Friday, December 12, 2008

I Want to Rock 'N Roll All Night, And Have a Really Nice Time

A Guitar Hero:World Tour Review.

When Harmonix broke away from Activision to create RockBand, the task fell to Red Octane and Neversoft to continue the Guitar Hero franchise. Their first effort, Guitar Hero 3, was basically more of the same. Progressing through the career and unlocking songs is all well-to-do, but fans of the series couldn't help but shake the sense that the rock-simulator game was getting a bit long in the tooth. Special guest appearances by Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and Slash of Guns 'n Roses fame (and even Satan himself) only helped to pad the meandering path that Guitar Hero seemed to be taking.

Thankfully, the release of RockBand inspired Red Octane to kick the Guitar Hero franchise up a notch. Included with the newest outing is a wireless drum set and a microphone, changing Guitar Hero to sort of a "Band Hero" (doesn't have the same ring, though). By completely overhauling the traditional Guitar Hero trappings, Red Octance have breathed life back into the series.

The first thing you'll notice about Guitar Hero: World Tour is that the clumsy, cartoon-y graphics have been eschewed in favor of a more stylized interface. The actual in-game HUD is a lot cleaner, as well. Your Rock Meter and Star Power gauges no longer take up a large portion of the screen; they are instead relegated to a small part of the interface, but they never seem out of the way or unclear. Gone too is the giant flashing indicator that appears when you start note-streaks. It is replaced by a smaller, yet still visible, text line that appears over the note track and quickly dissipates. The new Guitar Hero is a lot cleaner, and it benefits greatly from it.

The characters, too, have gotten quite the make-over. The drummers are no longer rhythm-robots, owing in great part to the excellent motion-capture by professional drummers Travis Barker, Chad Smith and Stewart Copeland. The guitarist struts around stage with abandon, and the bassist does moves other than standing there, plucking strings. The singer gets probably the biggest changes; he (or she) will swing the mic stand around, make faces at the camera, and sometimes let the other band members join in some lyric-belting. All the changes make the on-screen rock-avatars (or rockvatars) seem more like a real band, and less like some bored actors going through the motions.

The set list has seen a significant upgrade as well. Where previous Guitar Heroes pandered to the Metal and Rock genres, World Tour expands its repertoire. You can still find your Rock and Metal selections, but the list includes songs from a wide variety of musical samplings. Blink-182, Coldplay and Paramore all have their spots on the list, additions that will surely please those looking for something a bit different. A welcome addition to the song list is the ability to create sets in Quickplay; you can load up six songs at one time and play through them in a steady progression.

Where Guitar Hero makes it's biggest changes, however, is the instruments included in the bundle. The new guitar is larger and more solidly-built, adding things like a longer whammy-bar and a star power button right beside the strum bar. In addition to these features, the new guitar features a slider button on the neck, below the regular fret buttons. With the slider, your can do some pretty neat licks, gliding your fingers across the pad. Unfortunately, the game doesn't give a lot of advanced indication as to when it's going to change from fret buttons to the slider bar, so you'll have to be quick with your fingers.

The drum set included with the game is also very well done. Bearing more resemblance to an actual drum kit, with the symbols residing above the other pads, actual drummers should feel more at home with the set than they would with RockBand's. (Fittingly, the request for elevated symbols was unanimous amongst the musicians brought in to help Red Octane develop the set) The only problem with the pads is that they are velocity-sensitive. It doesn't happen often, but you'll sometimes go for a bit without the snare or symbol hits registering.

The mic included with the bundle is your standard karaoke mic; nothing too fancy, but it gets the job done.

Overall, the new Guitar Hero takes the "press colored buttons to make sounds" formula and advances it to the next logical step. Even though Guitar Hero has a built in music creator, one must wonder where else this franchise can go before the plastic instrument fatigue sets in. Like all other wildly successful innovations, both Guitar Hero and RockBand will have to evolve their game if they wish to stay fresh and competitive.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Falling Back Sideways

Does everything have to make sense?
It seems that nobody can live day to day anymore.
If you spend all your energy worrying about tomorrow,
Then you've wasted the most precious gift that
Life has to offer.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Like a Good Stew, the Plot Thickens...

The Azure Span, Two Days after the Reanimation of Cleric Vodaryn.

Shadow Army Aerial Transport, The Righteous Wind.

Gregg twisted the final bolt on his armor, and watched the steam be released slowly from the overworked hydraulics in his greaves. The old power armor, as life saving as it was, often needed repairs. After all, it had survived over two thousand years locked within a vault underneath the Great Forges of the Golden City.

Gregg gingerly removed the leg plates from his body suit, slowly disengaging the neural inputs. If done too fast, his lower body could suffer anything from numbness to temporary paralysis. After the last piece of his armor had been removed safely, Gregg stacked it in a large metal case at the back of the transport, and made his way towards a viewing window.

Even through the thick metal of the aircraft, Gregg could hear and feel the heavy thrum of the roof mounted blades, spinning quickly in order to the keep the ship afloat. Gregg’s mind was often boggled at the sheer complexity of technology found within the Forges. Having come from a simple farming community, Gregg was bewildered when an assault rifle had first been placed in his hands, wondering how mere men could manipulate wood and metal to function in such deadly concert.

Time spent in the army had made Gregg accustomed to the powers available to those who lived in the Golden City. Heating, light and quick transport were all taken for granted by those who lived in the high towers of the City. Only mere miles beyond the city’s border, the general population of Atlum lived a poor life, desperately eking a living of the sometimes harsh landscape.

The ten year winter was oncoming, and life for the people of Atlum was about to get much harder. During those trying times, the Praetor currently holding power usually opened the gates of the Golden City, allowing all those who could make the trip to enter the hallowed metropolis. However, safety from the winter did not always come without a price. The fit men of the family were conscripted into the standing army, and the women-folk were often made to toil in the factories. Gregg’s parents had considered these hardships small sacrifices compared to the near-impossibility of surviving a winter.

However, the current Praetor had not opened the gates yet. As the Righteous Wind neared the Shores of the Black Sands, Gregg peered out of the window and glimpsed a long, winding trail of bodies, lit occasionally by torches. These people had come from every corner of Atlum, seeking asylum within the walls of the City. Every day, the crowd milling outside the gates grew larger and larger, and often times, violence boiled over, inciting riots within the group.

Gregg feared that if the group got any larger, they may try to enter the city by force, and Gregg would have to play a part in preventing them from accessing the City.

A chirping in his earpiece interrupted Gregg’s maudlin thoughts; a communiqué from the pilot to let the Vindicator know that the landing pad in the marshalling zone was fast approaching, and that Gregg should strap himself in for the descent.

With a bump, the airship touched down upon the landing pad, and the pilot began to shut down the massive engine that powered the ship. Gregg clambered out of his seat, and exited the aircraft before the rotors on top had stopped spinning.

At the other end of the landing pad, a small man in a hooded robe waited for him. As Gregg approached, the man lifted his hood, and regarded Gregg with an imperious stare, despite his being several feet shorter.

“The Praetor would speak with you, Vindicator.”

Gregg nodded. He had hoped to visit his family before speaking with the Praetor, but one seldom gets what one wants.

“Lead the way, Savant. Let’s not keep the Praetor waiting.”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Dog Armor!

Got a couple bits of news for you here today, friends, hot off the presses from every other gaming site in the world.

Bethesda, creators of the successful Elder Scrolls series, has announced that Fallout 3 will be getting some downloadable content in January in addition to some mod tools for the PC version. The mod tools, called G.E.C.K. (Garden of Eden Creation Kit, an item from Fallout that can make inhospitable lands fertile), will open the Fallout 3 world to Bethesda's army of fervent modders. PC users should expect some fan made bug fixes to be put out to the community before Bethesda manages to do it.

While the PC gets both the G.E.C.K. and the DLC, X-Box 360 owners will just have to settle for the DLC alone, and wait for the patch coming from Bethesda to fix some of the game's bigger issues. The forthcoming content breaks down like this:

First on the docket is Operation: Anchorage, coming in January. In this content pack, you enter a historical simulation and fight one of the most important battles in the Fallout universe: the liberation of Anchorage, Alaska from the Red Chinese invaders. Definitely an interesting premise, but it remains to be seen how in-depth the battle is going to be. Will there be multiple side-quests, like ambushing a Chinese convoy or blowing a bridge, or will it just be a straight up battle through the ruined streets of Alaska's capitol?

The Pitt, our second bit of DLC, is coming in February. The Pitt takes place in a town of the same name, built out of the ruins of industrial Pittsburgh. It's a raider town, and the content's tag-line is "choose your side". Looks like you heartless Vault-Dwellers will get to side with raiders for your own personal gain instead of just slaughtering them. Morality and karma are big themes in Fallout, so expect some game-altering decisions to be made here.

The third content pack is called Broken Steel, and in it, you ally with the Brotherhood of Steel in a massive assault to push the remaining Enclave soldiers out of D.C. Broken Steel takes place after the main quest-line, so those of you disappointed with Fallout 3’s very finite ending may have a chance to carry your Vault-Dweller out of the Jefferson Memorial and back onto the streets (providing that you don’t end up controlling a new character, at any rate). Hopefully one or all of these additions to Fallout 3 will increase the level cap past 20 and add some new perks to choose from.

Bethesda also announced that, after their massive success with the much-touted horse armor in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, they are proud to unveil: Dog Armor! Yes, now all you Lone Wanderers out there can equip the ever loveable Dogmeat with his very own set of power armor. No more will Dogmeat’s suicidal bloodlust result in his untimely demise after he decides to play fetch with a Super Mutant’s ankle.


In other news, Sonic: Unleashed was, ahem, “unleashed” on the X-Box 360 and PlayStation 3 home entertainment systems this week. After a slow but steady downfall into mediocrity, does this new entry into the Sonic the Hedgehog mythos have the oomph it needs to revitalize this flagging franchise?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Sonic Team hates you. It hates you because you stuck with the speedy blue bomber all the way from Sonic Adventure 2 up to Shadow the Hedgehog, the game that introduced completely and utterly ridiculous cars-and-guns gameplay. It hates you because you just want a “classic” Sonic game; you don’t want to control a plethora of hackneyed and clichéd side-kicks in a variety of patience testing play styles.

To its credit, Unleashed does have some redeeming qualities. When Sonic Team deigns to let you control Sonic, and only Sonic, the game really shines. The Hedgehog Engine, built from the ground up to power Unleashed, can produce some beautiful visuals. Hurtling through the country side into a small town with Greece-inspired architecture complete with white-washed buildings and onto a series of rails spanning a huge ocean looks stunning, and performs with nary a slow-down.

However, when the game shoehorns you into playing the God of War-like Werehog segments, the fun comes to a screeching halt. Werehog levels basically consist of using Sonic’s absurd plastic-man arms to beat any nearby enemy senseless until you unlock the next room, at which point another group of enemies ambushes you. It’s a lot like the Venom segments from Ultimate Spider-Man, but a hell of a lot less fun. The combat is repetitive and the camera is fairly wonky; something that has continually plagued Sonic games since the transition to 3-D. The segments in which you take control of Tails’ plane are bad in and of themselves; letting you control the plane is eschewed in favor of button-mashing mini-games.

It’s really unfortunate that Sonic Team can’t leave the Sonic franchise well enough alone. Constant addition of Sonic’s friends aside, the story lines continue to be strictly Saturday-morning fare. Not bad if you’re a child (this game was obviously made without a concession to Sonic’s older fans), but the dopey high-pitched voices of almost every character in the game will get on your nerves within the first five minutes. For a game with as many cut scenes as Sonic: Unleashed, having characters that are nigh-unbearable doesn’t bode well for continued playability. Being unable to skip cut scenes right away also adds to the frustration. (Although the opening cut scene did seem like a homage to Star Wars; its opening shot of Eggman’s battle fleet and the chase through his exploding flagship did call to mind the excellent space battle of Return of the Jedi.)

Sonic Team really needs to think hard about its fledging mascot. To get a bit personal here, I doubt that Sonic can survive another mediocre game. Sonic’s appearance in Super Smash Bros: Brawl and BioWare’s Nintendo DS effort have done some good in bolstering Sonic’s flailing image, but he needs a stand alone, “triple A” title to come back on top. Sonic used to be a serious competitor in his heyday; now his games rarely seem to reach above the mildly-amusing mark.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Name Change

Just a quick update, I've changed the address of my blog from to

I figured that since I'm trying to make this a portfolio of sorts, having my name with a bit of leet-speak as the URL is far more appropriate than my innuendo-inducing online handle.

Update your bookmarks, folks, and I'll see you on the flip-side!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Cleansing of Tharnham Village

The ash glided gently down like snow, covering the ruined village in a think blanket of gray. Vindicator Gregg strode among the wreckage, his power armor whining as the gyros within whirled to keep his massive frame balanced. Gunshots sounded in the distance as the villagers were rounded up and executed for harboring Nytlus Monks, keepers of the Ancient Scrolls of the Forbidden Rule.

The Monks had been on the run for decades, passing from one town to the next, always hoping to avoid the Praetor’s armies. The Scrolls they possessed would, if assembled on the fifth passing of the Blood Moon, grant the head Monk power un-foretold, enough to break the totalitarian grip the Praetor held upon the world.

Like all those addicted to power, the Praetor greatly feared those who would subvert him. To counteract the ancient prophecy the Praetor assembled a shadow army of sociopaths and sycophants to scour the four corners of Atlum and kill any Monks they found. However, an army comprised of such men needed level headed leaders. Thus, the Praetor found it necessary to recruit from his standing army four Lords of great renown. Bedecked in the ancient armor of Heroes lost, his four Lords, renamed Vindicators, led his Shadow Army across Atlum.

Howard Gregg was one such Vindicator. Gregg did not want to leave the Army, but one does not say no to the summons of the Praetor. So, Gregg donned the ancient armor of War, and led his underlings from village to dell, searching for the black-robed Monks of Nytlus.

Gregg turned his helmeted face toward the sky. The moon was waxing, shining a bright orange in the night sky. The fires from the destroyed village around him tinted his vision, giving everything he gazed upon a warm glow. The bright colors in his eyes sharply contrasted with the carnage going on around him.

The Praetor’s Shadow Army, bedecked in dark gray ballistic suits, were scouring the buildings left standing, bringing villagers who had been attempting to hide out into the village square to be interrogated and executed.

“No one must know of your work, Vindicators,” the Praetor had instructed them. “Search for those cursed Monks, and kill them where you find them. If anyone were to witness your acts, the ultimate fate waits for them as well. So your Praetor commands it, so must it be done.”

A soft beeping interrupted Gregg from his thoughts. A small icon in his head’s up display notified him that one of the soldiers under his command had found a cabal of Monks. Raising his armored palm up to face height, the Vindicator activated the holographic display built into the glove with a swift mental command.

From a small emitter in his glove, a blue-tinged image of a helmeted soldier sprang to life before him, sketching an abbreviated salute.

“Where are the monks, Sergeant?” Gregg asked imperiously.

“We have them rounded up outside of the old town hall, Vindicator. We await your arrival to begin the cleansing.”

Gregg snorted behind his helmet. The soldiers of the Shadow Army could kill civilians with wanton abandon, but they always lost their nerve when confronted with the prospect of facing even one Monk without a Vindicator present.

“Keep them there, Sergeant. I need not remind you of the price of failure, should they escape.”

The Sergeant nodded quickly, and shut the link. Lowing his glove, Gregg began to march forward, his armor crushing the flinders of burnt buildings beneath its tread. Gregg patted the ornate power sword riding on his hip in a reassuring manner. Unassuming as the Monks appeared, they were said to possess a fearsome array of physical and mental powers.

Gregg made his way swiftly towards the town hall, at one point smashing through a half-burnt wall with his armor. In front of the hall, ten soldiers had their assault rifles aimed at the three monks kneeling in front of them, eyes closed as if in quite contemplation; as if they did not have ten rifles pointed at them, and a Vindicator of the Praetor bent on their eradication.

One of the Monks, a senior Cleric judging by the orange highlights on his robe, opened his eyes as Gregg approached. Both of the Monk’s pupils were stark white, a clear indication that the Monk could not perceive the physical world as those blessed with sigh could. Gregg did not think the Monk’s blindness innocent; no doubt the Cleric’s power resided in a realm far more immaterial.

Gregg activated the voice modulator in his helmet, so that his speech emerged in a deep, resonant tone.

“Monk,” Gregg began, resting one hand on the pommel of his sword, “You have been found guilty of sedition against the Praetor, and for crimes unmentionable in the realm of Man. By the power vested in me by royal decree, I hereby sentence you to death. I would ask if you had any last words, but my time is far too valuable to listen to the rantings of a blind fool.”

The Monk seemed unperturbed by Gregg’s words. Instead of cowering like his two compatriots were doing, a small smile crept onto the Monk’s lips.

“Of course, Vindicator. I do not wish to keep you from the important business of murdering innocent villagers. By all means, cast your sentence upon me. Perhaps this time I will finally feel the loving embrace of Death.”

At this point, the Shadow soldiers were exchanging nervous glances behind their mirrored visors. What nerve did the Monk have to stand up to a Vindicator in full armor? Perhaps something far greater than they could fathom was at work here.

Noticing their skittishness, Gregg decided to end this charade before the Monk could spread his rabble-rousing.

“Clearly the loss of your sight has meant the loss of you sanity as well. I hope you are prepared for the after-life, heretic.”

Before the Monk could reply, Gregg quickly drew his sword, and with three swings dispatched the Monks. As their decapitated heads rolled away, leaving trails upon the ash, Gregg wiped his blade clean with a length of his cape.

“Clean up the rest of the village, and finish burning it down. All the able-bodied men that you have not executed are to be rounded up, and sent to the Seiaris Facility for re-education. And if I catch any of my men keeping the women-folk alive for any reason relating to their own pleasure…”

To emphasize his point, Gregg drove his sword into the ground to rid it of the last vestiges of blood clinging to it’s other wise polished surface.

With harried nods, the soldiers quickly abandoned the bodies of the Monks, and made off for the rest of the village to finish their grim tasks.

Gregg regarded the bodies of the Monks in quite contemplation. Why did the Praetor fear these Monks so? All the proof of their order was encased in millennia old superstition and hearsay. Why, a Blood Moon was not foretold to wax in nearly two hundred years!

Gregg shrugged indifferently. His was not to question the motivations of his Praetor; it was his duty to carry out the orders with brutal efficiency. Still, Gregg wondered about the Cleric’s words. Had the old Monk really been resurrected? Old wives’ tales had told of a passage contained within the Scrolls that could allow for reanimation….

Gregg shook his head to clear that thought from his mind. The Monks were no more than a bunch of confidence men. Sowing discord was their only true power.

Leaving the bodies where they lay, Gregg turned and stalked off to oversee his men in the completion of their tasks. Forgotten, the Monk’s bodies lay still on the ground until long after Gregg and his soldiers had left.

The sky grew dark, and a heavy snow began to fall. A thick blanket of white powder covered the ground, obscuring the destruction, until all the remained was a clean, white landscape.

Days passed, and the snow remained untouched, pristine. But, on the fifth day after the cleansing, a small portion of the snow began to shift. Breaking through the layer of snow was a black robe, tinged with orange markings. The man within the robe blew out a long sigh, visible in the cold air. Were anyone around to see, they would have noticed that the formerly blank pupils of the Monk now glowed a pale blue.

“I thought I was done with life,” The Monk mused, “But it appears that life is not done with me yet.”

Standing, the Monk began picking his way through the snow, towards the North, where more of his brothers waited.

Soon, the Praetor, and his Vindicators would have something to fear besides an ancient prophecy. Something far more immediate, physical, and deadly.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Gears of War 2 Super Review!

I don’t just want you to beat the Locust; I want you to destroy them!

With a resounding battle cry, Gears of War 2 charges into the breach of the holiday battlefield, carving up its competitors with massive swipes of a chainsaw-tipped assault rifle.

The sequel to Epic Game’s seminal 2006 shooter comes with much hype and trepidation. With the promise of being “bigger, badder and more bad-ass”, does Gears of War 2 deliver, or does it fall short of its monstrous expectations?

Fortunately, Gears 2 delivers in spades. Everything that gamers loved about the first Gears is back, improved and polished, while mostly every reviled part of Gears one has been kicked out the door.

Gear’s tried and true methodical cover combat system comes back, and it’s as addictive as ever. Unlike most shooters, taking cover is the only way to survive in Gears. Standing out in the open too long will lead to your body being turned into a pin-cushion for high caliber rounds. Too prevent your character from become religious (“holey” as series protagonist Marcus Fenix aptly puts it) you use the “A” button to slam your character into the nearest object, and hunker down behind it. While you’re in cover, you’re mostly impervious to fire. This fits well within the framework of the game, but it sometimes leads to odd situations. Simple tables can stop rocket-launchers, and if your head, or an enemy’s, is seen poking around a car, then it won’t register hits. Bodies have to be almost fully exposed out of cover for the hit detection to work. This problem doesn’t come up much, but it can be frustrating to pump a whole clip into an enemy with no ill effects.

As far as other controls go, Gears responds quickly and tightly to input. There’s very little lag between pressing a button and getting the desired action, and the controls are mapped out well so you never have any awkward finger movements to get what you want.

The shooting of Gears 2 performs extremely well, thankfully. The aiming is easy to control, and all of the guns feel different without being too off-putting. Even the new “support weapons” like the Mulcher mini-gun and the portable mortar don’t feel out of place.

The sound for the guns has been kicked up a notch, too. The Lancer assault rifle, which sounded very tinny and annoying in the first Gears, now sports the proper sounds of a high-impact weapon. Grenades explode with a satisfying crunch, and revving your chainsaw is enough to give you goose bumps. Even the more disgusting sound effects are well done, and fit well within the context of the game.

Visually, Gears of War continues to outperform a lot of other current generation titles. Epic thankfully moved away from Gears one’s dark and dreary aesthetic, replacing it instead with a varied color palette. The very first level is already a step away from Gears one; set inside a hospital; it shows off the new design direction for Gears. Instead of taking place at dusk or the middle of the night, the level occurs during midday, putting the engine’s lighting hardware to the test. Even later in the game, when you move underground, the game changes locations and feel so often that you don’t get environment fatigue. The only time you might start to get weary of being underground, the game quickly shifts into an airborne chase seen that lifts you out of the caverns and into a late afternoon sky, with a destroyed forest flashing underneath you. It’s a nice, quick change, and again shows off the game’s graphical prowess.

With an improvement in sound, graphics and setting, where else does Gears 2 attempt to improve over the original? Well, if you played Gears one, you might remember the paper-thing abysmal story that seemed shoe-horned in at the last second. Gears 2 tries to make up for this by having a deeper story with more emotional resonance. How do you get sympathy from a game when its main character looks like a red-wood tree with a human face? Simply, you add in new characters, and flesh out some old ones.

Players of Gears one may remember how secondary character Dominic Santiago brought up an ongoing search for his missing wife once every few levels. Well, Gears two brings the twisted path of lovers lost back into the plot so forcefully that at one point you abandon an important mission to help Dom find his wife. In a game where the main method of communication is macho grunts, the sentimental side story doesn’t really feel that out of place.

In terms of the overall story of Gears 2, it definitely feels more complete than the original, but still manages to feel hollow at some points. The major plot twist in the game failed to do anything but illicit an eyebrow raise, and the game’s ending feels sort of flat after the large build up in the third chapter. You can definitely tell that Gears 2 was written by two different people. The writing switches between some intelligent speeches by the leaders of the human side and the Locust faction to some less-than intelligent exchanges between the main characters. The over-all feeling of Gears 2 is that of a summer blockbuster, one that mainly trades intriguing dialogue for explosions and gun fights.

To continue with that analogy, Gears 2 is like a Michael Bay film, it’s often a good idea to turn your brain off for a bit and enjoy the ride. While Gears of War 2 won’t give you a mental workout besides its rather engrossing combat tactics, its overall entertainment value is well worth the price of admission.

Monday, November 3, 2008

I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire

Part one of a series of vignettes based on the Fallout universe.

It started like any other Sunday morning. The sun was rising just over the Potomac as I ambled into the kitchen to brew myself a pot of coffee. My head was still buzzing from Senator Wheyman's cocktail social last night. As I poured the ground beans into the percolator, I absentmindedly flicked on the radio set to hear the morning's news.

The delicious smell of the coffee roasting had just reached my nose when I first heard the sirens. Low and droning, the sound we had all come to fear. Air raid sirens were coming to life all over D.C., warning us all that the unthinkable was going to happen.

After years of war against China, we had finally reached the end game. Tired of the attrition, the Red Dragon was unleashing it's nuclear arsenal on us.

I ran upstairs and threw open my closet door, reaching for a small safe in the back corner. I opening it quickly, and grabbed the stack of paper inside. Throwing the papers onto my bed, I grabbed one of my business suits and hurriedly got dressed.

After I had finished tying my shoes, I walked over to the bed, and inspected the papers. Everything I needed was there. Birth certificate, proof of citizenship, and the most important document of all, clenched in my white-knuckled fist, the entrance permit for Vault 101.

I had little time to get out of my house and into my car. The air raid sirens were getting louder now, and I swore that I could see the approaching black cloud of Chinese bombers. Not even bothering to lock the door to my house, I quickly got in the car, and gunned the engine. My neighbors were just starting to leave; all of them were going to one of the myriad Vaults built into the DC hillside.

Backing out of my drive way, I hit the accelerator, and the car shot off down my road. Fortunately, the highway out of D.C. was mostly empty, and I made it to Vault 101 without many delays.

Exiting my car, I looked up at the hill where the Vault door was embedded, gleaming iron in the sun's light. A line of people were slowly entering the opening; I hurried up the rocky hill to take my place at the back of the line.

Risking a look over my shoulder, I could see Washington D.C. in the distance, and the clearly defined shapes of the Chinese bombers moving inexorably over the town.

Small black puffs dotted the morning sky as the flak batteries surrounding our Nation's capitol came to life, attempting to swat the enemy out of the sky before they could release their deadly payload.

It was too late. Shapes to small to discern from this distance were falling from the bellies of the Chinese planes, conventional bombs intended to soften up the anti-air defenses before the planes carrying the nukes came in.

Explosions dotted the horizon as the first bombs hit, reducing our once proud capitol to rubble. Halfway around the world, our bombers were doing the same to the Chinese, exacting revenge for the Holocaust they were about to inflict upon us.

As I neared the entrance to Vault 101, I noticed a large robot checking the entrance permits of the people attempting to gain access to the Vault. I presented my papers to the robot, I swore it stood up straighter as it addressed me.

"Mr. Clayton, sir! We're glad you made it, we were worried our appointed Overseer wasn't going to make it."

I straightened my tie, trying to look as in-charge as possible.

"Yes, well, what matters is that I'm here now. These people need a guiding light, something to see them through the darkest time in human history. I'm humbled and honored to bear that torch."

The robot waved me though, gesticulating wildly with it's long tube-like arm.

"I can see why Vault-Tech choose you to be the Overseer! But you must hurry, the door must be closed before the nuclear bombs hit."

I stepped inside the Vault, and the robot moved to the control panel to close the door. As I looked back through the door at what was once my home, I could feel tears welling up behind my eyes. I held them back, trying to be the stoic example for all the frightened people standing behind me, unsure of their future.

As the Vault doors begin to grind close, I saw the worst sight of my life. A family of five, two small children and a baby in the father's arms, struggling up the hillside toward the Vault.

Behind them, the sky lit up a brilliant white, and everyone inside the Vault covered their eyes and screamed in surprise and fear. The first nuke had hit D.C. Asthe light faded, I could make out the family, sprawled across the hill, trying to get back up. They were knocked over from the blast.

The mushroom cloud blossomed in the distance, and I made the hardest decision of my life.

"Robot, close the doors. We can't wait for anyone else."

The robot, oblivious to the pain in my voice, shut the doors.

Everyone in the entrance lobby sat in stunned silence, trying to absorb the events of the last forty-five minutes. Someone on the back sobed quietly, breaking the silence.

I collapsed on the stairs inside the lobby, and held my head in my hands. I felt a cold metal hand rest upon my shoulder, and the robot spoke to me in it's emotionless monotone.

"Don't worry, sir. You're safe in here. Today is the first day of the rest of your life"

I lifted my head from my hands, tears freely falling down my cheeks now.

"No..."I managed in between gasping breaths "It's the beginning of the end."

Monday, October 27, 2008

A Far Cry from Fun

We're in the midst of the October deluge, where the last three weeks has seen a plethora of big triple-A releases across all the major platforms. Fable 2, LittleBigPlanet, and Fallout 3 have all made the beach-landing in this Normandy invasion of holiday titles.

Unfortunately, even in this treasure trove of entertainment there must be the soggy leavings of games that don't quite manage to make that big splash. Holding company with this inauspicious group is FarCry 2, Ubisoft's pseudo-sequel to Crytek's sci-fi shooter.

Where the original FarCry had you taking on the role of Jack Carver, mercenary cum half-animal superhero, FarCry 2 instead lets you choose one of several soldiers of fortune. To help you select, you get a little dossier for each character complete with a photo and a minimal backstory.

A cool little twist is that the mercenaries you don't select will show up in-game as recruitable buddies who will help you earn a bit more cash out of missions, or bail you out when you get in over your head.

FarCry 2 opens with one of the longest and least interesting first person preludes I've ever seen. During the drive, you get little peeks of what the game has to offer. Impressive visuals, fire propagation and random wildlife are all on display during this drive, but the dialogue quickly turns it into a snooze fest.

FarCry 2's story is bland and uninteresting. It probably had the potential to be great, but the game presents it to you as an after-thought. The gist of the plot is that you're dropped into an unnamed African country to hunt down an arms dealer known as the Jackal, who has been supplying both sides of the civil war currently ravaging this part of the continent.

The voice acting is pretty heinous, too. Everyone delivers their lines in a rush, as if the actors were called in a week before the game went to production. All the characters speak in a bland monotone which makes paying attention difficult. Were it not for the subtitles, I would have completely glazed over during all the cut-scenes. As it is, the game does little to hold you attention during any of the speaking parts.

Before we launch into FarCry 2's faults fully, let's take a minute and examine what it does right.

The environment is beautifully crafted, ranging from thick jungles to the edges of a vast desert. Sunlight streams through the trees and makes the white sand glare brilliantly in the noon sun. At night, you can almost feel the African wilderness getting colder as the sun drops beyond the horizon and the deepest reaches of the jungle become as black as tar.

The day/night transition is done very well, and it looks especially impressive when you view it during your sleeping periods. The time speeds up, and the camera shows you a view from outside your hut as the clouds flash past and the day slips into night.

The game presents itself as an entirely first-person experience, and for the most part pulls it off brilliantly. Opening car doors, checking you map and fixing your wounds is all done through your character's eyes, and it all looks correct. Nothing feels out of place in this perspective, but it does have some strange faults. We'll get to those later.

The fire propagation system works really well in this setting. Almost anything can be lit on fire, and the tiniest spark can ignite a huge conflagration. The fire effects are impressive, and the sound scales well with the size of the blaze. A small ember will sound like a tiny sizzle, and a large brush-fire will roar and snap as it leaps from brush to tree, consuming everything in it's path.

Having NPC mercenaries as your buddies helps with the immersion, as well. When you get in too deep, one of your friends will rush in, guns blazing, and pull your dopey ass out of the line of fire. This is done from first person as well, and you'll flit in and out of consciousness as you're dragged away from the hot zone. You can turn the tables and pull rescues for your buddies as well. The only difference is where your friends will always help you out, you have the option of using a syringe to heal them, or use your pistol on them to ease their passing. It's a pretty brutal choice, but having buddies is always preferable to being out in the African wilds with no backup.

Now that we've given FarCry 2 some praise, let's dive right into where it falls flat on it's face.

The setting. While I praised it above for being lush and beautiful, it's ultimately a detriment to game play. The area is huge(over 50 square kilometers) and most of the time you're confined to jungle roads. Trying to venture off the beaten path will often result in backtracking because, more often than not, you'll end up going backwards as you've run into an impassible cliff face. Besides a bus travel system, there is no way to get across the map quickly. That's a huge annoyance as the buses are usually nowhere near the important areas, and the missions are often on the other side of the map. Driving is the only real option, but even that has it's short comings.

To navigate while driving, you have to pull out your map. Not bad in itself, but you can't set a way point. Might sound minor, but it becomes a major hindrance when you have to drive all the way across the jungle with a map constantly open to guide yourself. When you're looking at said map, the game has an annoying tendency to focus your view upwards onto the road. When you're trying to divine which fork to take and you look up before you can figure it out, it leads to some course-corrections.

Every car is also extremely fragile, and bumping it into too many trees will necessitate either a road-side repair or the acquisition of a new vehicle. Bullets will also put a stop to your travel plans fairly quickly, and every guard at every single checkpoint is only too happy to chase you down and riddle your poor car with lead.

As explained earlier, the first person view is well done, but with only one major hitch. You can do everything from that perspective, but when you look down, you don't have a body! For a game that's trying to be immersive, having you look down at your floating gun will take you right out the experience.

The AI is fairly rudimentary and predictable. The enemy will chase you with a single minded determinism seemingly forever, and their battle tactics aren't too sharp, either. If you hide, the AI will shout out where they think you are, but only the shotgun wielding baddies seem to try to find you. The gunfights present no real challenge excepting the fact that it takes three to four head shots to down an enemy, and they will sometimes get right back up. Having a man survive a grievous head-wound and bounce back on the attack is kind of out of place.

FarCry 2's missions are rather tedious, as well. Drive to the other side of the map, and kill the enemy. Sometimes you're tasked with blowing something up, but that doesn't really change the fact that the mission set is really limited.

For everything FarCry 2 manages to innovate and experiment with, it misses the mark with a lot of basic shooter and open world mechanics. In a retrospective view, FarCry 2 can be praised for trying to mash two genres which are not paired together that often; unfortunately, it can't pull it off in an entertaining way.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Live the Hood Life, It's a Good Life

A Review of Saint's Row 2

Ok, I'll admit it. I was among the group of non-believers, those who thought that the Saint's Row series was nothing but an unabashed GTA knock-off. Seeing the adds in my local EB games dissing GTA IV's less appealing aspects(bowling, watching TV), I was ready to dismiss Saint's Row 2 as a "GTA for morons".

I scoffed at the add, venomous derision dripping on every syllable as I voiced my disgust to a friend. "Pah," I began, squinting my eyes "Those hacks at Volition have no idea what GTA IV is about. It's not just an open-world game, it's a skewering social commentary! The underlying politics of GTA can't be beaten by a chainsaws and a flame-retardant madman on an ATV!"

I was wrong.

Saint's Row 2 doesn't try to imitate the GTA series entirely. Comparisons can be drawn, but pound for pound, Saint's Row can stand tall against Rockstar's juggernaut.

Saint's Row 2's main strength is that it doesn't try to take itself too seriously. The main point of the game is to rise to the top of Stilwater's criminal underworld by any means necessary(emphasis on the 'any'). Ditching the over-reaching social commentary, Saint's Row 2 tries to present itself as a fun open-world game, and it succeeds brilliantly.

SR2 begins with your character waking up in a prison hospital after a five year coma. Players are brought up to speed on what has been happening in Stilwater in your absences, but newcomers to the franchise may feel a bit lost at first. Not to worry though; aside from a few references to the original the slate has mostly been wiped clean. It's a new Stilwater, baby, and you're back to take your place at the top.

After the short prologue, you're moved into the character creator where you can mold your very own gangster. For the amount of customization available in the creator, it never feels overwhelming. You can choose your sex, and pretty much take it from there. The usual customizing stand-by's of face, hair, and body shape are there, but Volition has packed a bit more into the selection.

You can customize your voice, walk, fighting style, and many things in-between. Want to be an overweight gang-banger? Go for it. A striking blond model with a penchant for firearms? The world is your oyster with the creation system. At the risk of sounding cliche, if you can dream it, you can probably do it.

After your debauched master piece is created, the game seamlessly injects your creation into the in-game cut-scenes. You can visit an in-game plastic surgeon at any time and change your look, and the game keeps up with no problem.

Saint's Row 2 starts out heavy, with your daring escape from incarceration resulting in a triple body count left in your wake. Upon gaining your freedom, you set out to rebuild the Saints and claim your throne as king of Stilwater's seamy under-belly. To accomplish this, you have to do to sets of missions: the story missions, which advance the game's plot, and activities, which gives you the respect you need to start a story mission. Respect is measured in a half-circle bar below your health, and you fill it up by doing a variety of activities, like I just mentioned.

While this might sound tedious at first read, believe me when I say that Volition really thought out of the box with some of these. You have the basic racing, drug smuggling and fight club(which is awesome) options, but you have a few eclectic choices thrown in. Whether you take control of a rogue septic truck and cover buildings in brown justice, or board an attack chopper to dominate the skies, it's very easy to overfill your respect meter by playing these activities. You can boost the amount of respect you get by increasing your style points. You can do this by wearing a vast selection of clothes, or upgrading one of the many "cribs" available for purchase around Stilwater. if you've got the cash, you can set your crew up with some pretty nice digs. It's a small feature, but it certainly adds to the feeling of being a bad-ass crime lord with money to blow.

The story missions themselves are pretty standard fare. You either blow stuff up, steal things, and usually leave a tail of bodies in your path. It never gets too repetitive, though, and the regenerating health system makes staying alive pretty easy. If you do die, Saint's Row 2 features a mid-mission checkpoint system that will drop you back pretty close to where you died so you don't have to replay the whole mission over(something GTA IV sorely lacked).

The controls are managed pretty well, too. Running, jumping and driving are all easy and accessible. Fist fighting is much easier here than in some other games, thanks to the well used implementation of the trigger buttons.

The only two gripes with the control scheme comes from inventory management and reloading your weapons. To access your inventory, you press and hold "B" and use the left thumb stick to select your weapons. Using the D-Pad while your inventory is open will select one of the four food slots you have for mid-mission healing(or getting high, if you're feeling bold). It's rather unwieldy in combat, you'll often find yourself putting up your dukes when you wanted an RPG. Reloading your weapons is also a problem. SR2 doesn't have an assigned button, so the game reloads for you. Fine in theory, but you'll sometimes be left standing in the open waiting for your character to reload with a few bullets left in the magazine. Not too much of a complaint, but since ammo can get rather expensive, the lack of micro-management here can lead to some pretty thin wallets along the way.

While we're on the subject of shortcomings, I might as well get my major complaints out of the way. AI is consistently a problem. Nobody in the game world is particularity bright. Aside from a few moments where the AI truly shines(like shooting an RPG correctly), you'll often be left sighing in frustration as your computerized buddies run into walls, stand in the open while being shot, or use a rocket launcher to shoot an enemy point blank. The AI for your opponents suffers from the same problems. Mowing down groups of them is never a problem, as the AI rarely seeks to get out of your way or find cover. In the rare times that they do grab human shields(one of the game's more useful-and nasty-features)it's never a determent to your wall of hot lead.

Using the in-game map is a problem. The map shows you a close up view of the city, instead of pulling back and letting you see the whole thing. Not a problem if you want to find the nearest gun store, but if you're trying to locate a mission on the other side of Stilwater, you'll have to scan the map carefully. Aside from being slightly bigger than the other icons, mission indicators don't stick out much. To be fair, I am playing SR2 on a standard definition TV, but I frequently bemoaned the lack of a "fast-find" feature.

Besides a few minor AI and control annoyances, I'm greatly enjoying Saint's Row 2. If you're looking to spend a few hours having fun, SR2 definitely offers plenty of distractions. From missions to activities, to a game within a game(Zombie Uprising) Saint's Row 2 is packed to hilt with amazing content. If you don't mind gratuitous violence or the F-bomb being dropped constantly, I recommend picking up Saint's Row 2.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Weekly Web Wrap-Wup(because four 'w's are better than three)

Hello, and welcome to a new feature on my blog, the Weekly Web Wrap-Wup. This is where I collect news from around the inter-tubes and bestow upon it my opinions and comments, and hopefully divine some answers out of the mess that is the games industry.

So, we start this week thusly:

BioWare/EA/LucasArts announce KOTOR MMO, reveal nothing at all

Yesterday at 2:00pm PST dozens of game journalists packed into what I can only think of as a massive temple, awash with Star Wars memorabilia, to bear witness to proclamations from on high. That, or they assembled in a board room to listen to representatives from the various companies talk about the new Star Wars MMORPG.

Star Wars: The Old Republic has been officially announced, putting an end to speculation and rumor about the "worst-kept secret in the industry". Besides a title and a time period, nothing significant was revealed about The Old Republic. Locations, classes and minor things like space combat and even guilds were kept under wraps.

One thing that BioWare did talk about is a new addition to the MMO archetype: companions. What this boils down to is that you have an NPC character follow you around and help you out, Han Solo and Chewbacca being the example they gave. Your companion will grow with you, and you can interact with them is various ways, such as romancing them or betraying/killing them. Pretty interesting, considering that most MMOs don't really focus on player/NPC interactions. Having to baby-sit a follower could get tedious, but hopefully BioWare will iron out some of the major AI partner bugs like pathfinding and combat before this game hits the shelves.

Besides companions, BioWare also spent some time delving in the story of Star Wars: The Old Republic. Their goal is to have a fully developed story for each class, so two people playing Jedi or Sith don't have their quests intertwined. Pretty admirable if you ask me. BioWare mentioned that they won't have any "Darth Vader rescues puppies" or "collect slug-butt" quests. Sounds good to me. I'm all about stories in games, and the stories in current MMOs are pretty thin.

Overall, I'm hopeful for this game. With BioWare at the helm this game has a chance to break the stigma currently plaguing the perception of Star Wars MMOs. The release date is still pretty far off(the game is currently pre-alpha) so there's going to be a lot more Star Wars news coming our way in the future. This is one to keep an eye on.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Highway to Hell

To my diligent readers, waiting on baited breath for my next literary masterpiece, I have good news for you. After a slight absence, the next installment of my still unnamed story will be forced into the tubes that make up the internet, bulging at the seams with witty prose and earth-shattering revelations.

Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. The story I'm writing is starting to take shape, meaning that I have a conclusion I'm working towards. We'll get there eventually.

For our next installment, we see Dave's brilliant plan to thrust himself in the limelight begin to take shape....But will everything proceed as he foresees? Stay tuned.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Warning: Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Convicts


[AI Program: Sifter]

[Routine Function: Censoring of all ig-mail from UEM personell and imbedded reporters]


[NOVEMBER 7 2177,


>Sender:{David Traviss, embeded reporter, ENW}

>Recipient:{Unkown, searching for 1337w1z4rd, Marcus}


I hate your numbers for letters bull[censored], Marcus. All those years in tech school, and you still write like a hacker.

Anyways, I have a request for you. I need to arrange a video conference with Michelle, back at corporate...Except that this one needs[end ref, line break]

off the books. The marines I'm traveling with have stopped for a while, something about a new kind of enemy "[censored]" is making them a bit skittish.

About time, if you ask me. Anyways, we're stopped here outside of what used to be capitol for at least five days. Get back to me and[end ref, line break]

let me know.



[AI:S: Reply recieved:

November 7, 2177

3:43 am Earth standard time]



lol, d00d. j00 C4/\/'7 83 srs. 4lr1gh7, 1 \/\/1ll 7ry. \/\/8 2 d4y5.


[Transmission Ended]

Monday, September 22, 2008


Here's something new I just thought of. Here's a little sneak preview before I post the "epilogue".

In the year 2177, humanity has finally broken the surly bonds of Earth's gravity, and extended it's reach into the farthest corners of our galaxy. Hundreds of thousands of planets, each one a veritable Eden, a place for humanity to sow it's oats, and finally achieve Manifest Destiny to the ultimate degree.

Unfortunately, there are other races out there to hinder our progress. Godless freaks who don't care whether we live or die; grotesque monstrosities who would enslave every man, woman and child on Earth if they could.

That's where the brave men of the United Earth Military come in. The stalwart green line between humanity and total destruction, the men and women of the UEM serve you, making sure that the galaxy is safe for you and your children.

Covering the heroic exploits of our brave marines, sailors and pilots are the intrepid reporters of Earth News Wire, a pan-galactic news agency dedicated to giving you up to the minute updates to the Reclamation War.

Of course, that's what the propaganda vids would have you believe. Down on the ground, the journalists of ENW are pretty much dedicated to filming a reality show detailing every minute detail of life in the war. Some of these reporters are fine with the status quo, but some want more.

On the planet New Polympto, the UEM is tasked with taking the planet back from the Keseythis , a race of bugs with a rigidly structured caste-system. During a routine breakout containment, one reporter gets the idea of a lifetime. Sure, his bosses might not go for it, but it'll get him and his cameraman the rewards they deserve...Isn't that all that matters?

Untitled Story:

“Want to tell the folks back home your name?”

At the reporter’s prompting, the soldier turned around, presenting a scarred, grim face to the camera. Suddenly, the man smiled. It looked like he had to struggle to make this expression, but when his voice came out; the grin was no doubt genuine.

“Staff Sergeant Edward Decanis, 201st Orbital Strike Regiment, Planetary Marine Corps, United Earth Army” his voice was thick and burly; the big sergeant probably came from the Houston megatropolis back on Earth. “Here to take these damn bugs, and fry ‘em up good! For all the folks back home, ‘o course.”

The reporter nodded knowingly “I’m sure they appreciate your effort! How does it feel to be on the spear tip of the United Earth Government’s reclamation push into Keseythis territory?”

At this question, the sergeant threw back his head and laughed.

“Is that’s what they’re callin’ it back home? Hell, out here, we just call it “Bug Hunt” or the “Target Practice War”. These damn bugs don’t know their backside from a bullet! They don’t have enough sense to plan a proper damn attack!”

As if on cue, the ground fifty yards from the small group exploded, and a horde of Keseythis warriors exploded out of it, into the waiting lead storm of the human forces.

The cameraman turned his lens toward the action, trying to get the best angle of the slaughter. Off camera, the sergeant he had been filming let out a war-whoop.

“Finally! Some action! If you’ll excuse me boys, Mabel and I need to dance.”

At this, he charged off towards his squad, firing his rifle in short bursts. Soon afterwards, the bug assault petered out, and the marines packed up to move to the next predicted breakout zone.

The reporter shut down his mike, and then turned to his cameraman.

“Alright, Adam, you can turn that off now. I don’t know if we can use that one.”

“Why not?” the cameraman asked “Seemed fine to me…Even if he did come off a little gung ho. And who’s “Mabel?”

“His rifle. He had that written on the side.”

The cameraman made a face that looked like he had just bitten into a lemon. “Cute. Anyways, why can’t we use that take. The big wigs back at exec are going to need more clips for the weekly war wrap-up.”

The reporter tucked his mike back into his multi-pocketed vest before he answered. Why the hell had corporate given him a vest with so many damn pockets? At least they gave him a gun this time. Scratching absent-mindedly at the scar underneath his chin, he turned to his cameraman with a sober look in his eyes.

“Because, Adam, nobody back home wants to hear any of that garbage. “Bug Hunt?” “Target Practice?” This war is supposed to be for the benefit of Earth, not for some thugs to get all their murderous energies out on some bugs who never did anything to bother us in the first place.”

Adam rolled his eyes as he collapsed his camera back into a more manageable size. “Jesus, David. Don’t give me your pacifism speech again. Humanity needs the resources on these planets more than a bunch of dumb bugs do.”

Walking back towards their rover David though over his stance on the war, and why the top execs back at Earth News Wire, the network David worked for constantly had him film space marines and their stupid gung-ho attitudes. Why wasn’t anyone trying to talk with the bugs? Didn’t anyone want to know what the Keseythis leadership thought of this war?

Humanity knew that the bugs had a leadership caste, but never bothered to find out much about them besides the basics. Besides, they had declared total war on the humans, so who wanted to know much about a species that would probably be dead in a few years anyways?

Suddenly it him. The greatest idea of his career, something that would get him out of interviewing marines, and probably win him the type of awards and accolades he richly deserved.

Smacking Adam in the shoulder hard enough to make his friend momentarily lose control of their rover, he let out an excited whoop, and grabbed his note pad. David liked committing all his ideas to paper. It came with being an intellectual, after all.

“What the hell was that for, David? You almost made us crash!”

David couldn’t help but smiling. “Listen, Adam, how would like to win a Pulitzer? How would you like to be remembered for something great for the rest of your life and beyond?”

Adam snorted sarcastically. “Yeah, sure, David. I’d also like a gold-plated stretch limo and several models for wives, but that isn’t going to happen, is it?”

David’s smile shrank, but a manic energy remained in his eyes. Adam couldn’t help but be intrigued about what his long-time colleague was thinking.

“Alright, man, I give. What’s your amazing idea?”

David looked up from his notepad, and the smile came back to his face, but with a sort of dangerous quality to it.

“Adam, we’re going to get the greatest interview of our lives. We’re going to interview a Keseythis hierophant.”

Thursday, September 18, 2008

More Corran Horn than Kyle Katarn, but the Force is still strong with this one.

So, if you're like me, you bought The Force Unleashed on Tuesday. If you're not like me, who has a room-mate currently dominating the X-BoX because he just discovered Mass Effect, then you've probably beaten it. However, I would like to present my thoughts on The Force Unleashed, so read on.

So, for the un- initiated, The Force Unleashed is set one year before the events of A New Hope, where you control Starkiller, Darth Vader's secret apprentice. As Starkiller, you are tasked with hunting down various Jedi who have continued to evade Order 66, including the ever-unkillable Shaak Ti.

Alright, now that that's out of the way, let's get down to the nitty gritty. The Force Unleashed has an interesting control scheme. As a third person brawler, you mostly rely on spamming the "X" button to kill foes with your lightsaber. You can mix in your Force powers to boost your damage-dealing capabilities, and the death animations are sometimes pretty gruesome. Shocking someone with Force Lightning will lead to spastic twitches, and Force throwing someone into a laser-barrier will result in them being totally incinerated. It's a great use of Euphoria and Digital Molecular Matter(DMM) , and led to some "Oh My God" moments from my friends as they watched me bend a metal support beam into a TIE Fighter, and send it spirling into a group of hapless Stormtroopers.

As awesome as it is to send explosive crates flying at enemies, the aiming for your Force throws is sometimes a little tricky. Often, you'll fling objects and enemies in completley different directions then you intended; sometimes, you'll just lightly toss things around when you ment to hurl them. It's not intuitive, and takes some practise to get it right.

The AI is also fairly simple, and brutally punishing. Larger mini-bosses will knock you down, and since it takes a few seconds to get back on your feet, you'll often be hit again before you can recover. When trying to attack you, the AI will either run right into your face, or stand in one place and blast you. Seeing as this is essentially a brawler, it makes sense, but kind of dulls the moments that the Euphoria engine tends to bring.

On a positive note, the game looks amazing, and the music and sound effects are classic Star Wars. Composer Mark Griskey, who also scored Knights of the Old Republic 2, brings in his own style to John William's classic scores and succeeds brilliantly. The levels are beautifully crafted, and the character designs are fantastic.

The story and voice-acting, what I've seen of it so far, are also well done. Haden Blackman has penned a better story than most Star Wars properties of late, and he should be commended. This Star Wars has emotional weight and heft to it, far beyond "Anakin, you're breaking my heart!"

So, that's my quick over-view of TFU so far. Once I finish the game, I'll be back to let you know what I thought over all. So far, I'm enjoying it, and it is a sure-fire purchase if you're an old-school Star Wars fan at heart.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Nerds Unleashed

So, today is Force Tuesday, as millions of harcore Star Wars fans flock to their nearest Best Buy, Future Shop, or GameStop to satisfy the craving for actual Star Wars story-telling; not the greasy money-grabbing trendrils extruded by LucasFilm in hopes of snaring younger audiences with pretty colours and bland animations.

No, this is a different beast altogether. The Force Unleashed promises to be "new" Star Wars, something millions of hopefuls around the world expected to never see. Only time will tell if TFU manages to deliver on this prospect. Twirlling stormtroopers around in the air like cows caught in a twister(best movie scene ever) should be one of the most entertaining prospects of the fall gaming season.

I'm hopefully picking up the game tonight, so I'll be giving my review on it a few days from now. Yes, I've read all the other reviews up on the internet so far, but dammit, I'm determind to have some Sith shenanigans!

Also, Republic Commando: Order 66 is released today, continuing the saga of Omega Squad, some of the only Star Wars characters I care about.

And just so you don't think I'm a total nerd: Columbus Blue Jackets for the Playoffs! 7th season is the magic number, baby! Woo!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Trials and Tribulations of Iyace Resol

Here's a new one for you, something I whipped out pretty quick to get a feel for writing in first person. This could also be considered the introduction of Iyace Resol, a character I feel pretty good about fleshing out a bit more. Also, this is posted from the new Google Chrome browser, so how about that?

Ending Things With a Bang.

I guess we should start from the beginning.


My name is Iyace Resol. I’m a Mando’ad, colloquially called Mandalorians by the galaxy at large. Just by admitting that, I’m among the most feared and misunderstood beings in history.


I never knew my parents, or my real name, but by Mando standards, that’s fairly common. According to my adoptive mother, she found me in the ruins of one of the worlds the Galactic Empire decided to “educate” during the earliest days of it’s regime. I was raised on Concord Dawn in the typical Mandalorian fashion, “blasters before grade school”.


Now, just like all the Mando’ad living in diaspora, I’m trying to carve out a living by offering my martial skills to the highest bidder.


Which is what led me here. I’m standing out side a dingy swoop-bike bar on some backwater world whose name I can’t remember. 


The Hawkbat’s Grill caters to a certain type of clientele, and Mandalorian bounty hunters certainly aren’t on that list. Unfortunately, my current target, a gutless chakarr by the name of Cleff Olarr has been holed up in here for the last two weeks, trying to shake off the Corellian Security agents who have been attempting to chase him down.


Olarr promised to rat out some fellow swoop bikers to beat a rap sheet about as long as my arm. Somewhere along the line, Olarr had a sudden change of heart, and went into hiding. CorSec called me in discreetly to help Olarr reconsider.


I sigh to myself as I consider my options. Going in the front door is out of the question, which leaves sneaking in. Throwing a long black traveling cloak over my beskar’gam, I take a length of fibercord from my utility belt, and unravel it.


Walking around the side of the bar as if I’m just passing by, I duck quickly into a side alley once I’m out of site of the bouncer standing guard at the door. I hurl the grappling end of my fibercord onto the roof, and feel it stretch taut when it catches on something.


I give the rope a couple experimental tugs to make sure whatever it’s gripping onto will hold my weight, then I begin my climb. I make it to the roof with no problem, and move silently to the nearest grate set into the top of the building.


Fortunately, it leads right into the men’s refresher. Popping the grate off, I lower myself on the seat of the nearest toilet, only to slip on the wet surface, and plunge ankle-deep in to the fetid water of the bowel.


Osik, I mutter to myself as I remove my soaking pant-leg from the water. I have my helmet on, so the smell doesn’t carry to my nostrils, but I know without having to smell my pants that they’ll need a serious washing when I get back to Concord Dawn.

If only Mandalore had enough beskar left for the knee-high greaves I wanted, I muse as I move towards the bar itself. The Empire strip-mined Mandalore of its precious iron a while ago. Beskar is still around, but my mother had to call in a few favors to get a suit of it made for me.


Pushing the door open, I’m relived to find that the bar decided to have a live music night, so the loud noise of the glimmik band and the light show accompanying it help to mask my entrance.


I quickly spot my target hunch over the bar, nursing a glass of lomin ale. Not the sort a man you’d expect to be in a swoop-bike gang, Cleff Olarr is a relatively small, thin man, but his loose clothes serve to disguise his wiry muscular frame.


A few empty glasses occupy the bar nearest to him, so I figure I can lead him out of here without much trouble. Yeah, just a friendly Mando playing designated driver to a wanted criminal. A loose smile plays over my lips as I lay a hand on Olarr’s shoulder.


I keep my voice cheery. I’ve been told it’s more discomforting to hear a cheerful Mandalorian. Lends itself more towards the unpredictable sociopath than the hardened merc.


“Hey there, Cleff. A few of our friends have been looking for you, and they’re concerned that you’ve gone off the wagon again. Why don’t you come back with me, and we’ll all have a nice chat.”


Olarr doesn’t respond, but he does raise his hand to signal for another glass of ale. The Zabrak bartender ignores me with the practiced ease of someone who’s seen this routine more than a few times.


Olarr lifts the glass to his lips as I lean in closer, and lower my voice to a more threatening tone.


“Listen, chakarr, I’m running out of patience. We’re going back now, and you’re too drunk to stop me. So get up.


Olarr finally turns to look at me. His eyes are glassy, and my helmet’s sensors detect a fair amount of alcohol in his breath.


“Yeah, your right, little Mando. I may be too drunk, but my friends aren’t.”


I hear the stun baton whooshing through the air about a second too late. The baton collides with the plate of armor on my back, and the heavy metal absorbs most of the impact. I still stumble forward into the bar, and manage to doge the second blow.


“You kirffing bounty hunter,” comes the voice of my assailant “We’ll teach you for trying to take in one of our own!”

So these guys don’t know that Olarr was going to rat them out, eh?  I turn around to face my attacker, and see I’m facing a huge biker about twice my height and width.


He’s exactly the sort of stereotype of gang members that are played out in the holodramas. Face obscured by a huge mane of white hair, and an assortment of gang tattoos visible on his arms, he stalks towards me, smacking the baton into his hand.


“Think you could just walk in here, and leave as you please? Sorry, Mando, that ain’t going to happen. See, we’ve seen too many buddies leaving here in shackles, so now’s our turn to have a little fun, ya hear me?”


  Great. The band’s stopped, and now the whole bar is looking at me. There’s no way to talk myself out of it, so my only option is to fight.


Before anyone can react, I point my holstered blaster pistol backwards at Olarr, and fire a low-intensity stun burst into him. At this range, a full powered blast would fry his nervous system, but this will at least keep him out of it for a while.


The massive biker raises his baton for an overhead smash, but before he can bring it down on my head, I drive a gauntleted forearm into his chest. Being hit with a solid block of beskar hurts, and the biker lets out a grunt, and falls backward into the mass of people behind him.


I pull my blaster pistol, and switch the power selector over to full power, and begin firing indiscriminately into the crowd. The blue rings of the stun blasts hit the patrons at close range, sending them reeling, and clearing a path towards the door.


As I reach backwards to grab Olarr, I hear the distinctive click-clack of someone working the slide on an archaic shotgun. The bartender is pointing it straight at my back. Before I have a chance to duck the blast, the Zabrak fires.


Even through the beskar plate, I feel the burning force of the shotgun’s discharge. Grunting in exertion, I whip around and clock the bartender across the face with a left cross. He falls back into the display of fancy liquors behind him, shattering the bottles and pouring a cascade of multicolored liquid onto the bar.


Grabbing Olarr by the belt and hauling him up over my shoulder, I begin to make my way for the exit. The bouncer is standing in my way, but I swing my body around and use Olarr’s booted feet as a club.


The heavy footwear catches the bouncer in the chin, and he slams back into the door. Racing outside, I throw Olarr over the saddle of the nearest swoop bike, and quickly hotwire the engine. I toss a small EMP device at the remaining passel of swoop bikes.


The bike comes to life in a throaty roar, and I gun the throttle. In my helmet’s 360-degree view, I can see the mass of angry bikers begin to mount up on their respective steeds. Triggering a button on my gauntlet, the EMP grenade explodes, and fries the engines on the remaining swoops.


The angry shouts of the bar’s patrons reach my helmet’s aural sensors, and I smile to myself. Not a perfect operation by any means, but I’m always happy to end things with a bang.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Capitalist pigs, very nice.

Much like a reanimated corpse will rise from the grave to consume your brain, so will this blog, lurching out of the fog ridden shadows to ingest your gray matter and...Wait, where was I going with this?

Oh right, I wanted to talk about the Battlefield series, along with a review of the newest game, Bad Company. Not about eating brains...Nope.

So, if you're a gamer with a serious pedigree, you've played at least one of the hojillion Battlefield games currently on the market. Stretching all the way back to 2002, the Battlefield series has become the staple of the PC user's first-person-shooter arsenal. It's first iteration, Battlefield 1942, was extremely successful, being critically acclaimed, and winning several awards. This version of the game also spawned two expansion packs and ate up several of my weekends.

Battlefield: Vietnam came next, and, while it was not as well received as it's predecessor, it still managed to be fun for a while. Hopping in a Huey and blasting "Flight of the Valkyries" as loud as it could go while trying to recreate the airborne beach invasion from Apocalypse Now was still entertaining, and had some of the Battlefield "heart" in it. Unfortunately, it didn't have the longevity of 1942, and my friends and I quickly abandoned it in favor of other games.

Battlefield 2 was released just about a year later, with marked improvements over both of it's forerunners. Eschewing past conflicts for the modern theater of war, it pitted the brave lads of the United States Marines against a fictional Middle Eastern Coalition and the Chinese army in areas ranging from arid deserts, lush valleys and tropical islands to dense cities and industrial zones. BF2 was a notorious "graphics hog" as my friends liked to call it, requiring a pretty buff PC(or as buff as a bunch of high-school students could afford). Still, that never stopped my friends and I from sinking much of the summer of 2005 into that game. BF2 also introduced a persistent-stats mechanic into the game, something which has carried over into many other shooters, such as the widely popular Halo and Call of Duty series.

With the stat-tracking mechanic, computer-chair generals could advance through the ranks of the Marines, starting from raw recruit up until the four-star general rank, with only the most stats-obsessed players holding the top stop of the five-star general. With the rank advancement came weapon unlocks, where online warriors could earn new weapons and tools for the different classes in the game. When the BF2: Special Forces expansion pack was produced, it added some new unlocks for the classes, including my personal favorite: the G36 rifle for the Medic class.

BF2 also introduced a first for the series, the Squad mechanic. While in a Squad, soldiers could see what others in their squad saw, be it an enemy tank or hidden sniper, and spawn on their leader deep behind enemy lines without having to make the arduous trek from a distant spawn location. With this, Battlefield became a bit more team focused, with Squads of six players working together to support each other and take down the enemy.

Battlefield 2 proved to be immensely popular with the online shooter crowd and, even though three years have passed, it is still very easy to find a populated server. However, even with the success of Battlefield 2 and it's iterations, DICE(the developer of the series) wasn't done yet.

Next came the first console release for the Battlefield series, entitled Modern Combat. Admittedly, I didn't play this game, so I can't really comment on it, but it did decently for DICE's first foray into the console market.

Battlefield 2142 was to be the next game in the series, moving beyond past and modern conflicts in the realm of future warfare. Set during a fictional ice-age 134 years from now, 2142 featured two factions, the European Union and the Pan-Asian Coalition battling out over the frozen tundra of Europe and the slowly freezing desert plains of Africa. BF2142 carried over everything that made BF2 so successful: the rank system and the weapon unlocks were still there, but DICE added in class-specific tools that had to be unlocked. Grenades, defibrillator, and many other essentials had to be obtained before the more powerful weapons could, adding sort of a "race" mechanic to the game, to see which players would have the upper hand on their enemies, pelting them with grenades while the less-fortunate players ran around helplessly, unable to be revived due to the lack of defibrillator-equipped medics.

However, this was only temporary, as it was made easier to rank up in BF2142 than in BF2. While in BF2, I am still in the sergeant ranks, in BF2142, I quickly advanced through the enlisted ranks, into the officer ranks, and through to the Field Commissar rank, earning my unlocks quickly and easily.

BF2142 also introduced two new game types: one of which is Titan mode, which consisted of the two opposing teams trying to capture missile silos placed around the map to bombard the enemy's Titan and bring it's shield down. When the Titan's shields go down, the teams have the option to board the Titan and take it down from the inside, or protect the silos and rely on them to destroy the enemy Titan. The former is quicker, but riskier, as the narrow corridors of the Titan is sure to be full of opposing players, lining the hallways with sentry turrets and anti-personnel mines.

The other game type was brought in with the game's first(and currently only) expansion pack, Northern Strike. The game mode was called Assault Lines, which introduced a new variation on the classic Conquest mode. One team would hold 95% of the spawn points, and the enemy would have to capture them in sequence before they could assault the defending team's main spawn point. To me, this game type tried to address the issue of Conquest mode, which would have both teams spread out over the entire map, trying to capture the different control points leading to sporadic firefights. Conquest mode didn't really enforce the team-play of Battlefield, so having to conquer one point after another seemed to concentrate the players more into one area, where the battles would be fast and furious.

So, that was a not-so-short overview of the history of the series. Before I go onto my review of Bad Company, I'd like to examine what it is that made this series so successful. In my mind, the reasons behind this are simple. DICE started with a fairly unique idea, and continued to iterate on it throughout it's various versions, trying to perfect the formula. Rather than just release the same game with a palette swap, DICE tried to work down to the core of what made Battlefield a hit. As the games went on, it became more focused on team-play, while at the same time trying to maintain the huge battle feel. Classes became more streamlined, having very specific supporting roles, while at the same time, still able to put a dent in the enemy. While the anti-tank class could harm the enemy armor, it still needed the medic for health, and the support class for ammunition, prompting squads to equip themselves to help their team better.

The focus on team work in a large multi-player game became the crux of the series, something which DICE has come pretty close to perfecting. Only Team Fortress 2 has managed to get the team-play elements right, just not on such a large scale.

Still, with all those improvements made to online multi-player, the Battlefield series was still missing something. Something which many other shooters had done successfully while having renowned multi-player as well. That's right: a well-crafted single player mode. With this in mind, the team at DICE set out to make Battlefield: Bad Company, a console only game. With this version though, DICE set out to raise the bar. Not only does Bad Company have a engaging story, it also had destructible environments, something that I feel many shooters seriously lack.

Built from the ground up for next-gen consoles, the Frostbite Engine could produce good looking environments while at the same time enabling player to blow the whole area sky-high. Trees could be knocked down, massive craters could be blown into the ground, and whole building can be demolished down to their frames. 90% of the environment can be destroyed, the rest remaining intact for the game-play reasons.

So, the single player game. You take control of Preston Marlow, a new transfer to Bad Company, where the US Army sends all of it's misfits and wash-outs. Sent into clear the area before the regular Army moves in, Bad Company has the highest mortality rate in the service. Your squad consists of three other ne'er-do-wells, with only your Sergeant being transfered to the unit of his own vocation. You start the game doing various missions for the Army at the behest of "Miss July", your mission controller. However, your squad quickly discovers something very interesting. The Russian army is employing mercenaries, which in itself wouldn't be unusual except for one thing: these mercenaries demand to be paid in gold bars. This sets of a whirlwind of events which ranges from accidentally invading a neutral country to capturing a flamboyant dictator to chasing the gold halfway across the Middle East.

The story also has a distinctively humorous tone, but avoids Delta Farce territory. The game made me laugh out loud a few times, and the dialog is fairly constant and amusing.

However, the single player game does have it's short-comings, mostly in it's fairly simple AI. The enemy in brutally punishing, and will kill you quickly if you're not careful. However, it takes very few bullets to put an enemy down, so if you're quick enough, you can wipe them out. You can also heal yourself at any point with a health-dispensing syringe.

Your squad mates don't do much to help you, unless you count occasionally shooting a fence with a rocket launcher. They'll blindly follow you thorough battles, impervious to all forms of enemy fire, and rattle off one-liners fairly consistently. Occasionally, Haggard, your demolitions expert, will nail a Russian vehicle with his rocket launcher, but it's mostly up to you to win the battles. Not to be unexpected, but the squad AI could have used some beefing up.

The missions are also fairly long, as well. There is a relatively small number of them, but the first mission alone could have been split up into two or three smaller levels. While blowing stuff up in fairly amusing, trekking across a huge map to blow up four radar towers can get pretty tedious if you can't find a mode of transport, or an enemy tank blasts you into oblivion. To counter this, save points are dolled out pretty often, usually saving you from having to repeat most of the journey from one objective to another.

The sound design in this game is also pretty impressive. While it's not on Metal Gear Solid 4 level, which is probably the best use of sound I've every heard in a game, Bad Company does pretty well on it's own. The guns sound loud and the rumble of tanks going by is always a impressive crescendo of grinding gears and crunching rock. The music in the game is also well done, bringing back the classic Battlefield theme, as well as having several radio stations for you to listen to as you drive the various vehicles the game offers.

The multi-player is also classic Battlefield, but it's here that DICE manages to improve on the formula again. Instead of shipping with Conquest mode(which is now downloadable for free over Xbox Live and the Playstation Network) Bad Company has a mode called Gold Rush. Basically, it's a attack and defend game type where the attackers try to destroy gold crates, and the defenders try to stop this from happening. The attackers have a long bar at the top of the screen which represents how many times they are able to die until the attackers exhaust their reinforcements. If the attackers can destroy the two gold crates at a base, the map becomes larger as the defenders have to fall back to secondary bases, and the attackers gain more respawn tickets. With the game-play focused into small sectors, the teams clash often, with the destructible environments adding new ways to destroy the opposing team. Want to collapse a silo onto an enemy sniper? Go for it. Two enemies hiding inside a barracks building? Blow that wall open with your grenade launcher and mow them down.

The environments remain consistent, meaning that if a wall is blown down, it never comes back. It adds an amusing "before and after" element to the matches. Often, the starting bases will be destroyed to the point where they are no longer recognizable.

The game brings back the rank advancement and unlocks, but it still remains fairly easy to rank up and gain new weapons and gear. None of the unlocks seem unbalanced, each with their deficiencies in the three areas: Accuracy, Damage and Rate of Fire. Each class can unlock different tools, ranging from the health syringe for the Assault class, to the mortar-guidance system for the Support class.

If I do have to criticize the classes, I'd say that the Support class is the most unwieldy. It's the machine gunner, medic and engineer all rolled into one, and it's often difficult to balance the different responsibilities. However, try attacking an enemy tank with your power-tool. That alone can be a good reason to play Support.

Overall, Bad Company is worth a purchase if your a Battlefield fan, or a shooter fan in general.

So, that brings my review of the Battlefield series to a close. Stay tuned for my next update, which will come out...Whenever.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Come to the Dark Side...We have cookies

Hello, and welcome to my collection of ramblings and musings. Nothing much here yet, but I do have some content planned. I've written a couple short stories which I plan to put up, and I'll review certain media properties here.

This is mostly just a site for me to practice my writing skills, but feel free to leave a comment if you drop by!