Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Top 3 Games of the Year, 2008

After the excellent success the Xbox 360 saw in 2007, I didn't think it possible for 2008 to top it. We had some huge heavy weights released that year, including Mass Effect, Halo 3, and of course, BioShock. Strong titles, and the three games that were my main reason for purchasing an Xbox 360 to begin with.

Fortunately, 2008 proved to be a very strong year for gaming, despite my original low expectations. Whether you're a fan of shooters, RPGs, sports games, single player, multiplayer, or anything in-between, there was something for everyone and often covered via multiple platforms.

As the gaming industry itself further matures and grows, the general budget and quality of the games released, regardless of platform, is also raised, and with the results like what we've seen this year, it's no wonder that video games are now one of the most highly grossing entertainment mediums in the world.

Unlike previous years, where I specifically focused on just the top 3 titles for the Xbox or Xbox 360, this year I'm going to open it up to include all platforms. So, without further delay, let's end off 2008 with Arbiter's Judgement's Top 3 Games of the Year!

3) Gears of War 2 (Xbox 360) - Bigger, better, and more badass indeed, Gears of War 2 is the hugely anticipated sequel to the blockbuster original, and it delivers a great gameplay experience. Marcus and Delta Squad are back to once again protect humanity from the Locust Horde, and this time the Coalition of Ordered Governments is taking the fight to the heart of the enemy.

Gears of War 2 features the same excellent pop and gun gameplay and cover system from the original, only refined to even more precise levels. Unreal Engine 3 has been enhanced to provide us with one of the best looking games ever available, and the musical score is top notch. Epic Games even hired a professional writer to actually add some measure of story to the game this time around.

Unfortunately the more grandiose flare of Gears of War 2 also has a few severe cons, such as the issues that weren't corrected from the original game also being more bigger, badass, and frustrating than ever before. You will curse and swear over the horribly implemented Checkpoint system, and the game's shoddy turret sequences will leave you exasperated.

If you can ride these out, however, in both Campaign, multiplayer, or the newly featured Horde mode, Gears of War 2 is a must play and one of the killer games for the Xbox 360 this holiday season. Now, how do you like your toast, 'cause I like mine crispy!

2) Fallout 3 (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC) - The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Game of the Year Edition took my top spot as Game of the Year for 2007, so is it any surprise that Bethesda's next masterpiece, Fallout 3, should make an appearance on this list? I'd think not.

Ironically, I have yet to fully explore Fallout 3 myself, and thus this is my first entry into any year-end list that I have not personally experienced in full. The Staff, however, has completed the PC version of the game, and aside from several serious issues with LIVE's integration, he has nothing but praise for the game. His only other major gripe is that Fallout 3, sadly, comes to an end, but despite that logical eventuality, Fallout 3 provides an immersive and engrossing experience that's without question worth witnessing first hand.

I myself have recently picked up the Xbox 360 version of the game, and while I've only been able to play it for about 2 hours, I'm very impressed with what I've seen thus far, and I can't wait to properly sit down with and play through this epic.

1) Dead Space (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC) - I closed off my Dead Space review by stating that it is a "...masterpiece of the art form, and a new standard from which I'll judge many future titles." and after a second playthrough, this high compliment remains.

Dead Space is the single greatest game I've had the pleasure to play this year, and it came out of no where. It really is a sleeper hit, and the game that resembles one of my all time favourite classics, System Shock 2, with a greater degree of accuracy than any other game before it.

As Isaac Clarke, you're a simple engineer assigned to a maintenance team that's sent out to find and repair the damaged vessel, USG Ishimura. Upon arriving, a horror is unleashed, and Isaac is quickly separated from his colleagues and struggling to survive against hordes of undead known as Necromorphs.

While it sounds cheesy, Dead Space's story is very well done, and the game itself blends several genres beautifully together. From shooter, to RPG, to survival horror, Dead Space has all these elements, as well as some wonderful innovations of it's own (the zero-g sequences are great, as an example, and let's not forget being able to dismember your enemies). Combine this with some solid graphics and a truly exceptional sound mix, and it all culminates into an exceptional atmosphere that completely immerses the player in a realm of tension and horror.

Dead Space is a game that should not be missed, and thankfully, it's available on three excellent platforms so you really have no excuse. The game also takes anywhere between 15 to 20 hours to complete on a single play-through, and with the amount of upgradeable weapons available, there's plenty of replay value here.

With such a stunning and complete package, it is my pleasure to award Dead Space this year's Arbiter's Judgement Game of the Year.

Halo 3 Completed for the 6th Time

Ever since this past Summer, one of my best buds and I have slowly been making our way through Halo 3's Campaign via Co-Op on Legendary. Today, I finally completed what is my 6th play-through of the game's Campaign.

My bud and I played through Chapters 1 to 8, and I decided to tackle Chapter 9 myself, which I did without too much difficulty. It simply required me to a) take my time, b) use the Arbiter as a damage sponge, and c) run away a lot screaming like a sissy.

I'm also never playing on Legendary again. What an insanely challenging experience! There's no way I'm skilled enough to play through the game on Legendary solo. Perhaps if I really, really took my time, but I'm not that patient a man, and I have other things to kill.

Regardless, thanks to Bungie for making such an excellent video game trilogy, and with the completion of Halo 3 on Legendary, I've now collected the last of the game's Single Player Achievements.

Now please, finish up Halo 3: ODST, and then please do something to properly flesh out the Elites' storyline again. Woot!

PSP Sold. To the Staff

I've had my PlayStation Portable for about 3 months now, and when I look back, I realized that I've used it for about 9 to 10 hours overall. That's not a lot of time put into the device.

You see, I originally bought it for the crazy work schedule that I knew was coming; when I'd be working 15 hour days several days in a row and the PSP could've come in handy to stave off insanity. However it turned out I was so busy I never used it during those times once.

And of course, when I'm home, I have my Xbox 360. Don't get me wrong, the PSP is a great little hand-held, but I don't travel much, and it simply can't compete with a full fledged current generation console.

So I decided to sell it, and my buyer was none other than our very own staff. Since he's predominantly in England right now without his Xbox 360, he will be able to make excellent use of my now former PSP, and I hope it serves him well. And that he doesn't place it in the Bag of Doom. Seriously, you don't want to know what happens to things that go in the Bag of Doom. It never ends well, and Short Round never came out of there.

What I will really miss about my PSP is that deep red colour. Loved that deep red...

Gears of War 2 Completed for the Second Time

Finished Gears of War 2's Campaign for the second time this past Sunday, this time on Hardcore difficulty.

Nice action and roller coaster ride, but seriously, what is it with Epic's love of that horrible Checkpoint system? Seriously, why do I need to start a battle or so back if I end up dying, why can't it Checkpoint me before every major engagement? So much time lost replaying the same battles again and again and again. Retarded.

Overall though the gameplay itself is solid, and pulling off headshots is as fun as it was in Gears of War. Like the original, I found the Lancer and Longshot to be the best weapon combination throughout most of the game, but this time I favoured the Boltok more than the Snub. Also love the larger battles that were everywhere, especially against all the Reavers. For the most part, they're fun to fight.

Beautiful looking game to, I really like the enhancements done to the Unreal Engine 3, and I still think the sound track rocked. They have gotten better with story telling, but really, they do need to add a good bit more exposition. It can be done, but they need to be willing.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Halo 3: ODST Concept Art

In this week's short Weekly Update, Bungie Studios treats us to several great pieces of concept art from their upcoming stand-alone expansion, Halo 3: ODST.

Feast your eyes on these wonderful pics right here.

Top 3 Movies of the Year, 2008

2008 was a really strong year for films, specifically for comic book films, and this made selecting the top 3 films of 2008 a real challenge. However, I'm pleased with that statement simply because the silver screen hasn't been doing too well over the last few years with so many mediocre releases, and the fact that I needed to do a little deliberation hopefully points at stronger things to come.

3) Iron Man - What else can I say but Robert Downey Jr. simply charmed everyone with his excellent performance as Tony Stark. From pompous business man, we follow Stark as he gains a sense of mortality and becomes a hero.

After a horrible abduction, Stark slowly realizes the impact the weapons his company designs have on the world, and that his personal wealth has come at a great cost. He then sets about to change himself, to try and make the world a better, safer place, and the character transformation is done very, very well.

Iron Man is an excellent super hero film with action, character, and conflict, and it was an great precursor for the summer blockbuster season.

2) The Dark Knight - Which leads us of course to _the_ blockbuster of the year: The Dark Knight. Simply put, who didn't enjoy this roller coaster ride? The Dark Knight is considered one of the best super hero films ever made, and with very good reason. Not only is it a dark super hero film, but it features the realization of the single best super villain ever captured on film.

Ask anyone, and they'll readily agree that Heath Ledger's final performance as the Joker is a masterpiece, and nothing short of shear brilliance. Without any question, he carries the film with his charisma and sadistic pleasure, and the tragedy of it all is that there can never be a repeat performance.

The dark storyline, the excellent effects, and this key, brilliant performance all add up to bring us the action ride of the year.

1) Wall-E - So of course, if The Dark Knight is the ride of the summer, then how could it fall short of our top spot? Simple. He was outmaneuvered by the little trash compactor that stole our hearts.

Where as The Dark Knight entertained with action and the exceptional performance of the Joker, Wall-E presented us with such a wonderfully touching and simple experience, it provided the kind of attachment that The Dark Knight never could.

Roughly the first 30 minutes of Wall-E has no dialogue, and yet you can't help but be mesmerized by this simple little robot who's stuck trying to clean the planet up. Hundreds of years after humanity has left the planet due to pollution and waste, Wall-E is the last functioning robot tasked with cleaning up the Earth, and he goes about his task diligently. After being alone for so long, however, he's developed one little quirk: a personality.

Left alone for so long, once he finally meets another robot, the probe EVE, he falls in love and would follow her anywhere, whether he's wanted or not. The adventure that ensue's takes Wall-E above and beyond and is a recipe for pure entertainment and laughter.

Wall-E stands, in my opinion, as Pixar's best work to date, and it's with great pleasure that I award Wall-E Arbiter's Judgement's 2008 Movie of the Year.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Real Life Lancer Assault Rifle

Well, not a real Gears of War Lancer, but damn close enough to it. I don't know whether to be impressed or afraid, but some guy took an AR-15 and actually attached a modified chainsaw to it as a bayonet.

Seriously though, while this is cool in-game and makes a great signature weapon for the franchise, what would someone do with this in real life? How effective would it be in actual urban combat?

I'm guessing not very, but you can certainly check out this "Lancer" in action via the below video.

Creepy or uber awesome? You tell me. All I know is those pumpkins were innocent. And now they're gone. Gone forever :(.


How Return of the Jedi Should have Ended

If there is a God, this would have been the true ending to Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi.

Alas, religion is nothing more than an earthly bid for power, and so, this remains a fond fantasy from a more perfect world.

Top 3 Novels of the Year, 2008

One thing I certainly get to partake in every business day is a lot of reading. I have a rather lengthy commute to the office, and I've found no better way to occupy my time than by reading some solid fiction.

So, without further delay, here are my top 3 novels of 2008!

3) Gears of War: Aspho Fields - Karen Traviss is the mistress of military sci-fi, and her latest effort is no exception to that rule. The Gears of War franchise is instantly recognizable as one of the key names for the Xbox 360, but one thing the series has always lacked was a really in-depth story and character development. Gears of War: Aspho Fields changes all of that, as Traviss truly explores the characters of Delta Squad, where they came from who they are, and what allows them to hold it all together in this time of genocidal warfare.

An excellent prequel to Gears of War 2, Gears of War: Aspho Fields leads right into the game, and continually flashes back to an earlier conflict, a war often hinted at of but never explored in the games themselves, the Pendulum Wars.

The depth and focus of Gears of War: Aspho Fields does not disappoint, and any fan of the games will walk away with a new respect for Marcus and co.

2) Troy: Fall of Kings - Historical fiction is fast becoming my new favourite genre, and Troy: Fall of Kings embodies much of what makes the genre itself so epic. Legendary battles, powerful heroes, and honourable morality abound.

The war for Troy has begun, and the kings of the west and east of the Great Green clash for land, wealth, and power. Odysseus is forced to ally himself with the kings of the west, along with the legendary Achilles, and fighting with Troy are the champion Hektor and the dread Helikaon who commands his massive flagship, the Xanathos.

Being the final chapter of the Troy trilogy, everything ultimately comes to a close in Troy: Fall of Kings, however the way the legend is presented is fascinating, and it's done in a different fashion than many films I've previously seen. The only major flaw to the novel is that the series' author, David Gemmell, unfortunately passed away during it's writing, and his wife took over to complete his work. This was a monumental task as the Troy novels are full of great detail and are not short works, and it's obvious that much of the style is different in this final book, which leads to many important characters not receiving the ending that they deserve.

Regardless, Troy: Fall of Kings is an excellent novel, and the above discrepancy is easily excused given the circumstance, and thus it places in my number 2 spot for Novel of the Year.

1) Templar Trilogy - Standard of Honour - Jack Whyte is the author who enabled me to appreciate historical fiction, and his skills are just as strong now as they were when I first began reading his works just under three years ago.

His most recent trilogy focus on the Crusades, and specifically the rise and fall of the Templar knights. Standard of Honour, the middle book of the trilogy, takes place just after the Second Crusade when the armies of Christendom loose the Holy Land to the Saracen hordes under the brilliant command of the Sultan, Saladin. A new army is raised, and once again the St. Clair family is involved in the monumental events that take place as young Andre St. Clair, recently accepted into the lofty ranks of the Templar Knights, must confront the truths of politics and honour as he marches with the army of Richard the Lionheart.

Like its predecessor, Standard of Honour examines in detail the motives of the Church and the champions of Christianity, and it also contrasts them with those of the Muslim "infidels" in which the armies of Christ fight against. Standard of Honour is a novel that makes you think, makes you feel, and educates you all at the same time. It is a novel that truly examines the basic moral fabric of what honour is, what a man is, and how complicated most "simple" black and white situations really are.

With Standard of Honour, Jack Whyte has put together another literary masterpiece that should not be missed, and it is with great pleasure that I award this novel first place as Arbiter's Judgement's Novel of 2008.

WMD Revelation

My God, I've just come across a startling revelation. You've all heard of WMDs, who hasn't since America's declaration of War against Terror a few years back. The tragedy, of course, is that many brave and valiant men have lost their lives to the effort to keep America safe, and these losses are a hotly debated topic south of the border.

Back home however, all across North America, many other men, simple civilians, have lost themselves to the horror's of WMDs, and honestly, I'm not sure there's much we can do to help them. We can, however, work with our friends and loved ones to try and insure that no man is every harmed by another WMD again. It's not going to be easy, and it will take a lot of strong will and personal sacrifice, but in the end, I'm sure you'll agree that by being persistent, we can all avoid the inevitable Wedding, Marriage, Divorce that has ruined so many other lives.

So please, help discourage your friends from embracing the self-destructive paths of WMDs, help them avoid tying that knot and damning themselves to a life of doubt and misery forever. It's your honoury, manly duty.

Portal (Xbox 360) Second Play-through Complete

Earlier today, I completed my second play-through of Portal (Xbox 360), which of course came bundled with The Orange Box.

Overall, it took me about 2 hours to play through, and while there were a few frustrating moments, my overall experience was "Smeh." The game was there on my shelf, and I did buy it so I wanted to play through it at least more than once. I'm not a big fan of puzzle games or Valve Software, and personally, I don't consider the game to be revolutionary or the smash hit of 2007.

When all is said and done, it was nice to go through but nothing I'd cry over if I missed it. Except for GLaDOS, of course. I figure pretty much everyone loves her.

Dash of Destruction (Xbox 360) Review

In June 2007, Doritos sponsored a contest entitled Unlock Xbox, in which residents of the United States could come up with a video game concept, and if selected, Doritos would hook that person up with independent developer NinjaBee who would create their game as an Xbox LIVE Arcade title. As the slogan goes, "You dream it. We build it." And that's exactly what happened for Mike Borland, who's concept of Dash of Destruction is now a reality.

In Dash of Destruction, available for free via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, players take control of a T-Rex rampaging around a city trying to eat Doritos Delivery Trucks, or they take on the role of the Delivery Truck trying to make their deliveries while avoiding said T-Rex. Get it? Got it? Good. 'Cause the game itself is no great feet of complexity, but it is a good deal of short term fun and Dash of Destruction's Achievements are ridiculously easy to earn, so much so that the game itself makes several comments to this effect.

Most of the game's Achievements can be earned simply by completing the levels, or by doing things you'll end up doing without even trying, like smashing a lot of buildings as the T-Rex, or by making "X" amount of deliveries as the Delivery Truck.

The controls are straightforward enough: You use the Left Stick to move around, and "A" allows you to lunge as the T-Rex, or gives you a Turbo Boost as the Delivery Truck. Again, all very simple and very easy to get into.

Graphically the game looks good, especially for a free product, and both the T-Rex and Delivery Truck have different skins that are applied as you progress. Borland himself appears in the game, taking on the role of text-based narrator and crazy-scientist-guy, and he upgrades your T-Rex or Delivery Truck with some interesting enhancements, some useful, all a little odd and crazy and fitting well with the game's silly theme.

Really, there's not much more to say about Dash of Destruction. It's a simple, fun, and free Xbox LIVE Arcade experience that's certainly enjoyable and easy for anyone to pick up. It has a fun and crazy concept and you can net several very easy Achievements with it. I say download it and give it a run. You'll likely be done with it in about 20 to 30 minutes, and it won't cost you anything but a little time.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

I'd just like to take a moment to wish all of you a very Merry Christmas and a safe and happy holiday season!

Unfortunately I don't get a full week off this year like I have in the past, however you can expect my 2008 Games of the Year and Movies of the Year to make an appearance prior to New Years.

Halo: Combat Evolved is this Week's Xbox LIVE Marketplace Deal of the Week

This week's Xbox LIVE Marketplace Deal of the Week is 50% off of Halo: Combat Evolved. You can temporarily purchase this classic shooter that launched the Xbox as a gaming name for 600 Microsoft Points, which translates into $8.70 (if you purchase your Microsoft Points via Xbox LIVE).

That's cheaper than the few remaining Platinum Hits retail copies I've seen in stores, and if you haven't experienced this original killer app, then this is an excellent opportunity to do so.

For those who missed out on it the first time around, Halo: Combat Evolved was a hugely revolutionary shooter. Not just because it put Microsoft's fledgling Xbox console on the map, but because it did so many things a shooter had never done before that really changed how players approached the standard shooter, and it was all done on a console back when shooter fans were hardcore PC elitists (I know, I was one).

Innovations of note from Halo: Combat Evolved:

- Seamless mix of on-foot and vehicle based combat
- Introduction of the 2 weapon-limit carrying system
- Seamless transition from indoor to outdoor areas, and vice versa
- Practical use of off-hand Grenades
- Effective Melee with every weapon
- Excellent enemy AI (the Elites are still fun to fight)
- A solid step forward for video game story-telling

To this day, Halo: Combat Evolved has held up as a solid shooter and is still smooth and a lot of fun to play. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Dead Space (Xbox 360) Second Play-through Complete

About 2 weeks ago, I completed my second play-through of Dead Space (Xbox 360), and I've racked up every single Achievement save one, the Epic Tier 3 Engineer Achievement which I'll need to play through a third time for and on the game's hardest difficulty.

This second play-through took me a few hours less than my original run, and I replayed from my original "cleared" game, which means Issac Clarke started off with all the items and stats that he had upon completion of my first play-through, and this option forces you to play on the same difficulty, so Normal in my case.

I still consider Dead Space to be the scariest game on the Xbox 360 to-date, and a masterpiece of the survival horror genre, and while I still found the tentacle sequences and also the turret sequences very annoying (I hated getting those turret Achievements), the game itself is exceptional and certainly worth it for any fans of single player games.

The enemies are great and disturbing, the zero gravity sequences are exciting and innovative, and it's nice to have a game that combines so many gameplay elements and pulls them off very well. Here's hoping EA can capture the same spirit for the upcoming sequal.

StarCraft II Battle Reports

To further show off their upcoming PC RTS, StarCraft II, Blizzard Entertainment has now begun releasing Battle Reports, fully commentated videos of matches between various Blizzard Entertainment developers with the current Alpha build of the game.

The first such Battle Report sees Matt Cooper and David Kim, balance designers, go head-to-head in a Protoss versus Terran match on a map called Kulas Ravine.

The video is just over 21 minutes long, and can be viewed right here or below.

My impressions of the game thus far: It certainly looks very nice and it's wonderful to see a well balanced RTS in classic Blizzard tradition, but honestly, I found it difficult to get excited over it. Why? Aside from the fact that I found it hard to take the game seriously with the silly "pro sports" commentation, the gameplay itself looked far too reminicent of the exact same experiences I was nerding out over a decade ago.

While any good sequal basically takes the original game and expands on it, enhancing the tried and true gameplay and taking it to the next level, it has been over 10 years now, and I'm looking for something a little more revolutionary than a cosmetic re-hash of the orginial Starcraft.

Maybe I'm just being pesimistic, but the more I see of StarCraft II, the more disappointed I seem to get. Regardless, it's a title that still bears watching and certainly trying out, it is Blizzard Entertainment after all, however I don't think this is a game I'll rush out and purchase right away.

Halo Wars UNSC and Covenant Field Manuals Fully Revealed

In the spirit of giving for the holidays, Ensemble Studios has unlocked the rest of the UNSC Field Manual as well as the Covenant Field Manual for their upcoming Xbox 360 exclusive RTS, Halo Wars.

In English, these field manuals detail the structures and units available to each faction in the game, so if you're interested to see in full what kind of units you'll have at your command, I highly recommend you give this a read.

Interestingly enough, Halo Wars will finally mark the first in-game appearance of the Covenant Engineer, who's been in the expanded universe since the very beginning of the Halo trilogy.

Looks like they were in a hurry typing it all though, as there are spelling and grammatical errors galore.

God of War III Teaser Trailer 2 Released

During last week's Spike Video Game Awards, Sony Computer Entertainment premiered the next teaser trailer for their PlayStation 3 exclusive, God of War III, which features a very brief glimpse of actual gameplay.

You can now download said trailer via the PlayStation Store, or view it online here, or simply watch it below.

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage Screenshots

Bethesda Softworks has released several screenshots for their upcoming DLC for Fallout 3, entitled Operation Anchorage. You can check out the shots right here.

Just picked up Fallout 3 yesterday myself, and thus far, I'm impressed with the game. Excellent intro and very immersive.

New BioShock Merchandise Available Via Take 2 Store

All franchises carry merchandise potential, and BioShock is no exception.

2K Games has released several new pieces of BioShock merchandise only available via the Take 2 Store here, including lithographs and t-shirts.

The highlight of the collection, however, would be the Little Sister figurines, produced in very limited quantities, that are to scale with the Big Daddy figurines that came with the BioShock: Limited Edition (Xbox 360 and PC). The Little Sister figurines are priced at $15.00 (US).

For my own part, however, my Big Daddy figurine has never left his box, not once, so it'd probably be a waste for me to get the Little Sister figurine. I'll just see them both in game where they're more interactive and collect less dust.

Gears of War 2 Limited Edition English Hardcover Art Book Received

Just over a week ago, I received the English copy of the Gears of War 2: Limited Edition hardcover art book that should have come with my copy of the game.

If you ordered yours via Xbox Support here as soon as the option became available, you should also be receiving your proper art book soon.

Good to see a publisher fixing their mistakes at no cost to the customer.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Halo: The Cole Protocol Review

Love it or hate it, no one can deny the success of the Halo franchise. It is Microsoft's flagship Xbox title, has set numerous sales and Xbox LIVE records, and as far as I know, is still the best selling Xbox 360 title to-date.

But of course, the Halo franchise isn't just about the games themselves, or even the Master Chief and Cortana. There is a huge universe to explore, and a long period to do it in. The Halo trilogy focused on the end of the Human-Covenant war, a war that lasted about 27 years, so there's lots of prequel ground to cover. Not only are we getting closer to the release of Halo Wars, but the Halo series of novels has also begun turning to the past to explore that which we've never seen before.

Such as the recently released novel, Halo: The Cole Protocol. Any Halo fan knows where the title derives from, but for those who don't, the Cole Protocol was passed early on in the Human-Covenent War to prevent the Covenant from locating Earth. At the first sign of Covenant contact, any UNSC vessel must immediately purge it's navigational data, and all ship's must selfdestruct if capture appears imminent. Also, all vessels must make a random jumps into Slipspace at the beginning of any journey instead of setting course for Earth or an Inner Colony directly.

Halo: The Cole Protocol is the first Halo novel that doesn't specify exactly what date it takes place in, but it's early in the Human-Covenant War. Apparently Admiral Cole and his fleet just took Harvest back from the Covenant, so it's likely during or shortly after the events of Halo Wars.

The Covenant is continuing its war against humanity, glassing world after world, and thus came the Rubble into being. In the asteroid field surrounding the gas giant Hesiod, the survivors of a glassed Outer Colony world, some with Insurrectionist ties, have made a home for themselves in this most unlikely of habitats. What's even more surprising is that they didn't do it alone. Somehow, these survivors have reached an agreement with a group of Jackals who not only helped them construct the Rubble, but are also freely trading with these humans. Such human-Covenant cooperation has never been heard of before, and it's a clear mystery to Grey Team, a three-man team of Spartans sent out on long range missions deep behind enemy lines. Their present mission, to remove all navigational data leading to Earth on non-UNSC controlled ships and worlds.

Recently returning to the front is Lieutenant Jacob Keyes, who's called in to help the Office of Naval Intelligence, ONI, enforce the newly enacted Cole Protocol on commercial vessels. Along for the ride are a seasoned group of ODSTs jonesing for some action, and ready to tackle any hostile situation.

Despite their resistance and the newly enacted Cole Protocol, the Hierarchs of the Covenant are determined to wipe out humanity at all costs, and a group of Elites is set about on a holy mission. Led by Thel 'Vadamee, an ambitious Shipmaster, these Elites will stop at nothing to fulfill their duty.

Thus is the plot and inevitable conflict set for Halo: The Cole Protocol. I've never read any of Tobias S. Buckell's past works before and admittedly I found this novel a little difficult to get into. The Halo series of novels have been around since shortly after Halo: Combat Evolved launched on the original Xbox, and they all have a very well established tone and are excellent examples of finely written military sci-fi. Like any new author to a series, Buckell has his own style that he brings to the work, and there's always an adjustment for the reader, but once I got through the first few chapters, Halo: The Cole Protocol became a real page-turner.

Grey Team itself is not the focus of the story, these Spartan-II's take a supporting role in the narrative, but rather the people of the Rubble, particularily one Ignatio Delgado, Lt. Keyes, and Shipmaster 'Vadamee take centre-stage. What makes the novel ultimately so fascinating is how well it expands on the politics of the Covenant. We really learn a lot about both Elites and Jackals from this book, details about their culture we simply have never learned before, and it's fascinating! It's also interesting to read about a younger Jacob Keyes, to see what he was like before he became the Captain we all know.

While I wouldn't call Halo: The Cole Protocol the best of the Halo novel series, it is a well written book and worth a read for any fan of the franchise looking to expand his or her knowledge of this well crafted universe.

Gears of War: Aspho Fields Review

In 2006, Microsoft Game Studios and Epic Games released one of the most highly anticipated titles for the fledgling Xbox 360: Gears of War. Winning critical acclaim and taking the top spot as the most played game on Xbox LIVE, Gears of War was a huge success.

The game follows the exploits of Delta Squad, a group of four Gears (soldiers) on the war-torn planet of Sera in which humanity is fighting for it's very survival against a subterranean menace, the Locust Horde. Prior to this war, Humanity was engaged in a war amongst itself over fuel, the Pendulum Wars, which lasted decades.

Didn't know that last part? That's because though it's a killer game with great gameplay, Gears of War lacked any decent story presentation in-game. In fact, the only real source for backstory came from the "Destroyed Beauty" artbook that was bundled in with the Limited Collector's Edition of Gears of War, and if you didn't have that, you wouldn't know much of anything by playing the game itself.

And that's where Gears of War: Aspho Fields comes in. Written by the military sci-fi genius, Karen Traviss, author of the exceptional Star Wars: Republic Commando series, Gears of War: Aspho Fields leads straight into the blockbuster sequel, Gears of War 2.

The Locust Horde has been decimated by the deployment of the Lightmass Bomb, and their incursions have lessened and become less powerful. Is this the turning point of the war, the breath humanity needs to recover and strike back at the heart of this genocidal monster, or is there more going on than the Coalition of Ordered Governments, the COG, suspect?

The novel begins one week after the Lightmass deployment with Delta Squad on a routine patrol, managing another grub siting. While this is standard fare for Marcus and Dom, what they aren't prepared for is the sudden reappearance of an old comrade; a ghost from the past who holds a terrible secret about the Pendulim Wars, a secret that Marcus has kept from Dom all these years. A secret involving the fate of Dom's own brother, Carlos.

Thus sets the stage for the deepest look at the backstory to Gears of War that we've never had a chance to glimpse before. How did Marcus meet Dom? How and when did they enlist? Why does Hoffman have it out for Marcus? What is Marcus' history with Anya? And, most importantly, what really happened during the Pendulum Wars? Who were the factions, what was at stake? All of this is explored in flashbacks that nicely contrast the drama of the "present day" chapters.

Karen Traviss, as always, really explores the gritty side to being a soldier. The relations between the troops and their COs, the equipment, the terminology, it's all here in wonderful detail. Think Cole is just a great big, loud-talking kid? Think again. There's a lot more to Cole that never comes across in-game simply because the medium doesn't allow for that kind of character exploration. A novel does, while I liked Cole before, I have loads more respect for the character now that I _know_ what he's all about, deep down.

But of course, as we all know, the Locust do come back in force, and as the COG realize there's more at stake than they first thought and the Gears are called into action to defend humanity against a greater Locust threat, the situation of the present mirrors all too closely the tragedy of the past, and old wounds resurface that put loyalties, friends, and brothers, to the test.

Want to know more? Well, you'll just have to pick the novel up. That's the trick with novels, can't discuss too much of the story without talking about spoilers, and the kinds of details contained there-in are the ones you want to experience for yourself.

If you really want to understand what lead up to Gears of War, if you want to know who these steroid-ripped Gears are, what makes them tick, and even what makes the rest of humanity keep on going, Gears of War: Aspho Fields is your bible.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Buy 2 Get 1 Free at Toys "R" Us

Toys "R" Us has a great deal going on if you have a lot of games to by for Christmas. Right now, if you purchase 2 games at $89.99 each or _less_, you get another game of equal or lesser value for free.

I'm not sure how long this deal is going on for, but I've already heard a lot of stores are sold out of triple A blockbuster titles. If you want to take advantage, I'd act now!

Details here.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Character Pack 2 and Jedi Temple Mission Pack Released

Earlier this week, LucasArts released two new pieces of downloadable content for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed: Costume Pack 2 and the Jedi Temple Mission Pack. Both are available on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and the PlayStation Store.

Costume Pack 2 includes three new costumes for Starkiller, including Utility Combat Suit, Animated-style, and Spirit. You can also change Starkiller's skin completely to look like a Republic Trooper, Tatooine Luke, Ben Kenobi, Plo Koon, Count Dooku, Jango Fett, and C-3PO.

Costume Pack 2 retails for 400 Microsoft Points, however I couldn't locate the PlayStation Store's cost.

The Jedi Temple Mission Pack sees Starkiller traveling to the ruined Jedi Temple in search of information about his father. Along the way there are enemies to fight, puzzles to solve, and new Achievements to earn.

Be warned though, while I haven't played this myself, I've heard rumour it's extremely easy and can be completed in under 10 minutes. It does also contain six new character skins and three new costumes, however you be the judge if the cost is worth it.

The Jedi Temple Mission Pack retails for 800 Microsoft Points, and I was unable to locate the PlayStation Store's cost on this as well.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game Trailer

Anyone who grew up in the '80's should eat this right up, no explanation necessary.

New release date of June 2009!

Originally spotted at ActionTrip.

Xbox 360 Jasper Chipset Featuring Increased Onboard Flash Memory

While most products see hardware revisions during their life cycle, Microsoft has apparently increased the onboard flash memory of their Xbox 360 Jasper chipsets from 16 MB to 256 MB.

As TeamXbox reports, what this means is that Xbox 360 consoles containing this revised chipset will be able to install the New Xbox Experience straight to their onboard memory instead of requiring a storage device.

This is a positive move, however there's one question I'm not sure about that perhaps one of you can answer: Let's say I purchase an Xbox 360 Arcade console that has this option, log on to Xbox LIVE and get the New Xbox Experience. Afterwards, I attach my 120 GB HDD which already has the New Xbox Experience installed on it. What happens? Will the one from my HDD be removed since it'd be obsolete, or would I end up having two "copies?"

Comment if you know.

Gears of War Featured in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

Last week's episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, "Self Made Man," featured a brief sequence with Gears of War, though I couldn't tell if it was the original game or its recently released sequel.

The game featured a quick Splitscreen Versus match between John and some jerk at a party, and John got his butt handed to him, as it was his first time playing Gears of War and he was just tossed into it with no pointers.

The odd thing was it looked like one player was Fenix, and one was Dom, which indicates a C0-Op game and not Versus. My conclusion: The Locust Queen is Skynet.

You heard it here first kids, the big twist for Gears of War 3!

Anyway, this isn't the first time a Microsoft Game Studios and Xbox 360 title has been featured in the series, as Halo 3 was showcased last season.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

God of War: Chains of Olympus (PSP) Review

My first foray into the God of War franchise is the PlayStation Portable's prequel, God of War: Chains of Olympus, which just so happened to come with my Limited Edition God of War PSP Entertainment Pack. This also happens to be the first handheld game I've gone through since I was a kid with a Gameboy (I mean the original Gameboy from the '80's. Yes, I feel old), and while it can't compare to a full console system in terms of both graphics and scope, God of War: Chains of Olympus is an excellent experience that's simply a lot of fun to play.

Set about 5 years prior to the events of God of War, Kratos is fulfilling his servitude to the gods of Olympus on the promise that they'll remove the horrible memories of his family's murder. The game begins with Kratos in Attica, a city under siege by the Persian Empire. The Persian king has unleashed a Basilisk, a huge dragon-like beast minus the wings, and Kratos' main objective is to butcher the thing, a talent he is most skilled at.

Like its predecessors, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a third person action game where Kratos hacks his way through all opposition to accomplish his goals, solving a few environmental puzzles along the way for good measure. As the story progresses, Kratos finds himself enmeshed in a much larger plot that may hold dire consequences not just for gods and men, but for himself and his own personal desires, and he has no choice but to set off on another dire quest.

Using his trademark Blades of Chaos, swords attached to chains on his wrists, Kratos can unleash all manner of devastating moves and combos upon his enemies. As you progress through the game, you'll be able to acquire new weapons and items as well as Magic (handy for crowd control), and you can upgrade many of these by spending Red Orbs which you collect from defeating enemies, finding them in chests, and smashing stuff (Yay!).

Visually, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a very impressive little game. Again, while it can't match the power of a current generation console, the details and effects that the PSP is able to produce are truly beautiful, and on par with many last generation games. There are excellent smoke, water, and particle effects, character models are crisp and clean, animation is fluid, and environments are a visual treat.

Audio wise, the voice acting is average fair, with Kratos being the all-to-common gruff anti-hero, but the sound and creature effects are spot on. The music, however, is simply excellent, part of a growing trend I've noted in the industry with lots of titles featuring significantly improved composed pieces. The quality of the music alone really raises my opinion of the game's overall soundscape, as it goes a long way to helping immerse the player in God of War's mythical universe.

The controls for the game are very well implemented and wonderfully fluid. You use the Analogue Stick to move Kratos around, and the face buttons execute Light and Heavy Attacks, Jump, and Grab, all the standard fair you'd expect from a hack and slash. Left Bumper blocks, Right Bumper activates Magic in combination with face buttons, and Left and Right Bumper plus the Analogue Stick allows you to Evade (the only major control function that took a little getting used to for me). When all is said and done, the only thing you can't really do is adjust the game's camera angle, something normally reserved for the Right Stick on consoles, but of course this control-option is absent from the PSP. The game always determines your camera angle for you, but thankfully it does an excellent job of this, and I can count on one hand the number of times I was stuck with a bad angle.

One thing to keep in mind though is that God of War: Chains of Olympus is a short game, taking just over 6 hours for me to complete on Normal. While there were some challenges at this difficulty, both combat and puzzle related, most of the enemies are simply canon fodder for Kratos' wrath and they all fell quickly to my Blades. There are several varieties of foes, from common soldiers to mythical creatures (like Medusas) to larger enemies like Cyclops, and many enemies can be finished off with a Finishing move. Once they've taken enough damage, a face button will appear and float above their head. Get close to them and press the corresponding button, and you'll be tossed into a wonderfully animated sequence where you need to quickly press more buttons for a great looking finisher that nets you more Red Orbs, and sometimes Green Orbs which restore Hit Points, and Blue Orbs that restore Magic Points. The major trick with these Finishing Moves, aside from the fact that I'm used to the Xbox brand's face buttons, is using the Analogue Stick with them. Often, I found I just couldn't move that stick fast enough or at just the right angle to satisfy the game, and I'd get tossed out and have to try the sequence again. If you fail though, the sequence isn't just a repeat, but randomized, so you really do need to watch what pops up on screen.

Make no mistake, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a mature title. Not only does it feature a great deal of gore, but it also presents female nudity. Much to my surprise, the game features bare breasts everywhere, be it on statues, gods, or enemies. It's not the presence of breasts that took me by surprise, but the fact that Ready at Dawn was able to get away with including them so prominently and receive only a Mature rating.

Many of my younger readers may not remember, but during the mid-'90's many mature games began including bare breasts, not in a sexually manipulative sort of way, but simply as part of the character models being drawn. Diablo and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall are excellent examples of this, but then along came the public outrage with Duke Nukem 3D, and the censorship whip was cracked. Hilariously enough, Duke Nukem 3D didn't feature any actual nudity, the game's strippers still wore nipple tassels, but our sexually repressed society was greatly outraged and developers began to steer clear, instead once more obscuring breasts in different ways.

The fact that the God of War series has been able to successfully depict female breasts in the buff again is a step forward, not for horny teenagers who have yet to feel one and will drool all over their Controllers, but for the maturation of the gaming industry itself as a medium and an artform.

For replay value, the game's hardest difficulty is unlocked upon your first completion, and there are also extra costumes that grant various abilities which will become available to you. Specific game challenges are also unlocked that you can try to complete to unlock other costumes, videos, or concept art.

Despite it's short length, God of War: Chains of Olympus is an extremely polished game, and has opened the door to the first Sony-exclusive franchise that I don't hate. The fun I've had with God of War: Chains of Olympus has me seriously considering whether I should pick up a PlayStation 2 or not to experience the previous two titles, and it makes me wish the PlayStation 3 would still support backwards compatibility. If you happen to own a PSP, I see no reason why not to pick up this great little gem.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Gears of War 2: Limited Edition (Xbox 360) Review

Like it's predecessor, Gears of War 2 is one of the single most hyped games on any platform for this holiday season. In fact, if you're reading this, than it's highly likely that you already own a copy and have played it to death. It's generated huge hype, received excellent reviews, and is generally accepted as a smash success.

But me, I'm your average Joe, and like I said in my review for Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition (which you can find right here), I call them as I see them. Is Gears of War 2 "bigger, better, and more badass" as Epic Games loves to tote? To sum it up, yes, Gears of War 2 is a larger, more epic experience than the first game, but when all is said and done, Gears of War 2 suffers for the exact same reason: it amplifies the issues that weren't corrected from the first time around. To pull a quote right out of my Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition review: "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 2 begins with a nice little intro summarizing humanity's constant state of war, Emergence Day, and the eventual deployment of the Light Mass Bomb that you delivered at the end of Gears of War. While the COG thought the Locust Horde decimated, the Locust have returned in force and are pushing right at Jacinto itself, humanity's last city and safe haven.

While Gears of War didn't feature much in the way of a story, Gears of War 2 actually does. The characters are developed a lot better this time around, they're generally explored and fleshed out (even Jack, who's constantly around and useful to the point where I actually care for the little guy), and a lot of the concepts hinted at in the original game are brought to the forefront and built upon, if not completely revealed. While some of the story is rather hokey, let's face it, this isn't BioShock, it gets the job done, and even features a few moments that are really sad and touching.

I also feel it important to mention at this point that we actually get to see Anya more than once in the game, and Fenix isn't just standing there staring with a proverbial thought bubble above his head that says "Marcus see girl." This fact alone elevates the sequel above it's predecessor in the realm of storytelling. True, there's the odd part of the story that rather crumbles, and I thought the last third of the game got real sketchy from a story standpoint (not to mention the loss of feeling that you're a small part in a major offensive), but there's enough here to really call it an advancement and to set up another sequel.

Collectibles have also been revised, and even turned into a storytelling medium. In Gears of War, you collected COG tags scattered around the levels. Now, you collect various collectibles from COG tags, to documents, to books, and all of these collectibles provide story info with associated text, and they're actually quite a nice touch to the traditional item hunt.

As always though, I'm jumping ahead of myself, so let's get back to the beginning of the game. After a brief training period (that you can skip) in which you show Carmine the "Golden Rule," Marcus and Dom are called in to help repel another Locust incursion in a hospital. This here is tried and true Gears of War, in which you navigate beautifully designed levels taking cover and popping out to fire bursts at your enemy. The cover system is near identical to the original game, but it feels more refined, and a few moves are executed a little quicker and smoother, which is a big plus. The core gameplay mechanic of take cover, neutralize threats, and advance are just as addictive and satisfying as last time around, and it's the kind of experience that only Gears of War can offer.

Of course, the pop and gun gameplay is only as fun as the game's weapons and enemies, and thankfully, weapons like the signature Lancer Assault Rifle with it's wonderful Chainsaw bayonet return, and now you can ram your Chainsaw through an enemy's gut from behind, or engage in quick Chainsaw Duals with other Lancer-wielding foes. The Locust Hammerburst has also been redesigned, now functioning with more staggered bursts and a lot more kick, but it's better at long range and can blow an enemy's head clean off, something the Lancer is incapable of doing.

Other weapons, such as the Gnasher Shotgun and Longshot Sniper Rifle return with a few minor tweaks, and several new toys are introduced to add to the mayhem. I would say the highlight of these are the heavy weapons, such as the Mulcher and Mortar, large weapons that you carry around at the expense of movement, but they do significant damage (similar concept to the heavy weapons found in Halo 3) and add some nice variety to the game's standard mechanic. As does the Boomshield, an actual shield you can acquire to protect from all sorts of damage, and you can even stick it in the ground for use as static cover. It's simply a great, excellent innovation not only for damage reduction, but also as an expansion to the cover system.

Another overhaul on combat is the introduction of stopping power. Now, if you're shooting an enemy, they will actually slow down, which prevents people from simply rolling into you for a quick Shotgun kill, and changing the way the game is played forcing players to be that much more cautious.

Enemy wise, most of the Locust return, some with a few new tricks and others totally overhauled, and of course you have an assortment of new baddies to contend with. Most will make excellent use of cover and provide a suitable challenge, and with new enemies like the Kantus Monks who can bring non-gibbed Locust back from the dead, you're going to have your hands full.

Graphically, Epic Games has pushed the Unreal Engine 3 very nicely, and character models are more detailed, better lit, and they have more fluid animations than before. The game world itself is more vibrant than last time around, and Epic has been able to squeeze even more detail out of both environments and items. Simply watch the Lancer's barrel smoke and turn red after sustained fire to see what I mean. Awe inspiring, and as of this typing, Gears of War 2 stands as the best looking game I can think of on the Xbox 360. The game features some very nice panoramas, excellent cinematics, and larger (and more unique) locals than it's predecessor to fight in, which all add up for a visual delight.

Audio wise, the voice acting is the standard gruff fair like in the original game, and the sound effects are vivid and spot on. The game's soundtrack, though, is spectacular. So many of the game's compositions literally get you psyched up for battle, and I found myself humming them as I Curb Stomped Locust skulls in, and Curb Stomped I did.

Previously, you'd fill enemies full of lead and they'd die. Simple right? Well now, often times an enemy won't die right out (excluding blowing them to bits, of course), but they'll be Down but not Out, in which case they'll slowly crawl around bleeding out, trying to make it to an ally to revive them. If they reach an ally before you get to them or gun them down, they're revived and back in the action. If you get to them first, you can Curb Stomp them, perform an Execution (of which there are several delightfully nasty new moves), Pummel them to death, or pick them up as a Meat Shield, whip out your Pistol, and let them act as a bullet sponge for you. Get tired of lugging them around, you can drop them or break their neck with a satisfying snap that makes your own spine tingle!

The wonderful thing is that the Down but not Out system now applies to you, whether in Co-Op or Single Player. If you can get to an ally, they'll revive you, and you're right back in the game instead of loading that last Checkpoint. I literally yelped with glee when I first experienced this, simply because it's a solid offset to the game's horribly inadequate Checkpoint system, which has seen no improvement since the original game.

Seriously, what is it with console game developers and their obsession with shoddy save systems? Let me illustrate an example from Gears of War 2 for you. As shown in an early Campaign Gameplay video, towards the beginning of the game you're riding on these large vehicles called Rigs. After an exceptional cinematic showing the COG rallying for war to take the fight to the heart of the Locust, complete with awe inspiring music that really gets your adrenaline pumping, you're treated to one of the most poorly designed sections of the game that completely crushes the high you were just feeling.

Sections like these, and other such "turret sequences" found at several points throughout the game, are the exception to the wonderful cover and pop gameplay the series is so well known for, and they are the single biggest issue with Gears of War 2.

To continue with the current example, the Locust of course start attacking the Rigs, and as the Campaign Gameplay video showed, you need to shoot down Nemecyst and then some attacking Reavers. On the easier difficulties, this isn't too much trouble, but try it on Insane, and you'll be ready to put your Controller through your TV.

There is no margin for error in this sequence. A few Nemecyst hit the Rig, you die. That Reaver hits your Rig a few times, you die. The Down but not Out system has no bearing here, the cover system is useless, and it's a sequence that's clearly designed with Co-Op in mind, not Single Player, and is nothing more than an exercise in Checkpoint loading frustration. And what happens if you die? You have to load your last Checkpoint, but of course, it won't start you right at the beginning of the action, it'll start you at the beginning of the attack where you're forced to stand around and wait a minute before you can engage in combat. In short, just like the original game, the shoddy Checkpoint system kills momentum, pacing, and enjoyment.

It's the kind of design decision that makes you want to sit in a room with the developers and straight up ask them what were they thinking? Like it's predecessor, there are so many parts to Gears of War 2 that will thrill you, engage you, and provide you with experiences like no other game, but then Epic goes and drops the ball hard with several questionable design decisions that should have been stamped out earlier in the design process. There is a distinct love/hate relationship with Gears of War 2 because of this, and you suffer through these parts simply to get to the next rush, and I don't know whether to hate Epic Games for this, or to praise them for structuring the game well enough where I'll put up with the crap and keep going.

As many of you know from my reviews and posts, I have no tolerance what-so-ever for shoddy design. None. And why should I? In this industry that I love more than any other, in this industry that's doing so well that it now grosses more than Hollywood, why should I put up with something sub par? I can presently name you half a dozen titles, easy, that have been released this year alone that would qualify as must-own games, so if something has flaws, why should I spend my limited time on it? In the end, Epic Games should consider itself lucky that it has done more right than wrong, that the Gears of War 2 experience taken as a whole is so well done that horrible and inexcusable design decisions such as these "turret sequences" can be overlooked once passed.

Once you are done with the Campaign, which is a solid experience despite my above rant, you can then jump into the game's Versus and new Horde modes. Versus has the standard Multiplayer modes, but also some other interesting twists thrown in, like using a Stranded as a living flag to capture, and Horde mode sees up to 5 players working cooperatively against a maximum 50 waves of ever increasingly difficult Locust enemies. Gears of War 2 also features a wonderful Multiplayer training section in which the game shows new players the ropes in great detail, and this is an excellent edition that I really wish had been included in the first game. In fact, I was so impressed that a Multiplayer tutorial was includes, I actually played through it prior to touching the Campaign!

If you happened to spend the extra $10.00 on the Gears of War 2: Limited Edition like I did, you're treated to a wonderful SteelBook case which houses the game disc as well as the game's bonus disc. You also get a hardcover artbook, a code for a Gold Plated Lancer to be used in Multiplayer, and a keepsake photo of Dom and his wife Maria.

The bonus disc has a good "Making of" documentary called "Beneath the Surface," which highlights a lot of the design process on Gears of War 2, though honestly I found it mainly generic and forgettable unlike the original game's bonus DVD which showcased the relation and conflicts between developer and publisher. You also get some gameplay and cinematic trailers, an art gallery featuring character, weapon, and location development that has commentary but also likes to pause itself the second your Wireless Controller shuts itself off (and of course the bonus disc doesn't recognize the official Xbox 360 Media Remote), and there's also some Gamerpics that you can install to your HDD. Honestly, the bonus disc is rather disappointing save for the inclusion of four main tracks from the game's soundtrack, which as mentioned, are exceptional.

The hardcover artbook turned out to be all in French, and a softcover English book was thrown in for the rest of us. Not only is that a bit of a downer seeing as how we all paid for a hardcover book, but the artbook itself didn't provide us with anything we didn't already know. While the original game's artbook actually gave important backstory, the sequel's is, like the bonus disc, a bit of a letdown. At least Microsoft has put in place a program to have hardcover English artbooks sent out, though as of this typing I'm still waiting for mine.

Lastly, the Gold Plated Lancer codes weren't all working correctly at launch, but those issues are all fixed now and anyone can re-download them. But again, having an exclusive code that doesn't work right away isn't the best way to leave an impression, and overall, aside from the great SteelBook case, I have to say that the Limited Edition of Gears of War 2 is not worth it, and a disappointment over previous collector's editions.

So, there you have it. Bigger, better, and more badass indeed, but Gears of War 2 takes the scope of all it does well, and also amplifies all it does wrong. Beautiful graphics and intense gameplay are tempered with some shoddy level design and a horrible Checkpoint system, and the game's Limited Edition was rather lackluster as well.

Don't get me wrong, for all that Gears of War 2 screws up, it does a lot more right, but keep in mind that the game is not the be-all-end-all title for the Xbox 360. One major artistic element that Epic Games has constantly mentioned for their Gears of War franchise is that of destroyed beauty, how the world, the characters, and the encounters, the very style of Gears of War reflects that which once was beautiful, but has now fallen. It's a wonderful concept, and Epic Games has implemented it so well, that they may not even be aware that it's the perfect definition for their gameplay design, their mechanics, and their final product itself; the perfect definition for irony.