Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Comes in Threes

Dropships suck. I can’t decide whether it’s the cramped conditions, the oppressive heat or the fact that most of the time all that separates you from the cold embrace of space is about two inches of reinforced battle-plate. They say it’s thick enough to deflect artillery rounds, but first hand experiences tells you that no matter how much time and money is put into upgrading and retrofitting protective systems, you can be damn sure that the other side has put twice as much into figuring out how to beat it.

Here I am, sitting in the pitch-black interior of a bird, jostling shoulder-to-shoulder with three other members of my squad. On the other side of the dropship’s troop bay sits the Lieutenant (we call him “Loot”) and the three other unlucky SOBs. On a normal deployment, we sit in the bay until the dropship hits atmosphere, at which point the side doors open and we get to watch as the pilot weaves us through anti-aircraft fire. If we make it to the ground, then we either fast-rope out of the sides or hop down depending on the circumstances. The amount of times we’ve had a “normal” deployment have been few and far between, though.

The heat inside the dropship rockets upwards and the bird starts shaking like we’re being thrown around inside of hurricane. Over the sound of metal rivets popping, I hear Loot break onto the squad’s battle-net, which had been mostly silent since we left the orbiting fleet.

“All right, men, we’ve hit atmosphere. Time on target is t-minus fifteen minutes. Intel says to expect light resistance until we hit the ground, but be ready for anything.”

My helmet’s integrated display brings up a little timer which begins counting down from fifteen minutes. All around me I can hear the sounds of weapons being loaded, from the small click of an assault rifle magazine sliding home to the double clank of the squad’s heavy weapons expert loading his light machine gun. I slide a mag out of my belt pouch and jam it into the receiver. In the small amount of space I have, I work the charging handle and feed a round into the chamber. Peterson, the machine gunner, turns to look at me with a big grin on his face.

“Man, I hope we get to ground soon.”

“Why’s that Peterson? Are you still afraid of flying?”

Peterson’s idiot grin widens even further, stretching the scar that tugs at his lower lip.

“Nah, man, I farted. Just one of the benefits of a high-protein diet.”

I roll my eyes and turn to face the dropship’s doors which have begun to slide open. Before the doors retract, I spot the other dropships making the decent with us onto the planet’s surface. Our whole company has been deployed to assault the target, a fairly small operation by this war’s standards. One of the other vessels slides in close to ours, and I see a solider wave at us. Holding onto my crash webbing, I give a friendly wave back.

Just as the soldier in the other ship turns to tap his seat-mate on the shoulder, his ship explodes and flings shrapnel everywhere. The shockwave rumbles out from the expanding fireball and shards of metal ping off our ship. One particularly huge chunk flings itself into our bay and misses me by two inches. I turn to tell Peterson how lucky I am when I notice that the flak has lodged itself into the wall where his head once was. His decapitated corpse limps forwards and falls out of the troop bay, taking his machine gun with it.

“God dammit,” Loot curses over the net “I told that moron a million times to secure his crash webbing! Now we have no light machine gun.”

One of my other squad-mates, probably Carter, our sniper, begins to make a smart ass remark when the entire ship shudders and drops a good twenty feet. I hear someone throw up on the other side of the bay as the co-pilot breaks into our frequency.

“Bad news boys: that last blast killed the pilot and we’re losing fuel. I’m going to try to keep this thing gliding as long as I can, but I think your time on my ship is done. Get prepped for an emergency bail-out and...Good luck.”

The Lieutenant doesn’t even need to give an order; we’re all double checking the parachutes that we strapped to ourselves before making the drop. They seem redundant in space, but if you ever need to bail out of a dropship in atmosphere, you’re thanking your lucky starts that you’re carrying the extra fifteen pounds.

We throw ourselves out of the dropship and watch as the whole hulking black mass spirals away, the co-pilot giving up the last few minutes of his life to make sure we’re clear of the space craft. I turn and orient myself towards the planet’s surface, watching as red and yellow tracers of anti-aircraft fire streaks towards the heavens accompanied by giant bursts of light that can only be ground-based cannon defences.

The world we’re going to was once a tropical paradise, a loose collection of islands that used to feature white sand beaches, beautiful girls and mixed drinks. Now, after a couple nuclear bombardments, ash streaks from the sky and the one-time resort cities are hollowed out husks of their former selves.

My helmet recorder absorbs all of this, and I try to angle it to get the best view of the defensive emplacements, just in case they need to send someone else down. The wind is whipping past me as I fall through a layer of clouds, my camouflaged gear-encumbered body breaking up the gentle zephyrs.

I’m getting close to the ground so I pop my chute, and try to point myself towards the designated landing zone. The AA fire, which looked so mesmerizing off in the distance, is now getting too close for comfort. I instinctively tuck myself into a ball and throw off my aerodynamics sending my body into a tight spin. Before I try to uncurl my legs, machine gun fire rips through my arm and my chute, tearing a chunk of fabric and sending a geyser of blood splashing onto my face.

As I choke through my own fluids, I key my microphone and hope that someone can hear me.

“Loot! Carter! Anyone! I’ve been hit by machine gun fire, and I’ve lost some of my parachute! I’m heading down into a residential zone near the west coast!”

I’m getting very, very close to the ground now. Carter comes in over the net, his voice concerned. “That area’s got the highest concentration of pre-war refugees, man. You know what they say about bad luck, it comes in threes.”

“This is four, Carter. Peterson lost his head, remember?”

I can almost picture the smirk forcing itself onto Carter’s face, “Yeah, but that didn’t happen to you.”

That’s the last thing I hear before I slam through a wall.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Something

Ok, so I haven't exactly been posting here diligently. Still looking for a job, damn this economy. Anyways, this is a little something I've been sitting on for a while. Kind of a "pilot" if you will. The names are place-holders, and I haven't quite gotten the setting nailed down, but I feel it could lead somewhere interesting. Take a look.

The echo of automatic weapons fire reached Dan’s ears as he was jogging up the entrance tunnel from the below ground habitat. As Dan emerged onto the duty plain of the settlement, he noticed a member of his crew standing over a very expensive-looking robot, calmly changing the magazine on his rifle.

“God dammit, Sleck, what happened?” Dan demanded as he made his way over to his teammate.

“Nothing much, Ares”, Sleck said, addressing Dan by his last name “The robot made a run for it, so I filled his chassis with bullets.”

Dan slapped his forehead in exasperation. “Sleck, you void-brained good for nothing...Look, this was an L-Model Robot. Do you know what the L stands for? Fucking Luxury! A re-programmed L-Model could have paid for a lot of ammunition and supplies.”

Sleck smiled, baring his perfect white teeth which stood in contrast to his grimy face. Even though Sleck’s eyes were hidden by tactical goggles, Dan knew that his expression didn’t carry to his eyes.

“Comon, boss, this has been the most boring smash-and-grab job we’ve ever pulled. You have to at least let me have a little fun. Besides, we’ve grabbed more than enough assets from the colony.”

Dan poked an agitated finger into Sleck’s combat vest, and twisted it a bit. “I don’t give a shit if you’re bored, Sleck. Money comes first, not your warped sense of amusement.” Dan reached into his own vest and pulled out a short blue-black rod. “Next time, use this. This little EMP-wand will stun the suckers long enough to have Tekkie reprogram him. Solve problems with your head, not with your lead.”

Before Sleck could reply, Dan heard the clang of boots hitting metal as the other two members of his ground team came back up the staircase, bringing with them the last bit of loot from the colony’s stores.

One member of Dan’s team, wearing a stolen military combat helm, placed his burden beside the stockpile that they had assembled, and sauntered over to Dan and Sleck.

The visor on the helmet receded, revealing the stark grey eyes of Dan’s robotics expert, Tekkie. Although it was normally hard to tell, Tekkie’s eyes looked a bit crestfallen as he sized up the damaged L-Model.

“Aw, I had my eye on that thing the entire time. Well, at least some of its parts will fetch a good price at some chop-shops.”

Sleck smiled again, and turned to walk away and summon the team’s dropship. “See, not an entire loss.”

Dan gave his partner the middle finger, and then pivoted around to peer back down the stair-way into the colony. This whole raid had started when Dan received a tip from one of his contacts that the Russian military was going to be pulling a rotation of the marines guarding the colony, leaving a window of a day when it would be perfect for a quick looting.

When Dan and his team arrived, they had found the place completely deserted. They had expected at least a little resistance from the colony’s internal police agency, but even the local authorities were absent. It wasn’t the first time that Dan’s team had been late to the party, but it was extremely odd that an entire’s colony’s worth of plunder had just been left behind, ripe for the plucking.

The sound of the approaching dropship stirred Dan out of his thoughts, and he began scanning the sky for the craft. Finally it appeared low over the horizon, coming in fast. The team’s pilot liked to show off, and backed the ship quickly, reversing the direction the turbo-fan jets housed in the wings were pointing, and came to a smooth vertical landing directly beside the pile of goods.

The entrance ramp at the back of the ship slowly lowered to the ground, and Dan’s pilot hopped out of the cockpit hatch to give them a hand.

A sudden clanking sound from deeper in the colony reverberated up the stairs. Dan whipped around and pointed the scope of his rifle down the cavernous entrance, and activated the night vision integrated into the optics. The hallway sprung to life in a vibrant green shade, the small lights strung up along the walls giving off a bright white glow.

Dan stared down the scope for another few moments before lowering the rifle. Dan was just getting jumpy. He backed away from the entrance as the dropship’s pilot called out to him.

“Hey Dan, you gonna help us with the haul?”

Dan shook his head and gave his crew a smug grin.

“No, I think I’ll take a little break. Let me know when you’re done.”

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Red Faction: Guerrilla

Clean and Righteous!

If Battlefield: Bad Company taught me one thing, it’s that blowing stuff up is awesome. I’m not just talking about your standard video game explosions where only vehicles and infantry are damaged like a Halo game; I’m talking deforming terrain, destroying buildings, all that good stuff. Volition, makers of Saint’s Row 2, seems to have taken a page from Bad Company (and their earlier Red Faction games), and realized that you can have some minor deficiencies with the game as long as the core mechanic is solid.

Well, they nailed it. The destructible environments in Red Faction: Guerrilla, powered by the GeoMod 2.0 engine, are really entertaining, and being able to take down a huge building with nothing but a sledgehammer and some perseverance is nothing short of extremely cathartic. Sure, the controls are floaty, and the story is nothing to write home about, but the main element of the game is so much fun that you won’t really care.

The jist of the story is that you’re playing a recent immigrant to the red planet named Alec Mason, who arrives only to find that the Earth Defense Force, the good guys in the first two games, have basically become space Nazis, and have forced the entire population of Mars to perform slave labor to bump up the struggling Earth economy. Nobody is really happy about that, and the mantle of the Red Faction has been taken up again, and your brother is a member. Of course, the EDF knows this, so they whack him, and set out to arrest you before a guerrilla strike team shows up and rescues you. Naturally, you’re pissed off, so you hook up with the Red Faction, and set out to make life miserable for a number of cookie-cutter military types. There’s some sort of intelligent Tusken Raider faction, and a nano-machine forge, but you’ll find all that out by playing through the story.

To push the EDF off of Mars, you’re given a bunch of ways to become a thorn in their side. You can do raids, free wrongfully-arrested civilians, ride shot-gun in a Marauder vehicle and destroy EDF property, or just take down high-value targets. When you complete any of these “Guerrilla Actions”, the population’s morale is raised in that sector, which gives you more allies and additional ammo in supply caches around the world. If a civilian is killed during your rampages, morale takes a hit, but it’s quite easy to raise it back up.

To really make an impact on the EDF, you’ll need to lower their control of a certain sector through Guerrilla Actions until you unlock a story mission. The number of story missions differ for each sector, but the main goal is to cause enough trouble to make the EDF pull up stakes.

Single player has a lot going for it, but you’ll also find yourself spending a good chunk of time in multiplayer. The GeoMod engine makes for some really dynamic games, even if they removed sprinting and the cover mechanic. Besides your basic Death Match and CTF games, you also have the Siege game type, where you defend your structures against the other team, and then rotate to see who can get the highest score. To help you out in multiplayer, you also get access to some pretty interesting backpacks that are not available in single player. These backpacks will make you a medic, a juggernaut, and many things in between. You can also use a Reconstructor, which serves to make those valuable Siege buildings last a bit longer.

It feels as if Volition weren’t quite sure that they packed enough content into their game, so they decided to go overboard on everything. You have enough distractions in single player to keep you romping around Mars for what seems like forever, and the multiplayer has enough unlocks to rival Call of Duty 4. Red Faction: Guerrilla is the surprise hit of the summer, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you don’t at least rent it.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Transformers: Renege of the Fanatic

Does anyone know where I can get some crow pie, because I apparently need to eat a whole lot of it for defending Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen both on my blog and elsewhere.

I’ll admit that I got caught up in the pre-release hype for TF, and got legitimately upset at some of the reviews. While some of the reviews are incredibly inflammatory towards the perceived audience for this cinematic travesty, the vitriol being spouted by critics are absolutely spot on.

Having had a good night (week) to sleep on the celluloid cudgel that is Michael Bay’s latest robo-opus, I can say with certainty that the movie is bad. Whether it’s the dog-humping, the drug humor, the racist stereotypes, the misogyny or the giant clanging robot balls, Michael Bay has proved that if he doesn’t have an adult with him to keep him in check, his movies can go terribly awry.

To the film’s defence, it does deliver on one thing, which is that giant robots kick the shit out of each other and they do so with gusto. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed, and Bay has taken the camera out of the robot’s tailpipes and put it where the action can actually be seen. Whenever time slows down and we’re treated to Optimus Prime flipping Starscream into the air and kicking him in the face while he’s upside down, it’s a genuine treat. The forest battle stands out as the crown moment of the film, even topping the final battle in a random Egyptian ruin town. Optimus single-handily takes on three Decepticons, and even manages to kill one of them before he’s brutally beaten down. It’s a great scene, and for one brief shining moment in the film, you’re actually rooting for somebody. The Optimus Prime people fell in love with from the cartoon series finally comes out, and he gives his life in a gallant, heroic moment to protect Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf).

But that’s it. For the rest of the film, all the robots are treated as dispensable, whether it’s the faceless legions of Decepticons or the Autobots, who show up, shoot something, and then disappear. Even though the Transformers have more screen time in this film, and there’s some actual Megatron/Starscream bickering this time around, the robots are just as cheap as before, brought in only when there’s something huge that needs to be blown up, or some random exposition is needed.

The main bad-guy of the film, the Fallen, is sort of a letdown as well. He spends most of the movie in a creepy throne, hooked up to millions of embryonic sacs filled with fledgling Decepticons on some random planet. And what exactly is his reason for being a giant wuss? He can only be killed by a Prime, which is a pretty flimsy excuse given that Optimus got beat down by Megatron and company. Once the Fallen shows up on the actual battlefield, he spends about two minutes being terrifying until Optimus gets a jetpack and tears his face off. A good fight, but considering the titular character isn’t all that frightening it sort of leaves the climax feeling a bit empty.

All grumblings about the robots aside, the human cast of Transformers performs admirably given the ham-handedness of the script. John Turturro’s character is less grating this time around, and Shia LaBeouf has some actual funny moments outside of the forced humor that permeates the script. Series newcomer Ramon Rodriguez is the biggest let down, and his form of comic relief is even more awkward than Mudflap and Skids, the aforementioned stereotyped robots.

All in all, I suppose I’m being too harsh on the movie. It’s simply the first Transformers writ large, taking everything that was awesome about the first one and expanding it while simultaneously taking the weaker parts and transforming them into huge glaring flaws. By the time TF3 rolls around, hopefully Spielberg will be back with a firmer guiding hand, because lord knows that I’ve seen enough leg humping and pot jokes to last me a lifetime.

Friday, June 19, 2009

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prime

You know, I’m not one to generally get offended by review, be they for movies, games, books or what have you. I realize that reviewers are basically being paid to render their opinion on a public forum, to give those of us who are on the fence a bit more of an informed choice when it comes to choosing what we want to do with our money.

That being said, the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen reviews coming out of Rotten Tomatoes have really not been helping my mood. If it’s not getting trashed for being tedious and full of explosions, it’s being lambasted for being simplistic by even the “Fresh” reviews! Of course it’s simplistic, you high-handed jack-asses! It’s freaking Transformers!

Now, I don’t know if most reviewers ever watched the original TV series, or were even aware of its existence until Michael Bay modernized the franchise for the current consumer two years ago, but apparently “giant robot fighting” does not a good action movie make. Really, what else do you want out of Transformers? There is never going to be anything overly cerebral about it.

I love Prime, Megatron and company as much as the next guy, but I watch Transformers to be entertained and blown away by the visuals, not to have my mind teased. What boggles me is that Star Trek (co-written by two of the TF writers) got a 95% Fresh rating, while TF currently sits at below 50%. What?! Star Trek was great, but it sits in the same company as Transformers: a beloved sci-fi series rebooted to be made slicker and easier to digest for the theatre crowd.

I just don’t get movie critics sometimes. Of all the reviewers in the world, they are the least objective, and the most biased. For them, a movie is not “entertainment”. It needs to be a period piece, it needs to make you cry, it needs to do a lot of things that I frankly don’t go and watch things blowing up for.

When they’re not hacking down the movie for doing exactly what it’s trying to do, they’re insulting the audience. Here are a few samples of the “opinions” being selected for Rotten Tomatoes:

Allan Hunter, Daily Express: Director Michael Bay has always had a passion for big, noisy spectacles and Revenge of the Fallen is a bravura display of his ability to mastermind global destruction. What it lacks is the human touch, decent dialogue, novelty and restraint. (It is a movie about fighting robots, good sir.)

Matthew Tuner, View London: Bigger, louder and more annoying, this won't disappoint fans of the first film, but the deficiencies in script and character are even more apparent this time round and Bay's contempt for his audience is almost palpable. (If you use the phrase “fans of the series” or something similar, it always seems like a cop-out. Yes, I’m guilty of it too.)

Victor Olliver, Teletext: Is there anything in this for anyone other than a zit-faced video gamer? No.

Ok, that last one really jostled my flaps so much that I made an account on RT specifically to call this guy out on his bullshit. One would wonder how such an unprofessional review (and it is unprofessional, basically a point form rip on the movie on its fans) would makes its way on to Rotten Tomatoes. I know that RT is an aggregate site, but one would think they have some control over what they feature on their site. Such a slanderous review doesn’t lend a lot of credibility to Rotten Tomatoes.

I’m probably not helping by writing a whole rant about reviewers and their bullshit, but whatever. This whole fiasco has got me pissed off so much that I’m going to go watch Spider-Man 3 out of spite.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Cole Becomes Electric

Welcome to Empire City, a place where disease-ridden gangsters and psychic hobos rule the streets. You’re Cole McGrath, bike courier cum electric dynamo, and you have the power to save the city or bend to your will.

InFamous is a game that opens with a bang (literally), and never stops coming at you, a relentless assault of lightning and open-world free running. In a story heavily inspired by the comic book genre (Batman: No Man’s Land in particular), you play the aforementioned Cole McGrath, who develops electricity based super powers after being caught at the center of a massive explosion that wipes out six city blocks and plunges Empire City back to the stone ages. Armed gangs roam the streets, and the government has locked the place down, basically leaving the city to collapse upon itself.

As a natural consequence of having super powers, you are forced into the middle of the situation by a shadowy FBI agent named Moya, who turns you into a glorified errand boy. She tasks you with two main goals: finding her husband, John, who was deep undercover with a group known as the First Sons, and locating the Ray Sphere, the device that gave you your powers.

To that end, you’re given free reign over three separate districts of the city, which open up consecutively as you progress along the story mode. In each section of Empire, you can go where you please, jumping over rooftops and scampering along power lines. The platforming in inFamous is incredibly intuitive. You never question whether or not you’re going to make a jump; unless you do something boneheaded like leap into the river, Cole will always find his feet planted on firm ground. Scaling buildings is effortless and later in the game Cole will gain the ability to grind along power lines and train rails, and hold himself aloft for a short time with a hovering ability. Cole doesn’t take fall damage, either, so feel free to hurl him off every building you can see.

In addition to being a skilled urban explorer, Cole can also hold his own against the myriad gangs fighting for control of Empire. Starting with a basic lightning shot from his hand, Cole can develop more and more impressive techniques as the game goes on. These powers are gained by restoring electricity to sections of Empire, and can be leveled up by using the exp you gain from defeating enemies. Cole’s lighting powers develop along two lines, which is in keeping with the moral choice system of this game. Good players will find that their powers are more precise and even restore some of your electric charge, while Infamous players will experience “Unlimited Power!” as a certain creepy galactic emperor would say.

But power doesn’t come without temptation. At several points in the game, you will be confronted with the option of either having Cole take the moral high road and use his powers for good, or to indulge in his baser instincts. The karmic choice system in this game is very black and white, and basically serves as a mechanism for making you play inFamous twice through, once good and once evil. Whichever path you go down gives you a different set of perks, as mentioned above. While the game will occasionally break flow and make you tackle a moral quandary, you can also perform acts for good or ill while you're running about Empire City. If you heal pedestrians with your defibrillator ability or restrain enemies with lightning manacles, you gain exp and good karma points. Conversely, if you kill downed opponents and suck the bio-energy from pedestrians and villains alike (a nasty looking but effective way to refill you juice meter), you’ll be well on your way to being universally reviled. The karmic choice mechanism is central to the game’s story, but it will feel a bit silly on occasion. As long as you’re willing to take it tongue-in-cheek, it shouldn’t disrupt your experience too much.

InFamous is a very well put together product, and the team at Sucker Punch should be proud of themselves. Solid controls, a good gameplay hook and fun combat all combine to make inFamous a sure-fire winner. A must buy for any PS3 owner, inFamous will give you the guaranteed shock-and-awe of a summer blockbuster.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Microsoft Part 2: Technological Transgressions

Aside from a metric ass-tonne of game announcements, Microsoft also strutted their software integration stuff and revealed a whole bunch of new innovations for the LIVE interface ranging from Twitter to a full body motion sensor.

In addition to Net Flix, Microsoft announced that they are proud to present the incorporation of Facebook and Twitter to X Box LIVE, adding unique social networking to those who aren’t that socially adept anyways. Adding the ability to Tweet and check your Facebook is a natural evolution for Microsoft’s online service; most people are already Tweeting to their LIVE friends anyways. If only the Zune had something to do with all this on the go status extravaganza.

Last.fm and SKY were also announced as partners in the newest LIVE venture, so you can listen to music through your X Box, and catch football matches with SKY in the UK. Neat stuff that comes packaged for Gold users, so you won’t have to pay an additional fee.

Finally, Microsoft brought out the proverbial big guns for their final announcement. Venerable director Steven Spielberg to the stage to talk about Project Natal, Microsoft’s answer to motion control; but this isn’t about waving a dongle around, oh no. Natal is a full-body motion detector with included voice and facial recognition software. Much like Tony Hawk’s ride board will let you translate your body movements into on-screen action, Natal does much the same thing without the need for any peripheral besides a small-ish sensor that gets attached to your X Box.

This thing is seriously impressive. Like I mentioned above, Natal appears to need nothing more than a sensor mounted in front of your TV. It reads your body movements, and translates them smoothly onto the screen. This will have a lot of interesting applications for games that require a bit more physicality than your standard video game fare. Games usually require an extra peripheral for things beyond button inputs, like Tony Hawk Ride or Wii Fit. If Natal is a success, then not only will the number of plastic play-things in your average gamer’s house reduce, but it may bring additional customers into the fold, those who are intimidated by the average gamepad.

I’m sure that Natal is a while away from being a fully realised product, but it seems to be heading in the right direction. Only time will tell for this new innovation, but for now, I’ll stick with my controller.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Microsoft's E3 Press Conference Part One: To All The Games I've Loved Before

Microsoft’s E3 press conference has come and gone, and what an event it was. In what turned out to be a star-studded journey down a magnificent lane of computerized entertainment, Microsoft set the bar incredibly high for Sony and Nintendo.

No charts or graphs this year, just a straight up bevy of game announcements from a procession of companies ranging from UbiSoft to Bungie, and even a sneak appearance by Hideo Kojima.

First on the gravy train was to be the announcement of Beatles Rockband, and who better to announce it than Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney? The game looks pretty good, playing on the myriad sets of imagery used by the Beatles throughout their long career. Over 45 classic Beatles songs will be featured on the disk, and some more coming to X Box LIVE.

For Rockband enthusiasts, this was certainly an exciting announcement. I’ve never been a big fan of the Beatles, but I can see why their appeal is so large and multi-generational.

After the Beatles made their announcement, skateboard poster child (man) Tony Hawk took the stage to describe how the next game bearing his name in it – Tony Hawk: Ride – is going to revolutionize skating games. To that effect, he demonstrated Ride’s motion control board, which will probably function a lot like the Wii Fit board. In essence, it will be like actual skateboarding, but without the risk of either breaking several bones or getting laughed at by teenagers. Whether or not this will breathe new life into the Tony Hawk series remains to be seen, but I can imagine that this game will not be cheap. Prepare to shell out some cash for the opportunity to get the closest to physical activity that Tony Hawk fans have ever come.

A couple developers from Infinity Ward hit the stage to show off Modern Warfare Two, which consisted of scaling a cliff with ice picks, using a UAV radar attached to a rifle, and firing your pistol “derty” style while riding a snow-mobile. If IF’s success with Modern Warfare one is any indication, this game is going to sell like hotcakes. Hopefully, they’ll change it up enough that it doesn’t feel like MW 1 with a few minor changes.

Final Fantasy Thirteen, announced last year amid much hullabaloo, is going to hit in Spring 2010. No surprise there.

After a couple X Box LIVE Arcade announcements, Microsoft revealed that Ruffian Games (who said that they were not working on Crackdown 2) is – surprise - working on Crackdown 2. Crackdown one was a massive hit among the “hardcore”, and Crackdown 2 looks to be a further extension of what fans loved about the first one. Unfortunetly, it’s following a current trend for open world games to have some sort of zombie/hideous monster plague hit the city. Maybe being a super-cop will be enough to off-set it, but I doubt that you really need to add a zombie disease to make your game feel innovative.

Left 4 Dead 2 was announced, being set in the southwest of the United States. No idea why this is a full game; it would have probably made more sense for this to be branded as Left 4 Dead: Ragin’ Cajun expansion or something. Valve is adding melee weapons this time around, including the ever-requested chainsaw.

Splinter Cell: Conviction, after being stuck in development hell (it was rumoured that a team of “closers” were brought in to get this game back on track), made an appearance with a brand new look for the game. This is definitely a Sam Fisher who’s out for revenge, and it features some sweet objective update interfaces. At one point in the trailer, “Find Sarah’s Killer” popped up on the wall as a reminder of what your ultimate goal is. Pretty slick, and marks a definitive change in the HUD heavy Splinter Cell games of the past.

Next, Bungie story crafter Joe Staten took the stage to give the world its first look at Halo 3: ODST, and does it look fantastic. Instead of playing a SPARTAN super-soldier, you take on the role of the “Rookie”, an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, who are basically the far-future equivalent of Seal Team Six or Delta Force.

After ODST “dropped”, Bungie also revealed that they are working on Halo: Reach, a prequel of sorts. The novel Fall of Reach chronicled what happened before the events of Halo: Combat Evolved, so one could assume that this is the interactive entertainment retelling of that story. It hits in 2010, however, so we have a lot of time to see how it will develop.

Then, Hideo Kojima, developer of the Metal Gear Solid series took to the stage to announce that he was proud to bring his venerable series to the X Box 360. Nothing much was revealed about the game besides the fact that development is currently taking place, and it is going to star Raiden, girly man turned cyborg ninja from Metal Gear 4.

As excited as many people are to see the Metal Gear franchise finally make the jump to the 360, I doubt that many of the “purists” are excited about playing as Raiden, who is infamous for stealing the spotlight from series star Solid Snake in Metal Gear 2.

All in all, Microsoft revealed a very impressive line up for the coming holiday season and beyond. They also revealed a whole bunch of technological improvements for the LIVE interface, which I’ll discuss in part two of my Microsoft E3 breakdown.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Passenger 1.5

“Hi, you dumb mother-fucker.”

With that curse, the passenger lifted his pistol in a blurred motion, and snapped off a quick shot, which took the man in the door way in the head. As the man’s head snapped to the side, the shooter jumped off the ground, aimed toward the other four antagonists, and fired four more shots in quick succession.

Each shot took the intended target cleanly between the eyes, dropping them backwards as the dull thud of lifeless bodies punctuated the gunfire.

The reaction from the soldiers outside was immediate. Even before the last corpse had hit the pavement, a barrage of hot lead began perforating the Starbucks, tearing into decorations and patrons alike.

The passenger rolled out of his sitting position, and bolted for the rear exit. One customer was still standing in the middle of the shop, staring dumbstruck at the destruction raining around her. As the passenger passed her, he paused to push the woman down, away from the rain of fire.

“Get down, idiot!” The delay in saving the woman’s life enabled the gunmen outside to draw a bead on the passenger, and he pitched forward as a bullet passed straight through his arm just above the elbow.

Cursing a blue streak, he turned the tumble into a roll, trying to take away as much of the impact as possible from his wounded arm.
The passenger came to his feet, and shed his jacket. Blood streamed copiously from the wound in his arm, but he didn’t dare break his momentum. Just as he reached the back door to the alley behind the coffee shop, the door slammed shut in his face.

Rebounding off the solid wood door, the passenger hit the floor with a dull thud, and lay there groaning. Bullets whizzed over his head, shredding the various pieces of eclectic art that had been hanging on the wall, and utterly demolishing the pieces of furniture that had been scattered throughout the cafe.

The passenger took the time he had while he was on the ground to rip a strip off of his t-shirt and tie it in a tight knot around his elbow. With the flow of blood staunched, he began edging his way to the door. The gunfire had finally stopped, which meant that his attackers were going to try infiltrating the establishment for another look.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Passenger, part 1

The window splintered inward with the force of the blast, decapitating the driver with large shards of glass. Even before the remains of the windshield had passed backwards from the driver’s compartment into the rest of the limo, the passenger in the back had already opened the door, and had hit the pavement running.

As the passenger ran towards the cover of a near-by Starbucks, his assailants adjusted for his sudden burst of movement, and began tracking a hail of destructive fire towards him. Rooster-tails began to kick up all around him, the impacts of bullets fired in a hurried attempt to mark the target.

Not even bothering to use the door to the building, the passenger hurled himself through the window, arms covering his head. The plate glass shattered with the force of his impact, giving way and allowing the passenger to tumble into the coffee shop and come to a rest at the foot of a table, where its inhabitants promptly jumped up, spilling their lattes onto the surface, causing the liquid to spill over onto the passenger, covering him with piping hot beverages.

The passenger rolled away from the table, back towards the shattered window, where he came to a low sitting position with his back towards the wall. Reaching into his latte covered jacket, he removed a black and olive hand gun and racked the slide. The gunfire coming from the street outside had stopped, so the man took a deep breath, and waited.


On the busy intersection, chaos reigned. Cars that had been caught in the initial attack were flipped onto their sides, windows blown out. The occupants still conscious inside their cars were screaming for help, but no one who had witnessed the ferocity of the strike were rushing out to assist. Far in the distance, sirens began to wail, announcing the imminent arrival of emergency services.

At the epicenter of the blast stood a smoking husk of a car, which trained observers would recognized as the cause of the explosion. When the car had detonated, it had been directly in front of the target limo, and had been designed to either immobilize or destroy the luxury vehicle.

A large trail of pock-marks stretched from the wrecked limo to the Starbucks, tracing the passenger’s flight into the shop.
Emerging from vantage points all around the blast radius, various figures clad in black paramilitary uniforms advanced cautiously towards the coffee house, readying their assault rifles. A group of five assailants posted up beside the door, opposite of where their target was currently taking refuge.

With a silent hand signal from his commander, the lead gunman lifted his rifle to shoulder height, and pressed the door open.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Self-Fulfilling Prophesy

Straight off the dome, words polished like chrome,
I’ll hit you where you live; my ideas will follow you home.
My words are my weapons, the internet my machine,
It's never ending, like a gossamer dream.
You’ll sit around, scratching your head, waiting for my next trick,
It’s coming at you soon, Max Becomes Electric.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pittfall

The second batch of Fallout 3 goodness was released today and... Oh, it looks like there’s an internet shitstorm calling for the blood of the Bethesda staff. It seems the English language version of Fallout 3: The Pitt for X Box LIVE is extremely messed up, with crashes, bugs and missing texture meshes abound. Fortunately for the higher class- i.e. PC players- The Pitt works fine.

The Pitt begins much the same way as Operation: Anchorage, in which you wait for a radio signal to appear on your Pip-Boy and follow a way point to the beginning location. There, Wherner, escaped slave, will enlist your help in sneaking into The Pitt (the remnants of Pittsburgh) and stealing a cure for the rampant mutation among The Pitt’s residents. On the way in, you slip into an unintentionally sexy slave uniform and have all your awesome weapons stripped away.

In order to maintain the facade that you’re just another dull-eyed worker, your co-conspirators have you collect iron ingots from the steelyards. Sounds easy, but the yards are full of mutated Trogs and Wildmen, beings who want nothing more than to tear you limb from limb. Thankfully, you get one of The Pitt’s new weapons, the Auto-Axe, to help you out. The Auto-Axe is essentially a car motor with a rotating saw blade attached to it, so it’s perfect for making turducken out of the Trogs.

The minimum number of ingots you have to collect is ten, but you can go all the way up to one hundred for some nifty prizes. After you finish your fetch quest, you’re given a chance to fight in the Hole, a death-match arena where you must defeat your foes before you succumb to radiation. If you’ve been a successful ingot collector, you should have some nifty weapons to help you out. If not, beating them to death with your fists is just as good. (The final combatant drops a new weapon as well, making The Pitt already more of a treasure trove than Operation: Anchorage.)

Winning three fights in the Hole grants you your freedom, your gear, and an audience with Ashur, the head honcho of the slaver operation. Here’s your chance to pick you side in The Pitt: do you stay the course with Wherner, or do you take Ashur up on his offer. It’s up to you, but the nature of the cure may influence your decision a little. (No spoilers here, but Bethesda has made this deliciously evil.)

What you do from that point is up to you. I sided with the slaves, so in the end I ended up with access to the ammunition presses and an opportunity to go back and search for a few remaining ingots. I imagine the ending for siding with Ashur is just a lucrative, it all depends on how big a bastard you want to be.

The Pitt clocks in at roughly the same time as Operation: Anchorage, but it has a lot more goodies and the tried and true Fallout morality to go along with it. Overall, The Pitt is a solid addition to Fallout 3’s lore, and should help tide you over until Broken Steel is released.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

A Boxful of Grunts

Recalling surface squads so we can all die together, aye sir.

As a series, Halo owes a lot to the real time strategy genre. Back before Microsoft bought Bungie Studios, they were working on an RTS game for the Mac, and they had it developed to the point where the models were already recognizable, the Warthogs and Pelicans standing readily apparent. The game moved into a third person shooter early in its life, but the memory of a one-time strategy Halo lived on.

Back after Command and Conquer: Generals was released, a home brewed mod began to take shape, molding the Generals engine into a Halo RTS. Called Halogen, this digital alchemy had progressed to an early beta stage before Microsoft slapped the developers with a cease and desist. Rumors broke out on the internet claiming that the legal documents had been issued because Microsoft was cooking up a Halo strategy game within its closed citadel.

The rumors turned out to be true at X06, where Microsoft revealed Halo Wars, being developed by long time Microsoft team and RTS pros Ensemble Studios. Well known for the venerable Age of Empires series, Ensemble Studios are old hands at making well thought out strategy games, and the Halo franchise was deemed to be in good company, even if the game was being made to fit on a console.

Though doubts were raised over the viability of “shoe-horning” the typically complex control scheme of a strategy game onto the X Box controller, Ensemble studios pledged to bring the magic of their PC games to the console. In this vein, they created a very friendly “My First RTS” control scheme, where the manipulations of your forces boil down to two very simple button presses: left bumper selects all your units, and the X button makes them both move and attack. Contextually it’s very straightforward, and that’s why it works. Of course, the controls are a bit more varied than that; Y button gives you access to your units various special attacks, and the D-Pad has shortcuts to your bases and units and gives you access to your various selection of leader powers. Easy to learn and easy to master would be the best way to describe the scheme, and that applies to the game’s mechanics as well.

The first stop for Halo Wars players is going to be the campaign, and, to its credit, Halo Wars’ story mode is actually quite good. Ensemble Studios fully immersed themselves in the Halo lore, so much so to the point where Halo Wars fairly oozes with the presentation one has come to expect from Halo games. Sound effects are lifted straight out of Halo 3, and when you hear the Warthog’s familiar high-pitched whine, you’ll known that not a single audio or visual aspect is going to be out of place, something that will no doubt placate the attention-oriented Halo fans.


The mission set is standard RTS fare in which you build up a sizeable force and take the hurting to the enemy. To its credit, the game does try to mix it up a few times, even if it does enforce the hated enemy of RTS players who like their games to be well-considered: time limits. A high point in the mission set has you solving a puzzle, and over-all the game is well-built and solid, even if the tried and true strategy of overwhelming numbers trumps all other tactics.

Between missions, you’re treated to a series of extremely good looking cut scenes that tell the story of the UNSC Spirit of Fire, a large scale combat support ship thrust into the middle of an interstellar chase. Even though the cut scenes will have you drooling in your seat over their sheer jaw-dropping beauty (especially the fight between the SPARTANS and about fifteen Elites; you’ll know it when you see it) it still comes off as fragmented, and leaves you wanting more. Often times, you’ll be wishing that Halo Wars came with an animated film to complement the game as opposed to a series of short vignettes.

For action outside of the story mode, you can turn to X Box live, or take on the AI in skirmish mode. In multiplayer, you select a certain leader for either the UNSC or the Covenant and in doing so you gain access to a certain set of Leader Powers and special Super Units. For example, Captain Cutter of the UNSC gives you access to the Spirit of Fire orbital cannon and upgraded Marines, while using the Prophet of Truth gives you Elite Honor Guards and a cleansing beam of light to wipe heretics off the map. Multiplayer is carefully crafted if a bit shallow; like the campaign, it gives you a glimpse of something better. Hopefully forthcoming downloadable content will expand on the foundation and give Halo Wars some serious longevity.

For a series that once had a tenuous link to a genre outside of first person shooters, the Halo universe serves a great backdrop for strategy games. The Halo Trilogy created by Bungie always gave the impression of a war going on outside the purview of Master Chief and friends, even though it was never properly expanded upon. Halo Wars gives a greater sense of weight to the galactic conflict that provides the basis for the series, and gives credence to the theory that a story exists in this franchise beyond giant rings in space.

The bottom line is that if you’re a Halo fan, you’ve already bought this, and you’re enjoying it. It has all the trappings you love, and you’re willing to forgive its flaws simply because it’s Halo. If Master Chief has never done it for you, you still might get a kick out of this concrete entry into the 360’s disappointingly small library of strategy games.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's Like Star Wars, But With A Hell Of A Lot More War

Show me what passes for fury among your misbegotten kind!

Since the dawn of PC gaming, real time strategy games have always included one essential element: base building. From Dune to Starcraft and up to the most recent Red Alert game, part of being an effective commander always included building up a collection of barracks and vehicle factories to produce the cannon fodder you’re going to be sending into battle.

Relic, far from accepting this old RTS convention, has taken a chain-sword to the notion of base building and has eviscerated it completely from Dawn of War II. Instead of spending half a game constructing the structures necessary for combat, Dawn of War II has you micromanaging your troops constantly instead of jumping back to your base every minute or so to pump out more grunts.

By adding an RPG element with upgradable wargear (DoW speak for loot), Relic hopes to breath fresh life into the RTS genre, and for the most part they succeed admirably. In the campaign, you’re given control of a small force of Space Marines, led by one Force Commander, who is essentially your avatar. Other squads are added along the way, following the typical Games Workshop army set: Tactical Squad, Devastator Squad and so on. Each squad has their own specialty, whether it’s range combat, or getting up close and personal with the enemy. The wargear that you collect is suited to making the squads better at what they do, and all pieces of armor or weaponry add combat bonuses and stat multipliers.

Furthering the RPG connection, DoW2 includes a leveling system, where your Marines earn experience for defeating enemies and completing objectives. Stats are divided into four categories: Health, Ranged Combat, Strength and Will. Perks are added along the way, depending on which skill tree you level. The perks serve to make your Marines more effective at their assigned roles, and if you’ve got an Assault Squad, it makes more sense to add skill points to the Strength tree. Every Marine squad also has a certain number of slots for their inventory, so you can equip your Marines with everything from grenades to health packs and the ability to call in orbital bombardments.

As far as game play in the campaign is concerned, it’s fairly straight-forward if not highly entertaining. The mission set is pretty standard, with little variation between the different scenarios. Your Marines are tasked with eliminating enemy bosses, defending an important location or wiping out general enemies. The mechanics are what really differentiates the combat from standard RTS fare. As you’re constantly managing your troops and not worrying about a base (you’re dropped in from an orbiting ship every mission), you’re free to use cover, or flank the enemy and take them out. DoW2 feels like it has a lot of strategy to it, as opposed to using a giant force to overwhelm the enemy with numbers. More often than not, you’re the one who’s severely outnumbered, so the use of cover and careful squad management is essential.

The plot for the campaign isn’t anything special; it’s mostly there as an excuse to throw the four races of DoW2 together in one sitting. You’ll fight Orks, Eldar and Tyranids, jumping from planet to planet in an effort to prevent the system you’re in from falling into complete chaos. Character-wise, the squad leaders you’re commanding are fairly likeable, even if they are all gruff military types. After every mission, you’re treated to a few minutes of bickering between your various underlings, and a lot of it is talk about honor and duty, and what that means. Some of it is a little groan-worthy, but it all helps to flesh out the story of the campaign, if you’re interesting in anything more than slaughtering aliens, which the story has in heaps.

Overall, the story line is highly enjoyable, especially if you’ve got a friend to play co-op with. Controlling two squads each, it’s a lot of fun to plan assaults and use the benefit of two minds to confront the enemy.

For the player versus player portion of DoW2, Relic changes it up again. Each player picks their own unique commander, and the three different leaders for every race offer up different abilities to use on the battlefield. You have offense, defense and support commanders, and savvy teams will use the abilities to complement each other. There is no base building here either; everything you need is built out of one structure. Resources are gained by capturing power nodes and requisition points, which is carried over from the first game. This creates several hot-spots as your enemies will be hankering to take your resources points away from you.

You always have an eye on the action in multiplayer, so the game play is fast and furious, leaving little room for breathers. For such an engrossing game, Dawn of War II ships with a rather small number of maps, so you’ll be treading familiar ground for a while before Relic releases some new maps.

For all the praise Dawn of War II is getting, it’s also weighed down by a hefty number of bugs and glitches. Relic has patched a large number of these bugs (such as the one that ate saved games), but crashes are still fairly frequent, especially if you’re playing on Windows Vista 32-bit with the setting on High or Ultra High. For those Vista owners with their machines built specifically to destroy even the most graphically demanding of entertainment software, playing on medium graphics can feel a little insulting. Relic has said that a fix is on the way, but for now you’ll have to tone those graphics down if you want to play DoW.
Another low point is that the game requires the use of Windows Live, Xbox Lives’ inbred cousin. Disconnects are frequent, and it sometimes feels like you’re fighting the Live interface. Windows Live games have always been plagued by this, but this game would have benefited with a smother interface.

Dawn of War II takes everything you thought you knew about strategy games and throws it out the window. The game does so many things right with its mechanics that it’s hard to fault it for the number of bugs and repeated missions that it has. Even if you’re not a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, you’ll find plenty of good game play to occupy you in Dawn of War II.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Why the Battlefield Series Has Gone Casual

When you think of hardcore PC games, it’s hard not to mention the Battlefield series, DICE’s seminal fragfest. Since its intro onto the scene with Battlefield 1942, this has been the “shooter’s shooter”, the epitome of large scale conflict. The iterations after 1942 have all expanded on the “hardcore” aspect of the Battlefield series, with ranks, unlocks and medals all being earnable with a significant investment. (The precursor of achievement-related unlocks, in my opinion.)

When DICE expanded its repertoire to the console with Bad Company, Battlefield was still holding onto its hardcore roots. The ranks and unlocks were still there, but they were easier to get. Despite this, the multiplayer segment was still twitch-driven, where a quick index finger would lead to inevitable victory over your foes.

During the development of Bad Company, DICE announced Battlefield: Heroes, a browser-based game for the “casual” audience. Built to accommodate a less frenetic playing style, Heroes plans to add some Team Fortress-inspired elements, giving players an opportunity to carve out a niche role on the battlefield. A bevy of class abilities are planned to make your character a more efficient medic, tank driver or soldier. It also sports a very cartoony look, reminiscent of Valve’s PC juggernaut, Team Fortress 2.

This left the future of the Battlefield series in doubt. Was Heroes the follow up to 2142, or did DICE have another Battlefield game hidden up their sleeves? Not one to leave their loyal fans hanging, DICE revealed Battlefield 1943: Pacific at the New York comic con. 1943, running on DICE’s proprietary Frostbite engine, seemes like the sequel that Battlefield fans had been asking for. As the convention progressed, more info started to come out about the new Battlefield.

Where previous Battlefields were full-priced, disc-based products with a large smattering of maps, 1943 is going to be a fairly low-priced downloadable product, with only three maps. It’s going to be available across all three major internet-connected platforms: PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

A twenty dollar price point sounds pretty good, but only three maps? Traditionally, while the games have had a large offering of digital playgrounds, chances were that you would only end up playing a small number of those maps anyways. By paring down the map selection, DICE is streamlining this into a product that could easily fit on the relatively smaller hard-drives of the Xbox and PS3.
1943 also changes the formula a bit by reducing the class selections down to three roles: Infantry, Rifleman and Scout. All three classes have anti-vehicle abilities, and health and ammunition are going to be in abundance. (In fact, ammo is unlimited.)

Seems the casual bug has bitten DICE again. While this isn’t the full Battlefield sequel that has been clamored for, one can argue that this makes the most sense for DICE’s business right now. By offering up a cheaper product across three successful gaming platforms, DICE is guaranteed to reach a bigger audience than they would if they had just put out a sixty dollar PC exclusive. By reducing the class selection and giving everyone a chance to fight effectively, DICE is also reaching out to the Call of Duty crowd, which is a little less familiar with the specialized roles common to the Battlefield setting.

1943: Pacific is also going to feature paid DLC, small chunks of extra content doled out for a hopefully reasonable price. By starting small, and adding little bits of extra game play along the way, DICE may just be looking into extending the life span of 1943 instead of focusing on a full-fledged game every two years. With the way the economy is, a long term plan where you can continually milk one product is probably the wisest. No one can fault DICE for trying to make money, but this is still a relatively new method of trying to get your business.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

I'm a Fricking Blur Over Here!

Valve, being the benevolent gaming gods that they are, have seen fit to bestow upon us a new content pack for one of Team Fortress 2’s classes, this time turning their gaze on the Scout. As with past class expansions, the Scout Update contains a couple of new maps in addition to weapon unlocks and achievements specific to the Scout class.

Valve is teasing the specific parts of the pack day by day, slowly leading up to the content’s release next Tuesday. So far, we’ve been given a sneak peak at the new bat, The Sandman, as well as the two new maps that are being included. Today, we’re introduced to the set of achievements that you’ll have to collect in order to unlock the new gear, as well as the Scout’s version of the Heavy’s Sandvich: The Bonk! Energy drink.

The description is written in the Scout’s Boston accent, but for those of you who can’t penetrate the closely held secrets of this regional dialect, it seems that the Bonk! Energy Drink will bestow a few moments of Matrix-like bullet dodging upon the Scout, with the trade-off being that consumers will be slowed down considerably after the drink’s affects have worn off. For those Scouts who have nabbed the enemy Intelligence and need a bit of a boost before they get turned into hamburger by a Heavy’s minigun, this seems like the ticket. Just make sure to get behind some cover when the drink wears off, otherwise you’ll be a sitting duck.

The achievements included with the pack don’t have their description yet, but judging by the icons associated with them, quite a few are related to the new Sandman bat, which launches concussion-inducing baseballs at the target’s unlucky cranium. Expect most of the achievements to take advantage of the Scout’s specific role, much as they did with the previous three update classes. Grabbing the intelligence, swatting foes and generally being a major fleet-footed pain should all nab you a decent set of achievements. A few seem to be geared towards annoying Engineers; maybe the Scout’s infamous cries of “Need a Dispenser here!” will finally garner some recognition.

Valve has been quite noteworthy in their dedication to keeping Team Fortress 2 up to date and fresh. Over the year and a bit since it has been released, Valve has offered up over 60 updates to the title, the four large ones adding new and exciting ways for the altered classes to contribute to the fray.

With their Steam distribution system and the attention to their franchises via downloadable content, Valve seems to be one of the few industry giants who are advocating the best way to do business in the increasingly internet-centric marketplace. By offering up a service where you can get games relatively cheap, Valve has found a way to effectively combat piracy, a topic which is a growing concern among industry insiders.

Gabe Newell, Valve’s head honcho, recently spoke at the Design Innovate Communicate Entertain (DICE) conference in Vegas, where he re-iterated Valve’s view on PC piracy. He believes that PC pirates are not stealing games because they’re cheapskates, but because piracy offers a way to get games fast and DRM-free. Valve is trying to beat piracy at its own game, not trying to stamp it out with increasingly draconian security measures. (Like the install limit in EA’s Spore.)

In my opinion, this is why a lot of gamers are willing to cut Valve slack when they delay their games. We know that when the product finally hits, it’s going to be extremely polished, and any issues will be addressed quickly. When the Left 4 Dead demo hit, Valve patched that. It’s unheard of, but it plays into Valve’s business model. By maintaining a good relationship with their consumer base, Valve has guaranteed its place as one of gaming’s most popular developers, a position which is well earned.

Bonus Content:

Here’s a little something extra at the end of the post, a place where I’ll add some tidbits I’ve collected over the internet, but I can fit into the theme of the main article.
• Bethesda continues to tease at Fallout 3’s next expansion pack, the Pitt. Three new screentshots have hit the web, giving a little glimpse into the setting, as well as a look at one of the new weapons, the AutoAxe. Check them out here: http://fallout.bethsoft.com/eng/info/thepitt.html
• GamerSushi, which in the past has called me out for hating on Battlefield 1943 (I’ll talk about that soon) has a new article on things that are hurting the industry. If you’re interested, it’s a good read. http://gamersushi.com/2009/02/18/5-things-hurting-the-video-game-industry
• GTA IV: The Lost and the Damned has been released, so as soon as I can scrounge up twenty dollars worth of Microsoft Fun Bucks, I’ll give it a try.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Freebird! Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. Impressions

The problem with most flight combat sims on consoles is the lack of a decent control method. Obviously, a joystick is the preferred choice of interface for your dogfight enthusiast, but when the complex controls for manoeuvring jet aircraft get translated onto a gamepad, well, suffice it to say that the game suffers a little as the result.

This is case with Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X., the demo for which was released on Xbox LIVE last Wednesday. Shortly after booting up the demo, you’re promised that H.A.W.X. will “revolutionalize” your flight sim experience. Before you start your training mission, you’re given a quick preview of the control scheme. The left analog stick controls the aircraft completely, relying only on the shoulder buttons and the triggers for yaw and speed control. To a generation of gamers that have become used to the two-stick control method, using one stick for input will seem stilted and awkward at first.

Once you get used to using one stick to manipulate your aircraft, the game introduces you to “Off Mode”, in which the complex computer systems helping you maintain control over your fighter are turned off, giving you greater dominance over the plane’s performance. In Off Mode, you can perform complex turns and drifts that would be impossible in assisted-flight mode, giving you a leg up during hectic fights.

Unfortunetly, Off Mode also comes with the worst camera angle possible. The camera snaps away from directly behind your fighter, and gives you a long shot view of your plane. This is done to give you better awareness of what’s going on around you and also enables you to see those fancy tricks that you’re pulling off. You’re also made to fight in Off Mode and, if you still haven’t mastered the one-stick control scheme, this can be a bit frustrating.

Due to the odd camera angle, you have to constantly jostle your plane around until your targeting computer can get a lock. Controlling the fighter in Off Mode is rather like trying to skate on greased ice: you slide everywhere, and controlling your movements is far from precise. It’s a good thing that your targeting computer is highly forgiving; you’ll lock on to bogies that are far out of the view of your cockpit.

After you pass your flight certification, you’re launched into an assault on Rio de Janeiro, tasked with defending the city. Hope you’ve got binocular vision, because you’re mostly going to be shooting at indistinguishable black dots on the ground and in the sky. H.A.W.X. has run into the problem that a lot of flight sims have run into: in an attempt to give the game a realistic scale and feel, your enemies are incredibly small and by the time your close enough to get a visual, they’re already behind you.

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X. might have been a fun game, but it's plagued by a few persistent problems that have been with console flight sims for a while. Floundering controls, strange camera angles and microscopic enemies all make for a frustrating experience. This is only the demo, but I doubt that the full product will have much else to offer flight enthusiasts. If you’re really hankering for a dogfight, I’d consider renting this Clancy outing as opposed to putting down sixty of your hard-earned dollars on it.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A War among the Stars

With an echoing screech, a purple-tinted airship rockets over-head, its forward mounted cannons spewing azure death. Beneath the surreal tableau of glinting violet airships is another horrifying sight: A vast alien host moves forward, diminutive creatures up front, being lead by seven foot tall abominations. Amongst the chaos of battle, you can see one of the taller aliens clearer than the others. Wearing ancient looking silver armor, he opens his four mandibles and belts a terrifying roar. With his battle cry, all of the aliens around him surge forward, as the purple ships turn back for another attack.
All around you, you hear the distinctive clatter of automatic weapons fire. Fellow humans, doing everything they can to hold back the tide of on-rushing creatures. Your rifle feels heavy in your hands, almost as if it is daring you to heft it. Slowly, you raise your weapon, and open fire. You target the smaller aliens in front, blue-skinned simian creature wearing large tanks on their backs. With a lucky shot, you pierce one of the tanks, setting off a large explosion. The small creatures can only breathe methane, and the backpacks are part of their environment suits.
You’ve torn a small hole in the advance, but not enough to deter the attack. The gap closes quickly, and the aliens are suddenly on top of you. Swinging your rifle, you hit one creature in the head, but another three take its place. One of your allies bolts towards you, working the slide on a shotgun. A sharp report sounds, and several aliens fall back squirting blood. Before your fellow human can chamber another shell, one of the larger aliens lifts him up by his neck.
The being is wielding a sword made of bright blue glowing plasma, and it holds the weapon aloft, preparing for a vicious blow. Before he can bring down the sword, you hear a familiar sound. It’s a high pitched whine, an engine struggling to maintain maximum speed over rough terrain. The alien looks up, distracted by the sound, and drops the human he was holding. As your ally gasps for breath, five Warthogs, chain gun mounted combat jeeps, burst over the small cliff behind your position, and smash into the alien horde, splattering the small aliens milling around the sandbags.
The large alien that had been holding your friend ducks its head instinctively, and you seize the moment. You press the barrel of your assault rifle into its back, and pull the trigger. Purple blood spurts out in a torrent, and the alien lets out a yell of surprise. You keep firing until you hear the gun click, a sign that you’ve spent your entire magazine. The alien drops to the ground in front of you, the hole in its back smoking slightly, and its sword sputters and dies.
The Warthogs, having continued the attack, are now far enough into the enemy’s position that you can see the ground in front of your position clearly. Heaps of the small aliens cover the ground, interspersed with the corpses of the larger creatures. Here and there, a number of dead humans littler the ground, a sad testament to the price paid to retake this small patch of land from an implacable foe.
Sooner or later, you, and all of the human forces on this planet will have to face the main body of the occupying force. Sooner or later, this land will be retaken from the genocidal aliens who have claimed it. Sooner or later, the planet Harvest will be in human hands once more.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Tangled Web We Weave

When you think of comic book characters, you’d think that, of all the forms of media available to video game developers, the transition from print to the console would be a simple transfer. Most super-heroes don’t do anything beyond beating up a variety of colorfully costumed bad guys and save the occasional damsel in distress. On paper, it looks good; however, in practice, super-hero games rank as some of the most disappointing games on the market.

There have been some exceptions over the years, most notably from everyone’s favorite web-head, Spider-Man. Spider-Man 2, originally released on the X-Box and PS2 brought a much needed sense of freedom to the Spider-Man games. Gone were the extremely linear levels, replaced by a large-scale replica of New York, where armchair super-heroes could swing to their hearts content. Since the original Spider-Man games way back on the NES and the Genesis, Spider-Fans have longed for the perfect Spider-Man game, one that featured all their favorite villains, the ability to swing around New York, and that sense of humor that Spider-Man is known for, something that the movies sorely lacked.

Spider-Man: Web of Shadows tried really, really hard to fit the bill. Cameo appearances are made by a plethora of Spider-Man regulars, and some characters are brought in from outside the regular Spider-Man setting for a good dose of fan service. Wolverine makes an appearance, as does Moon Knight, Luke Cage and the corpulent master of crime, the Kingpin, just to name a few. With fan favorite Venom filling the role of main villain, and the ability to wear Spider-Man’s infamous black suit, Web of Shadows seemed on track to be the definitive Spider-Man game.

Unfortunately, it’s weighed down by poor mission designs, a host of potentially game-crippling bugs, and a very unfeasible plot, even by comic book standards.

The game starts off in a brilliant fashion, however, with Spider-Man slowly walking towards the edge of a roof while chaos reigns around him; S.H.I.E.L.D. agents and Kingpin troopers fight off a large number of symbiote creatures, and landing craft fall out of the sky, harried by winged terrors. The city is in bedlam, and you’re thrust straight into the middle of it. After you’re re-united with Mary Jane in the prologue, the game jumps back four days to when Venom makes his first appearance. During the scuffle, Spider-Man gains the black suit, and he immediately sets to work dispatching a variety of clich├ęd gang members.

Here’s where Web of Shadows stilted mission design cripples the game. You’re given an objective, i.e. beat up 20 thugs. Once you’re done that, the game has you defeat 50 thugs, restarting your tally at zero. In the later stages of the game, the missions have you defeating upwards of 500 enemies per objective, something that can wear even the most patient player down.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the missions were a little varied, but you’re either taking out enemies, rescuing civilians or destroying enemy bases. Repeat ad-nauseum, and the limited palette of objectives looks suspiciously like game-lengthening.

The one thing the developers got right in the game is the fighting, and Spider-Man’s movement animations. Once you’ve leveled up your abilities a bit, fighting becomes sheer joy; leaping from one enemy to the next and delivering a flurry of punches feels very Spider-Man, and it looks fantastic.

Spider-Man strikes all the classic poses from the comic books, and it’s a nice touch being able to play him in arguably his two most famous costumes, the classic red and blue suit, or the black and white living costume.

Switching appearances isn’t just a cosmetic touch, it also affects Spider-Man’s repertoire of moves. In the red suit, Spidey moves quickly and favours a barrage of light hits over stronger single attacks. In the black suit, you’re at your best when you go toe-to-toe with your foes; black suit Spider-Man’s hits are both powerful and sweeping, with long tendrils extending from the suit to strike at adversaries and knock them away.

With the dual-sided nature of the game play comes the requisite “light or dark” choices, where our hero has to decide between his normal good nature, or whether he lets the alien costume alter his thoughts. The black suit options are sometimes wildly out of character for Spider-Man, but it still feels good to play the bad guy sometimes. (Besides, if you’ve followed the various types of media where the black suit has been depicted, you know that old Peter Parker can turn into a bit of grouch when he’s wearing the symbiote.)

As great of a feeling you get from swinging around New York and dispatching bad guys, you can’t help but notice that the Big Apple is kind of...bland. New York is a city well known for its eclectic inhabitants and taxi-choked streets, but Web of Shadow’s New York is like a tame, distant cousin to the kind of crazy open world cities we’ve seen in games like Grand Theft Auto and Saint’s Row.
New York citizens walk around in a kind of stupor, oblivious to Spider-Man’s exploits unless he’s saving their lives or detonating a car on top of their heads. Occasionally, the walk animations for the civilians will become extremely choppy, and look like something that would have been an eye-sore on the Nintendo 64.

Besides being extremely bland, New York is also home to a lot of crippling bugs. Bad guys, cars and citizens will disappear randomly, and if you’re in the middle of pulling off a mid-air combat move on an enemy and they disappear, you’re out of luck. The game will freeze, and you’ll have to restart. The game engine really chugs along at times, seemingly for arbitrary reasons. When you’re just swinging around, the frame rate will drop to almost nothing, and you’ll be watching Spider-Man leap around Matrix-style for a bit.

The path finding for your AI teammates is particularly atrocious, most notably when you’re helping Wolverine track down symbiote. If he gets stuck behind some garbage cans, prepare to wait for him while he attempts to claw his way out of his trap instead of stepping two feet to the left.

Web of Shadows is a perplexing game, to say the least. It does so many things right, but fails miserably on so many other accounts that it can be hard to recommend this game to anyone other than the hard-core Spider-Man fan. If you’re up for a few hours of web-swinging fun, and don’t want to resort to the abysmal Spider-Man 3 game, Web of Shadows just might do the trick.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Guns of Anchorage

The ‘ol blog has been rather quite lately, owing in no small part to the loss of both my PC and my day job. At any rate, I’ve got a shiny new laptop now, and I’ve been brewing up a storm in a few stories I’ve been writing. Some are about everyone’s favourite Vindicator, Howard Gregg, and a few other ones as well, set in an established sci-fi setting.

In any case, here’s a review of the new Fallout 3 DLC, Operation: Anchorage, released today.

Seems like having a wrist mounted computer makes you a very special person. Of course, being able to pause time and target individual body parts is no small skill either, but that’s not what matters in Operation: Anchorage. The Brotherhood Outcasts (a rebel organization obsessed with old world technology) are having a bit of a problem, and only you, the intrepid Lone Wanderer can help them.

By downloading Operation: Anchorage for 800 Microsoft Space Bucks, you’ll be given access to a previously locked part of the game world. No clear indication is made as to where this is right away, but after waiting a few minutes, you’ll get a distress call on your Pip-Boy (the aforementioned wrist computer), pointed you towards the DC outskirts to assist the Outcasts in capturing a recently uncovered military base. Fighting your way through droves of Super Mutants with the Outcasts at your side opens up this content pack with a bang; charging through the streets blasting Super Mutants while power-armored soldiers move forward with you is always a thrill, something you experience only a few times during the regular story line.

Upon reaching the base, you’re greeted by a few Outcasts who, in their trademark surly manner, direct you down an elevator and into a recently uncovered vault. After a short introduction to the setting, you’re strapped into a simulator pod, and warped to Anchorage, Alaska during the time of the Chinese invasion. (For a little summary, the current year in Fallout 3 is 2277. The Operation: Anchorage content pack takes place during 2077, two hundred years in the past)

The missions contained within the pack a fairly straight-forward. Being a military simulation, your objectives have only one clear outcome: the complete destruction of Chinese bases and the troops contained within. That being said, it’s still enjoyable to take out Chinese forces; your objectives are always fun, and this being Fallout 3, combat is a blast, even if half your enemies are completely cloaked and armed with pretty nasty sniper rifles.

After completing your first mission, the destruction of some fairly gigantic artillery guns, you’re warped back to the US Army HQ, where stereotypical US General Constantine Chase gives you a briefing on the three tasks he wants completed.

Here’s where Operation: Anchorage tries to differ from the Fallout formula. In addition to choosing your weapon load outs, you can also command a small strike team. You get five token to spend on your team, and each team member has a different cost. If you want a big bulky robot, you’re going to have fewer chits to spend on the rest of your team, so choose wisely. Ideally, you want numbers on your side, but it’s up to you.

Once you’re thrust into the Alaskan wilderness, you realize how much this looks like the Capital Wasteland, only...Whiter. Bethesda tried to distinguish the Alaskan front line from the ruins of DC, but you can see certain similarities if you look hard enough. That being said, the environment is still beautiful in its starkness, and after so much brown, blinding white is a nice change of pace.

The DLC introduces a new weapon for you to use, the Gauss Rifle. It’s a very powerful weapon, but the ammo is in short supply, forcing you to use it wisely. Fortunately, ammo for regular weapons and health are in abundance, so you don’t have to worry about that.

Upon exiting the simulator, you get a few nice treats, along with a nasty surprise. If you managed to collect ten pieces of intelligence inside the simulator, you also gain a new Perk, Covert Ops, which adds +3 points to the Small Guns, Science and Lockpick skills. (Skills which you should already have maxed out, if you’re a savvy Wastelander, making this Perk rather superfluous.)

Clocking in a two hours, Operation: Anchorage may be a bit short for your tastes, especially if you’re the kind that likes to complain about the pricing for DLC; however, for the Fallout 3 fan, this is worth your time and money, if only to squeeze a few more hours out of an excellent game.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Blaze of Glory

As long as you are alive, Dimitri, the heart of this army will never be broken!

When Call of Duty 3 was released at the beginning of this generation, gamers everywhere cried out, feeling that the venerable series had already jumped the shark. Switching development houses from Infinity Ward to Treyarch, Call of Duty 3 seemed like more of the same, but weighed down with the sticky tar of bad game design. With Call of Duty 3 deemed as the nadir of the series, it fell back to Infinity Ward to do for CoD what Casino Royal did for the Bond franchise. CoD needed a reboot, and Infinity Ward delivered in spades.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hit with a critical thunderstorm, taking the gaming world squarely by the short and curlys and holding on tight. Even today, Modern Warfare is still praised as one of the best shooters since Halo.

Now, a year later, the buck has passed to Treyarch to make the proverbial lightning strike again. Using the Call of Duty 4 engine, Treyarch put the clock back sixty years, dumping armchair soldiers back into the horrors of World War Two.

This time around, you're playing the role of a Marine in the war against Japan, and a Russian soldier taking the fight to Berlin. In the opening vignette, Call of Duty: World At War tries really hard to distinguish itself from it's predecessors...with a torture scene. After your buddy is gruesomely dispatched, your timely rescue arrives in the form of Jack Bauer himself, Mister Kiefer Sutherland.

After Jack busts you out of your prison, it's back into the tried and true Call of Duty style of gameplay. Advance forward until you get to your objective, slot a few bad guys, and move on the next hot zone. As in previous Call of Duties, enemies continuously respawn until you advance forward and turn off the triggers, meaning that if you're the cautious type, you might be stuck behind that barrel for a while.

Pressing forward to get to the next checkpoint is the meat of this game, and it's unfortunately where the game suffers it's most crippling problem. The main way to play this game could be called "trial and error" gameplay. If that suicidal rush didn't work, maybe the next one will. Running through a hail of bullets over and over again isn't fun, especially with the checkpoints as far apart as they are.

While the game is a frustrating slog through the corpses of slain enemies, the environments really make up for it. If you're not playing pincushion to a barrage of bullets, stop and take a minute to appreciate the scenery. Light streams through trees deep in the jungle, and a blood-red sun rise highlights the ruined buildings of Berlin as Katyusha rockets spiral downward leaving destruction in their wake. It's too bad that a game this beautiful has you pressing forward as fast as possible, some of the vistas really stand out amid the traditional war scenery.

Multiplayer has been improved this time around with the addition of co-op and the Nazi Zombie mode. Yes, you read that right, Nazi Zombies. Essentially a cross between Gears of War 2's Locust mode and Left 4 Dead, Nazi Zombies has you and up to three friends defending a ruined house in the middle of a fog-ridden forest. Killing zombies accumulates points, which can be spent on guns, opening other areas of the house, and repairing the barricades. If you have three friends to stick it out with, Nazi Zombies can add a bit of fun to your online experience; alone, it's a ridiculously impossible stand against the ravenous undead.

In terms of straight up player versus player action, World at War feels like a skin mod for Modern Warfare. You rank up, earn new guns and attachments, and some perks to go with it. Most of the perks and attachments are lifted straight out of CoD 4; only the vehicle perks are completely original.

That being said, it's still fun to hop online and spend a hour or two blasting away. The maps are designed to be more open, giving bigger fire-fights more attention than the choke-point centric strategies of CoD 4.

If you're a fan of the Call of Duty series, you can do much worse than World at War. A solid outing, but it lacks the intricately detailed polish of Modern Warfare. However, it is worth jumping back into the trenches, at least for this one last time.