Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

We here at Arbiter's Judgement want to take a moment to wish you and your family and friends a very Happy New Year!

Enjoy whatever plans you have for tonight and here's to a wonderful 2012 filled with prosperity, opportunity, and innovative entertainment!

I know. I'm stretching with that last one, but hey, a man can dream!

Halo: Primordium Excerpts

Releasing this Tuesday at book stores everywhere, the second novel in Greg Bear's Forerunner saga, Halo: Primordium, will be available in hardcover.

The first novel in the series, Halo: Cryptum, was the single most un-Halo like novel I have ever read, and it was actually very, very good (you can check out my review here). I'm hoping for more from the sequel, specifically much more graphic detail on the Forerunner and Flood War.

To whet our appetites, Tor Forge and Halo Waypoint are hosting various excerpts from the novel.

You can read Chapter One at Tor right here, and then Chapters Two, Three, and part of Chapter Four over at Halo Waypoint here.

So human consciousness can be transferred into a Monitor, huh. Very interesting, and this raises some even more unique questions.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Top 3 Games of the Year, 2011

With 2011 drawing to a close, it's time to once again announce my top three games of the year.

As I mention each year, I'm not a professional reviewer and I don't get review copies of games, so I can only judge based on what I've played. I won't go and spend my money on triple A titles that I have no interest in, which means there are certain franchises that will not appear in my lists.

To further add to my policy, I can only consider a game for Game of the Year status if I've played through it (or at least completed its main component or Quest), so keep that in mind when you notice a few Triple A titles missing.

3) Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Xbox 360). 343 Industries first major foray into creating a game in the Halo franchise actually comes to us in the form of an HD remake of the title that started it all. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is truly a labour of love that takes the original Campaign and gives it a major HD overhaul while still retaining the excellent classic gameplay we know and love.

In addition to a facelift, it also adds Co-Op Campaign via Xbox LIVE, Terminals, and Skulls to further add to the experience, and it comes bundled with the Anniversary Map Pack for Halo: Reach that features new remakes of classic Multiplayer battle grounds as well as a new map for Firefight.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary really harkens back to a day of quality, a day when there really was a lot of substance to retail games and products weren't just released with clearly missing pieces that you could buy later as "premium" DLC, but also to a time when games where challenging.

Don't believe me? Play through the Campaign on Legendary with no Skulls. Halo: Reach has an Achievement for completing the game on solo Legendary, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary has no such thing. There's a reason for that.

A wonderful nostalgia trip and a stellar shooter that's stood the test of time and benefits strongly from the new visuals, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is not only a great title (and a budget title at that), but it's also Microsoft Studios' best title released this year.

2) Dead Space 2 (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3). Dead Space was an exceptional experience that really took the survival horror genre above and beyond, featuring a great story, great gameplay, and a truly nerve wracking atmosphere (I'll never listen to "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" the same way again. Taking things up several notches, Dead Space 2 throws Isaac Clarke into one dark narrative.

Awakening in an insane asylum on a space station called the Sprawl, Isaac is caught between a new Necromorph outbreak and a government that's trying to kill him. Battling his own dementia and haunting visions, Isaac presses forward trying to stop the nightmare, to save himself, and to save anyone else he can.

Dead Space 2 is truly a work of genius providing suburb level design, an exceptional narrative (and having Isaac talk now really enhances the experience), and creative survival horror gameplay that's varied and fresh. The developers really know how to shock their audience and aside from some poor, more action-oriented design towards game's end that feels out of place, the whole near 20 hour experience is one heck of a ride.

Oh, and there's also a Multiplayer component as well, but it's really the single player portion that's the heart and sole of this game. Dead Space 2 is without question the best story driven experience I've played this year, and I'm anxiously awaiting the announcement of the inevitable third chapter in the saga.

1) Mortal Kombat (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3). At the beginning of 2011, if you would have told me that I'd be listing Mortal Kombat as my Game of the Year I would have told you that you were nuts. While I loved the franchise as a teenager it had its time and I've since moved on from fighting games.

Based on the strong reviews and online feedback the game received I decided to give the title a gamble just after its release, and I simply can not believe how amazing it is. Mortal Kombat is packed so full of content, NetherRealm Studios has really outdone themselves. Arcade Ladder with twenty seven kombatants to master (twenty eight if played on a PlayStation 3), a wonderfully enjoyable Story Mode, the insanely long Challenge Tower, Test Your Luck, Test Your Might, Test Your Strike, Test Your Sight, and oh yeah, there's online Versus, Tag Matchs, a full Krypt of unlockables, hidden opponents of old, _and_ they even added four downloadable "premium" kombatants and eight free alternate costumes.

Mortal Kombat, being a retelling of the original trilogy I so loved back in yesteryear, has not only completely impressed and rekindled my love of the franchise but it's also redefined what a complete retail package should contain. Built upon the Unreal Engine 3, it's also the single most beautiful console title I've seen this year with exceptionally detailed characters, backgrounds, and special effects, and boosting a wonderful soundtrack of effects, music, and even voice acting.

And this is a fighting game people, not an over hyped FPS or an overpriced MMO. Mortal Kombat has impacted my gaming life so extensively that it's become my most played game over Xbox LIVE ever, and I've also gone back to check out previous titles in the franchise, dressed as Scorpion for Halloween, and have ignored The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim to keep playing this game. Seriously, you want to know why I haven't completed The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim yet and why I couldn't include it in this year's Game of the Year running? It's because of Mortal Kombat!

Simply due to how much I've played it, how much I've loved it, and how much Mortal Kombat is defining my overall gaming experience, there's no question that it's the best game I've played this year. Thank you Ed Boon and co for creating such a great title and a wonderful franchise, and it's with great pleasure that I name Mortal Kombat my 2011 Game of the Year.

Top 3 Novels of the Year, 2011

Well 2011 is wrapping up and it was a pretty good year for books. My top three picks below:

3) BioShock: Rapture. BioShock is a great franchise and it's always had a compelling and disturbing universe. The underwater city of Rapture itself is simply fascinating, not just in the scope of such a marvel of engineering but also in its history and its people themselves.

By playing the first two games, you come to learn a lot about the history of Rapture and the people behind it, primarily through the various audio logs left behind, but with BioShock: Rapture you actually get to read firsthand how this city was conceived, built, and corrupted from within.

Andrew Ryan himself is the man behind Rapture, the one who had the vision, the capital, and the drive. Gathering like minded people to help make Rapture a reality, Bill McDonagh really believes this underwater city will be a better place than the service world, and that it'll be a marvel to raise his family in. But what will happen when Ryan comes into conflict with those who see Rapture as a means for profit instead of freedom and how will McDonagh draw the line between right and wrong in a city with no laws, no morality, and no hope?

A great read for any fan of the franchise looking to understand more about these wonderful characters.

2) Halo: Cryptum. The Halo universe is one long steeped in mystery, and while the Covenant War is the focus of the games, a darker threat looms above all. This threat, as any fan knows, is the Flood, an extragalactic parasite that seeks to devour all life in the galaxy.

Scattered throughout the Halo universe are ruins and relics from a long lost civilization, called the Forerunners. Worshiped as gods by the Covenant, the Forerunners possessed technology far beyond the comprehension of humans and were once the custodians of the galaxy, until they were brought face to face with the ravening Flood.

Halo: Cyrptum goes back 100,000 years prior to the games and for the first time, truly shows the tale of the Forerunner-Flood War and the construction of the Halo array. What follows is a tale unlike anything else featured in the Halo universe, and this first book in the trilogy clearly shows us how different the galaxy was 100,000 years ago, how flawed the Forerunners really were, and how humanity was woven into it all.

While Halo: Cryptum can take a bit to get into, it's a fascinating piece of science fiction that really takes the Halo universe in unexpected directions, and will make an interesting read for anyone who's ever wanted to know hard details and facts about the Forerunners themselves.

1) The Forest Laird. Jack Whyte's first novel in his new Guardian series, detailing the history of the wars of independence in Scotland, The Forest Laird follows the rise of one William Wallace as he reluctantly steps forward to be the leader the realm needs him to be.

So unlike Braveheart, The Forest Laird takes a different approach at examining the life of the Wallace, drawing upon further legend of the time. Essentially, Whyte proposes that Wallace was the basis for Robin Hood, the outlaw whom we all knew robbed from the rich and gave to the poor.

How Whyte builds upon this theme and how he develops not only Wallace himself but the great group of characters surrounding him is a hallmark trait of such a great author, injecting the tale with both drama, compassion, honour, and folly. Whyte's characters are as human as they ever were, and The Forest Laird presents readers with a view of English and Scottish history that they likely have never considered before.

The Forest Laird is simply an excellent, lengthy, and fantastic read, and it takes the cake as my novel of 2011.

Mortal Kombat Review Updated a Second Time

Two weekends ago I decided to treat myself and I picked up the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition, and as such, I've updated my review for the game.

For those who've already read my review of Mortal Kombat you can check out the update itself below. For those who have yet to read it, feel free to do so right here.

Several months after release I caved and bought the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition. For those unaware, it comes with:

- A copy of Mortal Kombat
- Scorpion vs. Sub-Zero Bookends
- The Art of Mortal Kombat book
- A downloadable token for the Ermac Retro Costume
- A downloadable token for the Xbox 360 Avatar Scorpion Costume
- A downloadable token for the Xbox 360 Avatar NetherRealm Studios T-Shirt

It was the bookends that I really wanted, though I must confess I loved the Art Book and my Avatar is looking pretty slick dressed up as Scorpion.

Now the box for the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition itself is, of course, quite large to properly hold the bookends, and they're packaged in there securely to prevent them from being moved around and damaged. There was actually an extra bit of padding where Sub-Zero's right hand touches the inside of the box, which is a really great packaging thought, as this hand could easily have been hit and broken. The box itself also sports a very cool Goro's Lair theme, enhancing the overall look of the package itself.

The bookends are simply fantastic, and I absolutely love them. Made out of plastic, they are gorgeously painted and extremely detailed and worth it for any collector and fan of the franchise. Scorpion's Spear is tied to a rope like in past titles as opposed to a chain like in the current game, but this is a minor knit pick. My original intention was to place these bookends on my mantle once my place is built, but since they're plastic I'm worried they might get damaged when the gas fireplace is on for too long so I'll place them elsewhere when the time comes.

Having bought several collector's editions for other games in the past, I can say that I'm quite used to included art books and what many say is true, you look at them and read them once and then never again. This won't be the case for me with The Art of Mortal Kombat. The book is filled with excellent information and nostalgia and comments from the designers on how they tried to model everything new while retaining the spirit of the original trilogy. I know I'll be leafing through this book a few more times just to take it all in. Regrettably some of the ink appears to have run during printing, and one page in particular is hard to read but there's not much on that page that I know I'm missing. Manufacturing defects are unfortunate, but I'll take this over a broken bookend easy.

The Ermac Retro Costume is a Mortal Kombat (1992) red ninja outfit, which I find amusing since Ermac was not in that game 0utside of rumour, and the Avatar items are, like any other Avatar item, a nice bonus but nothing I'd buy on their own.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the Mortal Kombat Kollector's Edition. Several collector's editions that I've picked up recently have been disappointing or filled with items that I considered useless, but I don't regret picking this one up one bit, even though I already purchased the core game back at launch. Of course like any other collector's edition the worth of the bonus content is all in the purchaser and how much a fan he/she is of the franchise, and me, I've really, really gotten back into Mortal Kombat.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

We here at Arbiter's Judgement just want to take a moment to wish you and your family a very Merry Christmas and a safe and happy holiday season!

Enjoy some good food and drink with your family and friends, and of course, enjoy some gaming on any and every platform of your choice!

So what're you playing this holiday? Me, I'm still working on Mortal Kombat and the Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and playing the occasional match in Gears of War 3 to earn the Onyx War Supporter Medal.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Trailer

The trailer for Peter Jackson's upcoming return to Middle-earth, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, is now out. In case you're one of the few people left on the planet who hasn't seen this trailer yet, you can view it here or below:

Exceptional, simply exceptional. It is so refreshing to me to see that 2012 might actually be a quality year for films that restores my faith in the silver screen; the art design and mood of the trailer looks just perfect.

Nostalgia strikes yet again!

The History of Mortal Kombat - Episode 03

Mortal Kombat Secrets has released the third episode in their retrospective on the Mortal Kombat franchise, entitled "There is no Knowledge that is not Power." This episode looks at Mortal Kombat 3 and its upgraded version, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and the changes and effects this game had on the franchise in the year that became known as "The Year of Mortal Kombat."

You can check out the episode here or below:

Like the previous two episodes, there's a lot of nostalgia here for me. I was 14 when Mortal Kombat 3 released to arcades and I still remember my excitement! I also remember a lot of the magazine ads featured in the video and I of course own the home version of Mortal Kombat 3 for my Super Nintendo Entertainment System, which I spent far too many hours playing.

I was 15 when Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 was released and it was with this title that I started to leave the franchise behind with. I did not own a home version until the now discontinued Xbox LIVE Arcade release in 2006.

Regardless, the episode is a great watch for any fan of the franchise and being able to pause and read some of the court documents from the lawsuit Midway and co were faced with at the time is also a rare opportunity.

Prometheus Official Trailer Released

A coming film by Ridley Scott, Prometheus is the prequel to Alien, and the official trailer for the film has been released. You can check it out below:

That got my blood pumping, and the art direction is a spot-on modernization of the classic '70's film. Oh nostalgia, how you take a hold over me. Very excited to see how this ties into the greater Aliens franchise as a whole!

Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection 1.02 Patch Released

Available now on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and PlayStation Network, the 1.02 patch for the Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection addresses several serious issues with the compilation, and at 8 MB in size, it's a fair sized patch for any Arcade Game.

Generally speaking, Achievement/Trophy issues, Gamma issues, and most notably, network issues for online play have all been addressed amongst others. Taken from the official forums here:

General Game

    · Fixed issues with game completion achievements not being unlocked upon successful completion of MK, MKII, or UMK3
    · Ability to expand the game to a full screen display has been added to the Options menu.
    · Gamma levels have been adjusted for arcade emulations to better represent the original arcade versions.
    · Tweaks have been made to the arcade emulation display to better represent the original arcade versions.
    · Tweaks have been made to the arcade emulation speed to best reflect the original arcade experience.
    · Overall game stability has been improved.


    · Fixed the Network lag issue experience by many players that resulted in delayed control response and slow gameplay despite fast networking connections.
    · Majority of Kombat Kodes have been enabled in Friendly Kombat online matches.
    · Nametag and ranking of rival players are hidden from user when engaging in a ranked match until the match has begun to deter players from quitting based on who they are matched with.
    · Fixed In-lobby bandwidth meter to accurately reflect the connection speed.
    · Quitting a Ranked Kombat match or backing out of a Ranked Kombat match both now result in a loss to the quitting player, affecting his Kombat Rating.
    · Gamertags \ PSN Usernames have been added to the display during online matches so that players are able to better see who they are fighting.
    · Animation has been added to online match up screen when waiting for a rival player to provide feedback that the game has not frozen.

While I confess it's disappointing that this patch took almost four months to be released, better late than never, I suppose.

Now I can actually recommend the Mortal Kombat Arcade Kollection as a proper purchase, however it was already discounted once as a Deal of the Week on Xbox LIVE Marketplace by 50%, so keep your eyes peeled for future deals.

For the patch itself, my only major gripe is that they darkened the Gamma far too much, and there is no in-game Gamma correction option. Not the end of the world though.

Gears of War 3: Fenix Rising Map Pack Announced

The third DLC add-on for Gears of War 3 has been announced, a new map pack entitled "Fenix Rising."

The add-on will contain 5 new multiplayer maps based on locations from the Campaign, and they're entitled Academy, Anvil, Depths, Escalation, and The Slab.

Four new multiplayer skins will also be available, Recruit Clayton, Thrashball Cole, Savage Marauder, and Savage Kantus.

Also, for players who have reached Level 100 you'll also be given the option to "Re-Up," where you can start the process again (only your Level and Experience are reset) to earn new rank icon colours and unique weapon skins.

For full details, you can read the announcement here. No official cost is given, but I'm assuming the add-on will sell for 800 Microsoft Points and it'll be available on January 17th. If you already have the Gears of War 3 Season Pass it'll be available at no additional charge.

Xbox 360 Avatar Guns being Pulled from the Marketplace

This made me laugh. According to this article at TeamXbox, Xbox 360 Avatar gun Props, such as those featured from Gears of War 3, are being removed from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace on January 1st.

This is hilarious because originally it was stated that weapons would never be made available to Xbox 360 Avatars, and then magically, versions of the Lancer and Hammerburst from Gears of War 3 were put up for sale.

You can check out the full article here.

If you've already bought one of these Avatar items, you won't loose them when they're pulled, but anyone else will not be able to purchase them after the New Year.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow Now Available

The first single player add-on for Gears of War 3, entitled "RAAM's Shadow," is available now on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace for 1200 Microsoft Points. If you purchased the Gears of War 3 Season Pass, then this content is already included and you can download it at no additional charge.

Set before the original Gears of War during the height of the Locust War, players will follow Zeta Squad as they attempt to evacuate Ilima City. Primarily playing as Michael Barrick (from the comics), players will also be reunited with Tai Kaliso, Minh Young Kim, and a new Gear, Alicia.

Players will also be able to play as General RAAM himself as he lays waste to human fortifications during a Locust assault.

In addition the add-on contains a new Chocolate Weapon Skin pack, opens up new character skins for Multiplayer, and contains several new Achievements.

You can read the official announcement here and also check out the launch trailer below.

While this kind of an add-on certainly sounds great, the Campaign is pretty short at about 3 hours and friends of mine who've already played through it have said that really, it's only okay and nothing to jump and shout about. All of this points to another overpriced, over-hyped DLC add-on published by Microsoft Studios.

Considering how disappointed I am with Gears of War 3, if I pick this add-on up it'll be when it's on sale for well over 50% off. Which means I probably won't be picking it up at all.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 1.3 Update Now Available on all Platforms

The 1.3 update for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is now available on all platforms, Xbox 360, PC, and PlayStation 3.

Simply log in with the game and connect to Xbox LIVE, Games for Windows LIVE, or PlayStation Network to get the update.

For a full list of details on what the patch addresses, you can check out Bethesda's Blog here.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mass Effect 3 VGA 2011 Gameplay Trailer

GameTrailers is hosting an exclusive gameplay trailer for Mass Effect 3, showing Shepard and Garrus in a bind during the Reaper invasion. You can check the action packed trailer out here or below.

All I've got to say is _finally_! The franchise has need a roll option since the first title!

BioShock Infinite VGA 2011 Trailer

GameTrailers is hosting the latest trailer from BioShock Infinite, which you can watch here or below:

Stylistic yet intense as always, showing a great deal of character and morality with the action and desperation. I'm greatly looking forward to Irrational Games latest offering.

Diablo III Opening Cinematic

Yesterday, Blizzard Entertainment released the opening Cinematic for their upcoming hack and slash RPG, Diablo III. You can check it out here or below:

As usual, their Cinematics are top notch and extremely impressive.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Xbox 360 Fall 2011 System Update Impressions

Earlier this week, the Fall 2011 System Update for the Xbox 360 went live, and unsurprisingly it had a bit of a bumpy start.

Delayed by almost an entire day, Xbox LIVE had connectivity issues after the Update finally did launch this past Tuesday, and some people had issues getting it installed and even lost their Profile! Thankfully I didn't have anything that serious, though installation was somewhat complicated due to spotty connectivity and it appears there are two parts to the Update itself, but after a little patience all was well.

Regardless, once done, you're presented with the complete layout overhaul of the Xbox 360 Dashboard. Fully embracing Microsoft's Metro design, there are now several Channels at your disposal which are navigated from left to right on your screen (LB and RB are your friends here). Once you're on a Channel you'll see a cluster of tiles representing the options you can select, videos you can watch, etc.

Now, I honestly need to say that I find the new Metro and tile look of the Dashboard ugly and a major step backwards. It looks very cluttered to me, and while it can be navigated with a Controller there's no question that this design is Kinect centric. Microsoft, not everyone wants Kinect and Dashboard navigation isn't the reason the peripheral isn't in everyone's living room, lack of quality games for it are.

Releasing a Kinect-focused design only frustrates those of us without the sensor, and we're not going to go and buy one just because you change things on us.

Having said that, the Xbox 360 Guide has survived mostly intact and navigating it is a lot faster than the Dashboard itself if you're using a Controller. Everything is laid out like you remember via the Guide, so using it when you're stuck or looking for something will be a huge help.

Cosmetic and layout issues aside, and the fact that ads are bloody everywhere now, the Fall 2011 System Update does add some cool new features to your Xbox 360 console.

Your Profile is now a Roaming Profile, and you can confidently download it at a Friend's place without fear of corruption that was common enough with the old Account Recovery option. Not only that but when you get home, since you didn't need to Move your Profile, you can just log on and play as per normal!

Cloud Storage is also now available to Gold members, meaning you can access your save games from any console in which you have your Profile on. Not only does Cloud Storage make a handy back up, but honestly, combined with Roaming Profile, it pretty much removes the need for a USB Flashdrive save as a final redundancy back-up option.

The Xbox LIVE Marketplace has been butchered with the new design, however Microsoft has added Bing, giving it its own Channel, which allows you to type or voice search (with Kinect) for anything you want. While this sort of works, the previous Xbox LIVE Marketplace was superior in terms of accessibility.

Other new features, such as YouTube, Rogers on Demand, etc., are Coming Soon and not yet available, so I can't comment on how great or not they are. I believe a Gold Membership will be required for access along with many of the other new features.

Beacons are another addition, allowing you to specify what game(s) you want to play and the service with automatically notify your Friends, even hours later provided you've let the Beacon remain active. I personally have not used or experienced Beacons yet as the games I'm playing right now are being played by few of my Friends, but I hear this feature is extremely annoying. Apparently there's no way to disable Beacon alerts, and many are finding them distracting when they're trying to play.

And that's pretty much it. I can still play games, my Xbox 360 still works, but now the Dashboard looks uglier, is more annoying to navigate, but in exchange I've gotten some cool new features that won't really re-invent the wheel.

I do honestly wish Microsoft would stop redesigning the Dashboard each year. I know it generates press, but really, do we need a whole new look this often? Had only the new features themselves been added, I would have personally been far more impressed with this System Update.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Xbox 360) Review Updated

This week past, I realized I actually forgot to discuss Kinect's integration with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.

For those of you who've already read my review of the game, I've cut and pasted the update below for your reading pleasure. For those of you who have not read my full review, you can do so here, and the update has been amended to the review's end.

A few days after publishing this review, I realized I had forgot to mention the Kinect integration featured in the game. In truth, that's because I completely forgot that Kinect is, well, featured in the game.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary does not use Kinect out-of-the-box, and in order to have the Xbox 360's latest peripheral function you need to connect to Xbox LIVE and download the game's Title Update. Once updated, and if your Kinect sensor is connected, you can then use it to reload your weapons by saying "Reload."

You can also use it to access the game's Library from the Extras menu. The Library is a collection of information you've obtained on Covenant foes by looking at their corpse and saying "Scan." The game will then scan them and add a page detailing that species' info to your Library.

Now, I don't have a Kinect sensor and clearly, I didn't miss this simple integration one bit, and you certainly don't need Kinect to enjoy Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. In truth reloading via the Controller would be faster since you can press a button quicker than saying the word, and any info contained in the Library can be found online, so really, Kinect adds nothing special to the mix.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim 1.3 Update Now Available on Steam, Imminent on Other Platforms

The 1.3 update for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which fixes the backwards flying Dragons, resistances not calculating correctly, and several other bugs introduced with last week's 1.2 update, is now available on Steam for those who've purchased the PC version of the game from this service.

The patch has also been given to Microsoft and Sony, and once it passes their certification, it'll be made available for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Games for Windows versions of the game.

You can read the full patch notes here.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary (Xbox 360) Review

Just over 10 years ago, the Xbox console launched to the world and Microsoft took its first steps into the crowded console gaming market. Xbox LIVE was still a year away and Microsoft really needed something to draw gamers to the big black box, something that would really set it apart from Sony's dominant PlayStation 2. That something was a little killer app called Halo: Combat Evolved.

Today, the Halo franchise is a household name, but back in 2001 shooters saw very rare success on consoles and were still the domain of PC gamers. I was also PC gaming at the time, knee deep in Diablo II: Lord of Destruction as I recall, and I not only missed out on the Xbox but also on Halo: Combat Evolved. This all changed shortly after I picked up the platform in the Fall of 2004 and my love for the franchise has persisted ever since.

While there were other shooters available on consoles, most notably Rare's efforts on Nintendo's N64, Halo: Combat Evolved really pushed things forward in ways that hadn't occurred before. The game's controls, one of the biggest challenges for a console shooter, felt solid, smooth, and responsive. It featured an excellent story driven Campaign with excellent enemy AI, spectacular vehicle sequences, and indistinguishable transitions from interior to massive exterior areas. While it didn't have any online gameplay, players could System Link up to four Xbox consoles for 16-player local Multiplayer, or play Split Screen Co-Op Campaign with a buddy.

Simply put, Halo: Combat Evolved was insanely innovative for its time and laid the ground work for many more shooters to come.

In celebration of its 10 year anniversary, 343 Industries has re-released Halo: Combat Evolved for the Xbox 360 as Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This updated version of the game comes on a single disc and features the original Campaign in its entirety, what you played then gameplay-wise is exactly what you'll be playing now. If you're looking for Armour Abilities, Vehicle Boarding, regenerating Health, etc. you won't find those here (and admittedly I do miss Sprint), however the same excellent, fast passed first person shooter action from a decade ago is just as fresh and fun today.

The updates come primarily in the form of a graphical overhaul. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary features completely re-skinned and updated textures for ever part of the Campaign, including the Menus. Master Chief and the human character models, be they Pillar of Autumn crew members or Marines, all look fantastic. The Covenant, as well as the game's vehicles, have been re-skinned with their Halo: Reach counterparts which provides some better visual continuity from the last adventure to now. Some of the colours have changed, Elite Zealots are once again Gold instead of that silly Maroon colour from Halo: Reach, but the upgraded textures still look fantastic. In fact, Stealth Elites appear even harder to see now and they don't show up on your Motion Tracker. You've been warned!

In fact, as you're playing you can actually change the visuals from Classic to Updated on the fly. By default the game uses the Updated visuals, and while you can change this in the Main Menu, you can actually press the "Back" button mid-gameplay to see just how far things have come in 10 years. During my playthrough I did this all throughout the Campaign and was stunned by how much better the environments, characters, and lighting looks. In fact there's so much actual grass added in to Chapter III, "Truth and Reconciliation" that on occasion it actually obscured my vision through my Sniper Rifle's scope! Overall, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary doesn't look as good as Unreal Engine 3 based games or even Halo: Reach, but it still looks exceptional and you'll instantly see how great things are when you start toggling the graphics.

The Cinematics have also been remastered in Updated mode. You can not toggle the graphics using "Back" during the Cinematics, so if you want to see how they looked 10 years ago you must adjust the option in the Menus prior to playing, but the Updated Cinematics have also had their character animations revised. Basically many of the characters move more subtly and with less "cartoonish," low poly jumpiness, and this helps add some more realism to the story's presentation. Cortana's lip syncing was pretty bad though, but this is a minor quibble.

Also of note, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is the first native Xbox 360 Halo shooter that actually perma-saves my Brightness setting, which was always an annoying little bug in Bungie's prior three offerings. Subtitles are also available for the first time now, making it easier to understand some of 343 Guilty Spark's ramblings in "The Library."

The Campaign's audio has also been updated overall. The voice acting is the exact same as 10 years ago, however some of it I found harder to hear this time around, but the sound effects and music have all been remixed and re-recorded. I suspect that many of the weapon sound effects and such were pulled from Halo: Reach, and the music was rerecorded and sounds very nice. If you wish though, you can switch back to the classic audio via the Menu options again.

As I mentioned, the gameplay is just as you remembered it 10 years ago (though you can now set Crouching to be held or toggled in Options), as is the story, however there have been a few nifty and franchise-true additions. Mainly, these come in the form of Skulls and Terminals. Available with the Updated graphics _only_, Skulls are now scattered about all the Campaign chapters and are waiting to be discovered. Classic Skulls such as Mythic, Fog, and Grunt Birthday Party return, while several new Skulls have been added to the mix such as Bandana (gives infinite ammo), Foreign (can not use Covenant weapons), and Recession (ever shot uses twice the ammo).

One Terminal can also be found per Chapter, and most are pretty simple to find. The Terminals essentially tell the story of 343 Guilty Spark and are predominantly narrated by him, revealing unknown tidbits about everyone's favourite Monitor as well as providing a few hints for his motives in later games and also a glimpse at some possibilities for Halo 4. While not game defining, the Terminals certainly add more depth for true Halo fans (and for those of you who've read Halo: Cryptum, you'll understand the Terminals far better than those who haven't).

Little other nods to the expanded universe have also been thrown in. For example, around the cyro rooms on the Pillar of Autumn you'll now see readouts that were monitoring not only John-117, but also Linda-058, showing her as flat lined, and if you've read the novels you'll get this reference perfectly. Little inclusions like this really show the attention to detail that 343 Industries have packed into this re-done package and how they're trying to tie all facets of the franchise together.

One interesting little bug that's found its way into Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary involves clipping and was seen in the original game when played on the Xbox 360. Sometimes when you blow up an enemy their weapon or a piece of their corpse will clip through and get "stuck" in a wall, causing the impact sound it made upon hitting the wall to constantly and quickly repeat and stutter; the closer you are to the clipped item, the louder the sound. A minor bug to be sure, but worthy of mention.

I also had it happen once where, on board the Truth and Reconciliation in Chapter III, a squad of Marines did not want to follow me past a certain cargo bay, which was clearly an AI glitch as replaying the Chapter had them behaving fine. During this playthrough I was also unable to use the button on the second level of the Hanger to call in reinforcements from a Pelican. Again, not game breaking but definitely worthy of note.

With Halo: Combat Evolved, Multiplayer was restricted to System Link and Split Screen, but with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary the original retro experience finally comes to Xbox LIVE in a form. I say in a form because yes, the Campaign is finally available online via two-player Co-Op, however competitive Multiplayer is done via Halo: Reach. Seven Maps are included with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, and from the game's Main Menu you can launch Halo: Reach's multiplayer allowing you access to the new maps only. If you want to play from Halo: Reach directly, you'll find a downloadable token in the game's case that allows you to download the maps as a Map Pack for Halo: Reach itself. Once loaded, you can play in the Anniversary playlists that allow you to experience the six versus maps (five of which are remakes of popular favourites from Halo: Combat Evolved and one is a remake of "Headlong" from Halo 2) and also a new Firefight map called "Installation 04," which is taken from Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary's second Campaign Chapter.

I've had the opportunity to play on three of the six competitive maps, and they play great and fit right in with the rest of Halo: Reach's line up. Yes, they're older style design despite the visual upgrades but they still feel just fine and have been fun to play on. "Installation 04" adds in AI allies for the first time in Firefight history. Garrisoned on top of a Forerunner structure are several ODST allies who will fight with you and also occupy vehicles to help fend off wave after wave of Covenant opponents. In truth, the ODST allies tend to serve more as a distraction than actual assistance, but they are a nice and welcome touch and they can actually help if they mount up in the map's Warthog or stationary Turret. A Mongoose is also available, and a Covenant Banshee or two will be flying around the map taking pot shots at you and the ODST's. "Installation 04" is a great open Firefight map and is my favourite new addition to the Multiplayer locations.

Achievement wise, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary features 44 Achievements of varying difficulties all related to the Campaign and Co-Op Campaign. Many are straightforward but there are some really challenging ones present. Keep in mind that Halo: Combat Evolved was developed back when games were actually hard on tougher difficulties, so Legendary Difficulty really is Legendary despite the effectiveness of the game's Pistol. You'll also note there's no Achievement for completing the Campaign on solo Legendary this time around, and there's a reason for that.

Halo: Reach also has several new Achievements added due to the new maps. If, for whatever reason, you do not want to purchase Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary but you want the new maps, they're available via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace as the Halo: Reach "Anniversary Map Pack," available here for 1200 Microsoft Points. You know my stance on Multiplayer map packs by now, so I won't hit you over the head with it, but think of it this way: $17.40 for a Map Pack or $39.99 for the Map Pack and a complete Single Player and Co-Op Campaign experience...

I'm extremely pleased with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. The Campaign has not only held up exceptionally well over the last 10 years, where it's gameplay and story are still of high quality today, but it's easily the most fun I've had with a video game since I fired up Mortal Kombat back in April. The visual upgrades are absolutely great but it's really the core game that's such a blast. The new maps are fun and add further variety to Halo: Reach, and really, unless you can't stand the slightly older game design, there's no reason why any fan of the franchise shouldn't own Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. This budget package truly is a labour of love on behalf of 343 Industries and it clearly demonstrates how they don't make games like they used to.

Here's hoping we get to see a Halo 2 Anniversary released in a few years so that the entire franchise can be native to the Xbox 360 console, as that game would be fantastic with visual upgrades.

Update: A few days after publishing this review, I realized I had forgot to mention the Kinect integration featured in the game. In truth, that's because I completely forgot that Kinect is, well, featured in the game.

Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary does not use Kinect out-of-the-box, and in order to have the Xbox 360's latest peripheral function you need to connect to Xbox LIVE and download the game's Title Update. Once updated, and if your Kinect sensor is connected, you can then use it to reload your weapons by saying "Reload."

You can also use it to access the game's Library from the Extras menu. The Library is a collection of information you've obtained on Covenant foes by looking at their corpse and saying "Scan." The game will then scan them and add a page detailing that species' info to your Library.

Now, I don't have a Kinect sensor and clearly, I didn't miss this simple integration one bit, and you certainly don't need Kinect to enjoy Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary. In truth reloading via the Controller would be faster since you can press a button quicker than saying the word, and any info contained in the Library can be found online, so really, Kinect adds nothing special to the mix.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Title Update 1.2 Released

About mid-way through last week, Bethesda Game Studios released Title Update 1.2 for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

For those of you who own the Xbox 360 version of the game, this patch fixes the Texture Scaling issue, which means you can now install your game to your HDD instead of playing off of the disc if you wish.

In addition to other various improvements, sadly, the Title Update adds several rather nasty bugs into the mix.

Resistances are no longer calculated correctly, so if you're a magic-wielding character relying on resistances instead of armour to keep you safe, you're going to be dying a whole lot easier now. Dragon instances may also result in the Dragon magically (and hilariously) flying backwards and being untargetable.

Those are the major bugs, with things like bookshelves and weapon racks no longer working correctly rounding out some of the minor bugs introduced.

Thankfully, Bethesda Game Studios will be releasing an additional Title Update by business week's end to address these problems.

You can read all about Title Update 1.2 here, and you can read about Bethesda Game Studio's intention to fix the issues caused in their blog post here.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The History of Mortal Kombat - Episodes 01 and 02

Mortal Kombat and its sequels were a game that really defined a lot of my late childhood to early teenage years. My friends and I were all playing it, wasting countless quarters against the cheap AI in arcades and local variety stores and obsessing over the home ports for both Arcade Ladder and Versus on Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Sega Genesis, and Nintendo Game Boy.

Good times indeed, and now Mortal Kombat Secrets is creating a new web series entitled "The History of Mortal Kombat."

While there are other video retrospectives about the franchise out there, thus far Mortal Kombat Secret's videos are the most informative and comprehensive, and despite a few audio quarks and the artificial British narrator, I recommend you give them a watch.

The first two epsiodes can be viewed here and here or below, and I'll post additional episodes as they become available.

Watching these really makes me feel like a kid again. I remember those old commercials, and the live action commercial for Mortal Kombat II was exceptional in it's day. Also interesting to see the dessert that Reptile came out of in that ad looks a lot like Jade's Desert in Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, and I'm sure it served as an influence. Never made that connection before.

Oh, fond memories...

New World of Warcraft Ads

While I don't play World of Warcraft as I'm not a fan of MMO's, I do love their celebrity ads!

Blizzard Entertainment has released two more featuring Chuck Norris (he's looking old), and Aubrey Plaza, and you can check them out here and here or below.

Halo: Helljumper Trailer

No, it's not a new Halo game or even a novel, but rather a fan made film broken into episodes. Coming in January 2012, Halo: Helljumper is a fan made film based on the short story "Dirt" by Tobias S. Buckle and featured in Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe.

It tells the story of Gage Yevgenny, how he became an Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, and his participation in humanity's loosing war against the Covenant. A well written story, and based on the trailer below, it's shaping up to be a great fan film.

Those are definitely some awesome costumes and props, and it'll be interesting to see how well the Covenant species look if they actually show them.

You can check out more about Halo: Helljumper on the official site right here.

Gears of War 3 Completed for the 2nd Time

Just under a week ago I completed Gears of War 3's Campaign for the second time, my first on Hardcore. It took me a little over a month simply because I was playing other games.

In truth, I wasn't very impressed.

The weak story and one dimensional characters didn't hold my attention and I'd go weeks at a time without playing. Hardcore difficulty was, in truth, a joke and far too easy with only the final boss providing an imbalanced challenge. I say imbalanced because she herself wasn't hard, it was the never ending spawning of Palace Guards surrounding you with dumb AI allies that was the problem.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, infinite spawns in almost all cases represents weak design and the developers' inability to craft a real challenge or better AI, which is sadly the hallmark of Gears of War 3: weak design.

I'm really disappointed with Gears of War 3. It could have been so much more, and while it's certainly a gorgeous looking game it's ultimately a dumbed down version of what's come before and that's not what I'm looking for with the trilogy's conclusion. The franchise has evolved so much over the last few years, yet it's core medium, the games themselves, have now taken several steps backwards.

At some point I suppose I'll give Insanity a run, but in truth with far better titles to play I'm not feeling motivated to do so. If Gears of War 3 didn't complete the actual trilogy itself, I'd have traded it in already, as it's redeeming qualities are really that few. In truth, I've been considering trading in my trilogy and clearing some shelf space; I'm that disappointed with Gears of War and Epic Games.

We'll see.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Halo: Glasslands Review

The Halo franchise has been around for over 10 years now and its core fiction is pretty fleshed out. The dynamics of the cultures and factions are very well established and generally speaking, people know what to expect when two opposing parties cross one another. Apparently, someone forgot to tell Karen Traviss this important little fact.

Halo: Glasslands is the first full novel set directly after the events of Halo 3, and it predominantly follows a special team created by the Office of Naval Intelligence who's sole purpose is to sow dissension and civil strife between the Elites. While the Elites and humanity technically have an alliance of sorts, Admiral Parangosky, the director of ONI, doesn't believe it will last or that the Arbiter will be able to keep control of his people. Already dissident Elite factions are springing up and ONI wants to see Elites fighting Elites as opposed to starting a war with humanity once again.

Now this is all well and good and without question the core story concept of Halo: Glasslands is solid. Reading about a highly skilled black ops team doing its thing is rather interesting and something not seen too often in the Halo franchise, and the story also broadens by continuing the tale of Dr. Halsey and the last few Spartans now trapped in a Dyson's Sphere in the remains of Onyx, as read at the end of the 2006 novel Halo: Ghosts of Onyx. That story arc grows larger and larger as the novel goes on and eventually intersects with the main plot.

All of this is well and good and is a solid formula for a wonderful tale of Halo-themed military sci-fi, but the final product is, sadly, lackluster. Why? How could Traviss, the master of character building and deep, military plots have dropped the ball? Because she got the dynamics of the characters and cultures all wrong.

Let me ask you something: When you think of Elites and Brutes, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Assuming you've been paying attention to the overall Halo story since 2004, you know they hate one another and now that the Covenant has fallen they want to wipe each other out. After the Prophets betrayed the Elites and used the Brutes to try and exterminate them, the Elites themselves have been on a campaign to purge the Brutes from the galaxy. According to Kevin Grace's short, "The Return" (featured in Halo: Evolutions - Essential Tales of the Halo Universe) this campaign has been on-going for about seven years after the events of Halo 3.

Well Halo: Glasslands is set during the end of 2552 and leads into early 2553, and apparently there are some packs of Brutes loyal to Elites. Does that make any sense to you? Nope, I didn't think so. In fact when I first read this, since Traviss uses the actual Covenant species names instead of their human given names, I thought they meant another Covenant species and this was a typo but no, there are some packs of Brutes loyal to Elites. Not only that, but since Elites are so important to this novel's core story we see Sanghelios in detail for the first time, and not only are there loyal Brutes on the planet but some of them are actually landscapers.

Yes, you read correctly: Brute gardeners. What's next? Brutes amicably living alongside humans on a human world? Oh wait, Traviss does that to. See what I mean about messed up dynamics, and this really, really hurts what would otherwise have been a solid story. If you go and change key cultural relations without any prior reason like this, the story looses credibility since it fails to keep true to the heart of the franchise; to what we, the fans expect. And while retcon is always inevitable with growing properties, it should at least have a solid purpose that benefits the whole of the franchise, and what Traviss does fails to meet that requirement.

Traviss even manages to bungle the different UNSC personalities. The new ONI black ops team formed consists of some ODSTs and a Spartan-II amongst others, but is there any tension between them as the franchise has always shown? No, there isn't. In fact, in very short order the ODSTs are all buddy-buddy with the Spartan and a budding romance actually begins to surface, which just feels all manner of wrong.

The Spartans themselves, well, Traviss doesn't seem to understand that they're not traditional soldiers. The hardcore discipline of the Spartan-II's shown time and time again in all manner of media is really relaxed here, and Fred, Kelly, and Linda act very out of character throughout. In any potentially hostile territory they do not relax their guard, they always religiously respect the chain of command, and they would not be taking off their helmets and joking around yet this continually happens here. Traviss' rendition of the Spartan-II's simply doesn't feel like Spartans at all.

The Spartan-III's also don't feel right, and I'm really curious to know if Traviss even read Halo: Ghosts of Onyx or not to work out how these existing charatcer's personalities should be, and I'm really guessing she didn't.

Heck, at one point a civilian is briefly introduced and he begins swearing Gears of War style, clearly showing Traviss' influence from that universe. While yes, there is cursing in Halo, it's more controlled and, well, mature. The Gears of War story might be more violent and gory but it is juvenile compared to Halo and this is another intricacy that Traviss just doesn't seem to understand.

All of her characters, new and established ones from past fiction, feel forced, hollow, and wrong, and it's quite the shame as Halo: Glasslands had a significant amount of potential. While not a bad story on it's own merits, it doesn't feel "Halo" much at all, and I'm truly hoping that Traviss shapes up for the second novel in this series or that this series is deemed non-canon in short order.

Of all the Halo novels released over the last decade, I'd need to rank this one as the second worst simply due to all the unforgiving tampering and poorly done character and cultural dynamics. I also truly hope that the fiction represented in these pages is not a fine example of what we can expect in the upcoming Halo 4, as if it is, I have a feeling we'll all be very, very disappointed.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition Video

Yesterday, BioWare released a video showcasing the unboxing of the Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition. Like the Collector's Edition for Mass Effect 2 this one looks solid, and you can check the video out here or below.

I very rarely pre-order unless there's a pre-order bonus I want to take advantage of, or there's a pre-order discount (such as 800 Reward Zone Points from Best Buy, which is essentially $10.00 in-store credit), but I do plan on pre-ordering the Mass Effect 3 Collector's Edition soon.

Why? Well, assuming it's anything like the Collector's Editions seen in the franchise thus far, it truly will be limited and the odds of getting it on launch day will be next to nil. Better safe than sorry I say!

Update: Just pre-ordered it now. If you pre-order it online at Best here, you'll have $5.00 reduced from the purchase price, which ain't half bad.

Gears of War 3: RAAM's Shadow Achievements Revealed

Epic Games has unveiled the Achievements that you'll be able to earn through the "RAAM's Shadow" DLC coming on December 13th for Gears of War 3.

You can check out their official announcement with the full breakdown right here.

Interesting to see that there are some Multiplayer related Achievements for this Single Player add-on, which is a great way to keep things mixed for the community.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

DLC Quest (Xbox 360) Trial Impressions

I don't sample Indie Games from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace very often, but recently a friend recommended one entitled DLC Quest.

Now, as you all know, I have a big issue with the current DLC market and what it's doing to the games industry. I personally consider DLC to be the single worst thing to happen to this generation of gaming and the kind of content that publishers now charge for is rather appalling. What's even sadder is that we, the consumer, support this practice as we keep buying the overpriced stuff!

It's gotten to the point where some games are no longer released in their completed state as DLC is expected to "finish" the gameplay experience, forcing us to pay more for a proper game. Or the kind of content that was once unlockable, such as additional character costumes, is now a premium item. Boils me up just thinking about it, but at least someone's decided to take a satirical shot as the milk market.

Developed by Going Loud Studios, DLC Quest is a simple platformer where the Bad Guy has taken the Princess and you need to rescue her and save the world. Sounds simple and fun, right? Well it just gets better.

Throughout the game world there are Gold Coins to collect and you'll need to spend those on "DLC" to progress further through the core game. Want your character and the world to actually have animations? Got to buy the DLC. Want to be able to jump so you can properly play this platforming game? Got to buy the DLC. Want to pause the game so you can access menus or take a leak? Yup, you've got to buy the DLC for that to.

You're only buying in-game "DLC" with in-game Gold, so you're not actually spending anymore money than the actual price of admission, but it's just hilarious as the state of the games industry isn't that far away from something like this becoming a reality!

One great laugh-out-loud moment was when some blacksmith tells you you'll need a sword and you need to make one by grinding the blade. It'll take about 100,000 grinds. After grinding for a minute, a pop-up occurs telling you that you can now by DLC to accelerate the grinding process by several times! Oh, too funny and too true.

There's also horse armour available for an outrageous gold cost, in case you were wondering.

Like all Indie Trials, the Trial for DLC Quest didn't last long, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time in it. Months from now once I'm done with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and I'm looking for something to do, I fully expect I'll pick this little gem up at 80 Microsoft Points to help prepare me for the real milkage that's bound to come sooner or later.

The game's trailer is also great for a laugh, which you can check out here or below.

Halo Avatar Collection - November Update

The Halo Avatar Collection has once again been updated for the month of November. To see what new Halo-related items you can purchase for your Avatar, you can check out the trailer here or below.

I certainly love Halo as you all know, but these Avatar items are so ridiculously priced. My recommendation is to not buy them and wait for great pre-order bonuses or Avatar Awards or the like.

You can still go to the Avatar Marketplace and preview the items on your Avatar for free though!

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim "The World of Skyrim" and "The Animation of Skyrim" Trailer

Released yesterday, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is finally available and it's absolutely amazing and epic.

If you haven't seen these yet, then just before launch Bethesda Softworks released two more trailers to wet your appetite.

The first is entitled "The World of Skyrim" and is simply stunning. You can view it here or below.

The second is entitled "The Animation of Skyrim" and can be viewed here or below.

I'm only about thirty minutes into the game, not even done the tutorial yet, and I'm already blown away! Such an immersive and inspiring opening!

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360) Review

There's no question that Gears of War 3 is Microsoft Studio's biggest exclusive launch of the year. Featuring a massive advertising campaign and a tremendous amount of hype, this sequel finishes off the journey of Delta Squad and their battle to save humanity against the Locust Horde and a newer, more terrifying threat, the Lambent.

Written by Karen Traviss, the author of the Gears of War novels, the Campaign is set about two years after Gears of War 2 and after all four novels. The Locust have been defeated but humanity is nearly extinct and the C.O.G. has disbanded. Hoffman leads one group of survivors to the old fortress of Anvil Gate, Prescott abandoned everybody, and Fenix and company are living on the Sovereign, one of the last Navy vessels sailing.

Now let's be honest, the Gears of War franchise isn't known for strong storytelling. It's always reminded me of an 80's action flick where muscle-bound soldiers run around and kill monsters through miraculous feats of bravado, but Traviss changed all that. Here novels are detailed and full of strong character moments and development, and with her actually penning the script for the game I honestly expected something more than what we've seen before: a solid, cohesive story and character moments in-game.

While playing you can certainly tell that that was the goal and a lot of novel-only stuff either appears or is at least hinted at, such as the play between Baird and Bernie, but really it all falls flat upon itself with poor execution. There are snatches of potential in there, particularly mid-way through Act 1 and at the end of Act III, but when all is said and done the Campaign's story is poorly implemented as a coherent narrative and the excessive swearing that the franchise is known for seems to be amped up this time around, feeling completely juvenile and out of place. Yes Fenix, you're angry. We get it.

Marcus, Dom, and Anya are around for the long haul but other key supporting characters are generally given smaller "screen time" which is a damn shame. So much was done with Cole, Baird, and Hoffman in the novels that they were done a complete disservice with the game. New characters come and go like crazy, barely giving you time to get to know them save for a very few exceptions (like Sam). I was sorely disappointed that Bernie, a great novel-character, only had a small cameo, and new characters like Griffin, voiced by Ice-T, were so stupid that it should have been laughable, however at that level of lame it just had me cringing.

To be perfectly blunt, this critically acclaimed Campaign story is worse than Gears of War 2 (though better than the original game's) and is a huge disappointment. If you haven't read the novels even the summary video courteously provided and narrated by Anya Stroud doesn't fill in everything you need to know, but again since the story's so weak you likely won't even notice. The story's implementation is so poor I often forget why I was leading Delta Squad to a particular location or trying to achieve a certain objective; it was just all muddled and derivative.

So basically stuff in Gears of War 3 just happens and you roll with it. Literally. At least the franchise's cover and combat are still sound, and while that's certainly enjoyable, it's honestly nothing new or revolutionary. You can do some cool things at the beginning of the game like pick up a Fire Extinguisher to put out fires, wear a baseball hat, and interact with world objects in such a way that it almost feel like your stepping into a Valve shooter, but then all that cool innovative design seems to be forgotten and it's back to basics. Throughout you can swap weapons with AI allies or instruct them to focus fire, but it's nothing overly crazy and the whole gameplay experience screams been-there-done-that. Sure, you also have Lambent to fight as another enemy faction now, the Gears of War universe's version of zombies, but they're so shoddily implemented that, for the most part, you might as well just be fighting the Locust themselves. Which of course you do later on.

The ever troublesome Emergence Holes are long gone, and the Locust rocket up from under the ground like reverse Orbital Drop Shock Troopers without their pods, which is plain stupid. Instead of the Locust having a massive troop funneling system to try and overwhelm the player and build gameplay tension, the Lambent now fill this roll and come out of Stalks that erupt from the ground and grow pods on them. Destroy the pods to stop the flood of Lambent which is actually far easier than closing Emergence Holes since any old firepower will do, no Grenades or specific weapons or tactics required.

This makes dealing with an infestation of Lambent, who fight almost exactly like their Locust counterparts with a few exceptions, far simpler, and when it comes down to it, Gears of War 3 is a very easy game to complete. Still hampered by the annoying Checkpoint system the franchise is known for, getting killed by lucky shots is how you'll most often die, as even on Hardcore the game simply isn't. Granted I haven't tried Insane yet and I hear there's challenge there, but I expected Hardcore to be up to the standards of Gears of War 2 at least.

The AI isn't horrible for both friend or foe but it's nothing to write home about. What is memorable is the game's boss encounters. Truly amazing, there are several massive boss battles that you'll encounter, all of which feature large enemies with great encounters that are very intense and cinematic. Such a shame the rest of the Campaign isn't up to this level. To try and split up the monotony of repetitive gameplay, Epic Games throws in some on-rails vehicle sequences now and then, seeing you take to vehicles both on land, in the air, and even at sea, but they're pretty basic and rather underwhelming once you get past their original novelty.

So yeah, as you can tell, I'm quite disappointed with Gears of War 3's single player content. Very hyped, very much a let down, and overall it honestly feels extremely rushed; rather ironic since the game was delayed by nearly half a year. Perhaps they were simply trying to cram in too much that they lost their sense of identity along the way, or perhaps it was all a mess from the start. Either way, the end result is underwhelming.

Where Gears of War 3 truly shines is in Multiplayer. Now, I've never been a fan of the franchise's Versus game modes and even with a few new modes, such as Capture the Leader, I still find it all more frustrating than fun. I just suck at Gears of War 3 Versus and that's alright, so I won't complain about it and I know there's many, many of you having a complete blast with it. If you want to find out more about the game's Versus mode you can check out my Beta Impressions post here, as not much has changed to any great degree, in my opinion.

For me, it's all about Horde, and Horde is back and better than ever. While not as drastic an upgrade to the original Horde as Firefight was for the Halo franchise in Halo: Reach, it still sees some great enhancements that really refreshes things.

Still set at 50 Waves max, players now start with a certain amount of money that can be spent on fortifications around the game world. These fortifications consist of fences, decoys, turrets, etc. that harm, distract, or kill Locust and Lambent allowing teams to really set up perimeters and defensive locations. You start a match by placing a Command Post which is your central spawn location. From here you can quickly begin building pre-determined defences, picking up scattered weapons or ammo (which now costs money, so do so wisely), or just digging in and saving your cash for later Waves.

This latter strategy seems the soundest as early Waves are simple, but every 10th Wave is now a Boss Wave. In addition to normal enemies, you'll also end up fighting a swarm of Reavers, perhaps two Lambent Berserkers, or even a Brumak, etc. These Waves tend to be challenging and require a good bit of team work to overcome, and getting past one is a huge achievement.

Thankfully you can boost things to your advantage even further by completing bonus objectives that pop up every several Waves, which grant special crates to spawn near your Command Post that contain power weapons or extra ammo. These bonus objectives can range from killing a certain amount of enemies with a certain weapon, or with melee, or with executions, etc. They're not essential, but really help to mix things up.

A new game mode introduced, rather the reverse of Horde, is Beast Mode. Here you play as the Locust Horde and must defeat human forces over a max of 12 Waves. Each Wave is on a timer, however, and if you fail when time runs out the Hammer of Dawn will strike and wipe out your entire team.

While proper coordination and team play is essential for surviving the later Waves of Horde, in Beast Mode, team work is a must right from the get-go. You begin with a set amount of cash and can choose to be a Wild Ticker, Ticker, Wretch, Feral Drone, or a Butcher. Each one plays different and each is essential for working together. Wild Tickers are great at taking down fortifications but are extremely fragile. Feral Drones, on the other hand, play like a standard character and start with a Retro Lancer. As you take out defences and kill humans you increase you time limit and also earn additional cash, which ultimately allows you to become more powerful forms of Locust.

In later Waves as well, human Hero units start spawning, such as Marcus and Dom, and while you can down them they can only be killed via an Execution. Beast Mode is a great addition and an interesting twist on a known gameplay style, but it still doesn't replace the great fun that is Horde. Thankfully, for both Horde and Beast Mode, matchmaking is featured so getting into a game is very easy. Just note that a lot of Public players like to quit mid-match which may ruin some of your fun and really, Private games are the way to go for these cooperative game modes.

Another thing Gears of War 3 did well is the game's graphics. Simply put, Gears of War 3 is the most beautiful Xbox 360 game I've ever played and the Unreal Engine is still the cream of the crop when it comes to this generation's graphic engines. Backgrounds and vistas look stunning, character models are rich with detail and fluid animation, and effects and gore flash, bang, and splatter good.

Audio wise, the voice acting is mainly what we've come to expect from the franchise, excessive swearing, grunting, and so on and so forth; nothing to write home about and it's a damn shame, as you can see Traviss tried. The music is definitely good, though not as epic or grand as what was featured in Gears of War 2. Sound effects are, as usual, top notch and I've got nothing to complain about with weapon sounds, monster howls, etc.

When all is said and done, Gears of War 3 is not a bad game despite my more negative tone in this review, but it's not a great game and it's definitely the worst of the trilogy. Lacking any real depth or innovation, it's the poster child for been-there-done-that, and Horde alone can't improve the quality of the whole product. I was really, really looking forward to a solid Campaign and the game just failed me here hard. Beast Mode is fun but won't last, and I'm not a Versus fan so really, Horde is all the game has going for me and the improvements aren't that huge over Gears of War 2 there.

But who am I kidding, like me, you've probably owned the game on launch day, so you already know what to expect and this review is moot. If you haven't and you're waiting to get it, I'd say pick it up to complete the trilogy in your collection, but wait for a price drop as there's nothing here you haven't seen before.