Sunday, January 28, 2007

Happy Birthday to the Staff

Despite my best lazy-assed efforts, Telly has managed to avoid my primate ninja assassins and cheat death for yet another year. Since we couldn't get ride of him here at Arbiter's Judgement, I suppose that means we have to acknowledge him.

So, happy birthday you crazy wanker, and may you finish your spec. ed classes soon and be free to go out into the world and enjoy the many shiny objects that await you.

Now maybe if we ignore him he'll go away and age quietly while nibbling on the birthday cupcake we made him. I commissioned one of his classmates to create it as a perfect likeness in his honour.

Quake 4 (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

The last demo I decided to check out was Quake 4. Again, I already own this one on the PC and have reviewed it here, so I'll keep things brief:

Fast, intense combat. That's what Quake 4 is with a kick ass sound track propelling you through the game. The Xbox 360 demo is exactly the same as the PC demo, which is the first two missions plus intro, with a few extra weapons added in early (Shotgun and Nailgun). You also fight more Berserkers earlier on than in retail.

Unlike what I've seen of Prey, Quake 4 looks exactly like my PC version on high detail to a T. In fact, the only major differences I noticed are that the Xbox 360 version is in wide screen, and a few odd ends, such as the menus and Machine Gun's Scope view, are stretched. Everything else looks bloody superb.

Quake 4 is a classic run-and-gun action game, and this comes through in the demo loud and clear. It's fast paced and fun, and one thing about the console version that I absolutely take my hat off to Raven for is the near fully customizable controller.

That's right. Where most console FPSes let you choose from a few pre-set configurations, Quake 4 lets you assign the face buttons, triggers, and bumpers to near anything you want save movement and looking. This is something I really love and hope console shooter developers adopt in the future, though sadly I doubt it.

Most of you will also think I'm crazy, but when it's all said and done, I find I prefer the look of the Doom 3 Engine over the Unreal Engine 3.0. I find character models to be crisper and a bit less grainy, and while the Unreal Engine 3.0 can render large outdoor environments beautifully, I find that the more limited Doom 3 Engine environments simply sport more detail and actual, hard lined definition to them.

In short, Quake 4 is a simple blast fest that's great fun. Many official reviews complained about frame rate issues, but I didn't experience anything like that in the Demo, the game was very smooth. At it's present cost, I really don't see how you can go wrong picking up Quake 4. If I didn't have the PC version already, this Xbox 360 demo would have convinced me to go snag its version.

Perfect Dark Zero Demo Impressions

The next demo I downloaded was Perfect Dark Zero. At launch, this was one of the most anticipated titles for the Xbox 360, but from what I understand it ultimately lost out as the top launch FPS to Call of Duty 2.

As for my impressions, the demo mission is halfway through one of the middle levels where you need to escort Johnathan to some Outpost. Being a demo it's not heavy on story so I don't know the exact reason why, but I got to kill things so its all good.

Basically, the game is mostly standard shooter fair. You can carry a limited number of weapons, two it looks like, and you can easily swap between them, zoom in if there's the option, etc. When you take cover against a wall or dive to avoid fire, the game switches to third person until you leave cover or land from your dodge, which is a cool little effect.

The game looks good with decent, though not spectacular, character models, and the level, its detail and lighting are all well done. I'm not sure what graphic engine Rare used, but it isn't bad at all.

Basically the demo level is very straight forward, you move through streets taking cover around the buildings, ambush enemy re-enforcements as they cross under a bridge (you basically get to play shooting gallery), shoot down some drop ships, and generally kill any other baddy in your way while protecting Jonathan. You also have a few other squad mates with you, but you can't give them any orders and the game's AI, both friendly and enemy, are not anything special.

When its all said and done, Perfect Dark Zero's demo was very general FPS, nothing bad, but nothing outstanding either. My interest has been perked enough where I might rent it, but it's nothing I want to rush out and buy.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

Being the end of the month I connected my Xbox 360 console to my DSL connection and updated some games as well as decided to download a bunch of demos and trailers. The first demo I downloaded was The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II.

I already own the PC version of this game, and most of my opinions can be found in its review, so I'll keep these impressions brief.

The Xbox 360 demo contains two Single Player missions, the first mission of the tutorial and the first Evil Campaign mission. The tutorial mission allows you to control the Men of the West as they defend a pass in the White Mountains from the Goblins. The main reason I downloaded this demo was to see how well EA ported over an RTS to a console controller, and given the extreme limitations of the task, they did a decent job.

For the most part you select units with "A," deselect and cancel with "B," jump to map events with "Y," and centre on your selected battalions or horde with "X." The Left Trigger allows for further selection options, while the Right Trigger opens the Palantir and allows for building, attack, and spell options. I honestly forget what the left and right bumpers do.

Anyway, one of my main criticisms of the PC version was the old-style and ultimately cumbersome control scheme, and this fact is made worse with the controller, however again, given the limitations of the input device, I must say that EA has done a very passable job. Once I did move on to the Evil Campaign mission, in which you control the Goblins and lay siege to the Elves in Lorien, I found the controls to be more cumbersome than I liked.

Graphically, the Xbox 360 version doesn't look so hot. While it was nice to see everything in wide screen, the game just looks grainy, even at 720p. I'm really not impressed with the game's graphics, and woe be to those who have a standard definition television. My guess is there the game would be very unplayable.

In short, if you're looking for a good Lord of the Rings RTS, The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is the best one out there, however I'd strongly recommend the PC version over its Xbox 360 port.

If you do want this for the Xbox 360, I'd recommend a rent first, even if you've downloaded the Demo.

Prey: Limited Collector's Edition (PC) Purchased, Kameo: Elements of Power Sold

Earlier in the week I popped Kameo: Elements of Power into my Xbox 360 and after tinkering around for about 5 minutes, I realized that I was done with the game and couldn't be bothered to play through it again. While it was certainly fun enough on the first run through, and reminiscing about classic adventure games was a good trip down memory lane, its shortcoming just shine through too much.

So I decided to sell it to Deja Vu Discs. I got a fair price for it to, considering its current resell value.

I was also checking out Best Buy's web site last night, and found that the PC version of Prey is selling for only $20.00. I've always enjoyed the game's demo on both PC and Xbox 360, however I never felt it was worth full retail price. At $20.00 however, that's a completely different story.

Best Buy also has copies of the Limited Collector's Edition left in stock, and guess what, it's going for the exact same cost! So, I figured what the hell, and ordered it. I'll probably get it about mid-week. The Xbox 360 version is still selling for double the cost, and in all honesty, it's not worth it just for the ability to rack up achievements. The PC version also sports higher texture qualities, though sadly I don't have a widescreen monitor.

I hear the game's not long though, or very difficult, so I'll probably be winning and thus reviewing it in about 3 weeks, give or take.

Gears of War Truly is a Destroyed Beauty

Yesterday morning I completed Gears of War on Hardcore for the second time, which took me about a week. The game's them is all about "destroyed beauty," and the more I played it and replayed it, the more fitting I found that statement to be; not for the theme of the game, but for the game's Campaign itself.

For Gears of War is, of course, quite beautiful. Gorgeous graphics, great environments, and the gameplay is so fast and intense while at the same time being a bit drawn out and even conservative thanks to the cover system, it's all an interesting blend. The music itself is so well composed, I really enjoy the opening Act V theme.

But then of course there's that damned inadequate check point system that mares everything. That ridiculous farce of a save system takes the beauty of Gears of War and simply wrecks it. After completing the game a second time, I still can't believe how hard Epic dropped the ball on this one, something that should have been blatantly obvious. When you're game becomes an exercise in tedious, repetitive frustration due to one of your design decisions, this is usual a wake up call to re-examine that decision.

But they did not, and as such at many points I wanted to hurl my controller at my TV simply because I was sick of repeating miscellaneous battle whatever for the tenth time because some Boomer I encountered 10 to 20 minutes later got lucky. What this Check Point system does is take away any feeling of accomplishment a player has in the battles. It also limits replay value.

There were multiple instances where I wanted to try a different weapon combination or different tactics from what I used on my last play through, trying to keep things fresh and add a little variety. This is the single greatest strength to the amazing versatility of Halo 2's Campaign, for instance. However with the Gears of War check point system, this type of play is not encouraged? Why, because if I want to try something fun and the game hasn't check pointed in the last 20 minutes... you get the idea. So unfortunately, Gears of War is also much more linear than it should have been.

So sad, that Gears of War truly is a destroyed beauty.

Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager

What do you get when you cross Darth Vader with an average, everyday grocery store manager? Why, Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager of course!

Darth Vader's less famous brother Chad works as a day shift manager for Empire Markets. Bloody hilarious as the filmmakers incorporate some great Star Wars lines into everyday life.

There are five episodes with a sixth planned for February.

Thanks Sympatico MSN for the heads up.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Children of Men Review

I have not been to the theatre in well over half a year, owing to the fact that most everything sucks ass these days. I've heard both good and bad about Children of Men, however I found the concept intriguing enough to get me to go and watch the film.

Children of Men is set about 20 years from now and women, for whatever reason, have become infertile. As a species we can no longer procreate and therefore the world will be devoid of human life in about 50 years or so.

Once the realization of this fact, that there is no future, hit home, the world plunged into chaos: Civial wars, religious cults, political revolutions, etc. are all common place, and the world has become dark and full of despair. One very strong way that Children of Men depicts this despair is through extreme violence.

Britain, however has fortified itself and is attempting to maintain order and peace within its own confines, however they are doing this through totalitarian means, by hunting down immigrants and taking away civil freedoms, which of course leads to political uprisings of its own.

Enter Theo (Clive Owen), an average man working an average job in this world filled with decay. After the early demise of the world's youngest human, and 18 year-old boy, shakes everyone to their core, a political activist group operating within Britain, lead by Theo's former partner Julian (Julianne Moore), abducts him and enlists his aid in helping with a miracle: to get the first pregnant woman in 20 years away from Britain and to the safety of a fabled humanitarian group outside of British law. As Theo aids the escape of the pregnant woman Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey), he travels through civil strife and all out warfare, soldiers clashing with regular people and activists.

What follows is one of the most gripping, graphic, and down right depressing films I can recall seeing.

Make no mistake, Children of Men is a thinking film, it is a film about empathy, a film about possibility. There is, of course, the very real possibility that infertility could hit our species, but the true sadness of the film is the degeneration of society itself in the face of such a tragedy, humanity further turning on itself instead of uniting to find a solution.

Children of Men is a great look at the darker aspects of humanity and what survival means. I personally believe that every single person, either unconsciously or consciously, strives to achieve one thing and one thing alone: survival of the self; it is the sole reason for everything that we do. By having children, we pass on our genetic code and ensure our survival, however if we can no longer reproduce, what purpose would there really be to much of anything?

The locations and sets of Children of Men certainly exemplify this feeling. Britain is a country under marshal law with soldiers and checkpoint everywhere (Reminds me a bit of City 17 from Half-Life 2). Outside, the world, the cities, the countries are a grey and bleak war zone filled with rubble, filth, and death. I also found it interesting to see how many shots deliberately showed how much pollution we were creating as a species, pumping out so much fume and waste. With humanity going extinct in 50 years, everyone stopped giving a shit about the environment.

One thing I didn't fully get though, it looks as though a lot of mutilation was going on with cows, but I don't understand why. There's certainly a lot of cow corpses out in the fields and wastes.

Past the despair, however, Children of Men is a film that does show hope, often through sacrifice. I can't go into detail on this without giving too much away, however suffice it to say that the film will take paths you don't expect, and it certainly doesn't end as you'd figure. Not that this is a bad thing, it keeps you into the film and from sorrow there is always born hope.

Children of Men is a film I recommend you go see, however go in their preparing to be both moved and depressed all at the same time.

Final Box Art Revealed for Mass Effect

When Mass Effect is released hopefully in late March to early April, this is the box you'll be looking for.

I might actually time my next vacation around the release of Mass Effect...

Bungie Doesn't Hate Halo 2

Earlier this week, a lot of rumours were flying around the web that Bungie has stated it didn't like Halo 2. The comments were taken from a previous interview, and according to Bungie were taken out of context.

They discuss the comments in their Weekly Update here, and there's a follow up interview posted here.

Basically, while they're certainly being critical of their own work, it's only to look objectively at what could have been done better and what can be improved upon for Halo 3.

Regardless of its short comings, Halo 2 is a great game and certainly one of the best games of 2004. I'll probably play through it again soon.

New BioShock "Community" Site

In addition to the main BioShock site (which hasn't had many updates in a bit), 2K Games has launched what's essentially a community site for the game called The Cult of Rapture.

News tends to be updated much more quickly here and there's also official forums coming soon. In terms of screenshots and downloads, it's mostly what you'll find on the main site, though there are some podcasts.

The game is also confirmed to ship this coming June, though no specific date has yet been listed.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bungie Admits Past Mistakes

We, the Staff (TM) saw over on Actiontrip that the Bungie boys are admitting a modicum of guilt over the cliffhanger ending of Halo 2.

This is intriguing. As the addition of the second gamer profile card to the right indicates, We, the Staff (TM) have recently gotten ourselves onto Xbox Live. And We are enjoying it, We might add. More to the point, We downloaded the VidDoc "Et Tu, Brute". We noted in said Doc that the Bungie Boys expressed some disappointment over the implementation of the Brutes as major adversaries in Halo 2 (i.e. introducing them too late, not being a particularly thrilling enemy to fight).

Hopefully these guys are the sort that can admit and thence learn from past mistakes. We shall see with the advent of Halo 3.

-The Staff

Sunday, January 21, 2007

F.E.A.R. (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

The last time I connected to the Xbox Live Marketplace, I decided to download the demo for F.E.A.R. to see if it was any better than the PC Demo (for my thoughts on the PC Demo, go here).

After doing so I forgot I downloaded it until last night. Go me.

So this morning I fired it up, and unlike the PC version, the game's menus didn't immediately piss me off. Granted, the menu options were very limited, but whatever.

The Demo for the Xbox 360 is near identical to its PC Demo counterpart. The in-game intro is missing, but the actual Demo level is the same. All the same enemies, items etc. I actually found the general controls to be much simpler to execute with the Controller than I did with a keyboard and mouse, one of my biggest gripes about the PC Demo. The only strange thing is I still found aiming to be rather sluggish, even with maxing out the analogue stick sensitivity. The enemies weren't that much of a challenge though, so it wasn't a big deal.

Graphically, it looks the same as I remember from the PC version, including the weapon models that seem to gave come right out of Half-Life and the Quake II engine, with one notable exception: Shadows. The shadows in this demo were spot on and looked great. I'm not talking about lighting, mind you, many other games have done that better, but just actual character model shadows looked so good. I found this strange though since my PC is running on a XFX GeForce 7600 GT XXX, but whatever. I do think that Flashlight needs to illuminate further though, it's very short on the range.

Overall it was still the same shmeh experience, nothing special. It's a title I might pick up via a rental at some point, but F.E.A.R. is nothing I'm going to rush out and by.

Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition Review

Every so often, the gaming world will see a hugely hyped title finally ship, and people crowd around the stores and sell their own mother for a copy. Gears of War is the most anticipated title for the Xbox 360 aside from Halo 3, and it's Microsoft's retail counter to Sony's disaster, the PlayStation 3.

Many gamers have been drooling over Gears of War since its announcement, and the game is already a massive success: Selling over 3 million copies, breaking the Xbox Live player record set by Halo 2, and generally getting reviews with scores ranging in the mid-90's. A lot of hype and everyone seems to agree that it's all lived up to it.

Myself, however, I'm just your average Joe. I didn't follow the hype and didn't have any expectations going in, so like anything else, I call 'em as I see 'em, and this is what Gears of War is: Gears of War is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played with some fierce and intense gameplay, but some annoying design decisions often leave a good bit of the game an exercise in frustration.

Gears of War is a third person shooter with tactical elements. The game is all about taking and using cover and popping off shots with your squad, and this style of gameplay kicks. Epic Games has done a very good job with the controls, streamlining so much into the "A" button, and to a lesser extent, the "X" button. As you're running around the beautiful game world, you can use "A" to evade, Roadie Run, take cover and quickly move from cover to cover. The gameplay has so much more of a realistic feel to it over a conventional shooter that it really helps to immerse you in the action, and battles can be very, very intense.

Which is another plus for the controls, that so much remains so responsive in such a frantic environment. After briefly going back to Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, which came with my Xbox 360 Holiday Bundle (and vowing never to touch that drivel again), I can say that Epic Games has really put forth a simple, intuitive control scheme. My only major gripes with the controls are as follows: 1) I've often found when leaving cover turning around can be way too slow if an enemy gets behind you, usually resulting in your death, and 2) Roadie Running near cover will often have you latch onto that cover, resulting in you dieing from what you were attempting to flee from.

That aside, battles are easy to get into and fast and fun with a good bit of variety. The game's AI is good, but not the best I've ever seen. Your squad will generally hold their own and help out well enough, and even though you can give them a basic offensive or defensive command, you'll likely only need to do so once or twice. If a squad member is killed, you can revive him by pressing "X" once you get near him; the process is near instant. The enemy AI functions much the same as your squad, with Locust Drones taking and using cover, blind firing, etc. One thing they don't do, which really is too bad, is adjust their cover if you get a bead on them. In Halo 2, for example, if I saw an Elite under cover and attacked him, he'd move around that crate or whatever to cut off the angle, however in Gears of War (and most shooters, for that matter), your enemy will sit there and take it, though he will likely shoot back.

So about the Locusts and the story in general. Gears of War takes place on the war torn world of Sera. While Earth is never mentioned, humans have built up a vast civilization here but have suffered through a great civil war, which left us divided for Emergence Day, the day the Locust Horde tore through the ground under every major city on Sera and left a quarter of the human population dead. The human forces quickly set aside their feud and rallied under the Coalition of Ordered Governments to try an repel the invaders. Humanity has basically taken a stand on a plateau where the Locust can not dig through, but after a decade plus of war, the Locust are penetrating those defences.

You play as Marcus Fenix a convict re-instated into the military as the COG are desperate for soldiers. Your main objective is to find a device that will map out the Locust underground tunnel networks so command can unleash a mass light boom and blow the Locust all to hell. Overall, the game's back story is very cool, which is why it's very unfortunate that the story presented in-game is so bloody vague. Most of the characters are never really fleshed out and I found that I couldn't really care for any of them, even Fenix's best buddy Dom who's almost always with you, and though I always knew my immediate objective, I quickly forgot what the overall goal of the game was. Once I got there, the Light Mass Bomb was a story bit that I thought popped out of no where. This is not the case, as it's mentioned in the very begging briefly, but I do feel more time should have been spent on the narrative, especially a bit more on Fenix's past and father. You'll understand when you play through the Campaign.

Graphically, as I mentioned, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Textures are rich and crisp, and the game world, it's just so beautifully designed! You truly feel like you're battling through war-torn cities, that you were once in a place filled with life before disaster struck. I love how everything goes into soft focus when you move quickly, and I love how much detail you can see on the character models. The only texture gripe I have is with human skin, which still looks very rubbery to me. Half-Life 2 still holds the best skin textures I've ever seen in a game. There is a bit of texture pop-in after loading your game (and sometimes a checkpoint), and the pre-rendered cinematics tend to have frame rate jumps, but these are all minor things in the grand scheme and are quite forgivable.

Audio wise, the voice acting is all very well done and believable for the world in which you're immersed, and the militaristic sound track simply kicks ass. It always picks up just right in whatever section you're in and really helps flesh out the mood. Weapons and enemies sound great as well. The Wretch's screech still freaks me out, and I love hearing bullets whiz by.

The weapons themselves are mostly standard shooter fair, but the cover and fire gameplay brings a new dynamic to many of them, always keeping battles fresh. By far the most noteworthy weapon is the COG Lancer with its Chainsaw bayonet. No doubt you've read or experienced this all over the place, including the lovely graphical gore that follows, so I won't ramble on about it. Suffice to say, Chainsaw kills are so very, very satisfying.

Now we come to my biggest problem with the game, my fundamental design flaw with Gears of War. The checkpoint save system. Checkpoints alone are not an adequate save system period, and it's a constant annoyance to me that so many console developers seem to rely on it exclusively. Gears of War, however seems to have made a poorer use of it than most.

In Halo 2, for example, the game is checkpointing you constantly; after every major battle, after every few feet. While it still mystifies me why developers can not simply but a quick save on the never used Back button (quick saving being an ultra modern advancement in gaming technology as new as Doom), Gears of War does not checkpoint anywhere near this frequently. Gears of War also features a lot of one-hit kill enemies. Which means it's not uncommon for you to be playing the battle before you died, or the battle before the battle that you died in, over again and again and again. And this. Kills. Momentum. It kills pacing, it kills immersion, and generally turns those great, fast paced battles into a tedious exercise of frustration that left me wanting to through my Controller at my lovely new TV.

When it's all said and done, games are about gameplay, games are about fun. The disaster of a checkpoint system in Gears of War so often killed that fun for me, that the game gets docked major points right there. After doing so much right, after putting together such a beautiful and intuitive package, I can not for the life of me begin to understand how Epic Games dropped the ball so hard. To me, this is huge. The lack of smooth gameplay is the defining bit that has me pulling Gears of War out of my Xbox 360 and popping another title in there.

It's also bloody annoying how they like to checkpoint right before a cut scene, or right before Fenix gets into a radio communication with Anya when you're forced to walk slowly. While you can skip all but the beginning of a cut scene by pressing "X" several times, you can _not_ skip the radio sequences with Anya and you're forced to move... so... slowly... back to the battle that you're trying to master. This kills it, it really, really kills it.

Ironically, the fix is so bloody simple. Aside from adding in a real save system, or aside from having the game checkpoint on a more frequent interval, they could have placed in the option for your squad to revive you. Think about it. This worked wonders in Star Wars: Republic Commando, and I don't see why it can't be used here. You can revive your squad after they get gibbed by anything, so why are you unique in instant death? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

The Limited Collector's Edition comes with some cool extras. First, it's package is an over sized tin with plastic sleeve that's quite useful for smacking your best bud over the head with. The first thing you see when you open up the tin is the little art book, "Destroyed Beauty," which actually does a good job of fleshing out the world's back story, so much better than the game does itself. Next you'll find the manual, then a free 2 day trial Xbox Live Gold Membership, and finally a little case containing the Gears of War game disc as well as the bonus disc.

With the exception of that off-beat Christmas '05 kiddie doc, all the contents on the bonus DVD are great. You get more concept art, all the trailers up to E3 '06, and a bunch of really cool development docs, and unlike the Bungie doc from Halo 2, it actually looks like Epic Games is working instead of slacking off. The contents of the Collector's Edition are well worth the extra $10.00.

So there you have it, the biggest release on the Xbox 360 to date. Gears of War delivers a beautiful world and fast paced, intense battles all the way. The only thing really holding it back is that damned inferior checkpoint system, which really, really is a shame. So as an average consumer, should you invest in Gears of War. My answer is yes, unless you don't like shooters that is. Gears of War is certainly the best title I've played on my Xbox 360 to date, just be prepared for a whole heap of frustration as well as fun. Play it in spurts to minimize this.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Halo 3 MA5C Assault Rifle Profile

Bungie has released a profile on the new Assault Rifle for Halo 3, the MA5C. The article talks about the re-design of the Assault Rifle, as well as some multiplayer tactics that go well with it.

Check it out here.

New Mass Effect Interview

IGN Xbox 360 has a new interview up with Casey Hudson, the project director of Mass Effect, where they discuss a lot of the game design including morality, party structure, and a bit about the game universe.

The interview also features some hot new screenshots.

Head over here to read it.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Trojan Combat Armour

No condom jokes please.

Saw over at TeamXbox that a man from Hamilton, Ontario, Troy Hurtubise, has developed a light weight suit of full body armour that he hopes to sell to both the Canadian and American military.

Troy, who built a suit in the late '80's to withstand bear attacks, consulted various soliders to understand their needs for a suit like this, and for aesthetics, he looked to such science fiction as Star Wars and Halo: Combat Evolved.

The suit certainly resembles the Master Chief's armour from the Halo series.

There's an article about the Trojan at the Hamilton Spectator's site here, and a video here.

An excerpt from the article:

"He has spent two years and $15,000 in the lab out back of his house in North Bay, designing and building a practical, lightweight and affordable shell to stave off bullets, explosives, knives and clubs. He calls it the Trojan and describes it as the "first ballistic, full exoskeleton body suit of armour.""

"The whole suit -- which draws design inspiration from Star Wars, RoboCop, Batman and video games -- is made from high-impact plastic lined with ceramic bullet protection over ballistic foam."

Apparently he also plans to go to Nathan Philips Square this Saturday and wait for the press to show up. Maybe I'll pop by to see what the suit's all about.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Perilous Adventure

With all the freezing rain I worked from home today, and instead of eating my brown bagged lunch, I decided to embark upon a perilous adventure fraught with danger and despair: making myself a bowl of Kraft Dinner.

Now, for those unaware, my culinary skills consist of ordering pizza and opening a bag of Doritos, so cooking non-microwave KD is full of challenges and hazards, such as boiling water. I mean, my God, that water's hot! Do you have any idea what could have happened if it would have got on me!

So anyway, I painstakingly used the power of my manly brain and read the cooking directions 24 times, looking for hidden clues or pitfalls that Kraft might have thrown in. It looked simple enough: boil water, add and stir noodles, mix in sauce, milk, and margarine, however what Kraft failed to mention was the temperature for boiling! Can you imagine such negligence!

Well, while stirring those rebellious noddles you can bet the water started boiling over the pot and with a girlish yell, I triumphantly turned off the stove and hide at the other end of the kitchen lest the pot explode. If there's one thing Gears of War has taught me, it's to take cover and that Check Points are an inadequate save system.

Once that danger had passed I finished off the directions and got about half the provided powder in the pot and cleaned the rest up from the counter (lousy powder crystals).

With my Quest complete and danger overcome, I had myself a hardy lunch.

Victory is mine!

Console Game Design 101

This post is for Bungie Studios, Epic Games, Ubisoft, and any other developer of console games:

Your games are epic. No, really. You guys develop some of the most amazing games out there and you should all be proud. However please note that no matter how spectacular your game is and no matter how well you polish it, there will be parts that will leave gamers scratching their heads over various design decisions.

For this reason, please implement a proper save feature in your games.

I'm sorry, but a check point system alone doesn't cut it. If the game doesn't check point after a part that the player finds hard and then they die, they have to do it all over again and this will often lead to increased blood pressure, ulcers, and Controllers thrown through expensive television sets.

There's also the chance of the game check pointing at an in-opportune moment just before a player dies, at which point the player either needs to be very lucky to get out of that mess or they'll have to start the whole level from scratch.

The Xbox and Xbox 360 Controller have that pretty, pretty Back button that's not used in Single Player Campaigns as of yet, which would make it ideal for a real save system, a Quick Save.

It's not a difficult concept, and since most games have allowed Quick Saving since before Doom in 1993, I hardly think there's a huge technological leap preventing you from putting one in.

Please implement a Quick Save feature in your future titles, or I'll have my doctor send you a strongly worded letter.

Thank you for your cooperation.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Doom (Xbox 360) Purchased

Today I finally caved and decided to purchase Doom (Xbox 360) from the Xbox Live Marketplace. To do so I had to purchase some Microsoft Points and then download the game.

The whole process was simple and Doom cost me about $10.00, which is worth it for what I consider to be the greatest game ever made.

The achievements you can earn for it are all pretty simple, and 10 of the 12 are Single Player ones. I've achieved 6 of them in only a few hours and I'm a quarter of the way through the game.

Even though it's just called Doom, it is actually The Ultimate Doom. It sports higher resolution graphics than what was featured on the version that came with the Doom 3: Limited Collector's Edition (Xbox) and Doom 3: Resurrection of Evil (Xbox).

Nerve Software developed the Xbox 360 version and re-bound a few of the controls, and they also fixed the bug where the game would only display the sky of the first Episode.

My only major gripe so far is that Doom (Xbox 360) is rather dark by default, and there's no in-game brightness control.

I also sold a few Xbox games today to offset the cost of the Microsoft Points. I sold Family Guy: Video Game, The Lord of the Rings: The Third Age, and LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game and got fair prices for all of them from Deja Vu Discs.

When I connected my Xbox 360 to Xbox Live today, I noted that there was a system update as well, however I have no idea what it did. I also went and updated Gears of War with its new patch.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Gears of War and Xbox 360 Kicking Ass

Gears of War is fast on its way to becoming one of the best selling video games of all time. Microsoft announced at this year's CES that Gears of War has sold over 2.7 million copies in just 8 weeks, which is incredible. I believe that qualifies it as the fastest selling game on any platform in 2006, however don't quote me on that one.

Epic Games and Microsoft have also released a patch for Gears of War earlier this week, as well as the first two in a series of additional Multiplayer maps, which is free to anyone with an Xbox Live Membership.

Likewise, the Xbox 360 is selling extremely well, selling more units than either the PlayStation 3 or Wii this holiday season. Take that stupid Sony; ruining Venom by making him wear pajamas.

Thanks TeamXbox.

Venom Action Figure from Spider-Man 3

Say it isn't so! This article over at TeamXbox shows an image of a prototype Venom toy from the upcoming Spider-Man 3 movie, which means this is likely how Venom will look in the film. In other wards, he'll look stupid.

He looks like some idiot kid wearing pyjamas with a Halloween mask, that's what he looks like. I really hope this isn't true, as all the other Spider-Man movie villians have looked really well, how could they botch up Venom so bad!

Stupid Sony.

Halo 3 Mongoose and Grunt Audio Outtake

Earlier this week, Bungie posted up a profile on one of the upcoming new vehicles for Halo 3, the Mongoose. You can check it out here.

In their Weekly Update, they also posted a Grunt audio clip outtake, which you can listen to here.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Throne of Orthanc

I was out doing site visits with our CEO today, and our property manager was showing us one presently occupied space to provide us with a visual aid of what an upcoming space could look like size wise.

The most interesting thing about this occupied space is that the company in there seemed to have been involved with the production of The Lord of the Rings. In addition to swords and posters along various walls, they had the actual throne of Orthanc right at the front door.

For those not in the know, the throne of Orthanc is where Saruman often sat while ruling over Isengard. This piece was featured in The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers, and I believe it was the actual throne from the set since you could clearly see the Styrofoam from where they would have removed it from a larger overall set-piece.

What they had was the throne and a part of the wall that it was attached to, and this would have been the actual seat that Christopher Lee sat in.

And that's the highlight of my day.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition... in French???

Last weekend the Staff rented Gears of War, and he was going all ape-shit over it, so I started thinking about renting it to. When I went to BlockBuster, however, they were all out and so I went home and noted that ActionTrip named Gears of War their 2006 Game of the Year. Since I tend to trust ActionTrip with their generally impartial reviews and staff on crack, and also seeing how they're mainly a PC gaming site, I decided what the hell. Thus, I ordered the Gears of War: Limited Edition from Best Buy.

The package arrived on Friday and I opened it up and noted how cool the Collector's Tin the game is packaged in is. I then turned to the Tin over to read what was on the back and realized that something was wrong... I couldn't read a single thing on the Tin save the Gears of War title: it was all in French. Best Buy, in its infinite wisdom, decided to send me the French version of the Gears of War: Limited Edition.

Now, the irony is that I'm half French and speak next to none of the language. So after verifying the exchange policy and _not_ opening the product, I stood in a 40 minute post Christmas customer service line to get my proper English copy.

I must say that, while so far no Halo, Gears of War is a pretty cool game. The Art Book that comes with the Limited Collector's Edition is cool and seems to flesh out the story a little better than what's presented in game. The game itself looks very nice and has some cool audio. I'm loving the concept of having to constantly run and take cover while popping shots off in between, definitely a different style of combat than I'm used to. The only thing I need to do is really get used to the controls.

I've had it happen several times where I was using "A" to perform a certain action, but it ended up performing something completely different. I've also just started getting used to throwing grenades, and they're coming in quite handy.

The only other thing I've had problems with is the Chainsaw melee. I've gotten it to work a few times, however mostly when a Locust has gotten in close to me and I tried to cut him up, Marcus Fenix would just stand there all stupid like and, well, die. This frustrated me a lot yesterday, but I'm sure I'll figure it out.

Anyway, Gears of War seems to be a really cool game, and probably one of the most interesting titles available on the Xbox 360 right now.

Rome Season 2 Premieres Sun. Jan. 14th

Rome is probably the first new television series I've actually likes in half a decade, since most TV is drivel.

The second season is about to begin and premieres this coming Sunday, January 14th on TMN at 9:00 pm.

I suppose this means I'll be missing Family Guy, but such is as it is.

Kameo: Elements of Power Review

At the end of my Christmas break, I finished going through Kameo: Elements of Power, which came as a bonus title with my Xbox 360 Holiday Bundle.

The history of Kameo: Elements of Power is an interesting one. I read that Rare was originally developing the game for the GameCube, then shifted to the Xbox, and finally developed and released it as a launch title for the Xbox 360. While it seems to have had such a long development cycle, I honestly believe that Kameo: Elements of Power could have benefited from even more time being refined.

Kameo: Elements of Power is set in a Disney-esque fantasy world chronicling a war between the ruling Elves and the rising Trolls (who look a lot like Warcraft Orcs). You play as Kameo, youngest daughter of the royal family, and the one named heir to the throne by your mother after your father vanished. Your older sister, Kalus, is outraged at this betrayal and frees Thorn, the self-styled king of the Trolls, to wage war against the Enchanted Kingdom and bring the Elven nation to its knees.

As this war begins, Kalus also abducts most of her family, and the game begins with Kameo staging a solo rescue in Thorn's castle itself. Well, not exactly a solo rescue, as Kameo has the ability to transform into different Elemental Warriors, what seem to be spirits of the world used by the Elves to maintain piece and order. Basically, Kameo can become different cute animal-ish characters with different strengths and weaknesses to kick the snot out of the Troll forces.

While it does sound childish, and this is certainly a title children will enjoy, Kameo: Elements of Power plays very much like a classic adventure game from the mid-'90's, and it is this feeling of nostalgia that has captured my attention with the game. Because aside from that classic feeling, there's not too much else to the game.

The story I've outlined above is basically about as deep as it gets. The story of Kameo: Elements of Power is not properly developed in-game. The tutorial level sort of just drops you in there, and after you fail to rescue your family from Kalus' clutches, you're rescued somehow and awaken in the Mystic's hut. The Mystic is the royal adviser, and not an Elf. In fact, there are many other species in the world aside from Trolls and Elves, though I have no idea what most of them are called, what their back story and overall relation is to the main factions of this game. The reason I don't know is it simply isn't explained, which is quite the shame as there was potential for a good deal of depth.

So in a nutshell, I found the story to be very disappointing, but let's look at what matters most in the end, the actual gameplay. Kameo herself can move, jump, hover, and kick her way out of various situations all with relative ease of control, but for the bulk of the game you'll be controlling the Elemental Warriors that you set out to collect/rescue. There's a whole lot of variety here, as there are 10 Warriors in total, from the boxing plant creature Pummel Weed who excels at combat early on, to the ape-like Chilla who can climb icy walls and throw spikes of ice at enemies from a safe distance. The game often features interesting puzzles for the player to solve, traditionally needing the specific power of one Elemental Warrior to achieve results.

The game also features some very nice, large, and detailed areas to explore. In times this exploration almost reminded me of exploring Albion in Fable: The Lost Chapters, but not quite up to that level. Along the way, aside from helping general clans people who reward you with Elemental Fruit which allows you to increase the abilities of your Elemental Warriors, you'll be beating the snot out of hundreds of Trolls. Again, with the different Warriors you have lots of different options on how to dispose of your enemies, but by the end of the game you'll feel that you've simply done it all and have been doing the same repetitive motions for hours. It's strange how even with multiple options, the gameplay is ultimately a bit bland.

The game also isn't very difficult, and you also have something called the Wotnot book, which has a wizard in it who can give you tips. In fact, he'll often do more than that, he'll tell you exactly what to do to solve any given situation after a bit of time. While this makes the game's puzzles too easy, it also does alleviate some frustration if you do get stuck. Too bad the wizard's advice is all text instead of voice over.

Overall though, it is the game's controls that I feel needed more refinement. While simplistic in their presentation and execution, I found it could be very frustrating getting around certain areas with Major Ruin, and controlling Deep Blue underwater was an absolute nightmare, what with his thumbstick inversion that makes simple submerging a challenge. There are also many points where you need to push an object along, however the collision detection of the game is too good, and more oft than not you'd begin to run past what you were pushing, have to move back and repeat again. Tedious. While the game certainly features many fun and exciting moments, there's nothing quite like running over a mass of Trolls while mounted on a horse in the Bad Lands, it did need some more polish.

Graphically, Kameo: Elements of Power is a beautiful game. The world is rich and detailed as are the characters. The colour scheme is lush and vibrant and water effects are very, very nice. The game does have some texture pop-in, unfortunately, which I find surprising for a console launch title.

Audio wise, while the voice acting is good and the sound effects are standard fair, the soundtrack is simply awesome. The score ranges from epic to subtle to cute, all depending on the situation and location. Fantasy games are always a treat as they often feature a stellar soundtrack, and as we all know music has a big impact on drama and tension.

So the question of course is if Kameo: Elements of Power is worth picking up. Well, it's now a Platinum Hits title and is on sale for only $19.99. That's not a huge lot of money and for that cost, there is a good deal of fun here. Because the game does have some issues, however, I would recommend either trying out the demos available at the Xbox Live Marketplace, or renting the game for a weekend first.

G4 Wii vs PS3 Video

You've all seen those retarded Mac vs PC commercials, right? Well, G4 produced one for the Wii vs PlayStation 3. Check it out at Google Video here.

It's funny, 'cause it's true. Now please stop molesting the Wii's innovative new, TV breaking controller.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta Played by US Troops

TeamXbox is reporting that this holiday season, US troops stationed in Iraq got a surprise present from Microsoft and Bungie: the opportunity to play the upcoming Halo 3 Multiplayer Beta to be released later this year.

You can check out the article along with screenshots and footage right here.

Top 3 Paperback Novels of 2006

For my final list of the year, I present you with my top 3 paperbacks of 2006.

3) Star Wars: Dark Lord - The Rise of Darth Vader - This is the expanded universe sequel to Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, and it's a great read to get into the psychological state of cinema's all time favourite villain at a point when he himself is very vulnerable. You find more about why Vader made the choice he did, what happened to other surviving Jedi, and details on the further reformation of the Galactic Empire, including a brief glimpse into the reorganization of the Grand Army into Stormtroopers. This is a novel that no Star Wars fan should miss.

2) Halo: Ghosts of Onyx - What else can I say save that it's an original new story set within Bungie's epic military sci-fi universe. Halo: Ghosts of Onyx takes place mainly after Halo 2, and though it doesn't feature the Master Chief or Cortana in any prominent role, you get to find out what happens to the remaining Spartan IIs. More information is shed on the Covenant Civil War, and perhaps some hints about Halo 3 are glanced on as well. If you enjoyed the first and third Halo novels, odds are that Halo: Ghosts of Onyx is for you as its written by the same author and features the bulk of the same characters.

1) The Eagle - The final companion novel to the epic A Dream of Eagles series, The Eagle concludes the tale of Clothar, better known as Lancelot, and lays bare the fate of the colony of Camulod and of King Arthur and his Knights Companion. While some have called it anti-climactic, what you need to remember is that this is now Clothar's story, not Merlyn's and not Arthur's. Based on this, the final novel makes a lot more sense and will leave you feeling more satisfied. The Dream of Eagles series is the best novel series I have read in my life bar none. It is filled with all too human characters who present us with a beautiful historical fiction rendition of a traditional fantasy legend. The only disappointment I have to express with The Eagle is that it does indeed end the series, but what a series it is. If you decide to pick up The Eagle, please start at the beginning of the series proper so you follow the proper flow of the story. The first novel is called The Skystone, and if military and historical fiction is your thing, than you owe it to yourself to give this novel a read.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II (PC) Review

After reading the novels and then watching the films, I always wanted to command the armies of Middle-earth. My first chance came when EA released The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth, however they didn't release a demo and the game received so-so reviews, so I decided to pass.

Later on they released the sequel to the PC, and ultimately the Xbox 360, and this time they did release a demo, which I decided to try. The PC demo for The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II was simple yet enjoyable and showed a lot of potential, and the game also received very strong reviews across the board, so I decided to ask for it as a gift for my birthday. That was in early October.

While I got my copy of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth II - Collector's Edition (the first collector's edition title I've ever purchased/gotten for the PC) in early October, it took me this long to finish it. Why? Well, I've always been very picky about my real time strategy titles, or more to the point, very picky about the interface of the game. With very rare exceptions, I've only ever liked Blizzard Entertainment's RTSes as they've been of the highest quality with the most polished interfaces for their time. After getting underway with The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, I started to notice all the flaws in the interface and this really started to hamper my experience to the point where I stopped playing. However after finishing the game and spending a good deal of time with it over the last several days, I think I may have been too hard on the game.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II takes place parallel to The Lord of the Rings and chronicles the war in the north of Middle-earth. While the armies of Mordor and Isengard assault the Men of the West, Sauron sends additional armies north to lay siege to the Elves, Dwarves, and other free peoples of that land. This war was mentioned in the book, however there was only a brief snippet of it in the Extended Edition of The Return of the King (when Legolas tells Gimli that he fears war is marching on the borders of his dwarven kin). So, one of the most exciting things about The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is simply being able to see locations that you've read about, but have never really seen.

The Single Player game is broken down as follows: You have a tutorial where you play as the Men of the West in the White Mountains that teaches you the very bare-bone basics. There is then a Good Campaign where you play as the Elves and Dwarves and a "what if" Evil Campaign where you play as the Goblins and Mordor. The last faction, Isengard, makes a very brief appearance in the Evil Campaign, however they are not playable in the Campaigns. There is also a standard Skirmish mode and the War of the Ring mode which I'll type about later.

Now, on to my major gripe: The interface. This game must of had a target release date of 1998. Why? Because it has the same styled interface as Starcraft. The units in The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II have a good number of special abilities to choose from, including the Hero units. I'd like to tell you how great this special ability is, or how unbalanced that special ability is, but I honestly wouldn't know. Why? Because battles are so large and the controls so antiquated that micromanagement is a nightmare.

If you have a bunch of different unit types grouped together, you can not "tab" between them to access different special abilities quickly, you're forced to put different units on different number keys. However if you group more than one battalion or horde to a number key and use the special ability, only one battalion will do so while the others continue to bumble around normally. There's also no way to select an individual Hero unit quickly other than clicking on their portrait at the bottom of the screen.

What does this all mean? It means that The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is extremely heavy on tactics, but low on strategy. Against the AI at any rate, the primary strategy is simply hucking masses of units at them, possibly holding your regular units at bay while siege units punch a whole in walls or defences. Hero units also just become damage sponges instead of heavily turning the tide of battle with special abilities.

Having learned to live or die by micromanagement with Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne a few years ago, this was, at first, simply appalling to me. The more I played the more frustrated I got and so after forcing myself to finish the Good Campaign and just begin the Evil Campaign, I stopped. I couldn't believe that such a slick and high production value title could stumble up on such a critical component; and I do mean a slick title.

The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is beautiful. I'm playing on the High graphic settings, and everything, and I mean everything, is so detailed that it's all a joy to look at. Every unit, every building, every landscape has had so much attention paid to the models and animations, and the water effects! The game has to be seen to be believed. Audio wise, all the effects and music are taken from the films or else engineered in the same style. With the exception of certain Heroes being voice-acted by someone other than their film actor, it all fits and flows together. The Collector's Edition also comes with an interesting DVD that goes into the making of the game, contains all the cinematics, art samples, the soundtrack, etc. And then there's War of the Ring mode.

War of the Ring is a lot like playing Risk. You have a map of Middle-earth that's divided up into territories and you start with a small army and three Heroes in your territory and your enemy(ies) and ally(ies) start in their's. You then take turns moving along the board claiming territories, building basic structures to train and upgrade troops and recruit Heroes, and generally try to defeat your opponent(s). Battles can be auto-resolved on the map based on troop strength, or you can actually do an RTS battle. While this is cool as you can actually see an RTS map with Minas Tirith, Isengard, Helm's Deep, etc., these near-skirmish like battles can take a while, meaning you could be playing a War of the Ring game for over 12 hours minimum. Yes, minimum. For this reason, unless you have that much free time on your hands, I recommend using the auto-resolve option. Generally, I found a War of the Ring game to take about 2 to 4 hours and with the different game modes available (claim all territories, claim X amount of territories, claim your opponent's capital), there was enough variety to keep things fresh and fun.

Several days ago I determined to finish the game once and for all and just get it off my play list, however once I started playing through the Evil Campaign again, I found that I was enjoying myself. Sure, I was just hucking units at one another, but it was fun to quickly build a town, train hordes and march them off in formation, watch cavalry run over infantry, and see Trolls knock soldiers into mid-air. While the Good Campaign was also a bit boring story wise, I found the Evil Campaign to be a little more fun in that regard. So, instead of focusing on micromanaging battles, I had turned to managing unit production and base management, and though it's no Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, it was fun in it's simplicity, and in the end, fun is what mainly matters to me in games these days; my competitive tournament days are behind me.

I've tinkered with Skirmish mode and the Medium AI seems to put up a good but not impossible fight. There's a large variety of maps to choose from, as well as neutral buildings (including Ship Yards) that you can claim to enhance your forces. In all modes, you also get Powers for your faction. You can summon Eagles as the Elves to attack your enemies, use a group Healing spell, or even summon a special Hero or reinforcements. The same goes for the forces of Evil. It's great fun to see a Watcher of the Water erupt from the ground and start smacking everyone around and dragging individual units to it's mouth. Again, a lot of visual detail and polish. Skirmish mode itself is something I need to experience more of, but it does have potential.

You can also create your own custom Heroes to use in both Skirmish and War of the Ring, however I didn't tinker with this and just used the game's default Heroes.

So, in the end, what's the verdict? I've flip-flopped with my impressions of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II. On the one hand you have an extremely high production value title, but on the other you have an antiquated control scheme. However I now believe that the game was designed with tactics and less so strategy in mind. I will say one thing, it does present a bit more realistic view of the chaos of medieval style battles, and the battles and sieges of this game can certainly feature a huge number of units.

I'd say if you're interested in commanding the armies of Middle-earth in massive battles, download the demo for either the PC or Xbox 360 and see what you think. Regardless, I'd wait for a price drop before dropping $50.00 plus on the title. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II is a fun game with some really enjoyable moments, however at present I don't feel it's worth the price of admission. Once the price does drop to, say, $30.00-ish, go have some fun knocking soldiers into the air. You'll laugh your ass off.