Saturday, January 30, 2010

Mass Effect 2 - Review

Score: 9.5/10

Mass Effect 2
Xbox 360/PC
Developer: Bioware
Producer: EA
Release Date: January 26, 2010

Pros: Stunning Visuals, Gameplay drastically improved upon to offer fast paced action, Slew of customizable options and decisions to make Shepard your own, Story and characters keep interest, Plenty of replay value, Mako travel is no more, AI vastly improved, Side missions actually worth investing time into

Cons: First game references gallore leave newbies confused or missing out, Minigames for hacking and fuel requirement for ship travel are pointless, Rare occasion of glitching into wall or freezes

  The first installment of Mass Effect hit consoles around November of 2007. Personally, the gameplay was not the element that made the game so fantastic: it was the story and character interaction. I went through multiple playthroughs just to explore the story further and find the effect all these choices had on my characters. With promise of a trilogy, I found it hard to believe that a sequel could deliver what my initial experience had offered. Mass Effect 2 gives not only a solid storyline, but some of the most satisfying gameplay an action RPG can offer.

What's this game about?
  The game takes place not long after the events at the end of Mass Effect. While on patrol for any geth (baddies from the last game), Shepard's ship The Normandy is attacked by an unknown enemy. Being the 'oh so heroic' soldier that you are, everyone is ejected from the ship while you stay behind and die to ensure they escape. Great start. Luckily you awaken with facial reconstruction (somehow you signal that you wanted a beard and green eyes this time to the scientists) and robotic insides that make you Shepard 2.0. Your saviors are in actuality a small group of baddies from the last game known as Cerberus. This group, led by "The Illusive Man"...can't make that up....has revived you to assemble a rag tag crew and fight this unknown threat.

  Now that summary vaguely scratches the surface of the story of Mass Effect. Fact is, you not only have the story of the new threat to understand, but that of the previous game's aftermath to comprehend. Veterans to the ME game will feel right at home in recognizing characters from the previous chapter in "oh cool he's still here" moments and identifying old races and how their culture comes into play. New players may find this story has so much to it that it blows their mind. Sure a nice intro tries to catch you up to speed, but past character references and not understanding what the difference between a Turian and Salarian is really pull the experience back a bit.

  Still, it's Bioware and they are no stranger to a good story. I found many of the new crew so unique and interesting that I would constantly bug them on the ship to tell me all about their past. In particular, a fast talking Salarian provides such witty retorts I made regular stops by the lab just to hear his thoughts. You find yourself falling back into the usual Bioware cycle: Complete a mission to expand the main story, return to ship and expand upon crew stories, keep saying the right things to increase your chances of sleeping with the hot chick, return to main story. The main plot is filled with twists, turns, and surprises that every fan could appreciate, and with various outcomes dependent upon morality, it is made even more satisfying. 

The Sound
  The soundtrack to Mass Effect fits just as well as the first. A unique, robotic sound accompanies a full on orchestra for much of the soundtrack. These range from docile beats when exploring deserted regions, to upbeat techno rhythms when entering a club. The soundtrack captures any moment you can think up. You also have access to the first game's soundtrack to loop in your new Captain's Quarters which is basically a love letter to fans of the first game as you customize your armor.

  The shining feature of any Bioware game lies in the voice work. Like it's predecessor, the dialogue for every character is delivered incredibly well. For exact numbers, this game contains 90 voice actors playing 546 characters, speaking over 31,000 lines of dialogue. Notable voice work comes from the amazing cast that Bioware was able to assemble, including Martin Sheen as the Illusive Man, Michael Dorn, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yvonne Strahovski, Tricia Helfer, and Seth Green to name a few. The actors fit right in, of considerable note is the banter between Tricia Helfer and Seth Green. Of course, Mark Meer, the voice of Commander Shepard returns as the voice for your Shepard, providing the same stellar performance of the first installment.

The Look
  If the first game looked great to you, this one will blow your mind. The visuals really stepped up this time around. My problem from the first game of the textures not catching up to loading speed has vanished, leaving a sleek polished look to the character models and world. The environments you explore are not recycled like the first game. You explore deserted labs, prisons, jungles, refineries, and the list goes on. Though all this content could not fit onto one disc, the few times you are required to switch are worth the incredible visuals each world offers. Of particular mention, the nightclub "Afterlife" encountered on your first mission is filled with bright neon colors and stunning lighting, influencing a camera pan to capture all the elements in the room.

  Great detail has been poured into the character models. From Shepard's armor texture to the scaly look of a Drell, people look really good. Miranda and The Illusive Man look exactly like their voice actors. Even with dozens of races and species that litter the world, each one is detailed to the teeth. This just furthers the conversation sequences in believing you are talking to an actual individual and not a recycled mercenary you have shot in the face a dozen times.

The Feel
  You start the game by creating a completely new character. You'll be caught up on previous events and happenings and after an opening level, have the ability to choose a class, and edit the look of your character. One of the major impacts of starting a new game is the ability to import your character from the previous Mass Effect. You do not realize it until you commence through the game, but every little decision you made in the first game makes a reappearance in this game. You will run into many a familiar face greeting you with anger or praise dependent upon your previous alignment, receive messages explaining a person's situation due to your actions, and even do a couple of missions for your old crew. Newbies to the game will miss out on this love letter to the fans.

  After a nice introductory mission to get you used to the game, you will find yourself on your new ship, the Normandy 2.0, where most of the game is handled. The game basically sets out recommendations for you to follow and prepare for a final assault on your new enemy. You will land on a number of planets, complete a mission to typically recruit a new member, and regroup back on the new Normandy. Here you can upgrade your equipment through research found scattered around your missions, talk with crew members to hear their stories, and customize your armor...and apparently saving the universe gets you a Penthouse with a fish tank. No longer do you "find" armor, but rather purchase different parts. You can customize the entire look of the armor including color, helmets, and even your casual wear out of battle....cause that's important for some reason.

  There are two main aspects to this game: Conversation and Combat/Exploration.

  Combat has been completely revamped. The game has steered away from the RPG aspects of the first, for a more fast paced shooting atmosphere. Gone are the menus that made up 1/5th of the first game in sorting ammo types, armor, and weapons. Now you simply choose your weapon loadout without requiring training in them and fire to your heart's content. Weapons no longer overheat, but instead use "ammo" or "heat sinks" for firing, which actually encourage use of your powers and careful placements of shots. The arsenal has also increased, offering not only assault rifles and pistols, but sub machine guns and heavy weapons. After diving from cover point to cover point, issuing placement of your teammates you realize these aspects shift the game from the heavy RPG element of the first. As a result, the action is much more fast-paced and strategic, especially on the harder difficulties. The AI rarely stands around in one place like the first game, and moves to flank you. Shields and armor blocking most powers encourage a nice balance of character abilities and a more tactical approach to combat.

  Powers and abilities this time around are much more satisfying. Each class now has a specific power only accessible to the user, and each class is balanced to a preferred playing style. Soldiers can use every weapon possible and take the most damage, making it more like a shooter and less like an RPG. Vanguards and Infiltrators make use of a few specific weapons while maintaining a few abilities, like the Vanguard's oh so satisfying power charge that instantly sends you across the map to tackle a robot in the face or the Infiltrator's tactical cloak to get behind the enemy. Some classes rely more heavily on powers, some are pure strength, and some are a hybrid. Each class has a great experience to offer and mixes the gameplay up substantially, encouraging multiple plays to experience what each class can provide.

  The other half of the game is mostly spent in conversation with a vast range of characters. The notable "Dialogue Wheel" makes its return, allowing you to quickly give responses suited to your morality. Continual conversation with your crew opens up additional missions and furthers their loyalty to you. Though new characters are brought in, each of them has a side story I felt like investing time into. With less repetitive side missions, each was a joy to explore. The character's struggles are unique and each mission proves to be just as enjoyable as the last. Getting to know your crew also plays a huge part in the end game's result.

  Decisions this time around have a much greater weight upon them than in the previous installments. Your decisions through the entire game shape how the end "suicide mission" pans out. Without giving away spoilers, the amount of time you invest in the side missions and accumulation of a solid team shapes everything. These can range from how many members you managed to gather, to small details of how much you upgraded the ship. Even during this mission, you are required to make decisions that make you think about what party member is most suited for a specific task. Failure to prepare properly could result in the death of your teammates or even yourself. I have heard multiple people discussing the end game, each one's outcome different than the last. This is the first game where the final mission had me feeling like an actual Commander issuing orders and making quick decisions.

  While the large portion of the game proves enjoyable, there are small minigames that put a hold on the action. Hacking/Bypassing do not work like the previous game, and instead of just pressing a few buttons you must play matching games that any elementary child can solve. Matching games are short, but quickly becoming irritating when scavenging on your missions. They never increase in difficulty...ever....which makes you wonder how this could pass as a security measure for any installation. Ship navigation also has a minigame involving scanning planets manually. This involves a very boring, very slow scanning process over the planet surface until your controller vibrates upon which you launch a pod. It's like using a metal detector on the beach...except you hate yourself afterward...wait it's exactly like using a metal detector on the beach. Unfortunately, this is the main method of procuring materials for upgrading equipment. You will be required to spend money on pods to launch to procure the materials as well as fuel for traveling over large nebula...both pointless as you are never short on cash in this game.

  The minor flaws the game possesses is overshadowed by the incredible experience this sequel has to offer. Bioware has successful integrated a RPG sequel that actually carries over outcomes from the original game. With fast paced gameplay, a stellar story, and enough content to constitute dozens of playthroughs, it is easy to see this game as a potential candidate for Game of the Year. Fans and new players alike will enjoy everything this space epic has to offer. 

Monday, January 18, 2010

iPhone/iTouch Review: Trenches

Developer: Thunder Game Works
Release Date: December 24, 2009
Cost: $1.99

Pros: Overall layout allows different experience each play, Achievements encourage multiple skirmish matches, Different maps provide different strategies, field promotions provide incentive for smart tactics, Intelligent AI, Cartoon look and audio give it an entertaining feel

Cons: No way to control multiple units at one time, larger battlefields can be difficult to navigate, Campaign is well...not a campaign at all, Power in numbers strategy ends up being prevalent

  It has been some time since I have purchased an app so I decided to browse the store for a new game to waste time on. I had been hearing good things about Trenches and wanted to see if it was worth the talk and worthy of its place among the the top 25 on sale.

  The game works as a strategy RTS meets tower defense. Both teams start on opposite sides of a map with the object being push your enemy back and completely overrun the opposition's side to win. Along the way there may be a number of trenches to set your units up at or a few obstacles like barbed wire that slows enemies down. You slowly gain revenue and use that deploy one of 4 classes available. The cheapest class is a group Rifleman. followed by a Sniper that can shoot long distances, Machine gunner that can mow down enemies close range, and a mortar team that can take out large groups. You also have a chemical warfare bombardment to halt enemy advance, or an expensive air strike that will take out an entire trench of enemies. Navigating the map only requires swiping the sky with your finger to see what is ahead or where your units are located.

  The game encourages you to play smart, as the AI is no pushover. They will attack in groups, rush you given the opportunity, and even throw air strikes of their own to completely wipe out your units. Playing smart also "promotes" your units, allowing them to hit harder and move quicker. So hanging back and holding down an enemy advance has its perks instead of running full speed into machine gun fire. Doing well also awards a field commander, which though ineffective against platoons can boost the health of any surrounding units. Hunkering down in a trench is..well...naturally the idea, as you are harder to hit.

  Though the game provides a generally entertaining experience, there are a few drawbacks that hold it back from greatness. Like most strategy games on the iPhone/iTouch, gathering groups of units to move as one is beyond frustrating. Though a purchased unit does not stop moving until you tell it to or it runs into an enemy, once you wish to move forward, you must go through individually drawing lines for each of your team, leaving you swiping the screen in a hurry to move before the enemy can set up. The Campaign is 5 stages...with no story...or incentive to play other than to unlock Zombie Horde and achievements. Skirmish ends up being where most time is spent, so why bother with a Campaign that has no story, upgradeable elements, or incentive to play?

  Through it all, the game is entertaining. Nothing so stunning that I would continually skip a lecture in class to play, but an overall decent experience. If you are like me and have not had a game to play over the holidays or do not feel like dropping 10 bucks on an App, this is enjoyable enough to warrant at least a look.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Tekken Movie Trailer

Let's go through the checklist shall we?
-Angry inappropriate grunge rock song - check
-Terrible acting apparent even in the trailer? - check
-Looks an awful lot like Street Fighter? - check

Optimism is looking low for this one. Though it does have an R rating and at least looks to possess some interesting fight sequences...nothing in the trailer motivated me to desire a front row seat. I will give it this though, the movie is as close to the game as one could hope for: It's a tournament fighter and characters resemble their counterparts.Here's hoping the movie proves me wrong on my initial impression...

Friday, January 8, 2010

Game of the Year awards for 2009

  Many have already cast their vote or had staff meetings to determine what they found worthy of Game of the Year for 2009. Saving you the surfing time, I've compiled a quick list to see the various titles chosen with a link to the respective nominees, top 10 list, video overview, or super happy parade. I'll try to update it as soon as more emerge.

Crispy Gamer - Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi) 
Destructoid - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Eurogamer - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Gamepro - Assassin's Creed 2 (Multi)

Gamasutra - Dragon Age: Origins (Multi) 
Gamespot -   Demon's Souls (PS3)
Gamespy - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Multi)
Gamesradar - Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi) 

Gametrailers - Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (Multi)
GamingBolt - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Giant Bomb - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

Joystiq - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)

Spike VGAs - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Thunderbolt - Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi) - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Xplay - Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3)
Zero Punctuation(The Escapist) Batman: Arkham Asylum (Multi) *Only after Duke Nukem: Forever's disqualification due to it being so incredibly good

Did your game make anyone's list? Regardless of your preference, it's safe to say that all of the titles listed are incredible in their own respect, even if you did not have a chance to play them. Make your list for games to complete soon, 2010 has a lot more to offer us.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dragon Age: Awakening - Worth the price?

Dragon Age: Awakening

Xbox 360/PS3/PC
Developer: Bioware
Publisher: EA
Release Date: March 2010

  Dragon Age: Origins offered a spectacular RPG with a insanely large amount of content that required multiple plays to fully discover. Gaining generally favorable reviews and praise, it made perfect sense that an expansion would be in the works...I just didn't think it would be ready so soon...nor so pricey. After the small DLC they attached to the game costing a mere 5-10 bucks, releasing a $40 expansion was quite a surprise. But before the slew of hate comes, lets take a look at what they are offering:

  • An entirely new world to explore, Amaranthine
  • Additional spells, equipment, items, and specs
  • Five new party members
  • New enemies/bosses including a very pretty spectral dragon
  • Ability to import your previous character/create a new one
  • Furthering story including a deeper look at the Darkspawn and Grey Wardens

  While all this seems quite nice, I do have my doubts. I know that what I listed is a pretty fair amount of new content...but the real question remains, is it really worth forty bucks? Lets not forgot that Origins was released in November, and many are still questing through that game finding new things, not to mention the recently released DLC to tide us over. It seems like for this expansion to be worth it, it would have to contain a decently sized campaign. From what I am hearing, a handful of people have said this could only be 15 hours, which is a decent amount for other games, but not for Dragon Age.

  I do hate to shoot this game down so early, as many other pricey expansions did deliver a good amount of new content to an already released game (GTA 4 DLC, Fallout 3 DLC). It just seems like that for this amount of content, 20 would be a deal, 30 would be meh, but 40 is pushing it. The past has told us that Bioware makes fantastic release titles...with questionable DLC (looking at you Mass Effect Pinnacle Station)....

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Demon's Souls - Review

Score: 8.5/10

Demon's Souls
Developer: From Software
Publisher: Sony/Atlus
Release Date: October 7, 2009

Pros: Innovative multiplayer aspect of the game, stunning visuals, slew of classes and weapons to customize your ideal hero, refreshing challenge, incredible bosses in scale and look, world tendencies mix up a typical run, New Game + furthers the challenge and content offered

Cons: really old NES games where everything wants to end you tough, very trial and error, shotty camera in narrow spaces, targeting issues with multiple enemies, there is no pause button, added difficulty due to lack of item/equipment explanation

  These days games are very forgiving. Regenerating health, numerous checkpoints, and laughably simple bosses prove to be the norm in a lot of recent titles. Demon's Souls proves to be as hard to say as it is to play. Giving flashbacks to the old NES days where an easy mode rarely existed, Demon's Souls offers a refreshing challenge that can be a title worth bragging rights upon completion.

What's this about?
  King Allant used the power of souls to bring about a time of prosperity and hope to his kingdom of Boletaria. Unknowingly, the king awakened an ancient being known as "The Old One" that unleashed a dense fog to cut the kingdom off from the rest of the world. Anyone who entered the fog never returned, but one person made it out and warned the world of their kingdom's plight. So like a good little hero, you go charging head first into the fog with little regard for your own well being...cause that's obviously what a hero is suppose to do.

  The plot is expanded upon in the beginning of the game, but not really addressed through the main portion. You have some interaction with various other heroes and talk with the vendors discussing their own personal stories, but you never really invest any emotion with any of the characters. The character I got closest to was the blacksmith and that was only because he had to repair my armor for my x-thousandth death. The game basically sets up a plot then literally says, hey, go kill demons. Needless to say the story of this game, though mildly entertaining, left a lot to be desired.

The Sound
  Through the stages of Demon's Souls...there is no music. This is actually a smart move as I imagine the tunes would get incredibly old the 20th time I would be attempting a stage. The only music that cues up is a haunting melody in the Nexus as you shop around and a simple tune as you enter a boss fight. The Nexus tune feels in place but the boss music is nothing to get you pumped up to...well...die. The title track isn't too shabby, and I'm sure a happy upbeat tune would ease the frustration along the stage, but in general the music is nothing to praise or despise.

  Some voice acting is also placed in for the different characters you bump into along the way. The most annoying of these being Maiden in Black, who recites the same chant every time you "level up". She speaks in a 'thee' and 'thy' manner in a bizzare dialect that actually made me shake my head the first time she spoke. All of the other voice acting , including our dear Maiden, is not too terrible considering this is technically a Japanese RPG, but the few patrons you speak to are believable and not too over-the-top.

The Look
  One look at a dungeon or boss battle and it is pretty evident that the game is a real spectacle to behold. The environments catch your eye as you explore and..well...die in each one. Dark dungeons are haunting and the frightening details emerge as your light exposes them, the remains of an old castle are littered with skeletons and charred banners, and murky swamps litter the bottom of a grand tower. Each of the five worlds holds something unique and are a joy to explore.

  The most impressive visuals lie in the bosses. Incredibly detailed as they are menacing, these towering figures instantly strike fear into the player the second they pass through the fog gate. Some, like the Tower Knight and Dragon God, have such massive scale while maintaining a detailed look. The smaller enemies prove just as frightening, some made even more terrifying when they emerge from a dark corridor only being seen in time to view their arm raised to attack. The shimmer of your armor in the light and glow of spells in a dark mine further the incredible visuals.

The Gameplay

  The basic setup of the game is a hack and slash RPG. You start by choosing one of your favorite classes and customizing your hero similar to the way you would create a character in Mass Effect. Though my guy turned out looking like a bad reject from an adventure film, I pressed on with the satisfaction that his gigantic head would be covered by a cool looking helmet. A quick tutorial starts things off, which unfortunately for you consists of just the controls. It tells you R1 will attack and L2 can parry and counterattack, Circle dodges, etc. There are three bars present: Health and Mana do not regenerate, and an Endurance bar that regenerates after each attack and block. I became hopeful as I slashed through the masses of undead until I ran into a giant troll beast that squashed me in one hit. The game just previewed the entire experience: Gain confidence and quickly lose it when you turn the corner. It was a "suppose to die" battle and I was informed by writing on the floor that the true Demon's Souls starts here.

  The game works like this: You start in the Nexus also thought of as home base where you purchase equipment and spells, increase your stats using souls you collect from dead enemies, and take a breather. There are 5 worlds to choose from, and a set number of bosses (or stages) to go through. If I die at any time during that stage my health bar is cut in half and can only be returned to my body upon defeating the boss...oh and you are returned to the beginning of the stage....oh and all the enemies respawn..oh and those souls you earned must be retrieved from where you died. This is a game that punishes you for sucking. Though your health is lower, your overall damage does increase and the stages do have some switches and levers that give you a straight shot to the boss which you'll spend most deaths working to kill. You learn very quickly that dying in this game is actually part of the game mechanic.

  The most interesting aspect in all this is how the game's multiplayer comes into play. Frequently you will see glowing messages illuminating the ground. These contain pre-set messages left by other players trying to convey something to you. One example is a note near some wooden shack that told me to attack, I hit the shack and a series of steel boulders crushed my opponents ahead of me without having to so much as lift my shield. You also see other players' ghosts run by who are in another game experiencing the same hell. Bloodstains can even be viewed on the ground to see how other players died. It's this aspect of the game that truly makes it unique. It possesses that fear of a single player game being the only person for miles and humanity's last hope, while giving a sense of never truly being alone. You can "summon" another player's ghost to help out in boss battles or stage progression in which you will kill the demon and they will get their body back. Multiplayer does work in another way however...PvP. Anytime in body form, a player can invade your game to kill you. This adds yet another thing to be fearful of, as you never know when a samurai chick with a bald head will push you off a cliff.

  The main thing this game has been acclaimed for though, is the incredible difficulty. I do admit, this game has been a frustrating one at most times. Though with every boss you end up taking down after the 50th get this amazing feeling of satisfaction. Something else occurs as you continue to play through the game, you learn. This seems like an obvious notion, but eventually, the main trouble stops coming from the stages and mostly from the boss fights. Enemies vary greatly in tactics from stage to stage, switching between using ranged or melee to attack. You learn to approach each corner carefully, read the messages for clues as to what's ahead or what strategy to use on a new enemy, and you also learn how to tackle the game in general. The layout and variation of enemies keeps stage progression interesting. Not to mention the world can shift "tendencies" in which it can be a white world where everything is easier but yield less rewards, and the reverse black tendency.

  While the core element of the game is impressive, there are so many drawbacks to this game. The camera is a pain often giving headaches as you attempt to rotate it in narrow passageways because failure to do so lets you run right into an enemy. The lock-on targeting works well for one or two enemies, but the occasional fight with multiple foes leaves you cycling through in a panic to attempt a lock on the one attacking you. The lock on and camera even decided to team up and completely screw me over when a particular boss cornered me in a pile of bones leaving me flipping in desperation to find where I was only to be pummeled to the ground. The boss fights end up being the biggest test of trial and error. Void of researching strategies online, it literally has you going back again and again just to figure out which of the three weapons you have worked the best and which got you killed.

  My main problem with this game is the horrible job they do in explaining the inventory and equipment system. The tutorial, as stated before provides a very basic control scheme, and a few messages left on the floor in the Nexus possess general tips. But there is little mention of how item management and equipment should be handled. They provide no explanation of item burden and equipment burden, upon which you must figure out that heavy armor actually affects your character's speed. No explanation of the what you should do with the boss souls. No mention that magic completely ignores armor. They don't even tell you how to hotkey certain items, a simple task that I spent a few minutes navigating to figure out. Even the equipment is littered with strange symbols and icons that must be translated from the instructions like I was on a treasure hunt. They don't even make sense: Two horizontal squiggles is strength and two vertical is faith? Why not put a muscle arm and hands praying or something? It's as if someone hands you a table to build with German instructions, eventually I can make this thing work but I would have appreciated a translation to speed my learning curve along. This made the game far more difficult than it should have been in my lack of preparation for battles, and difficulty due to ignorance is quite irritating. Tactics like learning when to use ranged or melee I don't mind not being explained outright, but these obvious notions should have been addressed and not learned after reading a forum.

  Though Demon's Souls may have a few flaws to it, the refreshing challenge and incredible stages are worth the experience. While I do enjoy the core idea of the game and innovative multiplayer aspect, there are just too many little things this game could have corrected to make it a better overall game. Those looking for a challenging title and solid RPG, this is a great game to long as you accept death as a part of that experience.