Monday, December 28, 2009

Top 3 Games of the Year, 2009

Another gaming year draws to a close, and while 2009 saw some very interesting developments on the gaming front, I personally found it to be a much slower year than the previous two with much fewer heavy weight titles taking my interest.

As always, my top 3 can be games from any platform, however this year I almost gamed exclusively on my Xbox 360, so that's where my choices will come from. Also, since I'm not a professional reviewer, I don't get games for free and I simply review what I buy. Keep that in mind when reading the below selections and noting the absence of the occasional triple A release.

3) Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3). While Fallout 3 is a 2008 release, 2009 saw the launch of it's 5 DLC Add-Ons and this fall, the game was repacked at retail to include all of this content, the Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition. While the 5 DLC Add-Ons are not a traditional expansion set, as they're 5 different experiences added to the Capital Wasteland, overall they amount to about the length of a traditional, focused expansion set and they add a great deal more play time to Fallout 3.

The Capital Wasteland already offers players a large amount of content to explore, taking well over 100 hours for a playthrough, and the DLC content just adds that much more to the experience, and one of them even extends the main Quest and raises the level cap.

Leaving the Vault in which you've been sheltered in since your childhood, you set off in pursuit of your father through the nuclear wastes of post-apocalyptic DC, and your very actions and experiences with the denizens of the wastes will change the course of history.

The sheer amount of variety alone, combined with the solid production values, places Fallout 3: Game of the Year Edition as our third place spot.

2) Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3). The surprise hit of the year, Batman: Arkham Asylum came out of no-where and wowed just about everyone who touched this awesome title. Simply put, this is the single greatest super hero game ever developed, and Rocksteady Studios really captured the feel of being Batman, giving it the grim, dark atmosphere of the comics.

Weighing in at about 20 hours, Batman has to stop the Joker and co who've taken control of Arkham Asylum. With smooth combat, gameplay mechanics, and a superbly written story line with top notch voice acting all the way, Batman: Arkham Asylum delights and entertains.

What could have made this wonderful package even better? The initial release price of $39.99, brand new. Started by Walmart, other retailers were forced to follow suit, and since then, we've seen many other high profile titles begin retail at this extremely low cost; a trend I'd love to see continue.

1) Halo Wars (Xbox 360). Innovation. When was the last time you played a game that really innovated and took things to a whole new level, that provided you with an experience you simply have not had before? I'm not talking about a sequel that takes what was awesome about its predecessor and improves upon it, I'm talking about something that really does something new. Yeah, I thought so. Doesn't happen often, does it.

Forget that Halo Wars is set in the Halo universe, that's just a very fortunate by-product. The simple truth is that Halo Wars has provided us with the first, solid, easy-to-manage-and-enjoy RTS on a console. Ever. This genre, once believed to be achievable on a PC only has now been brought to us on the Xbox 360, and while Halo Wars is simpler fair than it's PC RTS cousins, it still features strategy, tactics, and a simple-to-use interface.

Without question, Halo Wars is the single most innovative game I've played through all of 2009. It was original, fun, and proved the impossible could be done. Both with the Campaign, Skirmish, and Multiplayer, I've spent well over 30 hours with the game and will continue to play through it, and the greatest tragedy is that this fine title was Ensemble Studios' swan song and I'm not expecting to see a sequel ever developed.

Regrettably, the console crowd isn't big on RTSes, and so Halo Wars' sales were no where near as strong as its shooter brothers, but that doesn't change the fact that Halo Wars broke more ground than any Halo title in the last few years, and certainly gave us an experience unrivaled on the platform this year. If you're looking for a unique experience that isn't your run-of-the-mill cookie cutter game, check out Halo Wars. The simple fact that Ensemble Studios took a chance at porting this genre to another platform, the fact that a developer took this kind of a risk when most other companies simply safely re-hash what's come before sets it above the ruck of titles this year, and earns it our 2009 Game of the Year.

Top 3 Novels of the Year, 2009

Continuing with our yearly round up, we now bring you the Top 3 Novels of 2009. Looking over the list of everything I've read this year, I've actually just realized that there was little in the way of new novels that took my interest, however unlike the silver screen what there was was strong in the offering.

3) Star Wars: 501st - An Imerpial Commando Novel. Continuing the military sci-fi saga set in the popular Star Wars universe, Star Wars: 501st - An Imperial Commando Novel continues the tale of Omega Squad. The Republic has been overthrown and the Empire has risen and the remaining Republic Commandos now serve as operatives of the 501st, Vader's Fist. All save the Clones that have fled with Kal Skirata.

Skirata and his band of Mando's have set up a safe haven on Mandalore for any clone deserters, and Skirata has taken it upon himself to raise the child of his adopted son Darman, who is stuck with the 501st, and Darman's Jedi wife Etain, killed during the purge. This task is further complicated by the Imperial Garrison that has stationed itself upon Mandalore, and the changing galactic political situation that is affecting everyone.

Slower than the other novels of the series, Star Wars: 501st - An Imperial Commando Novel deals more with the fallout of the changes wrought by Order 66 and the events of the previous novel. Despite this change of pacing and more emotional take on the plot, the characters are still as solid and gripping as ever, and Star Wars: 501st - An Imerpial Commando Novel is another excellent, gritty, military novel.

2) Gears of War: Jacinto's Remnant. And when one thinks of gritty, they certainly think of the Gears of War universe. The Locust Horde has finally been defeated, but at great cost, for the battered remnants of humanity have lost their last city in the process. Jacinto is no more, and the leaders of the COG now must face another great threat, that of providing simple shelter and food for their people.

Once more, I need to commend Karen Traviss for her work in the Gears of War universe. For a franchise not known for any great story or deep characters, she adds a great deal of depth, emotion, and purpose to Delta Squad and co.

Picking up where the sequel leaves off, Traviss follows her previous formula of contrasting current events with flashbacks, this time with the original deployment of the Hammer of Damn in humanity's darkest hour. In the present day, can people learn to co-exist with one another again without the common cause of a deadly foe, and what purpose will the Gears now play during peace time?

All of this Traviss explores with here usual depth of character, descriptive environments, and emotional connections.

1) Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe. I can honestly say I wasn't expecting much from a novel that was a collection of shorts, but without question it turned out to be the strongest Halo novel I have yet read.

Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe takes a look at so many aspects of the rich Halo universe, from before the war to during to after. From the side of the UNSC, the Covenant, and even the Flood, there's a lot of new ground covered throughout this compilation. Not only that, but the fact that the several stories are penned by different author's gives each tale it's own feel, it's own style, and yet they're all connected by the greater Halo lore.

There are many character driven and action pieces, a nice horror story, and even some poetry, and when all is said and done Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe has a little something for everyone, and for the Halo nerd, a wealth of new information not yet gleaned anywhere else. All of that aside, it's also some damn good military sci-fi, and I'm please to award Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe our Novel of the Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Top 3 Movies of the Year, 2009

In stark contrast to last year, it looks like the silver screen is back to its usual standards: being in decline. For the most part, this was a ridiculously disappointing year for films; there was little that sparked my interest and very little that I went to theatres to see. However, that doesn't mean there wasn't three solid films in some form or another, so without further delay, here's the top 3 movies for 2009:

3) Coraline. Coraline takes the third spot for a couple of reasons: a) It was a decent adaptation of a children's book, b) The use of 3D animation coupled with stop frame made for a very visually appealing piece, c) it captured a child's imagination well enough.

In Coraline, the title character and her parents move to a new home in the country, and she soon discovers another world that closely mirrors her own, but is this other world and her other mother truly as wonderful as they seem?

Filled with colourful characters and imagination, Coraline is worth seeing on the big screen for its use of 3D alone. The world jumps out and flows around the audience, specifically the other world, and it really helps immerse the viewer in a wonderfully animated, visual treat.

2) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever. I find it hilarious that a made-for-TV movie would take my second spot, but that's just what Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever is; hilarious.

When an interdimensional mix up happens, the Turtles from the retro '86 animated series find themselves in the dimension of the 2003 animated series Turtles, and while the 8 have to work together they don't perfectly get along. Taking every opportunity to poke fun at the lameness that is the '80's, the '86 Turtles frustrate their more serious and contemporary counterparts to no end, as the '80's turtles are nothing but pizza chomping, lame-joke cracking goofs.

And of course, the villains of each group are in abundance and provide just as much laughter. '80's Shredder and Krang are bumbling fools, but the modern Shredder is vicious, sinister, and competent. Pure nostalgia all the way, and worth the time spent in front of YouTube, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtlers: Turtles Forver is great fun to watch.

1) Star Trek. Speaking of nostalgia, Star Trek doesn't just give us a healthy dose of it, Star Trek re-imagines it. Taking a series that was in decline, re-envisioning it and modernizing it is never an easy task, and the cast and crew of Star Trek performed this wonderfully.

A Romulan ship hellbent on revenge travels back in time to the date Kirk is born and changes history forever. The characters of the original series still manage to come together, but in different ways and under different circumstances, and the legend of the star ship Enterprise begins anew. Some things are the same, some things are different, but seeing the original cast again through fresh eyes is quite enjoyable.

Actioned up from the standard Star Trek formula, the film follows a fairly traditional narrative, but wins through with solid performances and effects, and simply put, no other film this year came close to the quality and theatrical experience that Star Trek has to offer. Even if you're not a fan of the franchise, the movie was presented in such a way that anyone could easily get into it, enjoy it, and be entertained by it.

That accessibility, coupled with the production values and classic nature of Star Trek have risen it to the silver screen's top this year, gaining our Movie of the Year.

Mass Effect 4th Playthrough Completed

Well as most of you know, I accidentally deleted all of my save games at the beginning of November, which means I had no Mass Effect save games to import into Mass Effect 2 when it launches in under a month. So, I took the time to playthrough the game for a 4th time, wracking up a few Achievements I still needed along the way.

It's been about a year and a half since I properly touched Mass Effect, and I must say that replaying it now has really refreshed my memory on what it did so well and not so well. Without question, Mass Effect has an exceptional story, presentation, characters, and exploration. It really is the closest I've come to playing an interactive movie, and it's because of all these strengths rivaled by few other titles that the game's shortcomings are so much more apparent.

Extremely clunky combat, the horrendously designed Mako vehicle (and I stand by my review stating that whoever designed that piece of junk shouldn't be allowed to touch game design ever again), bland and repetitive Assignments (Side Quests), and an awkward inventory system. These flaws were brought to the forefront yet further because I originally tried playing through on the Insanity difficulty, but after the 11 hour-ish mark, I dropped it down to Normal as combat was far too frustrating and I'm sure my excessive swearing was pissing off my neighbours.

This character, a male John Shepard, was an Engineer who reached Level 50 and my playthrough took me 40 H 56 M with a Paragon completion, saving the Council. Despite Mass Effect's shortcomings I still had an excellent time overall, and the game was definitely a huge leap forward back in November 2007. That being said, I'm looking forward to any improvements the sequel will bring our way to streamline and strengthen the franchise overall. Oh, and Tali's still the hottest one.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas Everyone!

We here at Arbiter's Judgement would like to wish you all a safe, beer filled Christmas and a splendid Boxing Day hangover.

Really, hangovers help with the long lines and overcrowding. Would I lie to you?

Mass Effect in 5 Minutes

While poking around YouTube for Mass Effect 2 trailers, I came across this great little summary of Mass Effect by IGN. Sort of. If you don't plan on playing through the first game before jumping into the sequel, give this satirical video a watch.

There, now does it all make sense? It's all about the side boob, gel, and elevator rides. Oh, the elevator rides!

Mass Effect 2 Cinematic Trailer, Sniper Rifle and Infiltrator Video

As promised, EA and BioWare released the explosive cinematic trailer for Mass Effect 2 on Tuesday, and you can download it via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace here, or watch it below.

Absolutely amazing! In addition, BioWare is previewing the Infiltrator class in this video here or below, and they've also updated the Arsenal section of the main site to include the M-92 Mantis Sniper Rifle which you can check out here.

One month and one day.

Gears of War 2 12 Days of Christmas

Holiday cheer is everywhere, and Epic Games is celebrating the 12 days of Christmas by making daily adjustments to Versus and/or Horde in Gears of War 2, including additional experience!

For full details on what change will be implemented on what day, check out the official release right here.

Aliens vs. Predator: Hunter Edition, Release Date, and Story Trailer

I'm really looking forward to this game! SEGA of America has made a few announcements this week relating to their upcoming shooter, Aliens vs. Predator.

Firstly, in addition to the standard edition of the game, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will see a limited Hunter Edition, which will feature: 4 Multiplayer Maps immediately accessible prior to being made available to the retail game, a Facehugger model, a hardcover graphic novel featuring the original Aliens vs. Predator Dark Horse comic, a Weyland Yutani sleeve badge, a 3D lenticular postcard, and a metal case.

That doesn't sound too bad for a limited edition, and if it's only $10.00 more I'll likely bite. For those only interested in the standard edition of the game, there's something for you as well. Pre-order the standard edition and you'll receive a downloadable token to get a unique Marine, Alien, and Predator skin for Multiplayer.

You can read SEGA's full press release here.

An excellent Story Trailer has also been released, which you can drool over below.

Look for the game on store shelves February 16th, 2010!

My First Three Flashing Red Lights

I'm presently on my third Xbox 360 console, my second replacement console which has lasted me about a year and a half. Long time readers of Arbiter's Judgement will know that I've always had issues with the DVD drive, and have never once experienced the infamous three flashing red lights. This past Tuesday, however, this all changed but thankfully it wasn't my console!

That company I work for purchased an Xbox 360 Elite, which I picked up for them. As soon as I returned to the office, naturally, I began the set up process, and once I started creating the Avatar during Initial Setup, bam, three flashing red lights.

Outside of pictures and videos, I've never actually seen the three flashing red lights before, and while I've both heard of and helped people who've had this happen to them right out of the box, I really never thought it would happen to me. My first reaction after staring at it for several seconds was to laugh out loud, as I couldn't believe what I was seeing.

So I began the basic troubleshooting steps of turning the console off and on, disconnecting and reconnecting cables, etc. and nothing worked, it kept giving the three flashing red lights. I then disconnected everything and walked away, letting the console sit for a while.

Personally, I didn't want to cab it back to Best Buy and stand in a holiday return line, and thankfully it looks like I won't have to. After letting the console sit for a while, I reconnected everything once more and the Xbox 360 Elite has been working flawlessly ever since.

We've had people play a variety of games on it, both from the DVD drive and HDD install, and someone even watched a DVD off of it, and no more hardware failure. I'm hoping it was a loose connection or something, as this console was manufactured in mid-October of this year, so it's ridiculously new.

Well, at least it's a) not my personal console, b) under a 30 day store warranty, and c) under a three year general hardware failure warranty with Xbox Support. Hopefully I'll never have to use either.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever Review

Oh man, talk about nostalgia! What child of the '80's didn't watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? Like most other kids my age, I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles freak and couldn't get enough of it. Flash forward to today and of course I'm an adult (in theory), and so are the generation of kids whom watched the same crap I did. And now that we're all responsible and mature... ... ... um, yeah, well anyway our franchises and media has grown along with us. But, what happens when the past and present collide? You get the made-for-TV movie, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever, of course!

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever originally aired over a month ago, though unless it gets pulled down after this typing, you can watch the whole 77 minute feature courtesy of YouTube here. In the film, it seems the retro '80's turtles have had another battle in the Technodrome, but things went wrong with the teleporter and the whole gang, bad guys and all, were zapped into the modern day Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. For those who haven't watched the new animated series, like me, it's a much more mature take on the turtles hearkening back more to the original comic roots, so these turtles are more serious, violent, and Raph's a jerk. While watching TV, 2003 Splinter caught a news broadcast that the Turtles had been seen battling the Purple Dragons and when he discovers it's not his boys, the Green Team heads out to find what's going on, and of course, they meet up with their goofy '80's counterparts.

Now, I remember the '80's series very well and while it certainly was child friendly, and thus the turtles were more silly and lighthearted, they weren't as dumb as they are portrayed in this film. Keeping that in mind, however, it certainly works to highlight the contrast here between the present day and past day turtles. To the 2003 turtles, their '87 counterparts are pizza-eating, lame joke cracking buffoons, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever wastes no opportunity to make fun of the stupid gimmicks found from yester-year. One of my favourite scenes is when the 8 turtles end up in the '80's dimension, and before they do anything else, they have to save April. 'Cause as '80's Donatello mentions with joy, they save April at least once a day! And they do save her. From giant mutant food monsters. Oh, how hilariously lame! Moments like these had me laughing out loud in disbelief.

Of course the usual assortment of bad guys are here. Shredder, Krang, Bebop, and Rocksteay along with the robot Foot Soldiers from the '80's, and the Shredder, Han, Karai, and the Purple Dragons from the modern series. Tokka and Razor also make an appearance as well, and there's some other interesting technology crossings that happen. The '80's Shredder and co, like the '80's turtles, are idiots and as 2003 Raph points out, their modern day Shredder is, well, competent. And it's true, he makes an excellent villain, very tough, very violent, and it's fitting that he's the one to really call the shots.

Perhaps the coolest thing of all in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever is the final crossover that actually happens with the original 1984 comic turtles, the original black and white turtles. Dark, grim, and totally bad ass, these turtles make the 2003 animated turtles look like sissy's. In fact I liked those turtles so much, I'd be interested in finding the original comics to check them out, though I doubt I'd have much luck, at least of finding them at a reasonable cost.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever is just fun, plain and simple. It's mature, it's campy, and it's purely entertaining no matter how you look at it. If you're a fan of the franchise in any way, just watch the movie already. You'll love the tongue-in-cheek, you'll love the fights, and you'll love the contrasts of animation styles. The biggest let down, however, is the lack of the '80's original voice actors, but even so, the core feeling is intact, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles Forever is filled with enough Turtle Power to appease anyone.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Halo Wars Title Update 4 Released

Yesterday, Robot Entertainment released the 4th Title Update for its console exclusive RTS, Halo Wars. To get the latest update, which features both balancing and bug fixes, simply boot up the game while connected to Xbox LIVE.

So what does the Title Update address?

Grunts now do more damage to air units
The Scarab now has 25% more health and does 25% more damage
Gremlins now requires 2 reactors to be built
The Arbiter now takes 25% more damage while raging
Hunters now focus their Assault Beam much faster
Brute Chopper is more effective vs. air

Bug Fixes:
The Cryo/Reactor Glitch has been fixed
The Multiplayer Lobby should now work better for people with misaligned controllers
Y-Abilities should no longer have their cooldowns reset erroneously
Profiles that had problems accruing points in Multiplayer should now be able to gain points properly

You can read the official posting on the front page of the official site here.

Xbox Ambassador Program Refresh

On October 13, 2008, I was admitted into the ranks of the Xbox Ambassadors program. What is an Xbox Ambassador, you ask? It's an official program run by Xbox, an all volunteer group who's mandate is to help new players joining Xbox LIVE. At the time I was accepted, the only requirement was an Xbox LIVE Gold membership, so I purchased one for the first time in my life.

During that time, I assisted people over Xbox LIVE when I could, but truth-be-told I continued to help and was the most helpful to posters in the official Xbox Forums Canada General Discussion forum. Flash forward to now and Xbox has decided to revamp the program and to greatly increase its members' involvement in the community. Overall, I consider this an excellent idea, as aside from having the little icon identifying me as an Ambassador on the forums, I personally found no change from the norm in my involvement with others over the Xbox LIVE service or the Xbox forums.

You see, sometimes things go stale, even things with good intentions, and they need new management and a good shake up to get them back on track and to push them forward. So yes, I think a restructuring of the program is good, but what I did not approve of was the manner in which this restructuring was announced.

There is a private forum specifically for Xbox Ambassadors where they can chat and work things out with one another, and the program changes were specified in this forum and this forum alone. The kicker of the new program restructuring: all existing Ambassadors had to re-apply to maintain their current Ambassador status.

Like many of my comrades, I hardly went to the Xbox Ambassador forum as I was too busy assisting community members in the best way I could. Since I missed this announcement and the re-sign up, I am now no longer an Xbox Ambassador.

Unto itself, that's fine. Real life has become far more demanding in the last year and to find time now to properly invest for myself into the program is going to be difficult, so I have no issue with no longer being an Ambassador and I would have likely gracefully bowed out if given the opportunity. My problem with Xbox's restructuring is the method they've chosen to go about it, and how against the spirit of the program this method was. Use and activity of the Xbox Ambassador forum is now a mandatory part of being an Xbox Ambassador, which is great, but it would have been nice to have been informed of this policy change before getting booted. The new administration, primarily a gent by the Gamertag of DMZilla, claimed sending private messages to everyone would have been far too time consuming, and sending a mass email would have been less than effective because many members have likely changed emails, and to this I disagree.

True, PMs would have been tedious, but since Xbox is so keen on reminding us for every contest to keep our email addresses up-to-date, I would honestly assume most Ambassadors would have current contact info on file. That, and then DMZilla could truly say he at least attempted to contact all of the previous members.

I understand why he did this, of course. He simply wanted to start from a near clean slate, and the easiest way to do so would be to cut loose as many existing members as possible as quietly as possible, however does this really reflect well on a program meant to encourage assistance and community involvement to others? Seems to me the new brass just gave the shaft to myself and many other now-former Xbox Ambassadors.

The Xbox Ambassador programming is looking for new recruits now, and those of us cut from the program have been told, again on the forum itself before we lost access to it, that we could re-apply if we wish and for those interested you can do so on the main page here. I, however, will _not_ be re-signing up for the Xbox Ambassador program. This transition has thus far been handled poorly, with little courtesy and professionalism shown to many of its now former members. I think it's a great shame how Xbox and DMZilla has handled its Ambassador program, and how they've thanked it's members for their work and commitment over the years. I do hope its future members will be shown some simple courtesy, leadership, and guidance for the volunteer effort that they'll be putting in.

Thankfully, the lose of membership in this program will in no way limit my ability to continue to help and participate in the Canadian Xbox Community of which I'm so fond.

Best of luck to Xbox and its Ambassador program, as hypocritical as it now seems to be.

Mass Effect 2 Cinematic Teaser and Screenshots

With Mass Effect 2 just over a month away, EA has put the game's marketing campaign into full swing, and this past week they released a teaser for their cinematic trailer, which you can view here or below.

Look for the full epic cinematic trailer this coming Tuesday via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace.

This week also saw a host of screenshots released to the media, which BioWare has rounded up for your viewing pleasure right here.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe Review

When I first heard about Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe, I can honestly say I wasn't expecting too much. This would be the first Halo novel that was made up of a collection of shorts instead of a continuing narrative, and I expected to find simple fair between the covers.

I have been suitably humbled.

Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is overall the best Halo novel I have yet read, and while some of its stories are indeed short or even one-page poems, many others are the length of a short novel. Weighing in at 528 pages, you certainly get your bang for your buck.

The Halo universe is a vast and rich setting and for those of you who've only played the games, with the exception of Halo Wars, they all take place in the final 3 months of the Human-Covenant War, a war that spanned 27 years and of course, there's earlier Human and Covenant history to explore and the post-carnage of the war as well.

So how to review a book that contains a collection of shorts written by several different authors without turning this into a 300 page essay? The method I'll use here-on-out is to give a brief overview of each individual story, straight and to the point. Since Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe covers the entire war and beyond at various points with most of the stories happening more-or-less chronologically, there will be spoilers to the games and other works of fiction.

The collection opens off with a poem regarding the Forerunners written by Jonathan Goff entitled "Beyond," and like the three other poems he's written for this compilation, they are all preceded by a piece of artwork done by various artists. This poem is very straight forward, expressing what was left behind, and is a nice little piece to open to collection.

Next up we have the first short, "Pariah" written by B. K. Evenson, and it follows the exploits of a boy who becomes a Spartan, Soren. Like all the candidates for the Spartan-II program, Soren is special and Dr. Halsey has specifically chosen him for the potential he's shown, but the truth of the matter is that even Halsey and the rest of the Spartan-II recruits don't know what dark secret Soren holds in his past. I really enjoyed "Pariah" as it puts an interesting twist on the images we always perceive of the Spartans, it helps to show us what the Spartans really are that we just don't experience in the games, and in the end it draws both pity and sympathy.

"Stomping on the Heels of a Fuss" is written by Eric Raab, and it's the weakest of the all the literature in this collection. The story follows Connor Brien, an ONI anthropologist who is captured and taken prisoner by a pack of Brutes, and while I found it fascinating that we get a real interesting glimpse of what society is like within Brute culture, depicted better here than any other source I've come across, the story itself just isn't particularly strong and is rather at odds with the rest of the works in this book. It lacks both substance and specifics, as I don't know exactly when in the timeline this tale is set though I suspect it's just after the events of Halo 3, and there's a few other dumb comments, such as Brien's having observed Brutes first hand on High Charity, which makes no sense what-so-ever given the established canon of the Halo universe.

Thankfully, the next tale that follows is a strong one written by Frank O'Connor himself. Entitled "Midnight in the Heart of Midlothian," it follows a lone ODST, Baird (unrelated to the Gears of War character of the same last name) as he awakens on a UNSC Destroyer after having undergone surgery to find it occupied by Covenant Special Forces, his comrades all KIA. If that isn't a nightmare enough, Baird learns that the ship's navigational data is not only intact, but that the Covenant operatives are attempting to access it. If they succeed, they'd learn the location of humanity's greatest secret: The location of Earth itself. And so, weak and alone save for the ship's AI, Baird has to not only find a way to defeat an entire ship of highly trained Covenant operatives, but also deny them access to the ship's database. This short would have to be one of my favourites, as its pacing is strong, the characters are very well fleshed out, and O'Connor does a nice job of putting you in Baird's shoes.

"Dirt" is a longer tale written by Tobias S. Buckell, the final moments of an ODST as he recounts his tale of woe to the Rookie. Yes, that Rookie. But how did Gage end up by that crashed Pelican? Why are the Covenant swarming after him and him alone, and where's the rest of his back up? His tale, long in the telling, dates back to pre-war and the CMA, and Buckell does a very admirable job painting the picture of the Insurrection that took place, how the Covenant changed everything for our fractured species, and just what morality means in the face of overwhelming odds, and not the odds that you're thinking of right now. Sometimes, a man needs to make a choice, the right one, no matter what it'll cost him.

Closing out this section of the compilation is another poem, "Acheron-VII," once again written by Jonathan Goff dealing with the sole victor of a battle, a Spartan, and what the reality of the situation now means to him.

The next section of the collection opens with a full story by Goff entitled "Headhunters," featuring a pair of the lesser known Spartan-III's as they do what they've been chosen to do: To hunt. Headhunters are two Spartan-III's paired together, so secret that the other Spartans don't even know about them, who are sent on extremely hazardous, often one-way missions to practice the final art of asset denial. Jonah and Roland are two such Spartan-III's, and they're mission, in tandem with another group of Headhunters, is to deny the Covenant this holy dig site, and while their training is not as extensive as the Spartan-II's, they know their business. The catch? Is something else hunting them through this wild jungle world?

If you're into the Covenant, you're going to love "Blunt Instruments" by Fred Van Lente featuring the newly created Spartan: Black team. One thing I loved about Halo 3: ODST was what Bungie did with Drones, and this tale is all about Drones. Of course there's the usual other Covenant sorts that Spartan: Black needs to deal with as they try to prevent them from continually gathering fuel from a conquered human world, but the background and politics we learn about regarding the Drones in this tale is not only fascinating, but also comes with quite a twist. Very entertaining.

One form of story telling we have not seen much of in the Halo universe is horror, the haunted house kind of tale, and "The Mona Lisa" written by Jeff VanderMeer and Tessa Kum sets this to rights. "The Mona Lisa" is one of the longest stories in the collection, and personally, I didn't like how it starts off; very slow, but it builds, it chills, and it gets very, very interesting. An ONI prowler is exploring the ruins of Installation 04 when it comes across a civilian escape pod, the occupant whom is barely alive and "chewed up." They track his origin to the prison ship Mona Lisa, but what is a human prison ship doing all the way out here, and once the boarding party of Marines docks with the vessel, where exactly is everyone? Any fan of the franchise will be able to predict what's coming in short order, but it doesn't make it any less enjoyable, and there are certainly some nice twists that I didn't see coming. While I did find the writing style of this piece a little cumbersome, and the Marines didn't always feel like Halo Marines, the content of the tale was of such strength that I simply could not put it down. Looks like Master Chief wasn't as through as he thought he was.

This section closes out and lightens the tone with another Poem entitled "Icon." "Icon" deals with not only the Spartan program, but with the Master Chief himself, who John is and what he represents, and this theme is continued first hand in the next tale, "Palace Hotel."

"Palace Hotel" is written by Robt McLees and takes place during the events of Halo 2. After the disastrous landing in Mombasa, the Chief is trying to make his way to Regret's carrier so he can board it and capture the High Profit, but of course getting there is no easy task, even for a Spartan-II. The Chief fights his way through some familiar settings that we recall from the 2004 Xbox classic shooter, but being novelized some things happen a little differently, particularly the Chief's interactions with other Marines. We all know how the rank-and-file see the Spartans, but how does the Chief see them? At what point would a superhuman like him cross the line and be something other than human? McLees writes us an interesting tale that gets into 117's head, that shows us not only what he's going through, but what the man, the solider, needs to never forget.

"Human Weakness" is my favourite tale in the whole book, and not just because it's written by Karen Traviss of whom I am a huge fan. Traviss' involvement simply elevates its awesomeness, and the reason this short is my fav is because it finally answers the question I've been asking for over two years now: What happened between the Gravemind and Cortana while she was on High Charity? Sure, people have speculated and reasoned, but until now, we've never known. Not for sure. During Halo 3, was Cortana really rampant? Did she betray humanity to the Flood, was it even her the Chief was seeing all throughout the game? Well, "Human Weakness" fills us in. The Gravemind is a fascinating character, one of incredible depth and complexity, and it's quite the treat to read about its perspective on the galaxy and the many conflicts it's been through, and to witness first hand his methods of interrogation.

This section, dedicated to the Chief and Cortana, closes off with "Connectivity," a poem also dedicated to them describing the strength of their bond and their relationship.

We then come to another fascinating tale entitled "The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole," written by Eric Nylund, master of Halo fiction. We've all heard of the Cole Protocol and we all know that Cole was an admiral instrumental during the Human-Covenant War, but aside from that just who is the legendary Preston Cole? "The Impossible Life and Possible Death of Preston J. Cole" examines his life from a very unique perspective, that of a case study, a report about the man himself. From his childhood to his possible death, Cole's entire life, his successes, his ambitions, and his failures are laid bare, showing what they've meant to humanity and how they've shaped our species.

The last full tale in this collection is entitled "The Return" written by Kevin Grace, and it's set several years after the conclusion of the Human-Covenant War. The Elites are more-or-less our allies now, but still they continue to fight on against the scattered remnants of the Covenant. Yet now that even that fighting is dying down, what's left for a race that was built purely on religious zeal? One Shipmaster returns to the location of his greatest victory, now his greatest shame, from the war: his personal glassing of a human world. On this world, he once found his purpose to have it torn away during the Schism and the closing days of the war, and now will he be able to find it here again? "The Return" shows us a glimpse of what's happening in the Halo Universe post-carnage, so to speak, and we're offered a hint of what we _may_ be able to expect in sequels and additional works of fiction to come.

Finally, the book ends with a letter "From the Office of Dr. William Arthur Iqbal," continuing the glimpse-into-the-future theme. Now that the war is done, what does this mean for the shattered remnants of humanity? Where do we stand, weakened as we are, and what do we do with the massive Forerunner structure now unearthed in Africa?

I hope this review, more of a summary I suppose, has wet your appetite and demonstrated for you the scope and variety that you'll find in the pages within. Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe is simply a wonderful and very thorough collection of Halo fiction, and excellent military science fiction unto itself that no fan should miss. It contains a vast new wealth of information, motive, and character, and helps to expand the wonderful universe that Bungie has given us.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Halo: Reach World Premiere

Certainly one of the more anticipated trailers for the Spike Video Game Awards 2009, you can now check out the Halo: Reach World Premiere below. It's the best quality I could find, though it's a little dark, but it still smacks of Halo and that's all the matters.

Don't miss the Elite after the title! Good to actually see them again, since there's no way we can't fight them in this game.

Update: Thanks to Bungie, you can now find high quality versions, with or without subtitles, right here. You can also download the trailer via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace here.

My overall thoughts: It looks great, though it seems to me more retcon is coming into play, and I'm not so keen how there are Spartans everywhere when they were supposed to be a rare and uniform elite force.

Regardless, like any Halo game, I'm expecting the gameplay will rock whether the story works or is completely messed up.

Update 2: Well, it looks like the video I posted has been removed due to copyright violation, but the official links above certainly work, so you can view the trailer there.

Update 3: Bungie has now officially added it to YouTube, so you can check it out below.

Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 - Arkham has Moved Announced

Well this is all manner of awesome. At the Spike Video Game Awards 2009, the sequel to the greatest super hero game ever made has had a sequel announced. Batman: Arkham Asylum 2 - Arkham has Moved will be gracing consoles soon enough, and you can check out a high quality trailer here or below.

While some might be surprised that the game is getting a sequel given the nature of its storyline, really, with the sales it saw and the acclaim it received a sequel is a no-brainer. I do hope they change the name to something less cumbersome though.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II Announced

At the Spike TV Video Game Awards 2009, LucasArts announced Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II with a really sweet cinematic trailer.

I personally enjoyed the original game, despite its flaws, and I felt most people were far too hard on the game. I'm looking forward to the sequel and the continuation of Starkiller's story, and I'm really curious to see how he survived, since it's logical to assume the first game ended with the Light Side ending, what with it being canon and all.

Look for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II to hit shelves later in 2010.

Mass Effect 2 Sentinal Class Video, Cast Video, and Armoury Update

This week, we're graced with two more videos from Mass Effect 2. The first, which you can find below or here, details the Sentinel class, and it looks like they've really increased the effectiveness of this class.

The second is a video showcasing the all-star cast providing voices, and I'm most certainly impressed. You can find that here or below.

Lastly, the main page's Arsenal has been updated to include the M-9 Tempest Submachine Gun.

A month and a half away people!

Dead Space 2 Officially Announced

This past Monday, EA officially announced Dead Space 2 for the Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3, and you can check out the official press release right here.

Aside from the fact that the game's in development however, we have no new details aside that Isaac Clarke is the protagonist once again.

I am glad however that the original development team is working on the sequel. The first game had such an exceptional atmosphere, and I'd love to see that carry over.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Mass Effect 2 Squad Mate Revealed, Class Overview, and Arsenal Update

Three new updates for Mass Effect 2 this week. The first is the reveal of a new Squad Mate, Samara, an Asari Justicar. You can check out her video here or below.

Next, we have a video detailing the Engineer class, and it looks like it's seen a _lot_ of enhancements. That's presently the class I'm replaying the first game with now, and I'm seriously drooling over some of the new abilities to come. You can check out this video here or below.

Lastly, we have an update to the Arsenal, featuring the X-3A Predator Heavy Pistol, which you can read about here. I personally found Pistols to be the best weapon in the first game, and used them the most extensively. In fact, I think I'm the only person I know who's presently on their 4th playthrough and who has yet to earn the Assault Rifle Achievement.

Halo 3: ODST Completed on Heroic

Last weekend, I finished my second playthrough of Halo 3: ODST, this time on Heroic. It was a little more challenging than my first time through, mainly at the beginning as I adapted to the lesser durability you have compared to a Spartan. The major weapon combination of a sniper weapon and mid-range weapon still seemed the most effective combo to me, but especially when exploring the city at night, I found stealth and keeping my distance more important than last time.

I did like the storytelling method presented in Halo 3: ODST, it is a nice fresh change of pace from the original trilogy, and I like what was done with the Drones, but I admit it is a little odd playing a Halo title without the Flood. One thing I found odd was that even playing a new game, all the Audio Logs were automatically unlocked, I'm guessing 'cause I found them before, so the lack of having to hunt them down greatly reduced my expected play time.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed my experience, but honestly the game is a glorified expansion and not worth the full retail price tag. For the fun of it afterwards, I loaded up Firefight and played solo on Easy looking for a 200,000 Achievement, and this took me a whopping 3 hours! Not because it was challenging mind you, just because it took so damn long to earn all those points. For most of that time, I was just bored and slogging through the motions and while Firefight is pretty cool, I felt they could have tightened up the pacing of it more.

I did enjoy shortly after I earned my Achievement, I ran around for 20 minutes smacking everything with a Brute Shot, melee only. Taking out Brute Chieftains that way is surprisingly effective.