Monday, January 31, 2011

Game Diary: Tales of Tales

Readers of this blog will no doubt have noticed that the content mainly consists of reviews, and I would like to widen the range of articles I write. One of the new things I would like to do is have more diary style entries, covering stuff that I've been playing recently, so this is the first of hopefully many of these. I will probably do this once or twice a week, depending on whether I actually have anything interesting to say!

So, recently I've found myself jumping between many different RPG's, as I tend to do after just having completed one I've been playing for ages - namely Fallout: New Vegas. I like to test the waters, try some games out before committing to one and sticking to it. Something that has been influencing the games I've been trying a lot recently is the RPG Backtrack podcast - they've recently done episodes dedicated to Skies of Arcadia which really tempted me to replay it for a third time, and I'm now listening to one about the Harvest Moon series which is making me want to dig out my copy of Magical Melody and buy Innocent Life from the PSN store. They also recently dedicated an episode to the more recent entries in Namco's Tales series, which has resulted in me playing Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox 360, and this is the game that I now intend to stick with through to the end.

I picked up Vesperia back when it was released in Europe, played it for 13 or so hours and then got distracted by something else and put it aside. I decided to start over from the beginning on Saturday, and by the end of the weekend had got past where I had got to last time. Firstly, the graphics in this game are absolutely gorgeous, right up there with the very best stuff on the 360. Of course, this depends whether you actually like the anime style - if you prefer something more gritty then it may do little for you, but being a fan of all things Studio Ghibli I love it. Character wise, the cast isn't quite up there with that of my favourite game in the series so far, Tales of the Abyss, but I'd say they're stronger than Symphonia for the most part. Yuri Lowell is a likable lead character, and Rita is nice and snarky, but Karol can be annoying and Estelle is just far too pink for my liking.

The game has some very enjoyable dungeons, with puzzles that are just taxing enough to give you something to think about but not so hard as to have you get stuck. The plot is OK, but as is usually the case it's more the way the cast of characters interact with each other throughout the cut scenes and the many optional skits that really keep you entertained. Once I get all the way to the end and complete the game, I will come back with a full review.

There are also a few other Tales games that I need to investigate - I've been interested in Legendia for the PS2 for a while now as it sounds very different from the rest of the series. It was developed by some of those responsible for the Soul Calibur series for one thing, and the structure of the plot sounds fascinating. For the first half of the game you follow one character, and the second half of the game is made up of a series of character quests whose length adds up to roughly the same as the first. I have seen it for about £20 on eBay in the past, but a quick look recently only brought up two copies, both of which were selling for £50, which is a bit much for me right now. There's also Tales of Symphonia: Dawn of the New World, a Wii sequel to the Gamecube classic (read my ancient review here). I've played a fair bit of this already, but will probably start over when I get around to going back to it again.

Finally, there's Tales of Graces F, and Tales of Xillia. The first is a PS3 port of a very buggy Japan only Wii game, which fixes the myriad problems with the original release and upscales the graphics. Apparently it is looking quite likely that it will get a US release at least, so I should be able to import it. The fate of an English port of Xillia is still unknown, but hopefully it should come over eventually.

I usually find I need a little break from the series after playing through one Tales game, as most of them are actually pretty similar in terms of style and mechanics, but I would like to play through the rest of the games in the series I've yet to complete yet. I'll probably intersperse them with other games, such as Rogue Galaxy, Wild Arms 5, and the two Shadow Hearts sequels. I would say I have enough RPG's in my collection to keep me playing for quite a few years. Will that stop me from buying more though? Er... no. Speak to you again soon.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Impressions: 360 RPG Double Bill

Over the last few weeks I've been putting a fair few hours into some RPG's for the Xbox 360. Both of these are ports of games that were originally released on the PC, and they both suffer a little in the transition - the graphics are noticeably rougher, the frame rate suffers in places, and the interface of both could be better. Nevertheless, if you don't own a decent gaming rig at the moment (like I don't), they're still worth checking out.

Divinity II: Ego Draconis
I've been a fan of the Divinity series for years now, ever since I took a chance of the original game and ended up loving it. This sequel has transformed the series from a Diablo style hack and slasher (except with more depth and conversation options) into a 3rd person free roaming affair. The difficulty level can be harsh in places, because there's only a finite number of beasties to kill (once their dead, they stay dead) and vendors never replace their stock of healing potions. Things get considerably easier once you pal up with a necromancer and get him to reanimate a creature out of various body parts for you, as you can get your enemies to beat on it instead of you. The big selling point of Divinity II is the ability to turn into a dragon, but you don't get to do this until quite far into the game (10-15 hours in) and once you do it's initially a bit of a disappointment. There are barriers everywhere, which first have to be taken down on foot before you truly get to explore in the air. A newer version of the game, with improved graphics, reworked gameplay and a new expansion called Flames of Vengeance, came out about a month ago, known as Divinity II: The Dragon Knight Saga. If you've got the extra cash, this is the version to go for.

Risen has been hailed by many as a spiritual successor to the Gothic series, being made by the same developer as those games. At the start of the game, your character is a stowaway on a ship which very quickly gets smashed to bits by a giant creature called a Titan, with you being washed up on the beach of a mysterious island. As you explore, you will discover three different factions on this island - a group of bandits, some mages and the Inquistion - who capture anyone they find wandering around outside the town and force them to join their ranks. Everyone on the island is obsessed with ruins that have sprung up out of the ground (along with lots of nasty creatures), and the possibility of them containing gold.

Risen is a very open ended game, you can basically wander where you want for the most part (while staying away from the white robed Inquisitors). It is very tough in the early stages, as levelling up doesn't really offer much benefit until you've found a trainer and built up some gold to pay him with. Eventually you will have to choose which of the different factions you want to align yourself with, which will have a slight impact on the abilities you can use (mages can use all magic spells, inquisitors a select few, and bandits none, for example). This game suffers from an ailment that all too many 360 games have - namely text that is far too small for a television screen. The inventory system is also a bit of a bugger to use with a 360 controller, and just compared to the PC version the graphics are washed out, low in detail and suffer from an incredibly low draw distance. Despite all these problems, I would still recommend spending the £10 it will likely cost you to pick up the game preowned.

I'll continue playing these games until I've completed them, and then I'll be back with a full review of both. In the meantime, I have the daunting task of reviewing Fallout: New Vegas - a game that I have something of a love/hate relationship with. See you soon.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

5 great gaming sites that you should visit

Today, I am going to potentially introduce you to 5 of the greatest gaming sites currently in existance. I visit all of these on a regular basis and they produced work both of a quality and quantity that I can only aspire to, quite frankly.

1. RetroGaming with Racketboy
Here you can find many fascinating and well researched articles on all aspects on retro gaming. What are the the hidden gems that you should be picking up for each system, what are the rarer and more valuable games? What are the best games of a given genre for your favourite platform. Where can I view some of the best user created art for a particular game? Chances are, you can find the answer to all these questions and more at this site.

2. GiantBomb
When Jeff Gerstmann left GameSpot a few years ago, a handful of his friends and colleagues followed suit (including Ryan Davis and Brad Schumacher) and together they formed GiantBomb. The site has become one of the biggest gaming databases around, but still features the professionally written reviews, excellent videos (from the in depth Quick Looks through to the hilarious mailbag vids) and one of the best podcasts out there.

3. GameSpite
Now, while I prefer to read the main body of work (GameSpite Quarterly) in print form, there are still plenty of entertaining blog posts penned by Jeremy Parish to read, and some excellent gaming banter to be found in the forums. The crew here have a real passion for games and also really know their stuff, which makes this site indispensable.

4. RPG Fan
I used to visit RPGamer more, and I still listen to their podcasts - but these days I think the premiere site for RPG information has to be RPG Fan. The site has a really nice layout and colour scheme, and chances are if there's a particular game in the genre that you want to know more about, they will have an article or review for it.

5. GameGavel
Gamers that are getting increasingly tired of eBay's exorbitant listing fees would do well to check out GameGavel, a dedicated gaming auction site where the focus is more on the exchange of games and gear, and less on making a profit. Some real bargains can be found here. Fans of GameGavel and the Retro Gaming Roundup podcast (where SoCalMike is a host) should also check out his series of swap meet videos on YouTube, called Big Game Hunter.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Bioshock 2 review

Before I get into the main part of the review, I would like to make a confession. While I did buy the original Bioshock, it seems I may not have given it a fair chance. After playing for a few hours, I began to get fairly bored with it - I found it quite linear and was quite jaded with first person shooters in general. Recently though my appetite for the genre has returned a bit, and I started to think that maybe the game deserved another chance. Despite this, I was hesitant to pay out cash for it a second time. When I saw that a preowned copy of the sequel was only £5 in Gamestation though, I decided to pick it up. After all, who can refuse a quality game when it is on offer for next to nothing? Not I, that's for sure. Having completed the game, I now still wish to go back to the original and give it the chance it deserves. In the meantime, here's my review of the follow up. There may be spoilers for the first one!

Format: Xbox 360 (also available on PS3 & PC)
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: 2K Marin
Expect to pay: £5 - £10

Graphics: 9 out of 10
Bioshock 2 looks great, but then so did the original and this makes use of the same engine. While you do return to Rapture, time has moved on a little and so there are new plasmids (genetic enhancements that bestow you with super powers such as the ability to throw fireballs), splicers (denizens of Rapture who have screwed up their genetic make up, and are intent on killing you) and types of Big Daddy (the giant, diving-suit wearing protectors of the freaky Little Sisters, of which you are one). I especially like the combination of freezing somebody in ice and then smashing them to little pieces with a blast from the double barreled shotgun.

From time to time you will find yourself submersed underwater and stomping around amidst all the little fishies and other sea life. You don't have access to your weapons during these interludes, they're more there to add atmosphere to the game and give you a brief breather as you transition from one part of the city to the next. The story takes you through half a dozen or so locations from amusement parks through to shopping boardwalks and the like. The environments all look very nice but are quite self contained and feel just like levels of a video game, rather than a living breathing city (I'm told the segue from one section to the next was more subtle in the original game). All in all though, Bioshock 2 is definitely no slouch where the visuals are concerned.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
Bioshock 2 is also a solid performer in the audio stakes, from the voice over work, to the noise of the weapons, the shrieks of the Big Sisters, and the score. Armin Shimmerman (Quark, Principal Snyder) reprises his role of Andrew Ryan (albeit in the form of various recordings and automated amusement rides, as your character bumped him off in the first game). The English accent of the young Eleanor doesn't sound quite right in my opinion but this is pretty much the only problem I have with the audio.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
The first few chapters of the game ease you in gradually, reintroducing you to the concepts of plasmids, gene tonics, Big Daddies, Little Sisters and the like. Within a few chapters, you will have the ability to throw bolts of lightning (stunning splicers, or killing them outright if they happen to be standing in water) and set people on fire, as well as getting the rivet gun. As you proceed, more and more weapons are made available to you, and a wide array of active plasmid powers, and passive gene tonics and made available to you via special Gatherer's Garden vending machines. The currency used to buy new abilities isn't cash, but genetic material called Adam.

You can obtain this goop by finding another Big Daddy out in the wild with a Little Sister in tow, bumping him off and adopting her as your own. She will then sit on your shoulder, until you decide to send her out to find and extract Adam from corpses. The moment you set her down, you will be attacked by splicers until she is done, so it's best to set up defenses before you begin. You can use various methods to protect yourself, such as hacking any missile or machine gun turrets so that they fight for you, doing likewise to security cameras which then send out armed drones on your behalf, or setting down special "trap rivets" that stick to walls and ceilings and fill enemies with shrapnel the moment they activate them. Once the quota of Adam has been gathered, you can scoop up the Little Sister again and repeat the process one more time. After this, you have to decide whether to save the Little Sister, or do something nasty to her that yields more Adam, but definitely makes you a bad person.

This decision as well some others related to the objectives throughout the main storyline dictate which of several ending variations that you will get to see. It's a little bit of a binary choice but it at least gives you a reason to play through the game a second time to hear different reactions to your behaviour from the NPCs and see a different ending. On top of all this single player action this is a completely separate multiplayer mode which I dabbled in a little. It's pretty solid and appears to have a decent amount of people still playing it, but can't really compete against the likes of Call of Duty or Halo: Reach.

Innovation and Cleverness: 5 out of 10
There are obviously a lot of clever ideas in Bioshock 2 but most of them originated from the original game, including the research camera that improves your skills against certain types of enemy the more you film them with it. The general consensus from people who have played both games is that the first one was better, but the second is still as worthwhile purchase fans.

Value and Replayability: 8 out of 10
As this blog is aimed at real gamers who spend their actual hard earned money on games, the fact that is game can currently be snapped up for a fiver means it scores pretty big in this category. As mentioned you can play the game at least twice to see the different story outcomes, and after that there's still a perfectly decent multiplayer mode to while away some time with.

Overall: 8 out of 10
I really enjoyed playing Bioshock 2, for the atmosphere, the action and the way you can pick and choose your plasmid/gene tonic load out to play the game the way you want to play it. I may well go back and play through the first game properly now, but it is still surprisingly expensive to pick up, compared to its sequel. I also look forward to the next game, Bioshock Infinite, which takes the franchise into the skies. Whether the story has any ties to the events in Rapture remains to be seen.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Dead Money - Fallout New Vegas DLC review

Dead Money, the first (but certainly not the last) piece of downloadable content for the incredibly buggy Fallout New Vegas, was released on December 21st 2010. Upon firing up the game after downloading it, you receive a radio signal inviting you to the grand opening of the Sierra Madre Hotel and Casino (your level cap will also be increased to 35). Should you follow the signal to an abandoned Brotherhood of Steel bunker, however, you will be knocked unconscious and wake up to discover that you now have a bomb collar around your neck. Should you attempt to leave the hotel, it will detonate. You are given the task of gathering together three other people who have been trapped in the complex and convincing them to help you break into the casino and the mythical treasures within.

Let me get this straight - Dead Money is definitely aimed at the more hardcore Fallout fan, as there are quite a few new mechanics in play here that make this DLC incredibly tough, and for me at least, incredibly frustrating to play. Firstly: around the Sierra Madre complex, there are clouds of poisonous gas that sap your HP. At times, you have no choice to go through these clouds. Next: there are radios and speakers scattered around the environment that will set off that collar around your neck should you stay in their vicinity for too long. Some of them can be destroyed, others are shielded and either have to be avoided or shut down via terminals if this is possible. There are also strange and creepy "ghost people" roaming the streets that will hunt you down and kill you. Knocking them down won't deal with them permanently, you have to dismember them with a spear or other sharp weapon. What's more, all of your equipment is taken away from you by your captor when you first arrive and supplies are in incredibly short supply.

Now I dare say many fans of the series will actually relish the challenge on offer here, but I found it really frustrating and after a while, not at all fun. I guess I like my open ended RPG experiences which let you explore - which most of the time the Fallout games are - but when they force you into a certain situation like this DLC does and The Pitt for Fallout 3 also did (but not quite so extreme), I can't honestly say I'm a fan. So, the score I'm giving out here is purely based on my opinion and how much I enjoyed (or didn't, actually) this DLC. If you played the main game on Hardcore mode, or like challenging gameplay, then give it a shot.

Overall: 5 out of 10