Monday, February 28, 2011

Game Diary: Budget RPG Bonanza

It's time once again for my weekly game diary, and with pay day just having been and gone I have picked up a few new games over the weekend, all of them RPGs. I played a few hours of each, so this article will mostly consist of my first impressions of them.

First up, we have MagnaCarta II - nothing to do with the real historical document, but rather a quasi real time RPG with a Korean art style - something you don't see a whole lot of. I'm betting I haven't seen everything that the battle system has to offer, having only just got out of the first town and completed a few quests, but there's an interesting chaining system in place and you have to be careful not to leave your characters open for reprisal when they go into an "Overheat" state, which leaves them temporarily defenceless. I'm afraid I don't find the main character particularly like able, and the opening few hours of the game are somewhat slow as well, which means that this game will be placed on the giant RPG backlog pile for a while, until I get through some titles which are obviously higher quality all round.

Next, I was browsing through the selection of PSP games in my local Gamestation, and what with the announcement of the NGP and the general lack of interest in the system these days, most of the games are now extremely cheap, so I managed to find a few RPGs that were £5 each. First up in Innocent Life: A Futuristic Harvest Moon, which is a spin off from Natsume's farming sim as the subtitle would indicate. I do find this series quite addictive, and this one in particular is very nicely presented and has a much greater emphasis on the storyline than most in the franchise. I think of the three games that I picked up, this is the best of the bunch.

Finally the other PSP RPG came down to a choice between Blade Dancer: Lineage of Light and Dragoneer's Aria - both developed by Hit Maker. I wasn't too sure which one to pick up between them, but looking at the back of the box, Dragoneer's Aria was the more recent of the two and had better graphics. It turns out that RPG Fan and RPGamer consider it to be the lesser of the two games, but I've actually had a pretty good time with it so far. I was taken by surprise by a battle with some random monsters who wiped out my party and undid over an hour of progress, however - and at that point I put it down. I am in the mood for a handheld RPG though - first I need to finish Dragon Quest IX as I am so close to the end. There's a fair bit of grinding needed before I'm strong enough to defeat the last few bosses, however. Then there's Radiant Historia which should be on the way to me by now.

Other than these three games, the only other one I've put significant time into this week is Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. I have been enjoying the plot, which is based upon the huge Civil War event that shook up the Marvel universe a few years ago, and it's fun to play a more action oriented game for a while. My character of choice is Wolverine, because of his regenerative abilities. It makes him pretty hard to take down in a fight. I did also try playing as the Fantastic Four for a while, with my character being Ben Grimm, but I don't like them as much as the X-Men.

That's pretty much all for this week - I didn't get much further on Shadow Hearts: Covenant this week I'm afraid. I remembered exactly why I gave up playing it the last time around - the dungeon layouts are long and complicated, the battles are pretty tough, and the random encounter rate is fairly high. Despite this though it is definitely a great game and I will persevere. OK then, watch out for my Tales of Vesperia review which I am nearly done with - I just have to rewrite some of it which I think is a bit too wordy at the moment.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Game Diary: Why?

I can count the number of regular readers of this blog (that I know of) on one hand. I'm lucky if somebody looks at it for more than one minute. Many of the reviews that I spend quite some time writing don't get read by anyone. Why then, do I keep on going? What's the point? Well, the answer is really that I'm doing this for myself. My love of gaming extends far beyond just playing through a game, setting it aside and forgetting about it - it also involves soaking up every bit of gaming culture I can find, be it in print or online form, as an audio podcast or a video. I also quite enjoy writing, though I think I lack the skills (and discipline) to ever get through writing a novel. For as long as I can remember I've written game reviews, way before the Internet was part of our daily lives, and ultimately I do this for one person - myself. When I play really good game, I want to crystallise my thoughts in to something substantial, so that it becomes firmly embedded in my memory and I have something to go back to and reread myself later.

That's not to say that I don't get jaded sometimes. This site is a labour of love and it's a shame it doesn't attract a bigger audience. I have been doing this to try and change this and they are starting to have a small effect. Of course what I would really love to be doing is working for a gaming magazine or web site - a way to combine what I love doing in my spare time with my job, but that may be something of a pipe dream at this point. In the meantime I will continue to post new articles, and work on the print archive of the RPG reviews that I've written over the years. This project is currently on hold until I have some cash to buy a copy of InDesign and some training to learn how to use it, as I would rather make something that looks nice than try and rush it.

On to other things now. I have completed the first part of the Shadow Hearts trilogy (for the second time) and am ready to start the second. Not sure if there will be enough time to finish it before Dragon Age 2 arrives though, as I hear it's a much bigger game this time around. I also spent a few hours playing some Resident Evil 5 and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2. I initially wasn't blown away by either of these, but now I've taken some time to get to grips with them I think they're both really great games. Finally, I've reordered copies of Pilotwings Resort and Super Street Fighter IV 3D for the 3DS. I really can't wait for the launch date to arrive now, it's going to be amazing. I might also pick up Super Monkey Ball 3D and Ridge Racer 3D depending on how they score in early reviews. I'll post again in a few days with my Tales of Vesperia review, so catch you then.

Part 1 of the amazing Shadow Hearts: Coventant intro

Part 2 of the amazing Shadow Hearts: Coventant intro

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Fallout: New Vegas review

With Fallout: New Vegas, Bethesda have handed the reins of the franchise over to Obsidian Entertainment for this latest edition in the series. They are a good match because many members of Obsidian actually worked on the first two games, including the director of this game, Chris Avellone. Many of the ideas that would have gone into the first abandoned version of Fallout 3 have been resurrected here, such as the Roman Empire wannabes that go by the name of Caesar's Legion.

In Fallout: New Vegas, you play the part of a courier who has been shot in the head and left for dead by Benny, just one of many characters in the Nevada wasteland who are trying to get hold of the package you were trying to deliver - a platinum poker chip. After being rescued by a mysterious cowboy robot that goes by the name of Victor and being patched up by the doc in the small town of Goodsprings, you dust yourself down and set out to piece together why you were betrayed and the current whereabouts of Benny. Or, you could just ignore the plot and explore the world at your leisure - this is a Fallout game after all and this one in particular offers more freedom than ever before. However, it would seem this freedom comes with a price, and that is poor quality control, as New Vegas suffers from a plethora of bugs both benign and game breaking. More on this later.

Format: Xbox 360 (Also available on PS3 and PC)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment
Expect to pay: Around £20

Graphics: 7 out of 10
While you could argue that as the game is running on the same engine as Fallout 3 and therefore the graphics are almost identical, meaning that I should award it the same score, there's really no getting away from the fact that the Gamebyro engine is starting to show its age. NPCs still have the same glassy eyed, plastic faced expressions they did almost five years ago in Oblivion, so I hope after this that the engine is going to be retired, and that Fallout 4 when it appears will make use of the new one being developed for Skyrim.

Despite many of the monsters being repeated from Fallout 3, there are also quite a few new ones, including the absolutely disgusting Cazadors - huge bugs that do obscene amounts of damage and poison you as well - and chimeras - dog/snake hybrids. Moving on to the world map and the environment, it initially looks smaller than that of Fallout 3, but there is easily just as much content present here as there was before. A lot of the locations don't seem to have much purpose at present however - whereas most locations has something to do or find in the last game, this time there were many places that seemed to be of little interest. Some of these may be related to future DLC, time will tell.

Sound and Music: 8 out of 10
The music in Fallout: New Vegas is the same mixture of classic tunes from the 40's and 50's and a more cinematic score by composer Inon Zur when you have the radio switched off, and the actual music itself is great. There just isn't enough of it by a long chalk, especially when you consider how many hours the game could take you to complete. If you keep the radio on you will hear the same few songs over and over and over again, and the announcements from Mr New Vegas also seem to repeat more often than those in Fallout 3. PC owners have a distinct advantage over console players in this regard as there are mods out there that add new radio stations with 100 or more new songs to listen to.

Obsidian have gone for another all star cast for this game, and this time the recognisable talent includes: Matthew Perry (Chandler from Friends), Felicia Day (The Guild), Zachary Levi (Chuck), Danny Trejo (Machete) and Michael Hogan (Battlestar Galactica), besides Ron Perlman who returns as the narrator yet again. All of them do a very solid job and don't sound like they're just trying to say "Hey, listen to me, I'm Mr Famous Guy sounding just like I do on that show/film you watch!". As for sound effects, a lot of the them are reused from Fallout 3 but there are plenty of additions for the new horrible critters you encounter and are very well done across the board.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
Now, a lot of the mechanics of Fallout: New Vegas remain pretty much the same as in Fallout 3, so rather than repeating myself I will mainly focus on what's been tweaked or added for this game, and direct you to
my review of the previous title for the rest. The first thing which is small but significant addition is true iron sights. Now you can finally look down the sights of you weapon of choice and actually stand a chance of hitting your intended target outside of VATS combat, which makes the whole thing more interesting straight away.

Another good addition are the various factions that you can align yourself with throughout the game, including major players like Mr House, the NCR and Caesar's Legion, as well as smaller groups like the Boomers, the Great Khans and the Powder Gangers. As you complete quests for these factions or kill their members, you standing with them will increase or decrease and will have an impact on the ending of the game. Conversely though, while the Karma system is still present in this game, it is almost meaningless this time around and has little effect on the game.

There is also a new Hardcore mode in the game, which changes various aspects - ammo has weight, you have sleep and dehydration meters that have to be monitored, and stimpaks won't heal broken limbs, only doctors bags or a visit to an actual physician will do. These things all change the gameplay up considerably, as you can't just loot every bit of ammo you see, and have to rely on food and water far more heavily than you do otherwise. It adds an extra layer of realism for those who are looking for it and can definitely seen as a good thing.

What is definitely not a good thing however, is the amount of bugs present in this game. I had put around 40 hours of play time into the game when I suddenly started getting a random message about some DLC being missing and then being dumped back to the main menu. This effected all of my saves and prevented me from playing the game as that character entirely. It was towards the end of October when this started happening and it wasn't until the release of the first DLC, Dead Money, on December 21st that it was finally fixed. That's almost two months where I was unable to use the product I had paid money for, and to rub salt into the wound the game went down to £20 during that time as well. I seriously considered giving the game a 5 or a 6 overall because of the serious nature of this bug, but new players won't encounter it any more. That's not to say there aren't still a variety of other bugs left to be fixed, because there is. I will definitely think twice about buying another game developed by Bethesda or Obsidian on the day it's released in future!

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Some reviewers have criticised this game as being little more than expansion pack to Fallout 3, but I feel that is being extremely harsh, as the tweaks to the gameplay have changed things quite a bit. The engine definitely feels somewhat creaky, but Obsidian are certainly working it hard (quite literally to breaking point unfortunately).

Value and Replayability: 8 ouf of 10
Fallout: New Vegas is just as huge as its predecessor but because you can finish the game and see four different distinct endings depending on your path, plus many other more subtle variations depending on how you've finished certain quests, it offers far more scope for experimentation and replay. This is the greatest addition that Obsidian have made in my opinion as it's really interesting to help defend the town of Goodsprings and hand the strip over to the NCR on one hand, and then take over the town for the Powder Gangers and overthrow the entire area for Caesar's Legion on the other.

Overall: 8 out of 10
While the additions made to the gameplay are all good, on the whole I didn't quite enjoy Fallout: New Vegas as much as Fallout 3. I think the overall tone had something to do with this, as the last game was very scary and atmospheric for a lot of the time and this one felt a bit sillier overall. There are far less encounters with feral ghouls and super mutants this time around (though they are certainly present) which I also kind of missed. Then of course there are the bugs, and I can't let them slide without a minor penalty of some kind. So all this combined means that New Vegas deserves one point less than the previous game. See the clip below to see one of the sillier bugs in the game!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Game Diary: Shadows and Dust

I completed Tales of Vesperia last night! Woohoo! I won't say too much more about it because I don't want to duplicate stuff that I shall be putting in my review, but I'll just say that I really enjoyed it for the most part. My final play time came in at 45 hours, and there will still quite a few optional side quests and plot strands I could have explored. Though the game was quite linear in the early stages, but the end of the game you had the freedom to zip around the map, visiting towns and dungeons as you see fit. RPGs with decent overworlds are becoming something of a rarity, so it's nice to have a more recent contribution to the genre with one. I'm not entirely certain when I will manage to get a review up, as I want to spend some time on The Gamecube Vault and get my long delayed Fallout New Vegas review written first, but hopefully next week at the latest.

Finishing ToV gives me a little time to fit something else in before the release of Dragon Age 2. Now, a few weeks ago I put a couple of polls on the side bar to try and gauge what to play next. The votes I've received so far are unanimous - I should play Shadow Hearts: Covenant and focus on games I haven't completed before. So I am indeed going to play Covenant, but it's been so long since I played the first Shadow Hearts and it's a fairly short game, so I'm going to replay that first. I should hopefully get it done in time for Dragon Age 2, and then after that I will move onto Covenant, with the longer term goal being completion of the third game in the trilogy, From the New World. The Shadow Hearts series is something quite unique in the JRPG genre, as it blends HP Lovecraft inspired horror with quirky characters and humour.

The Shadow Hearts trilogy.

Of course, last week I mentioned the 3DS, so this week it's the turn of the NGP (which will always stand for Neo-Geo Pocket to me, but never mind). Sony is finally giving its fans a second analogue stick, which is a good thing, but I hope it doesn't have the side effect of unleashing a tidal wave of inferior spin offs of PS3 titles. Hopefully the inclusion of touch controls on the front and back as well as motion controls will see developers using their creativity in a similar fashion to that of the original DS, and we won't be drowned in first person shooters. All in all, I'm finding it hard to get quite as excited about Sony's new handheld, mainly because it's still quite a way off, but as the release draws near I expect that will change, and you can bet your life I will get one.

In other news, I picked up a great book on Friday: 1001 Video Games You Must Play Before You Die. There is some great stuff in here and it will take me a fair old while to read, but flicking through there are a few things that I wouldn't personally have put in there - Army of Two one of the games you must play? No way. I also wouldn't have put so many Metal Gear Solid games in there. The first one for the PS1 definitely, 3 and 4 maybe, but certainly not Portable Ops. Regardless, it remains a worthwhile purchase for gamers, and once I've had a chance to work how many I've played it will be interesting to see the results.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Game Diary: Looking Forward

Firstly, following on from last weeks column - Namco has announced that Tales of Graces F is going to be released in North America. This is great news as that means that due to the fact that the PS3 is region free (something I only learned recently) I can import the game. In regards to Tales of Vesperia, I now have 30 hours on the clock and am still enjoying it immensely. The plot is starting to get pretty heavy now, and is very compelling. Yesterday afternoon I had intended to just play for a little bit, but set some events in motion that I had to see through to the end before going to bed. I did eventually get through that particular plot strand just before I normally turn in, and now have all my party members back with me. That means I can take some time to explore the world and enjoy the many optional activities, such as guild quests, giganto monsters, and mini games aplenty. My target is to have completed the game by the 11th of March, and there's still over a month to go so that shouldn't be a problem at all.

This is because Dragon Age 2 is released on that day, and I already have my copy of the the Signature Edition pre ordered. Many people voiced concerns that the game would be considerably dumbed down compared to the first game because what Bioware was saying and showing indicated that they were taking the franchise down a much more action oriented path this time, but from recent footage and what I've heard about it, those fears were unfounded. The game has been streamlined and made more suitable for consoles, that's for sure, but it looks as if it will offer the same amount of depth as the original. I have faith that it will be another fantastic RPG from Bioware, who have yet to produce a bad game.

Click on the image to view full size and see what the Signature Edition entails

The act of pre ordering Dragon Age 2 was at least premeditated, but I have also pre ordered another game that I hadn't intended on buying quite so soon. That game is Radiant Historia for the DS, due to be released on the 22nd of February. You can blame Atlus's canny marketing for this one, because first my interest was piqued after listening to a representative from the company talking about the game on the Active Time Babble podcast. It does sound like a very good game - a JRPG that will take around 30 hours to get through on the first playthrough, but due to the implementation of a time travel mechanic also features many more hours of optional content and multiple endings. Comparisons have been made to Chrono Trigger, regarded by most as the pinnacle of RPG's on a 16-bit system. What sealed the deal and made me bite though is the limited edition first run of the game that comes with a soundtrack CD featuring special piano renditions of some of the songs by composer Yoko Shimomura. I received an email from Video Games Plus saying that I would have to order by the end of the weekend in order to secure a copy, and that was enough to get me adding the game to my cart.

Of course there is also another major release on the horizon - that of the Nintendo 3DS. I have also pre ordered my console, and should just about have enough money to buy it by the time it's released on the 25th of March. Of the two colours that have been announced, I will probably go for the blue one. The most exciting thing about the machine for me is not actually the fact that it plays games in 3D - not by a long stretch, but actually the combination of a more powerful handheld with a nice big screen and cartridges that can hold up to 32GB of data. It truly has the potential for some amazing games. The actual range of titles available on launch day is a bit of an unknown quantity, as though around 50 games have been unveiled, they are all scheduled for the "launch window" - which is up to 6 months after the launch of the actual machine. The ones I'm looking forward to though are the next Mario Kart, Pilotwings and Kid Icarus: Uprising. I don't really need another version of Ocarina of Time, as I have the N64 cartridge, the Zelda Collectors Edition disc for the Gamecube and the virtual console release for the Wii.

That's almost all for this week, the only thing left to say is that I hope to have a write up of the South Coast Slam that took place this weekend just gone fairly soon, where I will tell you what I consider to be the five best games of the show, along with the top five picks from my brother and good friend Kim. I'll also be back with another game diary entry next week.