Sunday, March 29, 2009

Poll of the Week - How Do You Feel about Achievements?

Last week's poll asked "What's Your Take on DLC?" The results:

DLC is amazing, and well worth the cost! 1 Vote, 11%
DLC is great, but I often find it overpriced. 3 Votes, 33%
DLC has become a cash-in, and the content should still be free. 3 Votes, 33%
DLC is a waste of money, I save for new games. 2 Votes, 22%

Total Votes: 9

Looks like we have a tie, where most of you agreed that DLC itself is good, but that it's often overpriced or has plainly become a cash-in. Me, I voted for DLC becoming a cash-in, and should still be free. Why? Because I remember when DLC, before it was called DLC, was released readily and all for free by numerous publishers and developers. The sad part is that because we, the consumers, are willing to pay, publishers have realized that they can make millions charging for this content, so why would they stop? To read further about my thoughts on the subject, feel free to read one of my older editorials here written just under a year ago.

For this week's poll, let's chat about Achievements, or more to the point: "How Do You Feel about Achievements?" Feel free to vote on the top of the left hand sidebar.

World of Warcraft: Arthas - Rise of the Lich King

In April 21st, a new novel will be hitting shelves, entitled World of Warcraft: Arthas - Rise of the Lich King.

While I'm not a fan of World of Warcraft and MMOs, I am a fan of the Warcraft universe in general, and I really like the Arthas character from Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne.

Arthas is a great character, one who had much promise in the Warcraft universe and was fooled and tricked into become the Lich King of the Undead Scourge, a tortured, wretched soul and a shadow of the paragon he could have been.

This new novel will explore Arthas' life, from his childhood to when he claimed the Frozen Throne in Northrend.

To wet your appetite, you can read a preview, Chapter 3, right here.

Xbox LIVE 2008 Arcade Awards Results

The voting is done and the results are in for the second annual Xbox LIVE Arcade Awards! For the full list of the games and awards that you voted for, step right this way.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Halo Wars (Xbox 360) Review

Orcs in space. When Blizzard Entertainment first unveiled Starcraft to the world at E3 1996, the general disappointment by both fans and critics alike were summed up in this catch phrase. Blizzard Entertainment quickly scrapped their current build and restarted Starcraft from scratch, and the rest, as you know, is history.

Now, about 13 years later, Ensemble Studios releases their denouement title, an exclusive Xbox 360 RTS called Halo Wars. So what does Halo Wars have to do with Orcs in Space? Nothing. Everything.

The problem with real time strategy is that it truly is designed around a mouse and keyboard, not a Controller, so while there have been many attempts to bring the genre to consoles, none of these have been very successful. In recent years, there have been some valiant attempts at bringing a simple-to-control interface to consoles, notably by EA, and even though their efforts were well done, they still couldn't quite get it right and that's because all these games were RTSes ported from the PC to the Xbox 360.

Halo Wars, on the other hand, is a game that was designed around the Xbox 360's Controller from the ground up, and I can honestly say that it's paid off. Without question, Halo Wars is the single best console RTS I've ever played, and it's mainly thanks to the slick control scheme. It's still not perfect, there's still room for improvement, but Ensemble Studios has crafted the best Controller layout yet.

Halo Wars is a prequel to the Halo trilogy, and it takes place roughly 20 years prior to the events of Halo: Combat Evolved. It follows the exploits of the crew of the Spirit of Fire as they're sent to investigate the remains of Harvest and renewed Covenant activity on the planet, Harvest being the world of first contact between humanity and the Covenant.

One thing about the RTS genre is that much of the back story, both plot and characters, is told via the game's manual, which sets the stage for the simple yet gripping saga to come. Unfortunately, Halo Wars' manual is no where near as in-depth as many RTSes before it, and the game itself assumes you already know a great deal about the Halo universe. While there is a Timeline presented in-game (much of which you need to unlock as you play), it still doesn't provide all the necessary backstory, so if Halo Wars is your first Halo game, you will be lost. If not, however, and you've played through the entire Halo trilogy, you're in for a treat; especially if you've read the novels.

Halo Wars draws on a lot of material from the books, and what was once the expanded universe has now been made canon thanks to this game. We finally, at long last, get to see the Covenant Engineer, we get to see groups of Spartan-II's running around, and many other key characters and events from the novels are referenced in some form or another.

Halo Wars features all new characters, there is no Master Chief, Cortana, Johnson, etc. Instead, the new cast fills the standard RTS archetype roles. Captain Cutter is your traditional starship Captain, Sgt. Forge is Jimmy (and if you don't know who that is, I'm shaking my head in your general direction), Anders is the hot, pushy, science chick, and the Arbiter, not to be confused with the Arbiter from the Halo trilogy, is the game's visible bad-ass. While you do get to see all of Spartan Team Omega, you'll mainly play with Red Team, Jerome-092, Douglas-042, and Alice-130 respectively.

The Campaign is spread across 15 Missions, and the standard difficulties you'd expect from a Halo title are present. While there is plenty of replay value to be had, you can go back to collect Skulls, complete bonus objectives, and attempt to complete par times, the Campaign is only played from the UNSC's perspective. The Covenant is a fully playable faction in Skirmish and Multiplayer, but sadly, they do not have their own Campaign which would have done wonders to flesh the in-game story out further.

The Campaign missions range from the standard base building to objective types such as area protecting, VIP guarding, and even some really interesting missions on a ship's hull. Though the settings are nice and varied with distinctive themes, the truth is that the missions you'll play are nothing new to RTS veterans, though they are still quite fun and allow you to explore a much grander view of the Halo universe.

In addition to the Campaign, you can play Skirmish games with or against the AI, which is essentially simulated Multiplayer. Using any of the game's Multiplayer maps, you can choose to play as the UNSC or the Covenant (or let the game select your faction randomly), and select one of each faction's three Heroes to lead your forces (or select this as random as well), and play a Standard or Deathmatch game type.

In a Standard game, you need to build up your base and forces and destroy your enemy. Resource management has been simplified, made more automated, and you only need to collect supplies, advance your Technology level, and watch your population cap. Supplies are provided by structures such as the UNSC Supply Pad or the Covenant Warehouse, or you can collect Supply Crates you find scattered around the map. Your Technology Level is provided by UNSC Reactors or by researching upgrades at the Covenant Temple. Your population begins at a low 30 Squads, but you can upgrade this at the UNSC Academy or Covenant Temple to a total of 40 Squads. In a Deathmatch game type, all Technology is fully researched, you start with loads of Supplies, a smaller population cap, and limited structures that you can build. It's a game type meant for quick and dirty games, or for milking Achievements, but personally, as an RTS veteran, it's a game type that I can't take seriously as it offers no real strategy or resource management to take into account.

One major change to the RTS formula in either game type is the fact that your Supply buildings never run dry, they keep cranking out Supplies forever. This means that you're unable to starve your opponent, and gaining an Expansion simply to increase your cash flow is now more important than ever because the faster your resources come in, the sooner you can out manufacture or out tech your opponent.

Depending on which Leader you choose, you'll get a host of additional abilities, units, and unit upgrades, and the Covenant Leaders are actual, in-game controllable units. For example, Captain Cutter can call down a MAC Blast from orbit, can train an Elephant (a mobile Barracks), starts at a higher Tech level, and can upgrade Marines to ODST Super Units. The Arbiter has a Rage ability that can shred through targets at alarming speed, can upgrade to reflect damage and have Active Camouflage, and has access to Suicide Grunts. The leader you choose and how well you employ their unique skills and abilities can be a major turning point in battle.

The AI also handles itself very well be they your friend or foe (Play on Heroic or up). It has solid path finding, and if you send a Flare to a point on the map (By clicking the Left Stick), your AI allies will either attack, scout, or defend the area, depending. In fact, they'll also use Flares to try and coordinate attacks with you, which was most impressive!

Taking Halo Wars onto Xbox LIVE, you can play 1on1, 2on2, or 3on3 matches. My preference has always been 1on1, since it's just your skill against your opponent's, and so that's what I've played the most thus far. I haven't played enough to comment with authority on game balance, but both factions seem generally well balanced at first glance, but retain enough differences to keep things interesting. The Covenant has a less costly, more offensive play style, while the UNSC seems a little more defensive and resource dependent. Ensemble Studios tried to incorporate a rock>paper>scissors model but in practice, I've found this to be false. Generally, it's supposed to be Infantry>Air>Vehicles, but for the UNSC, one of their best anti-air units is a Vehicle. I've also found Air units to fare very poorly in the game, and are far too easily countered, and a healthy mix of Infantry and Vehicles combined with Leader Powers and Special Abilities will see you through.

The Matchmaking system will randomly choose the map for you, and find an opponent close to your Trueskill rating, and thus far it's done a nice job of keeping things both challenging and fun with games lasting about 20 minutes in duration. While the Campaign will certainly keep you busy for a while, and can be played in Co-Op, and Skirmish is great for practicing strategies, getting to know the maps and the locations of the Creeps, expansion points, and neutral structures, it's Multiplayer where the game really shines. It's just so much fun because, being a strategy title, there's so many options available to the player and you never know exactly what your opponent is going to do. They can try to rush, tech, fast expand, or any of the above and more. Scouting is thus so very important, just so you know what's going on and to allow you to counter accordingly, as you don't want to mass Marines if your opponent's massing Jackals. It really has been a long time since I've played a solid, well-polished, competitive RTS, and I never thought to do so on a console, yet here I am.

Visually, Halo Wars looks great. Units are very detailed and animated well, and the talking heads for mission briefings really takes me back further to Starcraft. The different environments are likewise nicely detailed with lots of doodads, as well as various fog and deformation effects. I was very impressed by watching a Covenant Locust walk across a frozen landscape, with its weight actually cracking the ice around it. You saw and also heard the area around each step start to crack! Warthogs leave tracks in the mud, vehicles loose parts as they're damaged, infantry look around when left alone; it's all little details like these which help bring some life to the game world. The game's cinematics are also very impressive. They're top-notch and of excellent quality, with beautiful detail and animation. Definitely worth watching again and again for any Halo fan.

Audio wise, Halo Wars is a masterpiece. Ensemble Studios not only got to use all the authentic Halo sound effects, but they also created an excellent host of new effects. The voice acting is well done by the genre's standards, and while units don't get "annoyed" if you rapidly click on them, they do have random chatter that you'll hear if they're simply standing around. The Marines, especially, have some great lines that always leave me chuckling. The music, while not done by Martin O'Donnell, is a wonderful score. It's very different than what we've heard in the Halo trilogy, but it still mixes in many Halo themes while also sounding somewhat like modern midi-music, which lends a distinctive retro feel to the game. Considering the play-style and controls match this feel, it all comes together as a nice package.

As I've already mentioned, Ensemble Studios has done an excellent job on the games controls. The D-Pad cycles through your bases, armies, and notifications, the Face Buttons issue orders, and really, the only major thing missing is unit groupings. While I understand that there wasn't room on a simple Controller for groupings, in the future, such functionality could be easily incorporated onto a Chatpad, and I say why not since many of us have this handy-dandy accessory. I would also have liked to have been able to Cancel out of the Spirit of Fire's menu by hitting Up on the D-Pad a second time, and double tapping Left Bumper to select All Units should also centre on the units, but these are just minor gripes. I was a little disappointed that you couldn't issue commands on the mini-map itself, and that the mini-map was generally hard to read. Personally, I found it simpler to use the Zoom Mini-map option which lets you see things more clearly at the expense of scope, but it does work better.

Base building is also simpler than the RTS norm. Instead of being able to build wherever you please, your central structure has building plots around it, the number of which is determined by how upgraded your central structure is, and you can only build buildings on those spots. This certainly makes things easier to manage, but it is more cookie-cutter restrictive, and honestly, I wish that the developers would have added one additional building slot to a fully upgraded base. Another reason why expansions are all so critical.

For those unaware, the Halo franchise began development as an RTS prior to Bungie's acquisition by Microsoft, at which point the project became a shooter, so it's quite natural that the universe's various factions lend themselves to the RTS formula. In fact, in many respects, there are several similarities to Starcraft: The UNSC are the Terrans, the Flood are the Zerg, and the Covenant are the Protoss. The control scheme, being as simple and effective as it is, reminds me of playing Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness back in the mid-90's. There are no unit groupings, no hotkeys, you have to select and pretty much manage everything first hand, and several ancient tricks still work well. Thus the reason why I feel like I'm playing Orcs in Space. Now do you see where I was coming from with my intro?

Don't mistake me either. While that term was once used as a criticism against Blizzard Entertainment, here, I use it as the highest form of flattery, considering that the Warcraft and Starcraft franchises are the best real time strategy titles out there, there is no better comparison. Halo Wars, in so many respects, is a trip down memory lane for the genre, which does mean that it won't change the way that RTSes are made or played. It has, however, pushed the genre forward on the console platform, and has shown that a solid RTS is possible with a limiting Controller so long as the game is properly designed for the platform. For this reason alone, Halo Wars is an excellent achievement, and a solid finish for Ensemble Studios.

Poll of the Week - What's Your Take on DLC

Last week's poll asked "Will Pulling Killzone 2 Bus Shelter Ads Reduce Violence in Your Community?", and while this poll had the lowest number of votes yet, here are the results:

Yes, our community is now safer. 0 Votes, 0%
No, ads don't make people violent. 0 Votes, 0%
There are better measures to reduce violence, and this was a waste of time. 5 Votes, 100%

Total Votes: 5

A total victory on how silly that situation was, so you can all guess what I voted for, and you can read my post here for a pretty good idea as to why. What I find ironic is that most of the Killzone 2 ads that were removed appear to have been replaced with Resistance Retribution ads, and yet no one's complained!

Now, for this week's poll. Fallout 3: The Pitt launches this coming Tuesday, and I have yet to see the Microsoft Point cost, but I'm guessing it'll be around 800 Microsoft Points. As an old school gamer, I'm used to developers and publishers releasing full fledged expansion packs for their games, generally a year after launch. Think of The Elder Scrolls IV: Shivering Isles or Halo 3: ODST as recent examples of what I mean.

An expansion set, a good one anyway, has completely new Missions or Quests, characters, enemies, weapons, it's essentially half a sequel, from a certain point of view, and they tend to run you about half the cost to maybe two thirds the cost of a retail game.

In today's market, however, expansion sets are significantly rarer, and publishers today have their developers cranking out DLC, simple little add-ons that might only add in the odd item, Quest, or maps, but can run you anywhere between $5.00 to $15.00. The irony is, DLC has existed since the '90's, though it wasn't called Downloadable Content, and it was always released for free.

Blizzard Entertainment, for example, released hundreds of free Multiplayer maps, they released various free Campaigns, sound tracks, etc. Other developers as well would released free maps and content, but now the norm is to charge for this kind of content, and of course, the younger generation gobbles it up.

So this week, I want to know: "What's Your Take on DLC?" You can vote at the top of the left hand side bar.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Watchmen (Feature Film) Review

Heralded as one of the greatest graphic novels of all time, adapting Watchmen into a feature film would be a monumental undertaking, no matter which way you look at it. Full of political intrigue, mature characters, and dark undertones, there's a lot of ground to cover for a simple two to two and a half hour film.

Which, I suppose, is why the final, theatrical release of Watchmen stretches to just under the three hour mark, and when I left the theatre last Sunday afternoon, the only thing I could think about was how I'd pretty much wasted that time sitting indoors on what was one of the nicest days of 2009. That's not to say that Watchmen is a bad film, I generally enjoyed it, but it really didn't live up to my expectations, and really, how could it?

Watchmen is a twelve-part comic series, and overall, that's just far too much material for a feature film, even one around three hours. So naturally, several key components got cut, and while I generally found that director Zack Snyder of 300 fame stayed true to the graphic novel given the limitations he was forced to handle, I couldn't help but think that Watchmen would have made a significantly better mini-series than a feature film.

Watchmen begins with the murder of the Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) by an unknown assailant, and Rorschach's (Jackie Earle Haley) investigation of "the mask killer." The world is poised on the brink of nuclear war, and officially, super heroes have been outlawed since the '70's. Again, while this translation can be viewed as a faithful rendition by some, it has the very negative effect of making the film drag. And drag. And drag. You see, Watchmen is an intelligent graphic novel, more on plot and characters and less on action and battles, but to sit through such a long feature without a healthy spattering of these elements was quite the chore.

To try and spice things up, Snyder took the liberty of altering one very key point, a point that I strongly believed should have been left alone. One central aspect of Watchmen is that all of these heroes, save for Dr. Manhattan (Billy Crudup), aren't super heroes at all, they're simply men and women who've dressed up to fight crime. In the film, however, many of them seem to possess super strength, punching through brick without breaking their hands, tossing people 20 feet, etc. While certainly entertaining, it really crushed that campy "reality" aspect to the heroes of the graphic novel, it removed that identifier that these were just average people who've gone to the extreme.

Another key theme that didn't come across very well was the global fear of nuclear war. Sure, it was mentioned and the heroes expressed their own fears and concerns, just like in the graphic novel, but what was absent was the general person's view on the whole situation. The comments from the news stand guy, the police investigations, everything that really opened up the public paranoia on this huge pending crisis simply weren't there which gave the film a much more limited scope.

At least they managed to capture key characters like Rorschach and the Comedian, minus the added "super" strength, and Night Owl (Patrick Wilson) turned out to be a little more, shall we say, less-suggestible than his comic book counterpart. In fact, I can honestly say that Rorschach and the Comedian are the main reasons to view the film, as their characters retain the real essense that made them so memorable from the graphic novel. Rorschach is as dark, psychotic, and at the same time dedicated has his inked counterpart, and the Comedian is just as bitter, violent, and ultimately tragic as we remember. They also captured Dr. Manhattan well enough, at least in physical form. Like in the graphic novel, he's not too big on clothes, so you spend most of his scenes looking at his glowing blue penis. Honestly, that's something I could have done without.

Watchmen is a mature graphic novel, so there is sex and nudity, however they really took this to the next level in the film. While I didn't have a problem watching some of the characters bump and grind, honestly, I didn't need to watch them do it for several minutes, and the sex of the film seemed more gimmicky to try and spice up the general tedium.

I have no complaints over Watchmen's visual style, which is very well done, but of course, this was to be expected by Zack Snyder. The costumes and art direction were modernized from the mid-80's, and this isn't a bad thing in my eyes and helped to increase the film's visual appeal.

Audio wise, the dialogue is taken straight from the graphic novel, including the excellent narration of Rorschach's journal, and the sound effects have that surreal, comic book feel. The soundtrack is a mixed bag, with passable composed pieces that worked, but I had a problem with several of the songs used that were referenced in the graphic novel. The songs themselves aren't an issue, but the graphic novel used them for their lyrics and the symbolism they represented, which was lost with the scaled down politics in the film, and these tracks just ended up feeling out of place.

So overall, while I found Watchmen to be reasonably entertaining enough, it could have been more, it could have been better, and really, it should have been split up instead of one solid film. While I don't regret seeing it, I could easily have missed it and not lost anything. In hindsight, it took several attempts to properly translate another great literary masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings, so perhaps one day, we'll see an epic realization of Watchmen. That day, however, is not today.

Mass Effect 2 Officially Announced

Somewhat anti-climactic since we've already seen the teaser trailer, but non-the-less: BioWare and EA have officially announced Mass Effect 2.

Set for release on the PC and Xbox 360, Mass Effect 2 promises to be larger and darker than Mass Effect ever was.

You can view the full announcement right here.

Fallout 3: The Pitt Trailer

The official trailer for Bethesda Game Studio's upcoming DLC, Fallout 3: The Pitt, is now available and can be viewed below (in low resolution), at the official site here, or via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fallout 3 (Xbox 360) Review

Every time Bethesda Game Studios gets set to release another game, I have mixed feelings of both anticipation and apprehension. Anticipation because Bethesda Game Studios develops the most immersive and detailed single player RPG environments I've ever played in, and apprehension because their games are digital crack, social life not required.

Every one of their game manuals begins with a forward detailing their open game world, how you can play however you like, and that you can live another life in their world. With a Bethesda Game Studios game, everything else in real life, friends, work, vagina, it all becomes secondary to exploring that beautifully crafted landscape, interacting with those wonderfully detailed characters, and solving the many Quests that are set before you.

It was like this with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition (still the greatest game I never "finished"), it was like this with The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and it's the same with their latest creation: Fallout 3.

Fallout 3 is set in the year 2277, 200 years after the end of a war between the United States of America and China that culminated with global nuclear destruction. Many people were able to survive in underground Vaults, and 200 years later, here you are. You are a member of Vault 101 located in the ruins of the Washington, D.C. area, and with this particular Vault, no one ever enters and no one ever leaves. That is, until your father somehow gets out and you have to escape to go in search of him.

Fallout 3 has one of the best introductions/tutorials that I've ever seen in a game, where you start out literally as a baby learning the various game mechanics. You quickly flash forward to different key points in your life, meeting some important characters along the way, and by the time you head off in search of Dad, you've been able to customize your gender and looks, modified your stats via the series' trademark S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system, and distributed your points to the Skills that you want.

I've often heard people describe Fallout 3 as "Oblivion with guns," and while this may be true on the surface (and it's hardly a bad thing considering that The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is, in my opinion, the best game available on the Xbox 360), the two games are very, very different in terms of their core mechanics.

Yes, you have a wide open world that you can explore anyway you want. Yes, you can interact with a huge assortment of characters with the same general dialogue system. And yes, you can spend a lot of time finding some really great loot, but these are all surface details.

For one thing, your character's stats do not increase normally throughout the game. You can increase your stats by wearing certain items, completing certain Quests, or by finding various Bobbleheads, but generally speaking, if you place a "6" as your Strength, expect it to stay that way for the bulk of the game. In short, the stats you select before you leave Vault 101 are much more crucial since they drastically affect you long term.

You can distribute Skill Points to your Skills ever time you level up, but there really isn't much in the way of specialization like there was in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you had to pick a Character Class and generally speaking, you were a combat, stealth, or magic-oriented character, but in Fallout 3, you can easily do it all. My first play-through of Fallout 3 took me just under 110 hours, and by the time I was done, I could use pretty much any type of weapon effectively, pick any lock, hack most terminals, barter well, win most Speech Challenges (percentage chances to influence someone in dialogue. Gone is the spinning disc mini-game with the oh-so-hilarious facial expressions found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion), and well, let's just say there's very little new for me to experience when I get around to doing my second play-through. This can all be both good or bad, depending on your point of view and what you want to get out of Fallout 3.

You're also saddled with a level cap at Level 20, which I reached about halfway through my play-through. This meant that aside from finding and reading various books in the game world, I spent a significant amount of play time with no chance to earn additional Experience or to further enhance my character's Skills, which diminished the feeling of accomplishment for completing Quests and defeating enemies.

Your inventory is also much more simplified than what Bethesda Game Studios has done before. While the general menus of your Pip-Boy 3000 are similar to those found in your Journal of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, instead of collecting full suits of armour, you simply have body armour and helmets, ammo doesn't weigh you down (I can carry 20 Mini-Nukes and 6,000 5.56 bullets with no problem!), and there's no restriction to how often you can heal yourself with items. Thank God for the invention of the Key Ring, however, which greatly reduces the clutter of your inventory.

Graphically, Fallout 3 is Bethesda Game Studios' best game yet. The Capital Wasteland is dark, ruined, and depressing. There's very different architecture between the downtown D.C. area and the game's outskirts, and most of the towns and settlements have their own distinctive flavours; no small feet in a drab, post-nuclear apocalyptic setting. Character models are also greatly improved over those found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. Faces are smoother, bodies are more proportionate and realistic, and I swear, I can't be the only one who found many of the female character models in Sexy Sleepware honest-to-God sexy (or maybe that's the social isolation caused by the game talking). The only hitch with character models I found was with their hair, especially on women. Often, a character model's hair looks like a plastic wig, but this is really a small complaint for such a grand world.

Audio wise, the game is quite a treat. The dialogue and voice acting for all the characters is top notch. Creature noises, like the snarls of Feral Ghouls or the laughter of Super Mutants fits in well, and weapons and ambient noises all sound like you'd expect them to. Musically, the game's general soundtrack is a lot more subdued and less epic than what was found in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but I loved all the retro tracks found in Fallout 3. The real delight, however, comes in the game's Radio Stations. Throughout radios all over the Capital Wasteland or via your Pip-Boy 3000, you can tune into two of the game's radio stations (as well as other signals you pick up along your travels), Enclave Radio or Galaxy News Radio. Both these radio stations feature full broadcasts, music, talk radio, radio shows, and on several occasions, their "DJ's" even make comment on the activities that you've been up to, which really helps to make you feel like your actions do make a difference in this wide open world.

And, as a Bethesda Game Studios Game, while graphics and audio are all icing on the cake, it's the exploration, the world, and the Quests that really bring about that digital addiction. The Capital Wasteland _is_ alive, and I'm not just talking about the Raiders, Radscorpians, and Deathclaws you'll find roaming the world. There is a full day/night cycle with days, weeks, and even months that can go by (but no weather patterns), and as you explore the Capital Wasteland, it's not uncommon for you to come across various factions fighting it out, wanderers simply exploring, or trade caravans moving from settlement to settlement. In fact, you'll often hear a battle going on in the distance and have no idea who's fighting who, but there's no obligation what-so-ever for you to check it out.

Travel around the Capital Wasteland is quite simple. You simply walk or run from point A to B. It's a fair sized map and there's a lot of ground to cover, but aside from any encounters you'll experience along the way, it doesn't take too long moving from location to location, that is, save for the downtown D.C. area. While out in the Wasteland itself you can simply run anywhere, downtown, you often have to travel through the city's dank, repetitive subway system to access the various sections. You see, after the bombs fell, many buildings were, of course, turned into rubble, and much of that rubble is now blocking the narrow streets. So, even though realistically you _could_ have climbed over it, Bethesda Game Studios forces you to go underground, which really frustrated me many times over. Not only are most of the subways the same bloody thing, but I don't want to fight or sneak past a bunch of Raiders or Feral Ghouls, I simply want to get from Point A to B and sometimes C to further a Quest. At least once you find a location, you can use the game's Fast Travel system to avoid lengthy journeys entirely, and of course, the subways are an overall small complaint given the scope of the world.

The Quests of Fallout 3 are some of Bethesda Game Studios most detailed, lengthy, and involved yet. The main Quest and its story are very well done (save for the anti-climatic ending, which I won't ruin here), and there's several great side Quests for you to embark upon. The problem I found is not with the Quests themselves, but with the fact that there's so few of them. Unlike The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, there's little in the way of real character specialization, and no Guilds to join. So for comparison, in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion my first play-through took about 120 hours where I did the main Quest, joined the Fighter's Guild, fought in the Arena, did some side Quests, found the cure for my Vampirism, and completed several unnamed Quests. After all of this, I was still able to come back with different kinds of Characters and not only repeat certain Quests from a different perspective, both in terms of Skills and moral intent, but I was also able to join different factions, such as the Mage's or Assassin's Guild and experience entirely new Quests. That's well over 200 hours of play. In Fallout 3, there's only 1 Quest that I have not completed, and while there are several unnamed Quests, their more like tasks since the ones I've experienced thus far only take a few minutes at most.

This greatly lessons the replay value of Fallout 3, and while I certainly can't complain given that 110 hours is like playing through Halo 3's Campaign 11 times, it is still very sad to see how much more detailed the Capital Wasteland is compared to Cyrodiil, but how much less substance that world actually contains.

At least this time around you don't have to venture alone. In Fallout 3, you can gain Followers who will follow you around and help you in combat, and while their AI isn't perfect, they do help out greatly, and you can equip them to toughen them up further. The trick about Followers is that they're dependant on your Karma. In Fallout 3, your actions will net you Good, Neutral, or Negative Karma, and this will affect how NPC's perceive you in the world, as well as which followers will join you or not when asked. This is a great way to mix things up a little, and it'll allow you to have some different companions on multiple play-throughs. In my game, I made use of 3 different Followers for the fun of it, and found I became really attached to them.

Combat wise, the game is standard fair with what you'd expect from Bethesda Game Studios, save for the inclusion of V.A.T.S., the Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System. The Fallout series was originally turn-based, and Bethesda Game Studios kept in as much tradition as they could. V.A.T.S. brings about the illusion of turn-based combat by pausing the game and allowing you to select what parts of your enemy you want to shoot at, showing you a percentage chance to hit, and allowing you to attack based on the number of Action Points that you have left. V.A.T.S. is a great system that can really save your ass in a fight, and you can do some very precise shooting once you increase your Skill with your weapons, though I did find it very annoying when V.A.T.S. would tell me I had a 95% chance to hit a target, and then all of my shots simply hit the ground or a railing right in front of me. Note that V.A.T.S. doesn't always take environmental objects or elevation into account when calculating those percentages.

The game's economy is handled slightly differently than what Bethesda Game Studios has done before. In The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, you could take all the loot you could carry and sell it to most vendors you came across, traditionally at a general merchant in any town. In Fallout 3, merchants actually have a limited number of Bottle Caps (the game's currency) in which to buy items, so you can actually milk them dry and have loot left over to sell, which I found annoying. Town merchants tend not to have a lot of cash, but you can hit up the Trade Caravans who travel from town to town, but unless you invest in them (related to a side Quest), they also have a small amount of funds. Once, I actually spent a full 3 in-game weeks, mainly sleeping to pass the time and allow merchants to re-build their collection of Bottle Caps, in order to sell a huge amount of loot I'd collected, and I had fully invested in all the Caravans. This took me just over an hour in real time, but by the time I completed the game's main Quest, I had over 70,000 Bottle Caps, so I could buy anything or pretty much anyone I wanted.

So what's the final verdict? Fallout 3 is, simply put, one of the best Single Player RPGs I've ever played. I personally feel that it falls short of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, that it has less replay value then Bethesda Game Studio's previous effort, but it is still an epic game by all accounts. As a whole, there is simply so much to see and to do in Fallout 3, so keep in mind that the game requires a significant time investment, but if an immersive, single player RPG is what you're looking for, then you'll get far more than your money's worth with Fallout 3.

A game like Fallout 3 only comes along once every few years, coincidentally when Bethesda Game Studios gets around to releasing another game, and you'd do well to add this title to your collection. Simple words, and a review this short, do not do it justice, and it's an experience you need to live first hand to truly appreciate. Now go out, explore, find Dad, and tell your real life to hold all calls.

Poll of the Week - Will Pulling Killzone 2 Bus Shelter Ads Reduce Violence in Your Community?

Last week's poll asked you "Do you Think Halo Wars is Revolutionary?", and while again the number of voters is small, here's the results:

Yes, it will change the RTS genre as we know it. - 1 Vote, 11%
It won't revolutionize the genre as a whole, but it will change console-based RTSes forever. - 6 Votes, 66%
I only bought it for the Halo 3: Mythic Map Pack. - 0 Votes, 0%
It's not a shooter, so I'm not touching it. - 2 Votes, 22%

Total Votes: 9

"It won't revolutionize the genre as a whole, but it will change console-based RTSes forever" is the clear winner, and that's what I voted for. I have never been this impressed with a console RTS, and while it can't touch the complexity of a PC RTS, there's a lot of potential here and hopefully developers will now be able to further the genre further on the console-based platform.

I only have 2 Missions left in the Campaign, and while it is rather simplistic, Halo Wars is just plain fun, and it really feels like I'm playing some classic RTSes from yester-year. I'm really looking forward to trying out some 1on1 multiplayer action.

Now, turning to this week's poll. The subject of this week's poll revolves around the pulling of Killzone 2 ads across bus shelters in Toronto because some felt the ads were too violent. The linked post details my thoughts, but I want to hear from you: "Will Pulling Killzone 2 Bus Shelter Ads Reduce Violence in Your Community?"

Vote to the left and speak up! Feel free to leave your detailed comments on the matter in this post.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Killzone 2 Ads Pulled from Bus Shelters

Earlier this week, Sony removed about 300 bus shelter ads for it's recent PlayStation 3 exclusive shooter, Killzone 2. The reason: They received numerous complaints that their bus shelter ads were too violent.

As described in this Toronto Star article, the offending posters are those of the game's box art (pictured left), a masked character with glowing red eyes and a breathing tube.

One of the core complaints came from school teacher Davis Mirza, who believes the ad subjects children to violence and war, and that such things are unnecessary in the Scarborough area of Toronto, which already has it's share of violence.

Prior to scrapping the entire bus shelter campaign, additional ads were pulled from Toronto's Regent Park area due to similar complaints lodged by Councillor Pam McConnell's office.

My thoughts on the whole affair? A complete overreaction and fear-mongering. While I respect both Mr. Mirza's and Councillor McConnell's opinions and their overall intent to help protect children from violence, pulling the bus shelter ads for Killzone 2 accomplishes nothing but to perpetuate ignorance.

Firstly, the ad itself shows nothing explicit, and can be easily compared to various artwork I've seen of Darth Vader, a popular Star Wars character in children's eyes. Secondly, I have seen far more offensive ads on bus shelters, that, to the best of my knowledge, were never removed due to complaints. These include ads for various feature films, lingerie, and fragrance lines. Thirdly, Killzone 2 is a mature-rated game, which means it can not be legally sold to anyone under the age of 17. In fact, you open up any newspaper or turn on any news channel, and I'll show you imagery more violent than that which is found in this bus shelter ad.

On a personal note, I am now 28.5 years old. I have lived in Scarborough all of my life (and have chosen to remain here), I have been playing violent video games ever since I can remember, and I for one do not encourage real violence and have not been "corrupted" by video games. I have a healthy social life, career, and am generally considered a very responsible, polite, and easy-to-get-along with individual.

The removal of the Killzone 2 bus shelter ads is filled with the simple scape-goating tactic of deflecting blame and responsibility that we've all seen before, with video games now as the focus of every one's "it corrupts us" scare tactics. The fact is, the world is and always has been a violent place, life is hard, and it's up to parents, as responsible adults, to teach their children what is right and wrong, and what is real and make-believe.

When I was a child, my parents would not only watch the video games I'd play, but they'd also try them (even though they generally weren't that good at them) and discuss them with me, and they made sure I knew that they were just a game and not real life, that the contents of the game were not and could not be applied to reality. So, why don't other parents do this?

Today, as previously mentioned, it is now illegal to sell M-rated games to children. This means that if a parent does not want their child playing Killzone 2 or any other such M rated title, they or someone else must purchase the game for them. Game consoles of this generation come with parental controls that allow them to prevent M-rated titles from being played, so even if the child is able to acquire the game, the parent can still prevent it from ever working.

Yet most parents are either "too busy" or too intimidated by the technology to learn about their own child's hobby, which leads to young kids playing games meant for a completely different audience. So who is to blame for this? The developers for making the violent game? The publishers for marketing the violent game? Or the parents for being too irresponsible to take 5 minutes to Google a title to see if it's appropriate, or reading the console's manual to learn about Parental Controls, and for allowing the "offending" media into their household to begin with.

So in the end, what does the removal of Killzone 2 posters do to remedy violence in our society? Nothing. Nothing but allow irresponsible adults to point their fingers at someone else and scream "Won't somebody please think of the children!"

Gears of War 2 Title Update 3 and Snowblind Map Pack Officially Announced

Yesterday, Epic Games officially announced the third Title Update for Gears of War 2, as well as a new Map Pack entitled Snowblind.

The third Title Update, which will be released on March 24th, includes many additions and changes, including a new experience-based ranking system, balance changes, exploit fixes, new Achievements, and various other improvements. For full details on what the Title Update will contain, head here.

The Snowblind Map Pack, to be released on March 31st, includes four Maps, Grind Yard, Under Hill, Courtyard, and a remake of the Gears of War map: Fuel Depot. The Maps are all winter themed, and several of the third Title Update's new Achievements will require this Map Pack to earn.

Fable to be this Week's Xbox LIVE Marketplace's Deal of the Week

This week's upcoming Xbox LIVE Marketplace's Deal of the Week will feature Lionhead's classic Xbox RPG, Fable.

Normally on sale for 1,200 Microsoft Points, Fable will be available for 800 Microsoft Points, a savings of 33%.

While I have yet to try the sequel, Fable is an excellent game and a great satirical action RPG that's well worth your time.

News spotted at TeamXbox.

Three Additional Fallout 3: The Pitt Screenshots Released

With only a few weeks away now, Bethesda Softworks is teasing us further with three additional screenshots for their upcoming Fallout 3 DLC entitled "The Pitt."

You can check out all the screenshots right here, and Fallout 3: The Pitt will be available on March 24th via Xbox LIVE and Games for Windows LIVE.

BioShock 2 Big Sister Unofficially Revealed

The BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams teaser site has been updating all week with additional info about child abductions along the Atlantic coasts of both Europe and North America, indicating that the individual performing the abductions may be a woman in a diving suit.

Earlier this week, Game Informer revealed the cover of their upcoming April issue, with the top story being the revealing of the Big Sister who will be awaiting our return to Rapture.

The question remains then, will we see any additional Big Daddies?

News spotted at ActionTrip.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Watchmen (Graphic Novel) Review

It has been called "the most celebrated graphic novel of all time," and Watchmen mania has certainly heated up over the last several weeks. The feature film adaptation was just released this past Friday, and every one's excited about seeing this epic come to the silver screen. In anticipation of seeing Watchmen, a friend lent me his copy of the graphic novel so I could read it prior to viewing the film (which I'm expecting to watch this coming Friday).

Written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons, Watchmen is set in the Fall of 1985, New York City. The Comedian, a super hero and US government agent, has just been murdered in his own home by an unknown assailant, and more and more heroes are meeting ill ends. Rorschach, one of the last active super heroes since the government outlaw of masked vigilantes in the '70's, suspects a plot to eliminate all former costumed adventures, and he begins an investigation into what is a very dark world.

Make no mistake, Watchmen is not a kids comic. It is a very mature graphic novel, featuring violence, sex, and significant political references to key undertones of the time period. It is also very interesting to note that all of these "super heroes" are simply regular people in costumes fighting crime; none of them have super powers save for Dr. Manhattan. Rorschach is disturbed and excessively violent. Night Owl has loads of gadgets. Silk Spectre's great at martial arts. You get the idea.

The alternate history provided due to super hero intervention in our society, as well as the constant looming threat of nuclear war with Russia, is very well played, but it's the characters, their history, and the societal mentality behind super heroes itself portrayed by Watchmen that really interested me.

In fact, Watchmen is not an action oriented comic series, but rather, a deeply written detective story greatly reflecting the Cold War state of the mid-'80's. The graphic novel is spread out over 12 issues, and while constantly evolving the overall plot, many issues have a key focus, often on a specific character, illustrating their back story, how they came to be what they now are, and glimpsing at how that's relevant to the grander picture in motion behind the scenes. While I found the series started off slowly, once it got going it really took off, really sucked me in, and was very hard to put down. There is _a lot_ of depth in Moore's writing, so many connections, and it's truly fascinating.

I mean seriously, what possesses the average person to dress up in a costume and fight crime at 3:00 am? Moore explores that from different angles, giving several possible reasons with each different character. How would society really react to such super heroes? How would the police force? What kind of changes would people like this have on not just the Western world, but the world as a whole? Again, Moore explores this to, and so many of his explorations are so very subtle, and slowly drawn out that it keeps you anxiously reading from issue to issue.

My only gripe, my only major let down with Watchmen would have to be the ending. Without spoiling it for you here (and apparently the ending's been changed somewhat for the feature film), I found the graphic novel's final issue to be excessively anti-climactic, and I felt that there was no pay-off for everything that we were being led to, it really left me with a sense of "That's it!?!?" Again, I can't discuss it here, but I expected more, something a little more definitive and providing a little flare, and something that would provide a more suitable climax for such great and memorable characters.

Despite this, however, Watchmen is an excellent read. I don't think I'd call it the greatest graphic novel ever written, but it's certainly different than your run-of-the-mill comic series, very mature in both its writing and the issues that it tackles, and this makes it unique and well worth the look.

Poll of the Week - Do You Think Halo Wars is Revolutionary?

Last week's poll asked you "Which is your Favourite Entry in the Halo Trilogy," and though the number of voters was small, here are the results:

Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) - 2 Votes, 20%
Halo: Combat Evolved (PC) - 1 Vote, 20%
Halo: Combat Evolved (Mac) - 0 Votes, 0%
Halo 2 (Xbox) - 3 Votes, 30%
Halo 2 (Vista) - 1 Vote, 10%
Halo 3 - 3 Votes, 30%

Total Votes: 10

Halo 2 (Xbox) and Halo 3 tied for the first spot. I personally voted for Halo 2 (Xbox), as it truly was a revolutionary experience in so many ways. While Halo: Combat Evolved (Xbox) was an exceptional first person shooter, and done on a console no less, Halo 2 introduced several game mechanics not yet seen on the PC platform:

- Vehicle Boarding
- Dual Wielding
- Weapon Swapping with Generic AI Allies
- Excellent Friend and Foe AI (Beat all other PC shooters I played in 2004)

Halo 2's Campaign offered such a varied experience, that I played through it half a dozen times and almost every play through I could approach each battle very differently, depending on what weapons or vehicles I used. Few shooters even to this day have matched the replayability of Halo 2's Campaign and can present the gamer with so many simple yet fundamental options that greatly alter their gameplay experience.

And keeping with this tone, this week's poll is entitled "Do You Think Halo Wars is Revolutionary?"

Vote now, and let us know what you think!

BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams Teaser Site Launched

The official teaser site for BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams launched last week, and though there's not much there just yet, it's started off with an interesting little missing child case, and has expanded to an investigation on a few other abducted children in Europe along various coast lines.

Looks like what may be a new kind of Big Daddy is abducting young girls.

I'll be following this site and I'm quite interested to see what further details they reveal. According to the date on a newspaper clipping, it's 1967, which places it 7 years after BioShock, so it looks like BioShock 2: Sea of Dreams will be a sequel and not a prequel after all.

You can check out the teaser site right here.

Fallout 3 Update and New The Pitt Screenshots

A new Update has been released for the Xbox 360 and Games for Windows versions of Fallout 3 in preparation for the release of the upcoming DLC, Fallout 3: The Pitt.

The Update mainly preps the game for the DLC and adds some related achievements, and full details can be found here.

Bethesda Softworks has also three new screenshots up for Fallout 3: The Pitt, which you can view right here.

Halo Wars ViDoc - Universe Expanded: Halo Wars Parts 2 and 3

Last week, the second and third parts to the Universe Expanded: Halo Wars ViDoc was released to the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, and you can download them here and here, or simply watch them below.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Coraline Review

Many of you have probably heard of or seen Coraline, the latest stop frame animated feature by director Henry Selick, who's most famous film would be The Nightmare Before Christmas. Like the classic of old, Coraline is entirely animated and contains a "real world" and a "fantasy world," filled with unique and colourful characters who will capture both your imagination and sense of innocence.

Coraline (Dakota Fanning) and her family move to a new home in the country, and while she's fascinated by her new neighbours, such as the eccentric performer Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane) and the annoying and nerdy local boy, Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), she's equally frustrated with her parents lack of time or attention for her. Coraline's mother (Teri Hatcher) and father (John Hodgman) are so wrapped up in their gardening work, they push her aside as often as possible. Until Coraline gets a special doll that happens to look just like her.

Setting about a string of unusual events, Coraline finds a hidden door in her new home that takes her to what appears to be a mirror world, a world where every thing's the same as in reality, but in the exact way that Coraline herself would like. Except everyone in this world has buttons for eyes. It's here that Coraline meets her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher), a loving and attentive version of her real mother who would do anything for her "daughter." Or would she?

Things are not all bright and cheery as they first appear in the other world, but really, when all is said and done, the plot for Coraline is rather basic, simple, and somewhat predictable. In fact, I personally couldn't recommend the film on the strengths of it's plot, or voice acting, or even it's animation, which is excellent though nothing we haven't seen before. No, the major draw, the only real reason I'd recommend seeing Coraline in theatres is simply because it's brought to us in 3D.

Upon entering the theatre, you're provided with a set of 3D glasses (that resemble sunglasses instead of the cheesy red and blue glasses of old), and even many of the previews before the feature are brought to us in 3D. It's also not the traditional 3D effects of old, objects and characters don't typically jump out at you, instead, this optical illusion is a wonderful perception of depth. Think something along the lines of a children's pop-up book, where certain objects appear closer than others. This is actually a very fitting analogy, given the fact that the film is based on a children's book.

The 3D effects are great, and there's several instances where some objects appear to enter the screen from behind your shoulder, first seen in your peripheral vision. Admittedly, I found I got somewhat desensitised to the 3D effects about half-way through the film and they all started to blend in, but they were still fun to watch never-the-less.

To sum it up, Coraline is not an exceptional film, but it is a fun film with some great tech behind it. There are also several other animated features coming out soon that will make use of this new 3D effects, and I'm already considering seeing a few of them just to wear those bulky glasses again.

Triple A Price Drops/Platinum Hits

While walking through my local mall yesterday, I noticed an interesting price drop as well as a great Platinum Hits inductee.

At Best Buy, I finally saw the remaining copies of the Halo 3: Limited Edition drop below their initial selling price (minus inflation adjustments), and you can now find it for $34.99, which isn't too bad. Considering the retail version of Halo 3 sells for more, you're better off getting this edition, just watch out for scratched discs!

You can also find Assassin's Creed there for only $19.99 now. At that cost, it's good repetitive fun.

Lastly, while checking out the mall's Wal-Mart, I saw that BioShock has been officially inducted in the Xbox 360 Platinum Hits program. If you missed out on this exception single player shooter with RPG elements, now's an excellent time to descend into the depths of Rapture.

Poll of the Week - Which is your Favourite Entry in the Halo Trilogy?

With the new layout, I've decided to start tinkering with something new for the blog: simply Polls.

To start off, I've decided to go with a relatively classic and straightforward question: "Which is your Favourite Entry in the Halo Trilogy?"

You have a week to cast your vote, and you'll find the poll to your left just under our Gamer Cards.