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.

Kidding!



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 clich├ęd 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 www.lubeius.blogspot.com to www.mi7ch.blogspot.com.

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."