, rich, RPG full of Ultima lore and legacy instead of a cheesy browser-based strategy game with the Ultima name tacked on to attract - I can't imagine anyone - then I will issue a full apology for this fearful little blog entry that hardly anyone will read.

Mass Effect 2 Initial Impressions - No More Moon Patrol RPG, And EA's Dumbass Code Redemption Rigamarole

So I picked up Mass Effect 2 the other night, at the Gamestop midnight sale. Of the sixty or so people there, including the staff, I was certainly the oldest, and also noteworthy was the fact that only one person (not I) was there to pick up the other big game releasing that day, the PS3 game MAG.

So I've spent a lot of time with Mass Effect 2 over the last few days, and boy is it great. Everything that's out there in the gaming press is basically true. The characters and the story are fantastic, the combat is fun, and there's lots of cool things to do.

The hugest disappointment, though, is the omission of the moon buggy that was so much fun to tool around in in the first game. As I stated in my review, the moon buggy was a clear nod to the arcade classic Moon Patrol. In Mass Effect 2, it's gone. Instead of having the buggy dropped on a huge square of a planet and driving around to discover minerals and other hidden goodies, in ME2 the player scans the planet from orbit, and only if an anomaly is detected can the player land - in a shuttle.

The scanning is at first really very cool - the player moves a cursor over a competely 3D and rotatable representation of the planet. The controller rumbles and a graph of jittery lines spike up if the scanner is detecting one of four minerals, and at that point the player launches a probe to claim them. It is a very stylish improvement over the previous game's planet scanning, but it quickly becmes very, very tedious.

I haven't decided yet whether to doggedly chart every planet and claim every mineral as I did in the first game. So far only one planet has yielded a surprise mission outside my regular mission itinerary, so I fear the rewards may not be worth the time.

Speaking of rewards, whew....let me compose myself before beginning the next part of this.


Speaking of rewards, there are many rewards awaiting the Mass Effect fan who kept their save files from the first installment, who pre-ordered the new game, and even rewards for those who completed the iPhone game Mass Effect Galaxy. Such an amazing synergy has seldom been accomplished in the annals of gaming, and naturally EA is there to muck it up as much as possible.

The importing of my Mass Effect game save into Mass Effect 2 was simple enough, done right upon starting the game for the first time. The reward is a true connection between the two installments. Even minor decisions I made in the first game (and had since forgotten about) are turning up as having made an impact on characters I encounter in ME2. It's an astonishing weaving of story elements, nay, a skilled execution of storytelling engineering that deserves more praise than that of an isolated little blog like this one.

And the Mass Effect Galaxy bonus content for Mass Effect 2 - that the game's characters Jacob and Miranda mention the events of Galaxy in ME2 - was easy enough to figure out. Beat the game, touch "Extras" and then "Stay Informed", and then enter your EA account info. I had to talk to Jacob in ME2 a few times before he mentioned it, but it was still a neat thing to have.

Also accessable immediately was a code for the Cerebrus Network, a built-into-the-starting-screen system for getting ME2 bonus content, one such free example of which was available on the first day, and another on the second day after release. So not only does Microsoft have a fantastic downloadable content system and code redemption system built into XBox Live, which I have used successfuly many times in the past, Mass Effect 2 has a way of getting DLC on it's start-up screen. The Cerebrus Network code came with the game, and worked within the game's startup screen.

Of course, that's because I have an EA Online account, which I've had for years, but only recently have connected it to my XBox Live account, having needed to do that when I started playing Dragon Age : Origins, another Bioware game that I'll fill you in on later (oh, there's so much to tell).

But my Gamestop pre-order bonus code, which grants me a set of armor without a removeable helmet, and a cool new gun, was quite difficult to redeem. Here's the instructions on the card that came with the code:

1. Go to
2. Follow the link to redeem your unique code
3. Enter your EA account info
4. Redeem your code
5. Download your item
6. Load up your copy of Mass Effect 2
7. Check Shepard's personal terminal in-game, located next to the galaxy map, for a message detailing how to obtain your pre-order item

Instead of using the built-into-the-game code redemption system, or the built-into-the-friggin-Xbox-Live-service code redemption system, this was what I had to do to get my armor and gun? Hey, whatever, let's try it!

Step 1 - Go to

I was immediately stopped here at a faulty "enter your birthdate" thingy. I entered my birthdate, hit enter, and the thing immediately reset back to "January 1 Year". I was stopped in my tracks by this villainous bit of age discrimination. Oddly enough, entering "January 1 2009" took me to the site, but alas that was a dead end too. No code redemption to be found.

Disillusioned, I gave up and just played Mass Effect 2 without my pre-order goodies. Later, I realized what a bunch of bullshit it all was, and tried again. I changed my internet browser security, took down my firewall, and still no luck geting past Bioware's Age Guardian Monster.

But then, a Google search lead me to, which brought me to....

Step 2 - Follow the link to redeem your code

I saw no such link, but rather a Bioware social site of some sort that demanded I register. I started to, but then, to the right, I saw the login for my EA account. Which was really...

Step 3 - Enter your EA account info

I did. Amazingly, it worked. I rapidly proceeded to...

Step 4 - Redeem your code

I entered the code and it was accepted. Now comes the weird part. I was prompted to download my code - ONTO MY PC! For a moment, a flash of fear - had the Gamestop employee accidentaly given me a PC promo code? No, there was the XBOX Live logo right there, that couldn't be it. I nervously accepted the download...

Step 5 - Download your item

"What's happening?!?!" I screamed frantically, as downloadable content that was supposedly for the XBox 360 placed itself square on the desktop of my ancient computer. What mad world had I woken up in today? What was next? Would I have to turn on my PSP to get cable? Would my toaster be required to start my car? None of this made any sense to me and I whimpered pathetically when the download finished...

Step 6 - Load up your copy of Mass Effect 2

I already had it on. Okaaaay....

Step 7 - Check Shepard's personal terminal in-game, located next to the galaxy map, for a message detailing how to obtain your pre-order item

After you press start on the title screen, there's a display of two laptop computers. One is the aforementioned Cerebrus Network, and one is the game options (Resume, New Game, Load Game, and Extras). Under "Extras" it shows the DLC that I had already gotten, but the Terminus armor was not there. I wasn't sure if they really meant "Shepard's personal terminal in-game", so I started up my game and checked it. Nothing. Finally, I went to Shepard's personal quarters where his armor and clothing closet it, and it wasn't there either.

A little nervous still, I shut off the game and system and rebooted. Sure enough, when I restarted, there were my pre-order goodies, mentioned at both the title screen computer and the in-game one. I went to my quarters and put on the armor.

One last bit of stupidity with this armor - you can't wear it without the helmet on. Oh, it looks really cool in combat, but when you take a drink at the bar, or get a kiss on the cheek from a grateful girl whom you just helped out, it looks silly.

So that's it - my room-and-platform spanning adventure just to wear some sily bonus armor in a galaxy-spanning adventure. That DLC icon is still on my PC desktop. I'm afraid to remove it. Maybe after I've beaten the game. Plus, I'll unplug my microwave first just to be safe.

Monday, January 18, 2010

2009 Game Of The Year Awards

What a year 2009 was! While much of the year for me was spent catching up with the XBox 360's vast library of great games, it was the new releases that really blew me away. We live in a time where really great games are released with alarming frequency, and even games with mediocre review scores can provide many, many hours of fun. Believe it or not, things weren't always this way, and there would often be months between game releases that were any good at all. You kids don't know how good you've got it these days.

And now the awards. As always, keep in mind that these selections are my personal opinions based solely on what I played over the last year. I neither have the time nor the money to play everything that comes out, but I came pretty close to doing just that this year, and the acquisition of a Playstation 3 late in 2009 has allowed me to pick whatever I want to play from every current generation console's game library for the first time in over a decade.

Winner : Demon's Souls (Playstation 3)

Touted as the "spiritual successor" to the King's Field series, this unique RPG by From Software certainly recreated the dark, moody and desperate medieval fantasy environments of those games, this time in a third-person view. While reviewers and players alike often cited the game as punishingly difficult, as a veteran of those King's Field games, I knew the truth. Demon's Souls is no arcade hack-and-slash, but rather a dangerous adventure that requires careful and considered exploration, measured combat moves, and clever use of the environment to survive.

Innovations in Demon's Souls include the unique use of an online server to allow players to play co-op, or even invade other player's games and attempt to playerkill them for extra challenge. Not since Ultima Online have I felt such a sense of heart-pounding dread as multiplayer PvP spilled over into my single-player game, and I loved every minute of it. Other interesting online features included the abliity to leave messages to other players playing in the same area and seeing ghost images of how they died. Demon's Souls was a refresingly different and truly engaging masterpiece that once again proved that no one can do dark and moody environments like From Software.

Runner - Up : Batman : Arkham Asylum (XBox 360)

There have been many superhero games over the years, but this is by far the best. Batman finds himself trapped in the Arkham Asylum as part of the Joker's schemes in this third-person game of smooth combat, clever gadgets, and challenging exploration. Great moves like swooping down on henchmen and hitting them with remote-controlled Batarangs make the gameplay varied and fun. Fantastic characters, cut-scenes, and those mind-altering Scarecrow sequences help take the interesting story to a level better than any of the Batman movies, and in-game collection quests provide the player with plenty of Batman lore to enjoy. The bar for superhero games has been raised to a very high place thanks to Batman : Arkham Asylum.

Runner - Up : Borderlands (XBox 360)

Borderlands is an amazingly polished and playable hybrid of frantic first-person shooter action and character/equipment developing role-playing that works far better than it should. With a visually stunning cel-shaded art style and loads of content stretched over a vast group of playable areas, I found myself shooting and looting for several weeks, refusing to leave any quest undone for fear of finishing the game too soon. There are lots of wacky characters and funny pop culture references all over the desolate planet of Pandora, and downloadable additions to the game (The Island of Dr.Ned and Mad Moxxi's Underdome Riot) have added more. Borderlands is proof that a first-person shooter can have all sorts of depth and still play like one should.

Runner - Up : Assassin's Creed 2 (XBox 360)

I finally caught up with the first Assassin's Creed game (released in 2007) this year, and while enjoyable, the repetitiveness and baffling story left me a little nonplussed. The sequel fixed all of that and established Assassin's Creed as one of the premiere storrytelling epics of this generation of games. Third-person free-running and combat across the gorgeously realized cities of Renaissance Italy reveal a story of revenge and conspiracy set against a wider historical backdrop that invites many questions about the nature of humanity. Intense puzzles, breathtaking vistas, and plenty of combat options make Assassin's Creed 2 one of the more unique and interesting games I've ever enjoyed.

Remember, it's very likely that I alone hold the mantle of the longest continuously running videogame of the year awards, so these selections join a mighty pantheon indeed!

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Beaten in 2009

Looking back on 2009 - wow, I beat a lot of games. Was it because of increased gaming skills, as I fuly embraced this generation's console games? Was it the sheer volume of games that I played over the last year? I don't know. Here's the list:

Farcry 2 - XBox 360
Prey - XBox 360
Grand Theft Auto IV : The Lost and Damned - XBox 360
Deadly Creatures - Wii
Just Cause - XBox 360
Resident Evil 5 - XBox 360
Mass Effect - XBox 360
Guitar Hero 3 : Legends of Rock (on Easy)- XBox 360
Saint's Row - XBox 360
The Maw - XBox 360
Assassin's Creed - XBox 360
Condemned : Criminal Origins - XBox 360
Ghostbusters : The Video Game - Xbox 360
The Elder Scrolls IV : Oblivion - XBox 360
Condemned 2 : Bloodshot - XBox 360
Halo 3 - Xbox 360
The Darkness - XBox 360
Eat Lead : The Return of Matt Hazard - XBox 360
Crackdown - XBox 360
Batman : Arkham Asylum - XBox 360
The Elder Scrolls IV : The Shivering Isles - XBox 360
Left 4 Dead : Crash Course - XBox 360
Halo 3 ODST - XBox 360
Mass Effect Galaxy - iPhone
Brutal Legend - XBox 360
Borderlands - Xbox 360
Call of Duty : Modern Warfare 2 - XBox 360
Demon's Souls - PS3
Grand Theft Auto IV : The Ballad of Gay Tony - XBox 360

I'm trying to be humble here, but damn...okay, here's what I didn't beat, or in some cases, didn't beat yet:

Fracture - Xbox 360
Madworld - Wii
Mirror's Edge - Xbox 360
Harvey Birdman : Attorney at Law - Wii
Left 4 Dead 2 - XBox360
Assassin's Creed 2 - XBox360
Grand Theft Auto : Chinatown Wars -DS
Retro Game Challenge - DS
New Super Mario Bros. Wii - Wii
Shadow Complex - XBox 360

There, I feel better. Still not a bad year!

Demon's Souls - Not For The Innocent

Demon's Souls is the latest RPG offering from Japanese developer From Software, whose repertoire include the legendary King's Field games for PS1 and PS2, which was a game series that myself and maybe ten other gamers in the world just loved. Rarely does a game that is so panned by critics and players find a niche audience that "gets it", but the King's Field games were just that, and the torch has now been gloriously passed to Demon's Souls.

Oddly, though, this time the critics are on board - most reviews are very favorable, but caution the masses that the game is notoriously difficult and brutally punishing. All of this is true, of course, but it's hardly news to those of us who've survived King's Field, King's Field 2, and King's Field: The Ancient City.

And it's not that the challenge comes from out-of-scale difficulty with the enemies you fight, or frustrating game mechanics. From's RPGs are masterpieces of environmental menace, of music and mood mixed to create despairing landscapes and spirit-crushing set pieces. These worlds are then coupled with a disciplined learning curve where no quarter is given to the unwary. There's a short tutorial at the start, but no coddling from that point onward. Each level thereafter is a test of the player's ability to cautiously engage it, study it, and react to it - and it's a pass/fail test.

Failure and death means restarting the entire section in soul form, the big downside of which is that the player has half of his hit points. The other big downside (there are few "small" consequences in this game) is that the player loses all collected souls earned up to that point from killing enemies. To get them back, the player must then fight their way back to the place they fell and touch their bloodstain. Failure to do that - dying again, that is, means all those souls go bye-bye. And resurrection does not mean going back to town and paying a healer. Oh no, the only way to revive and return to full health is either by using a hard-to-find gem or by beating a boss. So, much of the exploration will probably be done in soul form, and most players will just get used to it.

But these are just the rules of the game. Like the game's combat moves, like each enemy's and boss' strengths and weaknesses, once these rules are learned and obeyed, the exploration and discovery that awaits is breathtaking. From a safe central Nexus (which contains the mechanisms for level/spell/equipment advancement) the player goes forth to five distinct sections, each with at least three areas of its own, ending with a major boss battle.

In these areas the player will encounter all manner of menaces, from soldiers to monsters, to mini-bosses, and traps. The first area is one mammoth castle, which in addition to the garrison of guards awaiting the player, has a pair of pesky fire-breathing dragons to add to the mix. They tend to watch the bridges in these areas. Another area is a deep mine, another a swampy pit of poison, and so on. Each is different enough to add to the depth of the game and littered with special surprises.

Along the way there's plenty of loot to be had, some of which encourages exploration and minor puzzle-solving. There are some NPCs left in this broken world, too, some to sell the player mid-level supplies, some to be rescued, and some to be a pain in the ass. There's a loot bank guy back at the Nexus, too, who can store items, but inexplicably none of the shops buy items from the player. The game economy is based on the same souls the player collects from defeating foes, so decisions about levelling, learning spells, or upgrading equipment all must be carefully shared and considered from the same economic pool.

Certain NPC events and expereinces, as well as the use of certain items, are irreversable in a single playthrough, so decisions one makes have a heavier impact. The game's constant autosave system does not allow for saving before a critical moment, failing at it, and restarting at that save. One can quit and save almost anywhere in a section, though, so resuming at a later time doesn't mean restarting that whole section.

All of this standard but harsh RPG stuff is executed quite well, but it's still standard. Where Demon's Souls veers into new worlds of innovation is in its application of online features into what one might otherwise mistake for a single-player game. Assuming the player has the PS3 hooked up to the internet, these features are all there once the game is started up and hooked up to the Demon's Souls server.

Players can see ghost images of other players curently playing in the same section. Touching a player bloodstain on the ground shows the ghost player's death, which can reveal traps and other ways to die that lie in wait. Players can leave messages on the ground for other players, filled with useful warnings and such, and if other players recommend a message one leaves behind, the writer receives a health boost. And there's a really cool hall of heroes display in the Nexus showing the most advanced players in the world. I'll never make it there.

But wait, there's more. Players can travel to each other's games cooperatively, or even competetively. Co-op means sharing the souls and the resurrection when beating a boss. Competetive means that, while playing at full health, other players may invade your game with the intention of hunting you down, taking some of your souls, and resurrecting their own.

Not since the glorious early days of Ultima Online have I experienced such heart-pounding unsolicited PvP action. I've only dabbled in it, been invaded a few times, won a few and lost a few more, but it's an aspect of Demon's Souls that's not to be missed, and adds not only suspense and challenge to the single-player game, but replay value for future sessions.

Demon's Souls is a masterpiece of mood and suspense, a unique gem in a generation of games that while often amazing, are timid when it comes to risky innovation. Only From Software could make a game like this, and only certain players will find the level of commitment within themselves to embrace the unquestionable challenge that this title represents. It's not for everyone, but it is for anyone who wants something different and can approach the difficulty with a cautious level of humility. Players who meet these qualifications will find the rewards that Demon's Souls offers unlike those from any other gaming experience currently on the market.

Fall 2009 Wrap - Up

Let's start out 2010 with another quick review of what I've been playing over the last few months. The fall of 2009 was a hectic gaming season, as usual, and my work schedule hasn't allowed me the time to write an in-depth review of each of these titles.

Mass Effect Galaxy (iPhone)
This top-down, singe-screen-at-a-time shooter from EA was a fun little diversion, introducing players to some new characters that are supposed to appear in the upcoming sequel. The battles are bookended by cut scenes and the same "choose your adventure" conversations that Mass Effect had.

While enjoyable, the adventure was short, and the gameplay suffered from drastic onscreen slowdown when the bullets were flying. While I was able to adjust my playing to the game's loss of speed during those moments, such issues are barely forgiveable in this day and age.

Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 (XBox 360)
This little-known first-person shooter did a lot to recapture the intense action and over-the-top storytelling of its predecessor, and for the most part, it pulled it off. There was one mission, however, that was so over-the-top as to be nauseating, and seems so pointless in the story's bigger picture that it all feels gratuitous.

But everything else about the game, including the extremely accessable multiplayer and the gorgeous graphics, was stunning to behold. More gamers need to to be made aware of this fledgling game franchise, so get out there and tell every gamer you know about Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2!

Assassin's Creed 2 (XBox 360)
Everything I complained about in the first Assassin's Creed game seven months ago seems to have been addressed in some manner in the sequel, which takes place in Renaissance Italy. Assasin's Creed The Next Generation's Ezio can swim, more of the background story in the future has been explained, and the missions seem less repetetive.

There are more combat options, more cinematic cut-scenes, an economic system with shops, the looting of corpses, Tomb Raider style tomb raiding, and some intense observational puzzles featuring classic and historic works of art. I've played about halfway through the game, and am once again having a fantastic time, in what is once again a unique videogame setting with great historic credibility.

Little Big Planet (PS3)
Did I mention that I picked up a PS3 back on Black Friday? Oh, I did, and it came bundled with this game and the next one I'l talk about. Little Big Planet came into my sights with not-so-little amounts of hype, and I've yet to delve deep enough into the game to say for certain whether or not the cutesy 2.5D platformer with questionable jumping lives up to it all.

I understand that it's supposed to be played online, with others, as puzzles start to show up where 2,3,or 4 players are required to solve them. There's a whole custom level design thing, and tools/items are acquired along the way for this, but I haven't the time or desire to get into that either. Nor do I really want to stop and put stickers on stuff in the game, or change my character's outfits every few minutes.

Little Big Planet is a game I may enjoy eventually - but right now the "game" seems like too much "work".

God of War Collection (PS3)
The other game bundled with my PS3 was this compilitation of the PS2 classics, the first of which I had tried a few years ago and found to be to frustrating. I tried again, felt the frustration building again, and haven't picked it up since. Maybe later.

This concludes my lazy half-assed wrap-up article. There was one more major game I've been playing, but it assuredly deserves its own write-up and will get one soon.