Saturday, December 27, 2008

Dead Space

Right. I've only played for a little over an hour so far, so I fully reserve the right to change my opinions on this game after some more playing, but I figured I'd share now what I think, freeform. Meaning less coherent structure than usual.

I started out hating this game. I had a ton of issues. The mouse didn't work well in the menus, the control scheme is obtuse, and the third person view is annoying. I keep trying to run to the side to make up for the odd angle Issac's looking at. However, you can use the arrow keys to navigate the menus, you start to pick up on the controls eventually (though the console roots show fairly well, since there's no good reason I should have to have my plasma cutter readied in order to use kinesis), and you may get used to the over-the-shoulder (though this is apparently one of those games I can't play on an empty stomach, or I'll get nauseous). However, those issues aside, I've started to enjoy myself. I still only have the starting plasma cutter, but I'm starting to learn to wield it well. I upgraded my suit so I can hold more inventory, and I've got the basic idea how things work, including having spent a quick jaunt in zero-gee. That was a fun little learning experience. If you can stick it out through the learning curve, you just might enoy yourself with this one. The monsters are pretty interesting-looking, though in the vein of survival-horror games, they keep coming through the "windows," are lurking on the other side of doors, etc. If you've any experience with the genre, you'll very rarely be surprised on how they sneak up on you. The zero-gee areas will present an interesting bit though. As I've said, I'm only an hour in, so this isn't a review, just some impressions. If you're not sure about this game, give it a rental on console, and play for at least an hour. You'll need that long to really give it a fair shake. Heck, I'm still not sure if I actually like it, but I don't hate it anymore.

Chrono Trigger

Ah, nostalgia. It makes everything seem better in retrospect, doesn't it? Vacations seem like they were more fun than they were, people were nicer, and games were more fun. 

Or were they? Chrono Trigger for the DS is almost a direct port of the SNES version, only with the anime cutscenes from the PS1 version, 2 new dungeons, and a monster-raising game? I don't know what to call it. Let's take this step by step.

1. The original content: Holy cow. It's actually as fun as you remember it! If you remember it really well, you might have some issues with the new translations. Some techs were renamed, monsters renamed, and some dialogue changed (though I didn't notice any line changes, so they didn't stick out very much). Even if you remember this game spectacularly well (which I did), it'll still take you the greater part of 20 hours the first time through. This game is a over a decade old, and it still holds up well not just to your memory of the game, but to games today. This is the gold standard of JRPGs. They just don't get much better than this game. The only problem those of you who know this game well will have is that as you get to the end of the game, it gets really easy. How many people remember the trick of load Crono with speed and magic tabs (capsules now) + Gold Stud (75% mp cost reduction) + *Luminare for 5 mp? Hands up? Yeah, it still works wonders on anything not immune to magic/absorbs lightning. If you run across something like that, Rainbow + prism sunglasses. 1500 dmg/critical hit. Still an excellent game.

2. The new dungeons. I hope you like repetition. The Lost Sanctum is an exercise in retracing your steps. There's a section that you have to climb up and down about 8 times or so, and it's easily a 5 minute round trip. That may not sound like much, but it's really boring. The designers should have put in a quick travel option that would take you back to the base of the mountain. The treasure you get is barely worth it. Most of the stuff you get is worse than, or only a point or two better than what you get from the original sidequests. The dimensional vortex isn't much better. 

3. Monster raising. Takes too bloody long for my liking. From my experience, it takes about 10 battles before you can "rank up" your creature. However, it's a fun distraction. Just don't forget to save if you do it from the title screen. I made that mistake a few times.

This is a classic game, so I'm keeping the review short, so I'll finish by saying this: If you liked the SNES version, get this. If you like JRPGs, get this. If you hate games with epic storylines and time travel and a changing world, then don't get this. But I doubt anyone like that is reading this blog, so get this game.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Left 4 Dead

Right. Zombies. What makes a good zombie game different from a bad zombie game? I mean, there's only so much you can do with zombies. Resident Evil's had to switch it up from the slow shufflers to runners, and they've had a diversity of enemies from the beginning. And tons of weapons. Dead Rising also had tons of weapons, and the whole point was basically to kill as many zombies as possible.

So where does this leave Left 4 Dead? It only has 6 types of enemies. It has 10 weapons. Four scenarios with 5 levels each, you can play through it all in 4 hours. And yet it's an amazingly fun, and engaging game. It's all about the details. Let's break it down. 

The Characters (aka "The Survivors"): The characters all have identical abilities, so it doesn't matter who you pick to play as. And the characters fit standard stereotypes of characters, as well. Francis is the tough biker, Bill's the hardened war veteran, Louis is the office drone and black guy, and Zoey's the plucky female. They're all different enough that you can tell who is who from a simple sillouette, which appears around characters when they're not in your line of sight. The character models are very detailed though. They get bloody when hit, or when killing zombies at close range. They limp convincingly when hurt. And the dialogue works. It's present, but not overbearing. It's subtle, and helps develop character more than any instruction manual background ever could. Bill hates stairs, and will let you know, occassionally. Zoey's often got a snappy line, with my favourite being when in the elevator in No Mercy she calls "zombie bullshit" about how the zombies can run and jump. 

The Zombies: You've got the basic Horde zombies. They're the ones you know and love from every zombie movie ever, only they can run, jump, climb, and do whatever it takes to get to you. It doesn't matter where you are, the Horde can find a way to reach you. Valve took a lot of care with the Horde. When not attacking you, they'll lean on scenery in various ways, sit down, lie down, or even fight each other. They'll also die in interesting manners. Some collapse, some stagger, others will cartwheel off from the force of your guns, and the momentum of ones running can carry them on for a few feet before they hit the pavement. 

After the Horde, you have the special zombies. Hunters, Smokers, Boomers, Witches, and Tanks. These ones always look identical, which is a bit of a letdown with the visual variety of the Horde and the details of the playable characters. However, more often than not, these will be the ones you're on the look-out for, so you might appriciate the visual consistency. Hunters are probably the easiest to deal with once you learn the trick. And I'm going to tell you the trick. Hunters leap huge distances and try to tackle you, and when they do, they rip your guts out until someone else comes to save you. However, while they're jumping at you, they're pretty vulnerable. If you're a steady shot, then you just need to unload at it, but the best way I've found it to use your melee attack to stun it while it's leaping at you, then pump rounds in to it until it's either recovered or dead. Boomers are next easiest, usually. You can hear them coming from miles away, and they don't move that quickly. The problem with boomers is their bile attack, and the fact they explode bile when you shoot them, so you have to shoot them from a distance. Anyone who's hit by bile attracts the Horde with singleminded determination. Depending on the difficulty, you could have 50+ Horde zombies gunning for you, and your vision will be severely comprimised. Smokers can be a real pain. They're easy to spot, since they're tall, skinny, and trail smoke. However, they can attack from very long ranges, from behind cover, so being easy to spot isn't that huge a deal for them. And the attack's very annoying, too. They wrap their tongue around you, and drag you off until you're either dragged to them, or you're caught on an obsticle. This not only renders you helpless as you're being constricted, but it seperates you out from the other survivors, meaning rescue's just that much further away. Hunters, Boomers, and Smokers are the 3 special zombies you'll have to deal with most often. The other two you'll see only a couple times per scenario. And you'll see why.

Witches are odd. They sit there, crying. And you'll hear the crying from a goodly distance away. Which is very good for you, because you do not want to stumble across one. Witches startle if you shine a flashlight on them, or if you're too close to them for too long, or if you shoot them. And if you disturb them, they're going to run straight at you. And if you don't kill them before they reach you, they incapacitate you in a single blow, and don't stop hitting you until you're dead, or they are, and they can take as much damage as they can dish out. Your best option is to sneak by. If not, and there will be cases where you can't, then try and set them on fire first, as that will greatly simplify the process of killing them. Ideally, the person to do that will have a shotgun, since the Witch will be running straight at them, and shotguns do more damage to closer targets.

Tanks are the worst zombie to run across. They can take thousands of points of damage, even on easy difficulty. Their attacks will send a survivor flying huge distances, deal a lot of damage, and stun you for a few seconds. They usually focus on one survivor until that person's dead, though after sending someone flying they sometimes switch targets. There's really only one strategy for Tanks. Shoot them a lot. Set them on fire if you can, and run around and hope like hell you don't get hit.

Now that we're familiar with the Rogue's Gallery, let's see what you get to combat them with. The weapons are fairly basic. You start out with a single pistol, and can pick up a second. Pistols have unlimited ammo, and fairly good accuracy. In sparsely populated areas, you'll probably want to have these out to conserve ammo for your other weapons. The shotgun and uzi are available as your secondary weapon choice from the start. Standard pump-action shotgun, holds 8 shots before needing to be reloaded, and good for close combat. Uzi has a 50-shot clip, has minimal stopping power, but slightly better accuracy and damage than your pistol, and fires much faster. Which you take depends on playstyle and what areas you're going in. The country areas are usually wide open, making a shotgun a poor choice, since zombies can come from any direction. City areas, zombies tend to funnel, so a shotgun can take out 3 or 4 a shot, without much difficulty. Then there's the next teir of weapons. Auto-shotgun, assault rifle, and hunting rifle. The auto-shotgun is just that. A shotgun that can keep firing without a pump in between. These make excellent tank killers and defence against Horde rushes. Assault rifles are basically upgraded uzis, as they fire quickly, have good accuracy, and better stopping power, and do more damage. Hunting rifles are the only weapon to get a scope, which gives them the best accuracy, and they do good damage. However, the slow rate of fire makes them an awkward choice when you're being swarmed. That's it for guns. Six. Seven if you count dual pistols seperately. That's not it for weapons though. There's 2 more things you can carry in your inventory. Molotov cocktails and pipebombs.

Molotovs are good impromptu barricades. They create a wall of fire of decent size, and any Horde zombie that wanders through is done for. Great way to protect your backside for a few seconds while you're dealing with a special upfront. They also help take out Witches and Tanks, if you can hit them. If you need to defend a point, they're excellent. 

Pipebombs are just fun, in my opinion. Pipebombs have the guts of a smoke detector taped on to them, and since loud or high-pitched sounds attract Horde zombies, all the zombies in the area gather around the pipebomb until it explodes, turning them all into pink mist. If you're in a large area with a buttload of Horde, or you're running low on ammo near a safehouse, these are the way to go. Unfortunately you can only carry one explosive at a time. Not one of each. One. You get to pick pipebomb or molotov. Fortunately, there's "environmental" items. These are things laying around that are usually explosive in nature. There's gas cans, oxygen tanks, propane tanks, and a few other things. You can pick these up and carry them, throw them, or set them down, and then shoot them. Gas cans act like molotovs, but oxygen tanks and propane tanks just explode when shot. The downside to these items is they don't go in inventory, you actually carry them, meaning you can't shoot although you can still use a melee attack. The last environmental item you can use, you can't take with you. A minigun. There's fixed emplacements where you can man a minigun that has unlimited ammo, though it does overheat if you fire constantly for too long.

Limted number of enemies, limited number of weapons. Yet the game is incredibly fun and involving. Why? Two reasons. First, it's a co-op game. There's always 4 characters active. If there aren't 4 players, then the others are AI-controlled. If you're incapacitated, the others can revive you. You can heal your teammates. You can give them pain pills to temporarily boost their health, and if you're pounced by a Hunter, or entangled by a Smoker, a fellow Survivor has to rescue you. Being dependant on others makes you feel very vulnerable, and ratchets up the tension several levels.

The second reason this game is so engaging is the AI Director. The Director will actually dynamically alter the game experience depending on how well you're doing. Weapons will spawn earlier or later. Ammo stockpiles more freely given, more health packs or pain pills. But that's the least of it. It will also send more zombies at you if you're doing well, and more of the special types. If you're doing poorly, or if you die even, it will ratchet back the difficulty, spawning fewer zombies, and making them slightly easier to kill. And after fairly extensive testing, I'd have to say it works very well.

The only real downsides for this game are: a) no passworded games, so people can randomly pop in whenever they want, since you can join mid-game. b) A fairly limited selection of weapons. c) A fairly limited selection of enemies. d) A fairly limited selection of scenarios. However, since this game is made by Valve, there's probably going to be additional content later, similar to Team Fortress 2.

Overall, this is an excellent game if you enjoy co-op multiplayer and/or shooting zombies. It runs off the Source engine, so you don't even need a beast of a computer to run it. Now excuse me, I have an infected city to escape.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Fable II

Sorry about the delay between. I've got a few games to update on in the next few, but now we'll start with Fable II.

I'm sure most of you remember the promises of what the original Fable was supposed to be like. Huge spanning adventure, the likes of which the world had never seen. Moral choices that change not only your character, but the world of the game. Sadly, most of that got the axe before release. Well, they managed to push most of it in to this game. And it's still not that ground-breaking, or great. Don't get me wrong, there's a fairly solid game there. It's just not going to make any top 10 lists for me.

Start with the good: The fighting's a bit more in-depth now. As you gain levels in Strength or Skill, you get more options in fighting. Melee still devolves into button mashing most of the time, however. You only need the advanced techniques if you're consistently getting your butt kicked, which you probably won't. The skill is a bit more useful. You can zoom in, which does more damage, then you can eventually target specific body-parts, which is probably the most useful out of any combat option - you can score a lot of one-hit kills by aiming for the head. 

Marriage: You can get married, which is a neat touch. Straight, gay, or lesbian marriages are all possible, as long as you find someone compatable. Doesn't play a huge feature in the game, and in fact may not be worth the time and trouble, but as I said, a neat touch.

Property ownership: You can buy houses and shops, and get income every 5 minutes or so if you've rented out the house. The reason this is good? It keeps counting even while you're not playing, so you can amass a fortune while you're at work. 

Weapons: You can have guns as your ranged weapon now.

Morality: You're actually going to run in to a case or two where you ask yourself "Why bother doing the good thing here?" Most games only gives you the "evil=fun" and "good=rewards." It's nice to see "good=right, though it costs" once in a while. 

Story: I'm only putting it here because it's not actually _bad_. It is rather mediocre though. "Childhood ruined by evil guy, sworn vengence by Chosen One, get the Heroes of Prophecy who only together can defeat the yadda yadda yadda." No surprises, and I've already gotten 2 out of the 3, and the game's telling me quite firmly that I don't have much to go after I get the 3rd hero. 

Now for the Bad. Will powers are almost useless. I had a level 2 spell fairly early on, and it took a couple dozen shots to kill one. Spells also have a targeted and an area version, which is awkward to use in combat, since you're probably going to be moving around, and you'll probably cast the targeted version when you didn't mean to. Even Time Control's been nerfed into oblivion. The duration is not as long as it says, or the effect is much less pronouced. It's hard to tell. The targeted version is probably more useful, as it helps you break someone's guard, and deal extra damage for a short while. Good luck trying to remember to use it, though. As I mentioned before, melee is still pretty much button-mashing. And ranged is almost overpowered, since you can hit multiple targets if they're lined up. The problem arises when you're trying to manually target, since the cursor moves nice and slow.

The menu's going to be annoying you a fair share as well. No cursor memory, and every time you use an item, you're booted back to the game screen. I guess they never figured on someone wanting to use two potions in a row or something! 

Your dog: Nice companion, but fairly useless in the grand scheme. List of useful features of your dog that couldn't have been replicated with a design change:




Yeah. You can find things to dig up. Change the ground a bit in diggable spots. Find treasure chests? Have a little noise made as you get closer, or a glow, or hell, just let people explore to find them. Fighting? He can only attack people on the ground, and knocking people over when there's a half-dozen surrounding you isn't easy. The dog's expressions aren't easily handled either. Most of them are done in response to your expressions. But if there's an in-game list of which provokes what response, I couldn't find it. And you can't directly control the dog, in any way. If he runs off to point out a dig-spot, but you're looking for a treasure chest, you've either got to get the dig-point, or you run away far enough for him to eventually follow, and then hope when you get near he doesn't go for the dig-spot again.

Related to the dog are the heroes. A more useless bunch of gits I couldn't imagine. The Hero of Strength swings around a big hammer, and does about as much as your dog. The Hero of Will (voiced by Ron Glass, aka Book on Firefly. Woohoo!) makes pretty lights, and is a decent damage magnet. I don't have the Hero of Skill yet, but I can't imagine him being much more useful. 

The experience curve to level abilities is, quite frankly, insane. Half a million for one level 5 in skills. Level 4s are about one hundred thousand. I hope you like grinding, because you're not going to get the XP to max your abilities just by playing. 

Demon doors! Some are stupidly easy to open, others are obtuse to the nth degree. I don't see many people opening all of them without some form of guide. The stuff inside isn't even that great. 

I'm not 100% certain, since I'm scare to try, but it doesn't look like you can have multiple games running, either. The title screen only gives you "New Game" and "Continue" and your game continually auto-saves to the same slot, so it seems unlikely. That means you're going to have to take turns in a multi-gamer household.

I think I've now hit the major points in the game, so I'll wrap it up now by saying that this is by no means a bad game, but if you weren't a fan of the first one, there's not a lot of chance you'll like this one either. Actually, unless you were a big fan of the first one, I'd give this one a pass.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Fallout 3

To kick things off, I'll start with a quick review of Fallout 3 for the PC.

Yes, this uses the same engine as Oblivion, but this is not Elder Scrolls with Guns. This is also not the Fallout you remember. We now know what it isn't, but what about what it is?

This is a deep, engaging RPG with some shooter elements. Since you can switch between first and third person (I encourage you to spend some time in 3rd person view just to see the great detail that goes into your character model). This is the first game since Deus Ex that I feel really allows you to play how you want to play. Talking your way out of most situations, stealth killer who only attacks from the shadows, stand-up brawler who puts your fist in someone's face, or shooting them before they even can see you. No matter your play style, you'll find accommodation in this game.

Combat also has depth to it. Excellent twitch-shooters will appreciate the ability to shoot at a distance, and the responsive controls, although the reduced accuracy until your skill is raised up a bit. Those who prefer combat to be more methodical can rely on VATS (Vault-tec Assisted Targeting System). The VATS takes your distance from enemy, and obstacles in the way, your skill with the weapon, and other factors and calculates a percentage chance to hit different body parts, as well as probable damage dealt. Some enemies even have specific spots on them that if destroyed, give different penalties such as becoming frenzied.

Graphics in the game look good close up, and don't require extreme amounts of hardware to achieve, but at the cost of the pop-in distance becoming a little distracting at times. NPCs that you meet will actually look different, and you'll be able to differentiate them at a distance if you learn who's who. You'll also need to rely on the light shed by your pip-boy in order to see in dark areas, and the game is actually able to project a creepy atmosphere which can really make you fear for your life. 

Sound is another high point. Despite being a wasteland, there are still lone insects chirping, objects make noise when kicked around or dropped, you have a radio available to listen to (as well as various radios tuned in as you explore). If you listen closely, you can hear enemies before you see them in close areas, and the intelligent characters will even talk to each other on occassion. 

For the main story, it's engaging enough, though if you're an explorer, you might end up skipping large chunks by accidentally poking your nose into the wrong place. To me, though, where the game really shines is in the side quests. Almost every quest can be completed in multiple ways. Good, neutral, or bad. And you're not locked in to playing any one way. No matter what, you can always pull it around. It also isn't just the cheezy "Please help us, you're our only hope" attempts to sway you to good, and the "I'll pay you lots of money" to be evil. People who need help make actual cases for helping them. If you're the type to look out for other people, you'll find plenty who are in a tough spot. If you want to look out for #1, then you'll find others with a similar mindset who are more than happy to enlist your services in their goals. I really applaud Bethesda for getting excellent voice actors and a solid script. Too few games realize just how important those things are in an RPG.

Now, there are a few places where the game falls down. The quest tracker is frustratingly vauge on the steps at some points in quests, and you might need to take a few notes by hand, just in case. There are a few random crash bugs, as well as reports of the game crashing when entering VATS on some systems. It can be very difficult to see some enemies even while they're in the open and attacking you. Leveling isn't very transparent. Yes, lockpicking, science, and barter are fairly straightforward skills, but what about small guns, stealth, speech, or medical? Just what amount of bonus are you getting for your point investment? And while the sound is good, it doesn't make a distinction about height. An enemy might be a level above or below, but it will sound like it is right beside you.

Save for those faults though, this is still an excellent game and I recommend it to anyone who likes a good story, eye-candy graphics, or good combat. Fallout 3 has a very good chance at being in my top 5 games of 2008, and you should get it for whatever system you have available.