Friday, February 26, 2010

Impressions Round Up February 2010

I play a lot of games, and I tend to chop and change between quite a few at the same time - playing an hour or two of something before switching to something else for a while. I also don't like to review a game until I've finished it. This means that there are quite a few games that I never get around to talking about on this blog, because I never finish them, but I would really like to share my thoughts of what I have played. Hence the existence of this article, which I might make a regular monthly feature. So, let's take look at what I've been playing recently...

Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles - Wii
I spent about an hour with this follow up to The Umbrella Chronicles last night, and it is pretty good fun. The story focuses the missions that involved Leon S. Kennedy or Claire Redfield this time rather than Chris and Jill, so you get to explore the police station from Resident Evil 2, the Antarctic base from Code Veronica, and some all new stuff that looks like it may be set in or near the country from Resident Evil 5. The difficulty has definitely been toned down from the previous game, but I still find the shakiness of the camera annoying when I'm trying to line up a headshot. There are plenty of familiar enemies in the game, from the traditional zombies, giant spiders, dogs and hunters (from Resi 1).

Darksiders - Xbox 360
I had heard conflicting opinions about this one, but my curiosity was piqued enough to rent it. On first glance the game appears to be a God of War clone, but give the game a few hours and it settles into more of a Zelda formula, with you exploring the world, gaining new abilities, and fighting your way through multiple dungeons and bosses. I chose the normal difficulty setting and I have to say even early on I'm finding a lot of the battles quite tough, as you need to make good use of your block button and your dash move to quickly get out of trouble.

Star Ocean: The Last Hope International Edition - PlayStation 3
Though this is the fourth and most recent Star Ocean game to be released, it is actually a prequel to the other three and so I didn't see the harm in checking out the first few hours of the game. The graphics are decent, though they suffer from some distracting texture draw in, and the voice acting seems to range from merely passable to truly cringe worthy. I like the fact that battles are no longer random but triggered by touching enemies roaming the field, and I quite like the huge maps that you have to traverse, except it can be easy to lose your bearings in them. I haven't messed around with the Item Creation system yet, but I know that this is one area where this series can get incredibly complicated, so I may read a FAQ before trying to work it out for myself.

Resident Evil 5 - Xbox 360
Watching some footage of the newly released Lost in Nightmares DLC inspired me to finally purchase this game, and I have to say for the most part it is excellent fun. What I have played (halfway through chapter 2) does feel incredibly similar to Resident Evil 4, but it doesn't have the same impact this time having done it before. When played in single player mode, the AI of your partner is incredibly poor. Many times I was minding my own business trying to fend off hordes of bloodthirsty Majini (the infected humans in this game), only to be pumped full of lead because I happened to be standing between them and Sheva. This of course not only hurts, but wastes valuable ammo!

Batman: Arkham Asylum - PlayStation 3

Now this one I have actually played significantly more of than the other games mentioned here - I'm about 50% through in fact - so I probably will have a full review up before long. I like the set piece battles where you have to make use of your environment to evade and incapacitate goons, by making us of gargoyles, or sneaking around within ventilation ducts, and the way that the developers play tricks on the player. Reminds me of the good old gameplay of Metal Gear Solid (the original and best one).

I only have the first two games for a week so I don't know whether I will have time to complete them, but I do own the other three so I will continue to play them and other games in episodic chunks, and once I do finish them I will put up reviews like I normally do. While I technically haven't finished Forza Motorsport 3 (it feature a huge amount of championships), I do feel that I have played enough to come to a reasonable conclusion, so that will most likely be the next game to get the review treatment.


Friday, February 19, 2010

Mass Effect 2 review

Note: I will be making the following review of Mass Effect 2 as spoiler free as possible. If you haven't completed the first game by now however, I may mention the plot of that game. You have been warned. I will now return you to your regularly scheduled article...


Format: Xbox 360 (PC also available)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bioware
Expect to pay: £30 - £40

Graphics: 9 out of 10
For the most part, the original Mass Effect looked really good but the frame rate could get really choppy at times. Bioware have really taken care to make sure that the game is fully optimised however as this time around the game is silky smooth throughout, even when you're surrounded with enemies and biotic powers are being fired off with wild abandon.

We still have the "uncanny valley" phenomenon though - human characters have a slight waxy sheen to their skin which makes them look somewhat unnatural. Aliens don't suffer from this problem, basically because we don't know what alien skin would look like anyway and so our brains don't notice that anything is wrong in the same way, and the design of the races is as good as anything you're likely to see in Star Wars (I have soft spot for Turians, myself). Hair is also something of a problem - it doesn't flow or look like real hair does - which is why my male version of Shepard is a skinhead.

These are only really minor issues in the grand scheme of things, however. The design of the game is fantastic, with the Afterlife bar on Omega fairly early on in the game being a highlight. The repetitive structures of the somewhat empty unexplored planets are also a thing of the past, as not only have Bioware done away with the Mako vehicle completely but they've also taken the time to ensure that each environment feels unique. Mass Effect 2 is definitely one of the visual highlights of the 360's life span thus far.


Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Voice acting in Mass Effect 2 is as good as you would expect from any Bioware RPG of recent times - amazing in other words. Jennifer Hale returns to play the female incarnation of Shepard once again, and she is my preferred choice for the role. Big name celebrities that lend their vocal talents this time include (deep breath): Adam Baldwin (Firefly), Tricia Helfer, Michael Hogan (both from Battlestar Galactica), Carrie-Anne Moss (Matrix Trilogy), Yvonne Strahovski (Chuck), Martin Sheen, Michael Dorn (Star Trek: TNG), Martin Jarvis and Robin Sachs (Buffy). Phew. A list of this magnitude really does serve to demonstrate just what a big business video games have become.

For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, the music wasn't as memorable as it was the first time around. Some of the themes remain the same - the galactic map music for example, but a good deal of it is new. I don't know... it just seem to fade into the background for some reason. The sound effects for both weapons and guns are really cool and unique for each one so you can identify what's going on around you without having to see it. I especially like the noises for the Warp power.


Here we are in the Afterlife bar, which comes complete with Asari pole dancers!


Game Mechanics: 10 out of 10
The inner workings of Mass Effect 2 is the area that has improved the most. Last time the combat was kind of OK, but it was stuck somewhere between being a proper RPG and a third person shooter. This time Bioware has put much more emphasis on the action side of the game, which will probably piss off some but I personally had no problem with. Honestly, the combat is every bit as good as a dedicated third person shooter such as Gears of War 2.


Bioware have also pruned back the length of the missions for this sequel, with most of them not taking much more than an hour to complete this time. rather than the longer sections spent on one planet from the first game. You basically choose where you want to go, get in, do what needs to be done, and then you're given a debriefing screen that details what happened, how much experience was earned and whether you gained any levels, and how much stuff like or you picked up along the way. This means you can play the game in bite sizes doses should you want or need to play it that way.

As previously mentioned, the Mako has been removed entirely this time around and visiting uncharted worlds has been streamlined. Basically, if there isn't something to do there then you can't land - there's no aimlessly trundling around scouring the ground for minerals. Instead you scan the planets from orbit until you get a spike on your scanner and then send it a probe which gathers the minerals for you. These can then be used on various upgrades that you either find during missions or by talking to your fellow crew members.

A lot of Mass Effect 2 will be taken up by you amassing a squad for the big mission at the end. There are more NPC's than there were in the last game, but they're all fleshed out about as much as the old bunch were. These characters basically fit in with one of the six classes that you can choose to be yourself, so some are pure soldiers, some mainly use biotic powers, and others have a nice balance. If you know what type of enemy your going to be facing in advance, then you can pick the right characters for the job. When going up against mechs for example, you will probably want to bring someone with the Overload ability or the ability to hack the mechs and temporarily have them fight on your side.

For me though, the most impressive part of Mass Effect 2 is how the save data from the first game is carried across. The choices you made in the first game don't radically change the outcome of the story, but a lot of things are different. It makes the world feel more real and gives you more of a connection to you character, as you have directly shaped the type of person that they have become. I also really like the emails that you receive from people that you helped out in the first game, even if they were just from minor side quests. Other choices are more significant - whether or not you managed to talk down Wrex in the first game or if you had to kill him, and whether you chose to sacrifice Kaiden or Ashley will of course have an impact here. The number of variables and the amount of data that Bioware had to keep track of must have been immense, and it's incredibly impressive that they have managed to pull it off as well as they have.

Some mechs go on the rampage.


Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
I'm going to give Mass Effect 2 a pretty high score in this area simply because of the way you can bring your old character and all of your choices over. It really does make the game feel a lot more personal. Sure, other games have let you carry over save files in the past, but never to the degree seen here. The really exciting part is that we can expect even bigger things from the final part of the trilogy!


Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
This game held my attention all the way through to the end, which amounts to roughly 30 hours of gameplay if you endeavour do find and complete every mission. I'm not one to finish RPGs all that quickly, but I had completed my first play through at the end of the second week of owning the game. I fully intend to go back and play the game as a renegade character this time, making all the opposite decisions to see how things play out.

Overall: 10 out of 10
This is the first time I've seen fit to award a game 10 out of 10 in the history of this blog (which dates back to September 2004). I have come incredibly close from time to time with games like Resident Evil 4, Dragon Quest VIII and Final Fantasy XII, but none of them engaged me to the same degree as this game. It's not completely perfect (nothing is) and RPG purists may disagree with me, but this is the conclusion I have come to. I can't wait for Mass Effect 3 to come out, but in the meantime there may be some interesting downloadable content in the future...


Friday, February 12, 2010

2010: The Year of the RPG

A couple of days ago I completed Mass Effect 2, and I'll soon be putting a full review together for it. Let's just say that it's a strong Game of the Year contender, and it's still only February! 2010 looks like it's going to be a great one for fans of RPGs, so today I will be highlighting a few of the games that I plan on playing over the coming months...

Console RPGs

Final Fantasy XIII - PS3 and Xbox 360 - 09/03/10
Let's get the obvious one out the way first. The Square-Enix cash cow continues to squirt out Final Fantasy games, but of course this one is a proper numbered entry in the series and not one of the many spin off franchises. Opinion on the Japanese version suggests that it will be a fairly linear experience - even more so than most of the previous entries, but I'm not to bothered about that as long as it still delivers a good game.


Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening - PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 - 19/03/10
Most of us had barely had time to complete Dragon Age before Bioware announced that they were going to be releasing a full disc based expansion for the game. Several trailers have been released - one showing off some new adversaries called The Children, and two more featuring brand new characters called Anders and Velanna, so it seems that we won't just be getting more of the same, but a properly expanded world.

Rune Factory Frontier - Wii - 26/03/10
The DS Harvest Moon spin off series gets transferred over to the Wii, complete with gorgeous visuals and a crapton of stuff to do. This game has been picking up awards from dedicated RPG sites such as rpgamer.com and rpgfan.com, and in a few months those of us in Europe get to find out what all the fuss is about.

Handheld RPGs

Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes - DS - 12/02/10

I've been hearing great things about this puzzle/RPG handheld, and it's good to see that it is getting a European release. You control five different characters, each with their own powers and playing style - should be hours of addictive fun for fans of the series and those who have never touched a Might and Magic game before.

Half Minute Hero - PSP - 19/02/10
An RPG with a twist - you're only given 30 seconds to find and defeat the boss! To get around this rather harsh time limit, you can pay a time fairy to reset the clock - but each time you do so it will get more expensive. All of the usual things that you have to do in normal RPGs apply here - you must level up, buy better equipment, acquire new characters for your party, journey through dungeons and of course defeat the evil overlord - all while adhering to the 30 second rule. There's a demo available on the PSN store so I recommend that PSP owners go and check the game out!

Avalon Code - DS - 12/03/10
This is the latest RPG from Matrix Software, the team that worked on the DS remakes of Final Fantasy III, IV as well as Nostalgia. The big twist with this one appears to be the ability to rewrite the stats of your weapons and enemies, as well as the rules of battle.

Pokemon: HeartGold and SoulSilver - DS - 26/03/10
Arguably the best games in the entire Pokemon saga - Gold and Silver, get remade for the DS, boasting improved graphics, extra content and more surprises. The game will come with a Pokewalker - which is basically a pedometer that levels up a pokemon of your choice as you wander around. I've yet to catch the Pokemon bug, but I'm willing to give it another try.

Import Games (currently no European release date announced)

Lunar: Silver Star Harmony - PSP - 02/03/10
Lunar
is one of the most remade games that a lot of people won't have even heard of. It first appeared on the Mega CD, was completely overhauled a few years later on the PS1, then was ported to the GBA, and now here it is again on the PSP. It is a great game, but I've already played the PS1 version. I am tempted to buy the Limited Edition version... but should I really be replaying an old game (albeit with new graphics and sound) when I still have a ton of unplayed stuff I already own?

Infinite Space - DS - 16/03/10
Infinite Space
sounds really intriguing - "control, build, and customise more than 150 spaceships"... "over 200 characters and the ability to control multiple spaceships at any time"... definitely one to watch and a nice change from all of the fantasy/manga inspired RPGs that populate the DS library.

There are of course many more RPGs coming out during the year that aren't listed here - this is but a taste of what we have to look forward to over the coming months. For example we know that at some point there will be not one but two Dragon Quest games - the sixth installment and the final part of the Zenithia trilogy: Realms of Reverie, and the all new 9th game in the series: Defender of the Starry Sky. Then there's another game in the Tales series - Tales of Graces for the Wii which will hopefully be localised during 2010. We also get to revisit the wastleland in Fallout: New Vegas, with Obsidian handling the development duties this time. I personally can't wait for that one as I loved Fallout 3 (though I still need to catch up on all of the DLC that was released). No doubt there will be plenty of surprises throughout the year as well - one thing is for sure, RPG fans will have plenty to do this year!

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins review

OK, I have been stalling for long enough - it is finally time for my Dragon Age: Origins review. Bioware have a track record for consistently great RPG's that I believe no other company in the business can currently match, though each one since KOTOR has become more and more focused on console style games rather than the classic D&D licensed far such as Baldur's Gate II and Neverwinter Nights where they made a name for themselves. Dragon Age is something of a return to that style of gameplay - less emphasis on action, and more on challenging, strategic battles. This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game, which will have an impact on the scores given.

Format: Xbox 360 (PC, PlayStation 3 also available)
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Bioware
Expect to pay: £30 - £40

Graphics: 7 out of 10
While I was in the middle of playing Dragon Age, I was hearing a lot of negative comments about the graphics from elsewhere, and I didn't really agree with most of what I was hearing at the time. However, I'm now 16 hours into Mass Effect 2 (by the same developer I must point out) and that game has highlighted just how rough Dragon Age actually looks. The list of complaints include the rather low resolution textures, the muddy brown colour palette and the plasticky looking humans, but could also include the rather clumsy GUI for the console versions of the game, compared to the tried and tested icon based point and click interface of the PC version (more on this in the Game Mechanics part of the review). Then there's the blood that sticks to your characters during a fight and stays there during conversations, which can look plain ridiculous at times.
The game certainly doesn't all look bad - most of it is perfectly adequate in fact - it just looks rather last gen in the current age of extremely detailed HD visuals.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Bioware have a habit of hiring some of the best voice actors in the business and then writing some great dialogue for them, and Dragon Age is no exception. Some of the more well known names amongst the cast include Kate Mulgrew (Captain Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager), and Tim Curry (villain in many films and TV shows including the killer clown from Stephen King's IT and the murderous Trymon from The Colour of Magic), and there are plenty of well established voice artists filling out the smaller roles besides. The in game music was great, but I wasn't keen on the pop rock that played over the end credits - it didn't really feel in keeping with the medieval-esque theme of the game.


Here's a typically brown shot of the game - compared to the vibrant neon graphics of Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age is somewhat lacking

Game Mechanics: 7 out of 10
First of all, let's go back to what I was saying about the interface earlier.
I know certain concessions have to be made in adapting the game over to the 360 and PS3, but this was not the right way go about it - having to constantly pause the action to tell your party members to do something, and only being able to give them actions one at a time instead of queuing up two or three in advance feels like a step backwards. You can assign tactics to your NPC party members but that is a pain, and you have to spend precious skill points to be able to using them. A good example of how to do this sort of gameplay on a console is Final Fantasy XII - Bioware should have taken a look at the GUI from that game and learnt from it. Of course most of these problems will go away if you happen to play the PC version - you can switch between part members much more quickly by simply clicking on their portraits, and you have all of your characters abilities as icons along the bottom of the screen rather than having to map a few of them to button presses on the controller.

Apart from the interface, which really makes it hard to keep up with the punishing difficulty when playing the console version, the rest of the game design is as solid as ever. When creating your character you can choose between male and female, Human, Elf or Dwarf, and then Warrior, Rogue or Mage - so far so cliched - but you can also decide upon one of six origin stories, which is one of the major selling points of the game. The first few hours of the game will see these origin stories play out, and each one is significantly different to the last. They don't radically change the course of the rest of the game, but rather they effect personal quests and may introduce you to various significant plot related characters (such as Tim Curry's Arl Rendon Howe) much earlier than others.

As you level up in the usual way (completing quests and killing monsters) you earn skill points and ability points. Skills are the same for all character classes, and include things such as Stealth, Stealing, Survival (the ability to detect hostiles on the world map earlier than normal) and more. The abilities are specific to your class and there are quite a few possibilities. For example the mage could be a healer, a purely offensive mage, dabble in dark arts or have a mixture of all. If you do decide to mix and match it is likely that you will never be able to truly excel in anything however as ability points are quite scarce.

On top of the standard abilities, at certain levels you will be able to choose a specialisation for your character. These aren't just given to you as soon as you reach the required level however, they have to be earned in a variety of ways. Some of them you can simply buy in training manual form from merchants, others can be taught by your various party members once they like you enough, and others can only be learnt by taking a certain path in a request. The best example of this is Blood Mage - you have one opportunity to learn this, and if you do it will have serious ramifications with your story as blood mages are considered extremely dangerous and freaks of nature.

There are many decisions that you have to make throughout the course of the game that may just piss off one party member or another and make them leave the party altogether - in fact it's not possible to recruit every possible character in one play through unless you save just before a key decision and then go back and play things out the other way. This first time through I played as a generally good person, next time (if I can find any time to replay the game amongst the torrent of RPG's coming out this year) I will be as evil as possible. That's always the good thing about Bioware games, there are at least two different ways to play through each of there games, often more.


Having a chat, covered in gore.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
Innovation isn't really what Dragon Age is all about, being a return to the style of Baldur's Gate, but that's not to say that there's none to be found. Bioware continue to be the pioneer for modern multi path RPG's and the 6 different origin stories and their impact on the storyline must have taken a huge amount of time and skill to plan and execute. Then there's a section towards the end of the game which won't spoil the details of here, which is not what you would typically expect from this type of game.

Value and Replayability: 9 out of 10
Upon seeing the world map for the first time, I was a little disappointed that I couldn't roam the overworld as you can in something like Oblivion, and I thought that it didn't look like the game would last very long. My play through ended up taking about 55 hours though so you will get plenty of game to play, and of course you can start again with a different origin story and play as good/evil depending on what I you decided to do the first time through.


Overall: 8 out of 10
I was tempted to given Dragon Age a 7 out of 10 score in the light of Mass Effect 2, but it's flaws don't stop it from being a fantastic RPG. Disappointing graphics and a clumsy interface did detract from my overall enjoyment somewhat, but the character building, writing and story did keep me engaged all the way to the end. Bioware is going through a great time at the moment, and it will be interesting to see what the announced disc based expansion and the promised 2 years of DLC bring to the overall experience. In the meantime, I'm going to temporally swap my suit of armour and bow and arrow for a space suit and a really big gun. Look out for my Mass Effect 2 review soon!

Monday, February 01, 2010

Classic or Crap? Volume 1

There are hundreds, nay thousands of old games available for the classic systems, so finding a new one to play can be quite a daunting prospect. The chances of finding a duffer are fairly high. So in the first of what I hope will become a regular series, I will be taking a look at a random game and deciding whether they are classic, or crap. I realise that this is not an absolute science and there are some games that are almost worthy of classic status but a few significant flaws hold them back from greatness, so in these cases I shall weigh up the good/bad elements of the game and assign them as I see fit. If you disagree with any of my judgments then feel free to leave a comment. I also plan to shoot some footage for my YouTube channel but this will depend on whether I can get my headset to work properly. A lot of these games will also be completely new to me - the way they've been picked is by a random name selector called "The Hat". So let's take a look at the first game...

1. Little Samson - NES - Taito - 1992




The first thing that struck me about this game is how good it looks. A lot of NES games suffer from bad slowdown or flickering pixels, but not so with Little Samson. This is largely due to the game being a fairly late release in the lifespan of the system, so the developers at Taito had learned all the tricks, but this doesn't detract from the technical achievement.

Upon starting the game, you are presented with a level select screen, with each one having its own character. There's a small boy (Little Samson himself), a green dragon thing, something that looks like it could be a golem, and a tiny mouse. These can be done in any order and each character has slightly different abilities. Samson and the mouse can both cling and climb to walls, the dragon can hover short distances, and the golem is very powerful with a punch attack. Once all four of these brief levels are dealt with, it becomes clear that they are merely the tutorial to the main game - after a fairly easy scrap between Samson and the dragon, the game proper begins.

Things continue to be fairly straightforward until you reach the games first proper boss - an evil wizard guy. Bash him around a bit and he will be defeated - only to suddenly transform into something that looks like a demon. It is at this point that I was annihilated - over and over again. I must admit, I have yet to get past this boss, but I've no doubt with enough persistence and gnashing of teeth I would prevail. I can't really blame the controls of the game - they are logical, fast and responsive. All in all the game feels like a really good arcade cabinet, except it's all been done on the NES hardware. Taking a look at gameFAQs, there's plenty to do - 18 levels not including the tutorial stages. The game has yet to be released on the Wii's Virtual Console, but if it does appear I would really recommend downloading that, or failing that, seeking out the actual cartridge.

Edit: I didn't realise that you could change character at any point by pressing the Start button and choosing them, so this time I switched over to the Golem and beat the boss fairly easily. Now I might actually make some progress!

Verdict: A true classic, no doubt about it.





Sorry the picture is so out of focus in the video!