Tuesday, December 28, 2010
At last year's Xbox Canada Community Birthday Party, I won a copy of the retail version of Plants vs. Zombies. Fast forward about a year later, and I finally opened the box and installed the game. I know, I know, it took me a while, but I was busy! I still have a game backlog I'm working through, you know.
As most of you probably know by now, Plants vs. Zombies is a thoroughly addictive tower defence game by PopCap Games that's available on a host of platforms, from desktop to console to mobile. The game's premise is simple: There are zombies on your lawn, and they're trying to get into your home to eat your brains. Your only defence, aside from the advice of your neighbour Crazy Dave, is a host of plants ready to combat the undead horde!
Colourful and cute, Plants vs. Zombies allows players to use up to 49 different types of Plants to fend off 26 different types of Zombies across 4 game modes. The primary game mode is "Adventure," basically the Campaign. It's here that you're introduced to the game's economy of Sun, which you collect as it slowly falls from the sky. Planting Sunflowers is essential to your efforts as they'll create Sun for you. As you progress, you gain access to a host of combat, defensive, and trap Plants. The basic Peashooter, for example, costs little Sun and provides simple direct attacks to damage incoming Zombies. The Chomper is a fly trap that will eat approaching Zombies that shuffle too close, and good old Wallnut functions just like his name implies, as a wall that Zombies need to eat through to advance.
Different types of Zombies have weaknesses to different types of Plants, and as the player you'll need to choose which several Plants you'll want to use for that Level. The environments also range from your front lawn, to your backyard which has a pool, to elemental problems like fog and the occasional storm. This all adds to the variety and strategic challenges presented to the player.
As you progress, you gain access to an Almanac that provides details for all the Plants and Zombies you've encountered. Not only does it provide hilarious descriptions of each, but the Almanac will also inform you of general toughness, damage potential, and weaknesses, so it's a good idea to read up on any new entries before moving on to the next Level.
Aside from Adventure Mode, there's also Mini-Games, Puzzles, and Survival game modes. Mini-Games are a host of odd gametypes, such as bowling and a Zombie aquarium. Puzzles are specific scenarios that require players to really think their way through various challenges, and Survival sees the player facing wave after wave of Zombies in an effort to survive.
As you progress through any gametype and kill Zombies, you'll earn money which you can use to purchase items or a small amount of upgrades from Crazy Dave, and in time you'll also earn access to the Zen Garden. The Zen Garden allows you to grow and nurture specific plants which in turn will generate additional money for you. The entire set up and interaction between game modes is both cute, clever, and engaging, ensuring players will take a vested interest in everything Plants vs. Zombies has to offer.
The graphics are simple and colourful and certainly get the job done, but the game really shines with its sound scape. The music is both fun and enjoyable and really helps to set the atmosphere for each Level, and the very limited voice acting, be it the blabbering of Crazy Dave or the grumble for brains of approaching Zombies is fantastic.
My only major gripe with Plants vs. Zombies is the game's difficulty. I personally found it far too easy, and in Adventure Mode I only ever failed one Level once simply because I made a bad selection in my choice of Plants. Some of the Mini-games and Puzzles have proven far more challenging, thankfully, and successful completion of those tends to net the player more cash which in turn allows them to further invest in their Zen Garden, which in turn nets more cash to buy Upgrades that prove useful in any game mode. See what I mean about interaction between game modes?
Plants vs. Zombies is a wonderfully simple game that will chew up far too much of your time faster than the undead scavenging for brains. With a price tag ranging from $9.99 to $19.99 (US) and hours upon hours of entertainment to be had, this tower defence game is a sound investment on any platform and for gamers of all tastes and skill levels.
3) Gears of War: Anvil Gate. Considering that the Gears of War franchise is certainly _not_ known for having a strong story and character development, it never ceases to amaze me how well Karen Traviss continues to flesh out this game's universe.
Under the careful penmanship of Traviss, I've really come to care for not only Marcus and Dom, but also for characters like Hoffman, Baird, and Cole. She takes her gritty approach to military fiction and deep human stories and pretty much rams it down the COG's throat with very fine results.
Gears of War: Anvil Gate is no exception, focusing on the refugees of Jacinto as they further establish and secure their island haven while preparing to face the new threat of the Lambent. True to the series' story telling style, the present day events are contrasted with a similar tale of woe from the past, once again courtesy of Hoffman and his role in the siege of Anvil Gate.
The back and forth narrative between present and past, combined with solid military sci-fi and strong character moments make this novel a must read for any Gears of War fan.
2) The Children of Hurin. What else can I really say save that this tale was a hundred years in the making, and it certainly shows. Begun when Tolkien first began crafting what would be Middle-earth, The Children of Hurin represents the most put-together version of "The Tale of the Children of Hurin."
Young Turin Turambar must flee the land of his birth after it is subjugated by the forces of the Dark Lord Morgoth, and with the tutelage of the Elves he learns to be a warrior of great skill and valor. Yet a darkness hangs upon Turin, for the malice and doom of Morgoth is always with him.
What follows is a rich tale of fantasy and culture as Turin seeks to defeat his doom and master his own fate, and his exploits will not only affect the remains of his family, but all of Middle-earth itself.
Tolkien is a master storyteller who's works have certainly stood the test of time, and this edition features wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee that helps bring Turin's legend to life. For anyone with an interest in The Lord of the Rings or simply an interest in fantasy itself, The Children of Hurin makes an excellent read.
1) Order in Chaos. With this third and final volume, Jack Whyte brings his Templar trilogy to a close. A master storyteller of historical fiction, Whyte consistently writes deep and complicated tales with ever evolving characters that keeps the readers glued to the pages.
The Order of the Temple is no more, having been usurped by the greedy King Philip of France. Sir William St. Clair must lead the remnants of his brethren to the only safe haven he knows, that of his homeland of Scotland. But Scotland itself is in the midst of war, both Civil and with England, and while St. Clair and his knights seek refuge in this land, the very virtues of their Order will be called into question and put to the test.
To compound things even further, St. Clair and a few of his senior remaining brethren are part of a secret society that not only created the Templar Order as a front to conduct their own business, but that secretly opposes the will and corruption of Holy Mother Church. In the land of Scotland, isolated from the larger politics of the world, St. Clair will have great secrets revealed to him that will forever change both his path and those of the remaining Templars.
Weighing in at 921 pages, Order in Chaos is a fantastic read filled with history, military prowess, and romance, and as such an amazing and well rounded fiction, it's clearly the choice for my novel of 2010.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Now, as I mention every year, I am not a professional game reviewer and as such, I don't get review copies; what I play is what I buy with my hard earned cash just like you. This means that I don't play everything since I'm not going to spend my money on a title I'm not interested in, so keep this in mind if you see a Triple A title missing from the below list.
3) BioShock 2 (Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 3). The original BioShock was an exceptional game. Combining survival and psychological horror as a shooter with RPG elements, BioShock took players to Rapture, an underwater city that was the monument of a failed vision. The catch with BioShock, however, is that it was a game that didn't need a sequel.
When I first saw BioShock 2 announced, I was both excited and hesitant for that very reason. As gameplay footage began to surface, my hesitation grew as it appeared to me that 2K Marin, the new studio developing the title, was simply actioning up a game that shouldn't have been actioned up. Because of this, I passed on launch day.
Fast forward a few months later, and I saw BioShock 2 on sale for $34.99 and decided to bite. And I'm glad I did. While not as innovative as its predecessor, BioShock 2 is a wonderful return to Rapture with a story that proves to be far more touching, if less disturbing, than the original's. Not only did BioShock 2 provide a very enjoyable 20 hour single player experience, it also introduced Multiplayer to the franchise, which surprisingly was also quite enjoyable.
The overall package is a strong one, allowing players to experience Rapture as a Big Daddy for the first time, and fans of the franchise should not pass up this latest sojourn into the Atlantic.
2) Halo: Reach (Xbox 360). Bungie's swan song to their cherished franchise, there was never any doubt that Halo: Reach was going to be an epic title. Spanning nearly a decade, the Halo franchise has been a household name with the Xbox platform and a huge leader in sales for Microsoft.
Halo: Reach is a prequel to the Halo trilogy, telling the story of Noble Team, a group of Spartans, and their part of the valiant but hopeless defence of the planet Reach. The Campaign sports the high end polish of fast and furious shooter action coupled with excellent vehicle scenarios that we've come to expect from Bungie, and it also features the best enemy AI I've ever experienced in a game, bar none. Being a prequel the Elites make a cunning return as enemies to the franchise, and they're both a joy and a bane to fight.
Rounding out the excellent 10 hour Campaign is the exceptional Multiplayer experience. Bungie desired to offer players the greatest online Halo experience ever, and they've certainly accomplished this goal. With new Armour abilities adding variety to the standard mix, great new game types such as Invasion and Headhunter, and full, proper, customizable support of Firefight, there's hundreds of hours of content to keep gamers busy over Xbox LIVE.
The Halo experience and Bungie's efforts with it are one that has, without question, changed my gaming life, and it is with the greatest sincerity that I thank them and wish them the best on their future projects.
1) Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, PC). While the overall Halo experience has been an amazing decade-long journey, one company has provided engrossing and exceptional action RPG experiences for nearly as long. BioWare's latest offering, Mass Effect 2, is without question not only the greatest game I've played this year, but also the greatest game I've played in the last few years.
Featuring exceptional character development and superb storytelling, BioWare's sci-fi masterpiece is a 50 to 60 hour experience that is light years ahead of anything on the silver screen, let alone it's digital competition. Allowing players to import their characters from the original game, your choices as Commander Shepard truly have meaning and not only affect your current game, but your future games to come. Combine that with improved combat and conversation systems, compelling characters and side stories, and a whole galaxy for players to explore, you truly have a rare gem of a title in your hands.
No other game provided such a full, complete, and emotionally compelling experience as Mass Effect 2, and PlayStation 3 owners will get their chance to see how amazing this game is when it launches for their platform at the end of January 2011.
Ironically, Mass Effect 2 was such a massive experience that BioWare was required to place it on two DVD's, requiring players to swap discs at least twice throughout their playthrough. Given the scope of the game, this minor inconvenience is easily overlooked, and it is with great pleasure that I award Mass Effect 2 our Game of the Year for 2010.
Without question, Dead Space is one of the scariest games I've played this generation. Possessing an exceptional survival horror atmosphere, Dead Space had me jumping in my seat many, many times.
On January 25th, the sequel will launch on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, but a week ago a fully playable demo was released to the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and PlayStation Store. Naturally, I had to download it and fire it up right away.
Suffice it to say, EA has certainly kept the creepy and tense feel of the original title. Surviving the horrors of the Ishimura, Isaac Clarke now finds himself aboard the Sprawl, a large station situated on one of the moons of Saturn. By means unrevealed in the demo, however, the nightmare of the Necromorphs has followed Isaac here, and the station appaears to be overrun.
The demo begins with Isaac trying to connect with other survivors, and you navigate what appears to be cryo or stasis tubes that contain Necromorphs. Of course, not all of them are frozen/dead, and it's here you'll encounter your first of the demo's new enemies, the Puker.
The controls for the sequel's demo are more or less as you'll remember from the original game, with a few tweaks here and there (Aiming and pressing "Y" now uses Stasis, for example). You can still aim, use alternate methods of fire, smash and stomp enemies, and you still have the traditional inventory and navigation tool, though the Map itself appears to be missing (which is fine since I never found it that useful anyway).
The demo starts Isaac with the tried-and-true Plasma Cutter, which I used for almost the entire demo, and also features the return of the Pulse Rifle (which now features a grenade secondary fire) and the Line Gun. The new weapon in the demo is the Javelin Gun, which I never bothered to fire once. Well, I am a proud owner of the One Gun Achievement.
The Plasma Cutter, combined with Stasis, was great for taking down Pukers, Slashers, and the new Slasher Monk, but when faced with the Pack, a group of children turned Necromorph, the rapid fire assault of the Pulse Rifle saw me through.
While you collect Credits all over, you only encounter one store in the demo and it only features the Advanced Suit, which happens to cost $0. What's cool in Dead Space 2 is not only will Isaac now talk, but we'll also get to see his face much more often, as demonstrated when he decks out in his new Advanced Suit.
A great boss battle against the Tripod is also featured, which was very reminiscent of the Tentacles from the original game, only much more epic and somewhat disgusting. Definitely a nice, tense moment.
My only major gripe with the demo, and Dead Space 2 itself, was the changes made to zero gravity. In the original game, Isaac used magnetic boots to jump to and cling to various surfaces. In the sequel, it appears he can now "fly," using little thrusters to move around. The downer is I found his movements to lack precision, and though this sequence was brief, it frustrated me and took away some enjoyment.
Still, the core of the demo was Dead Space through and through, and a wonderful survival horror experience. The environments were dark, moody, and atmosphere, and the demo's sound scape often sent chills up my spine. And yes, Necromorphs still love to pop out of random vents, amongst other places.
Less than one month until Dead Space 2 launches, and if the demo is any indication, we'll be in for one hell of a treat!
For about 100 years now, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien have captivated readers around the world and heavily influenced fantasy in general. Thanks to the success of the films, everyone knows about The Lord of the Rings, but the truth is the War of the Ring is only a very small part of the greater fiction.
When Tolkien first began crafting his stories, he focused on what would later come to be called The Elder Days; the First Age of the world. These tales told of the War of Jewels, in which the Elves fought against the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, a god. Central to this long, sad war was the "Tale of the Children of Hurin."
Worked on for decades in various forms, the "Tale of the Children of Hurin" tells of the fates that befell Turin and Nienor, the children of Hurin and Morwen. Hurin was a great warrior in the service of an Elf-Lord, and after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears in which Morgoth's forces were the victor, Hurin was taken alive as a prisoner and there he defied with great force of will the malice of Morgoth. As such Morgoth cursed him and his kin, and this curse of doom followed Hurin's children for all their lives.
Set in the lost land of Beleriand in the west of Middle-earth, smashed beneath the sea by the time of The Lord of the Rings, the entire history of the First Age is briefly explored in The Silmarillion, and the "Tale of the Children of Hurin" appears here in published form for the first time, about 50 years after its first conception. The chapter is entitled "Of Turin Turambar," and in truth it became one of my favourite chapters in the book.
An expanded version of the tale appeared in Unfinished Tales, entitled "Narn I Hin Hurin," or properly translated, "The Tale of the Children of Hurin," and it was filled with greater character development and exposition. Now, 27 years later, The Children of Hurin is published, a novel dedicated specifically to the "Tale of the Children of Hurin." Further expanded and refined, this novel presents the fullest and most complete version of the tale ever published.
What always fascinated me about Turin was that, due to his mood and the sad doom that ever weighed upon him, he developed into what we'd now consider an anti-hero. For though he was great in deeds of daring, courage, and valor, oft what he sought or designed went astray. This resulted in him regularly being viewed in a darker light no matter what good or ill he achieved.
Being a tale that was never properly finished, it's fascinating to read The Children of Hurin in such an unbroken form. The greatest addition to the narrative, though there are many little changes and expansions here and there, would need to be further detail on the Petty Dwarves and Turin's time with the outlaws. Always a fascinating sequence of Chapters that expands upon Turin's personality and mind, they were never-the-less always broken up or contradictory of one another. Now, in this version of the tale, they flow more smoothly than they ever have before.
Due to his love of both detail and language, Beleriand comes alive under both Tolkien's written word and Alan Lee's illustrations. Scattered throughout the novel are the most beautiful images, in black and white, that help flesh out and inspire the mood of the legend. Not wanting the ruin the images for myself, I found myself reading faster so I could get to each new chapter and see what piece of art awaited me. Of course I didn't rush and diminish my enjoyment of the story itself. Whether exploring the halls of Doriath through Turin's young eyes, fleeing through the forest with Nienor, or confronting the great worm of Morgoth, Tolkien is a master of painting the moment, and of simply but delicately bringing his characters' emotions and trials to life.
The Children of Hurin is a fantastic read, of rich fantasy, heroic deeds, and substance, and like much of Tolkien's fiction, it almost feels like you're reading a real history book. Almost.
Complete with appendices that describe the process of the Tale's completion, collection, and publication, as well as an index of place names and a map of Beleriand itself, The Children of Hurin is an excellent read for any book lover this holiday season, and a must for any Tolkien fan looking to further explore the days lost to the Sea.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
My Commander Shepard is a badass, and not just because he saved the galaxy on Insanity Difficulty, but also because he "romanced" Miranda. In the engine room.
As I understand it, all romances in Mass Effect 2 happen in your quarters except for Miranda's. With her, you bunk right on the floor of the engine room, or as Kasumi puts it: "Oh Shepard. The engine room! Really? Right there where Tali works?"
Yeah, Shepard has an entire small deck as his personal quarters with a lavish bed and lounge area. Miranda has the only other official private quarters on the ship, and while not as large as Shepard's, it also features a large bed and "living room" area. So what does Shepard and Miranda do? Bunk on the engine room floor (where Tali works), an area of the ship that conveniently has windows from every other deck looking in on it.
Now that takes balls.
Oh, and I saved the galaxy on Insanity Difficulty.
In typical playing-a-BioWare-game fashion, I took a break after making it about a third of the way through and came back to the game in force a few weeks later. The end result was an epic 55 hour experience. I completed all Cerberus Network add-ons and DLC (save for "Lair of the Shadow Broker," which I don't own) and every single Mission and Assignment was knocked off. All items were researched save for the Surgical Unit, and the only items remaining in stores were a few N7 Armour pieces I didn't need. Every fish, model ship, and the Space Hamster now reside in my personal quarters.
My Commander John Shepard was a balance between Paragon and Renegade, being ruthless to get things done but compassionate to his crew and people in need. I played as a Solider, my first time playing the class in the franchise, and I primarily relied on Miranda and Grunt throughout the whole game, using Zaeed before I recruited Grunt. Though I completed all the Loyalty missions, I failed to gain Zaeed's loyalty, but at least all my squad members survived the suicide mission, and I rescued all lost crew members as well.
On Insanity, Adrenaline with Sniper Rifle head shots was a huge help, and you really needed to manage your Squad, directing them where to take cover and who to focus on. I also used Fortification as my bonus Skill, which proved helpful in a pinch and when moving from cover to cover. Overall though, I didn't find Insanity that insane. There were certainly several challenging parts that required proper use of the 3 P's, but overall it was far simpler than Mass Effect on Insanity, which I was unable to complete.
Now that I've conquered Mass Effect 2 on Insanity, a few things I'd like to see changed in the upcoming sequel:
- Remove that annoying stun disorientation. When you get smacked good, you're often left disoriented and trying to "shake it off," while all the while getting shot up and dying. This caused a lot of profanity on my part, and when I want to slam into cover, I want to slam into cover. And for those of you thinking disorientation adds more realism, we're talking about a hero who was brought back after dying from asphyxiation and burning up in re-entry. Reality's kinda outta the airlock at that point.
- Bring back Medi-Gel. I don't mean Unity for your Squad, I mean actually using Medi-Gel to manage your own Health. The regenerating healing model simply doesn't feel right, and while I like the revised lack-of-an-inventory system introduced in Mass Effect 2, I miss properly managing my own health.
That's about it really. They implement the above, and in my opinion, BioWare will have the perfect action RPG. They're story telling and most certainly their character development is top notch, and Mass Effect 2 is an excellent experience that no one should miss, on any difficulty.
Oh, and Mordin thought I was hitting on him. No joke.
In their latest article, Blizzard Entertainment discusses the changes they're making to enemy AI in Diablo III to provide players with increased challenges and frenzied combat. They give two specific examples, listing how the tactics you used in prior titles may not work this time around, illustrating that you'll need to adapt to survive.
Such battles will make up the Encounters of Diablo III, and you can check out the article and some nice screenshots right here.
Just in time for the holidays, Blizzard Entertainment has released a playable demo of their latest real time strategy hit, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
The demo allows those who have not yet experienced the retail game to play the first three missions of the Campaign, and to play Skirmish as the Terrans against an AI Terran opponent. No Battle.net account or active internet connection is required to experience the demo.
For more details head over here, read the official FAQ here, and to download the demo, step right this way.
The first two chapters of the next Halo novel, Halo: Cryptum, are now available to be read online.
Chapter 1 can be viewed on Tor's very site here (registration required), and Chapter 2 can be read on Halo Waypoint here.
Taken straight from Tor themselves:
HALO: Cryptum takes place 100,000 years before the events of the Halo games and serves as a great entry point into what has become one of the most successful science fiction franchises of all time. These two exclusive excerpts will be the first place to begin this deep exploration into the time of the Forerunners, the creators and builders of the Halos. Almost nothing has been revealed about this ancient race. This new series will delve deep into the reign of these enigmatic beings, and tell the epic story behind one of the great mysteries of the “Halo” universe: the complete disappearance of the Forerunners from existence, while also revealing an amazing tale of human origins.
An icon in the science fiction community, Greg Bear has penned such critically celebrated international bestsellers as Eon and The Forge of God. His recent novel Hull Zero Three was published in November by Orbit Books and met widespread acclaim. Bear’s talent for taut narratives, intellectually rigorous themes, and realistic, appealing characters make him the most qualified author writing today to begin a new chapter in this blockbuster franchise.
Greg Bear will also be appearing with special guests from 343 Industries at University Books in Seattle for an exclusive signing and launch event on January 4th, 2010 at 7 PM.
With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, I haven't had a chance to read either chapter yet, but now that things are quieting down I plan to in the next few days. The Halo franchise is such a rich science fiction universe and there's so much mystery revolving around the Forerunners, I'm anxious to find out as many details as I can about them!
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Based on the successful comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is the smash hit new series from AMC that, unlike the hordes of random zombie fiction out there, actually features strong character development and plot. At least, it did at first.
The series premiere was an hour and a half long, and I can honestly say that it is better than most zombie features that I have seen, strongly combining suspense, drama, and shock. In fact, it's one of the best zombie pieces I've seen/read period. The series opens after the apocalypse has happened. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), a police officer who's on his way to Atlanta, stops to try and find gas at what appears to be an abandoned station/survivor camp. He doesn't find any gas, but he does find one Walker, a little girl, whom he has to put down. Suffice it to say that even though the girl was a zombie it's a very serious way to begin any series, killing a kid.
An immediate attention grabber, the show then reverts to just before the apocalypse and introduces us to Shane (Jon Bernthal), Rick's partner, as they end up in a shoot-out against some thugs that lands Rick in a comma and in the hospital. When Rick awakens an undetermined amount of time later, the world he knew is dead, literally. The first episode focuses on Rick coming to terms with the zombie apocalypse, and he begins his search for his wife and son whom he believes survived, heading to Atlanta which was, at the time, a safe zone.
Along his journey, Rick meets many other survivors, and while they're beautifully acted and developed in the pilot and the second episode, the series' character development strength begins to falter afterwards. Originally meant to be only six episodes long, The Walking Dead falls into the trap of cramming to much in too short a time frame. Later survivors become the typical archetypes we've seen in other media, and the fates of some are completely unresolved by the season's end.
After only two episodes however, the show was so highly praised that it was immediately renewed for a second season (scheduled to begin airing on Halloween 2011), so hopefully many of these character issues will be resolved, but of course only time will tell.
The first few episodes of the series are excellent, however, and should most certainly not be missed. The Walking Dead not only features great zombie action and gore as fans of the genre would expect, but like any good fiction, the focus isn't on the zombies themselves but rather the human factor, the character interactions with one another, and though this falters in later episodes it's still good enough to entertain.
The first season represents a solid start to the series, and hopefully the show's strengths will fully resurface next year.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
You can check out the announcement trailer here or below:
Slated for a holiday 2011 release, Mass Effect 3 will see the conclusion of Commander Shepard's story ark and will allow players to import their characters from Mass Effect 2 to preserve their Shepard's continuity.
The official site has been revamped into "teaser" mode, and you can check out the trailer there or below.
Here, there be dragons.
Well, well, this is some unexpected and great news! Fans have screamed their outrage, and Halo Waypoint has listened: Stat tracking will not be removed for Halo Wars this coming Wednesday after all!
As officially announced here, the official forums will still merge with Halo Waypoint's forums, and Title Update 5 will still be released, however Halo Wars.com itself will remain active and we'll still be able to log in and check our stats. Should the site ever close down completely, stats will remain active elsewhere and more details will be released at that time.
Excellent news, and thank you for listening to your customer base, Halo Waypoint!
Entitled "Emergency," you can give it a watch below.
Really looking forward to the demo, and greatly looking forward to the sequel!
Saturday, November 27, 2010
So kids, I wasn't able to get Delay of Game integrated in the way I was hoping and was ultimately unsatisfied with its look here on Arbiter's Judgement, so I've decided to remove the forums from the site for now.
I might bring them back at a later date, but until then, please visit Delay of Game the old fashioned way (by clicking this super awesome fun happy link), and participate in a great online community of like minded gamers!
Sunday, November 21, 2010
This is some very sad news: on Dec. 15th, Halo Wars.com will be shutting down. What does this mean for us, the gamers? The official message boards will be gone for one, but more importantly, the game will no longer feature any stat-tracking what-so-ever. I suppose this means win percentage won't mean spit anymore, but really, without stat-tracking the game will likely die pretty fast.
Halo Wars community members are encouraged to sign up at the Halo Waypoint forums and post there, but no alternative will be offered for the lack of stat tracking.
Multiplayer will still exist at least (and I'm assuming Leaderboards), and a 5th (and likely final) Title Update will be coming soon. It won't feature any balance changes, however, and instead will correct the Theatre bug that prevents players from selecting the last three cinematics from the Campaign, and it will also remove all references and links to Halo Wars.com.
This might actually be one of the first Title Updates to ever remove content from a retail game.
You can read the official announcement here (and find out how to get a special Avatar for the Halo Waypoint forums), and it might be best to start playing a lot of games now, because I really do think Halo Wars will fade away after the 15th of December.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
I'm sure you've all seen the lackluster reviews for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II by now, and it's partly because of these that I didn't bother to try the demo until today; a demo I downloaded as soon as it was available a month ago. Well, that and I've been busy grinding Daily Challenges in Halo: Reach, but I digress.
The demo for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II is set on Kamino, which is now under Imperial control. Seeing as how Starkiller died at the hands of the Emperor at the end of the first game, Vader has had him cloned. It looks like the Dark Lord wants his old apprentice, who was stronger in the Force than even he, to hunt down the Rebellion Starkiller created. There's just one problem: Starkiller's clone remembers far too much of his genetic predecessor's past, tarnishing his loyalty to Vader.
The demo focuses on Starkiller's escape from Kamino so he can go in pursuit of Juno Eclipse, the woman he loves, and now wielding dual Lightsabres, you get to hack and slash and actually dismember a host of Stormtroopers and other Imperials in your way.
For the demo itself, you're extremely powerful and a lot of your abilities are maxed out. The Controls are akin to those of the first game, save that once you learn how, pressing "Y" while Blocking will now execute a Mind Trick. I used it once and then presumed to Hack, Zap, and Graple my enemies into oblivion instead. Force Lighting still rips things up, you can charge up Force Push to knock back several enemies with devastating force (oh, the pun!), and of course you can combine various attacks to create combos. I'm not just talking about hacking and slashing with Force Lightning infused Lightsabres by "dialing" a combo, I mean you can Grip and enemy, zap them, and launch them at other enemies with explosive results. Good times, but all featured in the first game.
Graphically and audio speaking (Ha, another pun!), the demo was solid with fluidly animated character models, strong voice acting, and those nerdy trademark Star Wars sound effects we all get off on. Gameplay wise I didn't find anything lacking, but I didn't find anything inspiring either. It really did feel just like the first game, save that I started out stronger and I had a second Lightsabre to wave back and forth menacingly. Most of my old combat tricks still worked, the same run-around-zapping-and-tossing-stuff at the bigger enemies to wind them down worked, and there were some cool button mashing finishers, but there wasn't anything to wow or entice me like with the original game's demo.
Another thing I found amusing was the Holocrons. In the original game, you really had to hunt for these items which would bestow you with extra experience, Lightsabre Crystals, or Outfits. In the sequel's demo release, they were a lot like "Find Waldo Yet Again," really not trying anymore. The bloody things were right out in the open in completely unmissable spots! That's not necessarily a bad thing, but a little disappointing as hunting them down was a nice challenge.
I also had an odd little bug where at the end, when I approached the Imperial Shuttle, the game went to the loading screen, but without the spinning reticule. It just stood there forever, and I had to press "Start" and then I could select an option to "Skip," which brought me to a closing cut scene, so I'm not sure if I missed anything or not.
While I greatly enjoyed the original game and thought the critics were far too harsh on it (see my review here), based on my experience with the demo and the feedback I've heard not just from pro reviews but also from my fellow gamers, I can't see Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II as a must have title. As a rental or waiting for it to hit $19.99 in a bargain bin, that I could recommend.
Delay of Game, a forum I moderate, can now be linked to any site or blog, and I've added it to Arbiter's Judgement. So after 5 years, we finally have forums!
You can now find them in the side bar (as of this typing) under the Reviews index. Feel free to browse around, register, and post. It's a great forum with a great community!
I know its current integration doesn't look perfect just yet, but it'll get sexier as I move it around and toy with it, trust me. Especially if you drink a few beers first.
You can, of course, also check out Delay of Game directly by going here.
Sunday, November 07, 2010
On Mon. Nov. 1st, 2010, the Fall System Update for the Xbox 360 was released via Xbox LIVE. Like so many System Updates before it (and not just limited to the Xbox 360 platform), it had a bumpy start on day 1.
The usual search of "The Update Bricked my Console" threads surfaced, whether legit, due to user-induced installation errors, or modded boxes going bye-bye, I don't know, and I'm not really referring to these.
On launch day, most Avatar Awards and downloaded Avatar items could not be selected/equipped, which I found odd since Microsoft is huge on marketing their cute little Mii wanna-bees. Halo Waypoint also kept encountering an internal error and wouldn't load beyond it's main menu, some Dashboard videos wouldn't play, and gamer's download histories wouldn't load.
Thankfully , most of these were fixed by Monday's end and Avatar's received an update when you went into the Editor on Wednesday evening, I believe.
One of the main focuses of the Fall Update was to add Kinect compatibility to all Xbox 360's, and since I don't own Kinect, I'm assuming this went off without any major hitches. The Dashboard was also aesthetically redesigned to a blander, simpler, more white style. There's less motion and graphics in the background now, which seems to have sped up load times of things like your Friend's List, and while I'm happy for such improved functionality I must confess I'm not a fan of the blinding white new menus. It's something I'll get used to, like the new sound effects, but I really wish it wasn't so bright.
Keeping in step with Microsoft's more family oriented outlook, when the update is complete a new, brief tutorial (pictured) starts up, which is great for newcomers to the console, but for veterans you'll just want to skip right past. The Welcome Channel will need to be disabled like it always does after every major System Update, and sadly, Microsoft still hasn't added the often requested My Xbox Channel as the default Channel option. One day perhaps, one day.
The Xbox LIVE Marketplace and Zune Marketplace respectively have seen a complete organizational overhaul, and this is a _huge_ improvement. The Zune Marketplace is so much easier to navigate and your own library is far better sorted, and you can actually see new items in the Xbox LIVE Marketplace in preview windows, increasing the speed of navigation there as well. I must confess, of all the changes brought about by the Fall Update this is my favourite and the most notable.
Voice communication is also supposed to have been improved, but I've been a hermit this last week and actually haven't voice chatted with anyone, but I hear people now sound like they're talking through a tin can and reactions have been mixed. I'll find out for myself soon enough, I suppose.
Long asked for, Netflix has not only come to Canada but finally to the Xbox 360. It's an "app" you need to install just like Facebook for the Xbox 360, and since I don't have a Netflix account and The Walking Dead is already available on Zune Marketplace, I simply haven't bothered.
When all is said and done, the 2010 Fall System Update is one that I find rather underwhelming, but in a good way. It certainly didn't wow me in any fashion, several core aspects have been greatly improved to my liking, but cosmetically the Dashboard now looks uglier to my eyes, so it's a trade off. Overall I suppose, not a bad update at all.
Mandatory for all those wanting to connect to Xbox LIVE, if you don't have this update already, you likely will soon.
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Set to change the way we play, Kinect launches for the Xbox 360 this coming Thurs. Nov. 4th. This past Tuesday, Xbox Canada held a preview event in downtown Toronto where Xbox LIVE Gold members could come by, try out Kinect, and compete for awesome prize packs!
The Gold Subscriber Preview Night was my first experience with Kinect, and like many of you I've read both good and bad about the new technology from various media sources. Personally, I wasn't expecting too much going in besides a gimmicky new peripheral for my console, and I'm happy to say that Kinect was much more impressive than I first suspected.
The venue is a rented location right across from the Eaton Centre at 207 Yonge Street (and you can actually still go there now for about another month to play whenever you like, no RSVP or Gold membership required!) and the ground floor has several booths set up with consoles, Kinect sensors, and Kinect games for the general public to try. The Gold Subscriber Preview Night was held on the second level, and after signing in at the front desk, I was permitted to walk upstairs and take in the relaxed setup that Xbox Canada provided.
With IKEA couches and Kinect themed decorations everywhere, as well as free snacks and drinks for all ages, the Preview Night not only encouraged guests to interact with the half-dozen booths set up with Kinect, but to also relax and socialize with the wonderful Canadian community members who could attend. The basic design of the venue was very well done, as Kinect is all about the social experience of getting off the couch and playing with friends and the location's layout certainly encouraged this!
Promotional staff were walking around the entire floor helping people learn about Kinect, answering questions, and of course, regulating the competitions for some sweet prize packs! The prize packs were of high quality, consisting of copies of Crackdown 2, Halo: Reach, Fable III, Xbox 360 Fable III Limited Edition Controllers, etc. I'm not talking individually either, I mean all of these things were part of one prize pack and were awarded several times throughout the night! Talk about promotion!
Now one very important thing to note about Kinect at this event is that the games were still beta versions as Microsoft is developing the hardware and software right up until launch, so while most of the launch titles were present they didn't have all their features, and for Kinect itself, facial and voice recognition was not used.
Having said that, I was quite surprised by how well the technology actually worked. All one had to do was simply approach a booth and stand a few feet back from the sensor, wave to assume control, and begin playing! I watched many people play Kinect Adventures!, and the ease at which people could control their raft and move their Avatar to collect coins around the game levels was most impressive. Regrettably I didn't get to try Kinect Adventures! myself, but I did experience several other titles.
First up was Kinect Sports where I tried for a prize pack. Bowling was the game being played when I tried, and the promo staff set the ground rules of requiring multiple strikes to continue. This was my very first attempt with connect, and I did not score a strike and was disqualified, but that's alright. Next up was Kinect Joy Ride, where Jeff, Xbox Canada's product manager, took me through how to play the game.
Like most Kinect titles, once the sensor is tracking you the cursor simply moves with your hand-guided motions. Stop the cursor over an option and a circle draws around it in a clockwise direction. This gives you a few seconds to move the cursor or, once the circle is complete, to select that option. For Kinect Joy Ride itself, once you're in-game you simply position your hands like you're holding a steering wheel and turn that wheel to drive your vehicle. Bring your hands close to your chest and you begin charging a Turbo Boost, and once you've built enough charge, thrust your hands forward to really launch your vehicle!
Personally, I found the sensor could be a little too sensitive while steering, and one promo staff member pointed out that while playing, I had also been moving my body and not just the "steering wheel," which in this case throws the sensor off a bit. It's something apparently a lot of new players have trouble with in Kinect Joy Ride, but once you get past that the game handles very smoothly. If you actually get some air time you can even spin around to cause your vehicle to spin!
The next and final game I tried was Kinectimals, in which I got to play and interact with a lion cub. I was able to throw Frisbees or Mexican hats at targets to score points, and the cub would run out and fetch used Frisbees for me. What was pretty cool was that leaning your body would actually tilt the camera angle, allowing you another way to adjust your aim. If you threw too fast though, the sensor might not properly track you, but if you used fluid, steady hand motions, you could often hit targets rather easily.
When I was done, the next person who stepped up for Kinectimals was a child. He was about 5 years old and being me, I spent some time helping him, assisting a promo staff member in instructing him on how to play the game. Sometimes he'd move too close and fall outside of the sensor's field of view, or he'd move too fast and not be tracked properly, but he was having a great time. He actually played a game with the cub itself, teaching it tricks by standing up, rolling around on the floor, or doing hand motions. The child was having a great time, laughing and telling his mom about everything he was doing, and this above any other experience that night really showed me Kinect's potential: that anyone, of any age, really can just jump right into a Kinect game and even if they aren't doing things quite right, they can still have a wonderful and entertaining experience.
Visually, I was quite impressed with the various game's graphics. While not Unreal Engine quality, they certainly looked very nice, and textures were crisp, fluid, and detailed, as were the various character animations, particularly that of the cub from Kinectimals. The environments of Kinect Adventures! also looked very well done.
I must confess I was certainly impressed with my Kinect experience. I only got to spend about 30 minutes overall trying out the various above games, but the tech was quite easy to use. I'm still not 100% sold on it though, as I think the motion tracking tech could be improved to be a little less or a little more sensitive depending on the title, but the potential is certainly there in spades. At this point, the target audience for Kinect is different than my personal style of gaming. After a long day at the office, do I want to come home and jump around my living room annoying my neighbours, or do I want to sit on my butt, drink and beer, and play some Halo: Reach?
If you guessed the latter then you've been paying attention, but that's certainly not to say Kinect won't be a great accessory to parties and casual living room gaming environments. Kinect is certainly something I will be keeping a close eye on in the months to come, and depending on how Microsoft improves and supports Kinect post-launch and if more mature or innovative games are made available that suit my tastes better, we'll, my neighbours just might be telling me to stop banging around after all.
Wow. Halo Waypoint finally updated the Halo Wars website with some actual news. Not that they weren't updating it with unactual news before, they just weren't updating it for the last 7 months period.
Way to roll out those "big plans for Halo Wars" guys! But I digest...
The Halo Wars leaderboards will be reset due to popular demand this coming Fri. Nov. 5th. Your rank, of course, will be unaffected.
You can check out the main page of the official site for the good word.
Some disturbing news though. I just saw that if you register on the official site, you can not post on the official forums! That's right, the official Halo Wars forums no longer allows new members to post as of October 27th, and posters are instead encouraged to go to the official Xbox Forums. Not that there's a problem with the Xbox Forums, but seriously, talk about killing community growth...
The Noble Map Pack releases over Xbox LIVE Marketplace on Tues. Nov. 30th for 800 Microsoft Points.
Personally, I just don't understood the concept of paying money for small collections of multiplayer maps, and I'll happily pass.
Sunday, October 24, 2010
The Demon Hunter appears to be an all female class, and she wields crossbows, often dual-wielding, to devastate the hordes of the burning hells. You can check out her page on the official site here, including some great amour-progression concept art, and her reveal trailer here or below.
I'm really liking the backstory and character set up, as she seems to be a rather interesting twist on the Amazon from Diablo II (the previous ranged combatant). I'm not impressed, however, with the reveal trailer; at least the narrative part of it.
I tend to prefer my fiction to be dark, gritty, and grounded in a measure of reality to enhance suspension of disbelief. The narrative aspects of this trailer are far too over the top for my liking; no real sense of danger and very, well, anime-influenced.
She can also continually fire while dual-wielding her crossbows without reloading.
Regardless, she looks like an awesome class, and I'll likely be using either her or the Monk for my first character.
Blizzard Entertainment has revealed their PVP settings for their upcoming hack and slash action RPG, Diablo III. For those too young to remember, Battle.net launched with Diablo back in 1996 (crushing paid-to-play services, might I add, until gamers allowed such silly things to come back. I'm looking at you, Xbox LIVE.), and allowed players to journey together into the dungeons of Tristram to face off against the Lord of Terror himself.
Unless some jerk decided to back-stab you instead. They kill you unexpectedly, and all your items and Gold were theirs, just like that. Infuriating, let me tell you.
As I recall in Diablo II (it's been nearly a decade, so bear with me as I rack the ol' brain), you could actually specify whether your character was able to take place in PvP matches or not. This was awesome as it allowed safety for those players who didn't want their gaming experience ruined by some sleazy online jerk.
In Diablo III, however, it looks like Blizzard Entertainment is going to officialize PvP by having actual arenas scattered throughout the world of Sanctuary where players and their friends can square off in different ways.
Personally, I think this is an exceptional idea. It allows PvP to become an optional yet organized function of the game. Those who want to Quest and loot can do that, those who want to PvP have the proper places to do that, and of course players can partake in both in their proper places.
For full details, step right this way.
Saturday, October 16, 2010
Like most people, I have a Facebook profile. I signed up back in January 2007 and used it as an extra means of communication between friends and colleagues, to chat with them as an alternative to email, to plan various events, and yes, to check if that random cute girl was listed as "single." With the way online culture was (and still is) rapidly evolving, a social networking site the likes of Facebook simply made sense. One thing I never bothered looking into, however, was the origin of the site.
Now, about three and a half years after signing up, The Social Network has been released to theatres. Directed by David Fincher, The Social Network dramatically tells the tale of how the most successful social networking site in the world came to be.
It's 2003 and Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) has just broken up with his girlfriend (Rooney Mara). Pissed off and getting just a little drunk, he hacks into several Harvard databases and creates a site called FaceMash where students can go and rate between different girls as to which is hotter. The site is a success and crashes Harvard's servers, all in the same night, and while this generated a great deal of on-campus notoriety for Zuckerberg, it brought him to the attention of the Winklevoss twins (Armie Hammer) and their friend and business partner Divya (Max Minghella). They enlist Zuckerberg's aid in creating a Harvard dating site, which Zuckerberg agrees to but continually delays, creating his own site on the side with help from his best friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield).
As Thefacebook launches and instantly becomes successful on campus, the boys look to grow the site, and interestingly enough Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), the inventor of Napster, becomes involved as an adviser and ultimately plays a role in forcing Saverin out.
The Winklevoss twins accuse Zuckerberg of theft of intellectual property and Saverin sues for damages, and Fincher uses these lawsuits as the means for telling the story of The Social Network. Multiple lawsuits are contrasted with the telling of the sites origins and Zuckerberg's interactions with everyone involved.
The Social Network is based on the book The Accidental Billionaires and the real Zuckerberg, nor anyone from Facebook itself, were consulted. With that in mind, I've taken the drama presented in the film with a grain of salt as, let's face it, it's a movie and movies are meant to entertain. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a completely insensitive jerk who uses, and to a degree, is used during the creation and success of Facebook. Having never looked into the site's history before, I admit I found it rather interesting that the guy who made Napster was involved, but I must admit that I found the film very powerful in the portrayal of the dynamics of the people and the way that business screwed them all. Loyalties are divided, friendships ruined, and so much of the problems faced are petty and juvenile and I found myself easily empathizing with this (thanks corporate world!).
Without question I found the acting in the film very, very strong. Given the culture and people I typically associate with, Zuckerberg was very identifiable for me, an easy character to understand and to a certain measure, relate to. Same goes for Saverin, and I felt quite sorry for him and what he went through. The cast overall did an excellent job fleshing out the dramatic humanity of the characters, and The Social Network is the single most character driven film I recall watching this year.
Without hesitation I can easily recommend The Social Network, as given its content it's a film that just about anyone can enjoy. And for me, here and now in October 2010, I barely use Facebook anymore and haven't used it extensively for several months. Why? Because I find that instead of accessorizing the social process it began to replace it, which I don't agree with, and the irony of the greatest social networking site in the world destroying the friendship of it's original founders was not lost on me.
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Also on sale as part of Xbox LIVE's Deal of the Week is the Mass Effect 2 DLC "Overlord." Offering four new assignments, a new star system, two new Achievements, and the M-44 Hammerhead (added if players didn't already download the free "Firewalker Pack"), this DLC has a fair bit on offer.
Once installed, players will receive a message from the Illusive Man at their private terminal informing them that a Cerberus research station has gone silent and should be investigated. Upon arrival, players enter a facility where a battle has clearly been fought, bodies and destruction littered everywhere. After a brief bit of exploration, players are contacted by Chief Scientist Archer, possibly the only survivor in the facility, who explains that an experimental VI has gone berserk and is trying to use the station's satellite to get off world.
This VI is rather unique as it can take control of almost any electronic devise, including the Geth that appear to already be on this world (thankfully Legion seems immune). It's up to Shepard and crew to prevent the VI from escaping and to stop the compromised Geth and Mechs through a total of four Cerberus facilities.
The fifth area featured is a beautifully detailed exterior area in which players travel in the Hammerhead, moving from facility to facility. Along the way players can explore the map looking for six Data Packets, collections of research that Cerberus can later use to analyze what went wrong.
I'm not perfectly sure if the controlled Geth and Mechs are tougher than their traditional counterparts, but I must confess I found they hit harder than I remembered. I also want to congratulate BioWare for adding in a great horror element that was lacking from the core game. While this VI is no S.H.O.D.A.N., traveling through the empty halls of the Cerberus facilities with bodies everywhere and having the VI just pop up and scream at you, well, let's just say I literally jumped the first few times.
With aspects like this, I found that "Overlord" provided a nice change to the Mass Effect 2 feel, giving it a more survival-themed element that created a great experience. I also found the DLC's story very well written, ultimately coming together with strong morality and a very sad human element. Honestly, I felt really sorry by the DLC's conclusion. The music, which I also believed to be new, was also a great touch.
I've encountered two odd but minor bugs with "Overlord" that you should be aware of. The first, during the conclusion of the first Cerberus base, had Shepard randomly get locked into facing and firing in a certain direction. No matter which way I walked or moved, he continued to face a specific direction (which was comical since I wasn't in combat), and the issue resolved itself when I touched a stairwell. Another little quirk is with the Mass Effect 2 icon on my Xbox 360's HDD, under System Settings>Memory>Games. Installing Mass Effect 2: Overlord changes the core Mass Effect 2 icon in this part of my console to the Batarian face of the Mass Effect: Bring Down the Sky DLC! While having no effect other than cosmetic, it's an odd little bug.
On Normal difficulty, Mass Effect 2: Overlord took me about three and a half hours, and I must admit, I'm very, very impressed with this DLC add-on. Strongly written with great gameplay, a cool System Shock 2-ish end sequence that I will not spoil, and a survival horror feel unique to the game, this is one premium add-on that I can recommend in good faith.