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.