Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 3 Games of the Year, 2012

With 2012 ending today, it's time to post my top three games of the year!

As I mention every year, I'm not a professional reviewer and I don't get review copies of games, so I'm limited in considering only games that I've played through.  This means that certain triple A titles that don't interest me won't be on the list, and I'll also only list something that I've played through fully and reviewed.

This year I also spent a lot of time playing games released in 2011 as I've been rather busy and free time's been at a premium, so keep that in mind as you read the below.

3) Halo 4 (Xbox 360).  As 343 Industries first brand new game on any platform ever, they had a lot of expectations to live up to.  The Halo franchise is massive and synonymous with the Xbox platform itself, and that's a mighty high bar that they had to raise.  Thankfully, 343 Industries was up to the challenge.

The first true sequel to Halo 3, Halo 4 continues the story of John-117 and Cortana as they face a terrifying new threat in the wake of the end of the Human-Covenant War.  While 343 Industries generally plays things safe and doesn't mess too much with the franchise's long established formula, the gameplay mechanics and the way they tell their story is done in such a way where the game and franchise are now definitely theirs.

The Chief speaks more and shows genuine emotion in the face of this new threat to humanity and Cortana's degrading Rampancy.  Featuring a slower paced but more focused Campaign, the Single Player element feels more like classic Halo than many titles before it.  Infinity Multiplayer is a new take on the tried and true online carnage, incorporating actual story elements to the traditional matches we know and love, and introducing a new episodic Cooperative game mode: Spartan Ops.

Filled with a healthy mix of new and old, Halo 4 is a solid entry to the franchise and a great first step for 343 Industries.

2) Mortal Kombat (PlayStation Vita).  Some may call this double dipping, as I gave Mortal Kombat Game of the Year for 2011, however the PlayStation Vita version released this past Spring and like its console big brother, I've spent way too much time with it.

Featuring almost all the extensive content from the console versions, the PlayStation Vita version of Mortal Kombat also includes a 150 mission Bonus Challenge Tower as well as two new mini-games, Test Your Slice and Test Your Balance.  NetherRealm Studios also included several more Klassic Costumes not available on consoles, amongst a few other minor additions.

While the portable version isn't as graphically impressive as the console versions, it features a proper frame rate and plays exactly like its bigger brother, making it a great portable version and wonderful companion for those who love the game.  In truth, Mortal Kombat is the reason I got a PlayStation Vita and still stands as the game I've played the most on that platform, and thanks to being able to enjoy it during my lengthy commute, I've greatly improved my game with my primary characters (Mileena and Scorpion) and also really tackled learning Kitana, allowing her to become another main.

With the PlayStation Vita version of Mortal Kombat I continue to learn new things about the game and for me, it's been a solid reason to give Sony's new portable a go.

1) Mass Effect 3 (Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 3).  So many people jumped on the hate bandwagon with Mass Effect 3, and I feel this was truly done unfairly.  Featuring the end of your Commander Shepard's journey to stop the Reaper threat from destroying the galaxy, players can once again import their Shepard's from the previous game to continue their adventure and allow their choices to have an influence on the story.

What follows is a character driven, emotional ride throughout the galaxy where gamers see the Reapers' devastation first hand as they struggle to unit the galaxy against the common foe.  In addition to forming alliances players attempt to build their War Assets for the final assault to take Earth back, and the number of Assets you have will generate subtle to not so subtle changes to your Shepard's ending.

Not only is there an amazing in-depth Single Player game here, but for the first time the franchise features Multiplayer.  Tied into the Single Player experience, gamers take part in specialized N7 squads in a cooperative "Horde" style experience where players take on waves of enemies to achieve objectives and build their Galactic Readiness, a variable that affects the effectiveness of the War Assets Shepard is collecting in the Single Player game.

This all comes together to form an engaging and complete action RPG experience that's as story driven as it is intense.  Though many took great exception to the game's ending, I personally had no such qualms as I kept my experiences realistic.  At the end of the day, it's the journey that matters, and the Mass Effect franchise provided me with an exceptional experience from start to finish.  As such, BioWare's epic deserves the honour of my Game of the Year for 2012.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Top 3 Novels of the Year, 2012

With 2012 wrapping up, time for me to start posting my Top of the Year awards, starting with novels.

I actually read a lot less this year than any year prior, as I picked up a PlayStation Vita to occupy my commute time.  Jack Whyte's latest historical fiction was released, his second novel in the Guardians series entitled "The Renegade," but in hardcover only and I'm waiting for the mass market paperbound coming in July of 2013.

Thus, I only have four novels to choose from this year.  And so, my top three are:

3) Dead Space: CatalystDead Space is a great sci-fi horror game franchise, one that surprised and terrified me and of which I'm anxiously awaiting the third installment.  The second novel for the franchise released this past year, entitled Dead Space: Catalyst, and follows two brothers, the troubled Istvan and his younger brother Jensi.

Istvan is psychologically disturbed and constantly hears voices and sees odd shapes in the world that no other can see, and when the time comes for the boys to be put in foster care Istvan flees.  Ultimately getting involved with some shady characters, Istvan ends up in a grander scheme that leads him to a penal colony and a Marker.  Jensi constantly tries to protect his other brother, but is powerless against the secret factions and EarthGov agents blocking him at every turn, and when the Marker unleashes hell on the penal colony Jensi begins a fight for shear survival.

I found the relationship between the two brothers touching and well written, and the novel boosted some great Dead Space flare while being set apart from the main storyline of the games.  The only shame of it was how rushed and incomplete the ending felt, but overall, it was an enjoyable read that fans of the franchise will like.

2) Halo: The Thursday War.  There's no denying the power and entertainment value of the Halo franchise.  Grand in scope and longevity, Halo has been a video game staple for well over ten years now and a driving force behind the Xbox brand.  The novels for the franchise are generally top notch and excellent military sci-fi in their own right, however the first novel in the Kilo-Five trilogy, Halo: Glasslands, was such a disappointment that I was very concerned for the quality of the sequel.

Much to my surprise Traviss began fixing many of the canonical issues through Halo: The Thursday War that were introduced with Halo: Glasslands, and this was such a flood of relief.  Simply put, Halo: The Thursday War feels much more like a proper Halo novel with compelling characters and conflict bridging the gap between Halo 3 and Halo 4, but with the strong character development that Traviss is known for.

The civil war on Sanghelios that ONI was hoping to ferment has begun in earnest, and Kilo-Five needs to race to the world to rescue a stranded agent there.  Meanwhile, ONI and Fleetcom launch the newly built UNSC Infinity, the largest UNSC vessel ever built, to make sure this cival war goes according to plan, officially supporting the Arbiter but also secretly assisting the Sangheli rebels to further destabilize things.  Finally, an Elite prisoner on the former Forerunner shield world of Onyx realizes humanity's grim intentions for his kind and breaks free to form the Storm Covenant, a critical faction in the recently released Halo 4.

Halo: The Thursday War entertains wonderfully and is a great read for any Halo fan.

1) Halo: Primordium. Halo fans have long since heard about the war between the Forerunners and the Flood, a war the Forerunners won but which resulted in the sacrifice of their species.  With Halo: Cryptum, we finally got to witness the beginning of that conflict and to experience Forerunner culture at its apex, and its dissolution as the Forerunners are engulfed in civil war.

The second novel continues the tale, but from a different perspective.  Halo: Primordium looks at things from the human perspective, following the continued tale of Chakas as he's stranded on a Halo installation.  This ring is under the control of the now corrupt Mendicant Bias, and Chakas begins to see first hand the true horror the Flood can bring to the galaxy.

Halo: Primorodium, like its predecessor, is unlike any other Halo tale told to date.  Greg Bear takes great liberty in creating a truly fantastic universe for readers to experience with some great character moments and epic conflicts that have far reaching repercussions for the entire galaxy.  We also begin to really see the begins of some of the first themes further developed in Halo 4, particularly with the Didact himself.

It's that originality, consistency, and imagination that so captivated me with the book, and why I'm calling Halo: Primordium my Novel of the Year for 2012.

Dead Space 3 Demo Release Date and Early Access

The demo for Dead Space 3 will be available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on January 22nd.  The demo can be played Single Player or Co-Op, allowing players to try out both game modes.

For those who want early access to the Xbox 360 demo, you can try to win an early release code by signing up here (note, you'll need an Origin account).  Those selected will get access to the Xbox 360 demo on January 15th.

Mass Effect: Paragon Lost Trailer

The anime film set in the Mass Effect universe and prequel to Mass Effect 3 is now out.  Entitled Mass Effect: Paragon Lost, it goes into the back story of James Vega.

You can check out the trailer here or below:

Mass Effect: Paragon Lost is available on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mass Effect 3 Completed for the Second Time

I finished my second playthrough of Mass Effect 3 tonight, this time on Hardcore Difficulty.  Personally, I don't care what all the bandwagon hoppers say, this is a great game and a great story.  While there's certainly some plot holes, the Mass Effect trilogy is the single greatest video game story telling experience I've ever played.

For this playthrough, I imported my FemShep from Mass Effect 2, though I don't think it got her face quite right.  I had used the default female Shepard provided by Mass Effect 2, but she just looked wrong, so I went with the new default from Mass Effect 3 itself.

My Class was an Adept and I went Renegade, choosing "Destroy" as my ending option.  Interestingly though, this is the first playthrough of any Mass Effect title where I didn't romance anyone (officially), though not for a lack of trying.  Jacob was my romance in Mass Effect 2 and as I expected, he rejected me here.  Prior to that though I had chosen not to pursue both Liara and Vega, as I intended to pursue Kaiden, but he rejected me!  I should have known better since BioWare seemed to have retconed his sexual orientation, but it still annoyed me.

I hit on Joker and he rejected me to, I hit on Traynor but didn't seem to get anywhere there, so I just sorta-romanced Allers, even though I didn't like her character.

For the bulk of the playthrough, which took me 57 hours, I used Vega and EDI as my squadmates, as being combat and tech specialists respectively they complimented my biotic skills.  Typically I'd lay down Singularities or Lifts and then spammed Warp like crazy, while I had EDI use Overload or Incinerate to bring down any Shields or Armour quickly.  James I pretty much let do his own thing, save when I needed to do high damage to Armoured targets with Concussive Shot; very handy.

This is also my first playthrough with the Extended Cut, and I liked how it properly shows your Squad Mates leaving the final battle.  Both the evac and departure have some real meaning now.  Otherwise though, while I have no issue with the Extended Cut, I personally feel it's not necessary as everything else it elaborates on was implied just fine in the retail ending.

Regardless though, Mass Effect 3 is a great gameplay and storytelling experience, and I've got one more Shepard to do an Insanity run with soon.

BioShock: Infinite "First Few Minutes"

Now this is a holiday treat!  Irrational Games has released a video showcasing the first few minutes of their upcoming shooter, BioShock Infinite.  The video obviously contains spoilers, and you can watch it here or below:

That was just amazing, very immersive and reminiscent of the intro to BioShock in many ways.

Dead Space 3 Add Voice to your Arsenal ViDoc

Major Nelson has a new ViDoc up interviewing Steve Papoutsis, the executive producer of Dead Space 3, discussing new enemies, crafting weapons, Co-Op, and Kinect integration.

You can check it out here or below:

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Halo 4: Limited Edition Review

As one of Microsoft Studio's largest launches of the year, Halo 4 needs no introduction.  The Halo franchise has been an Xbox staple since the original console released over eleven years ago, and the series is near and dear to the hearts of fans worldwide.

The primary protagonist of the franchise, Master Chief Petty Officer John-117, has been missing from the last few releases, as Halo 3 saw the conclusion of his original journey to stop the Covenant and ultimately the Flood.  Instead, gamers have spent the last five years witnessing the beginning of the Human-Covenant War with the crew of the ill-fated Spirit of Fire, fighting for New Mombasa with a squad of ODST's, and witnessing the iconic fall of Reach.

With the exception of Halo Wars, the entire franchise has been developed by Bungie Inc., with Halo: Reach serving as their swansong to the series.  Now, Microsoft has appointed an internal studio, 343 Industries, to oversee all things Halo, and Halo 4 is their first full game ever released.

Set just under five years after the events of Halo 3, the Chief and Cortana are still adrift in the ruined back section of the UNSC Forward Unto Dawn.  While the Chief has been in cryo all this time, Cortana has been active, pushing the limits of her seven year life span.  The remains of the ship are scanned by an unknown source and are shortly thereafter boarded by Storm Covenant, forcing Cortana to wake the Chief to deal with the situation.  After a pitched battle with this rogue Covenant faction, the remains of the Forward Unto Dawn and the Covenant fleet are pulled into the heart of a Forerunner shield world known as Requiem.

While 343 Industries might be new to developing games, they've actually been working on the Halo franchise and its expanded universe since the release of Halo 3. They've been slowly shaping the franchise in the direction they want it to go, building to Halo 4 with such novel series as the Forerunner Saga and the Kilo-Five trilogy (amongst other fiction), and everything to date culminates in this, their first game.

I'm going to be perfectly honest here, I was greatly concerned about another studio developing the Halo franchise.  Bungie Inc. had things down pretty solidly and their Halo games have a distinct feel to them absent from most other shooters.  After having spent a good bit of time with Halo 4, however, I'm happy to say the title is very solid and to make no mistake, it feels like Halo.

In fact, while playing through the Campaign, I must say the game felt more like Halo: Combat Evolved than any other Halo title released since, and there are several reasons for that.  The Campaign certainly has an element of mystery around it.  After the original game we knew more or less what to expect each time the Chief ended up on a Halo, and even when he arrived at the Ark, but Requiem is a different beast.  While we've seen a shield world before in Halo Wars, that one was Flood infested and par for the course, while Requiem is the resting place for the Prometheans, the Forerunner's warrior caste.

Originally, the Chief combats only Covenant, and even this feels more like the original game than the sequels that came afterwards.  You get to go toe-to-toe with Elites, Hunters, Jackals, and Grunts, and that's it.  For those who like the Brutes, the space apes are completely absent from this game, which makes sense if you've been following the expanded universe.  The Storm Covenant also uses its classic vehicles, namely Ghosts, Banshees, and Wraiths, with Phantoms serving as troop transports.  After a few Chapters, we're introduced to the franchise's new foes, advanced AI constructs from the Forerunner's Promethean caste.

The Promethean's come in three variety's, the dog like Crawlers, the more traditional Knights, and the flying Watchers.  Each fight in interesting ways and add a new dynamic to the overall gameplay; something quite welcome to the eleven year old franchise, though I honestly found they lack the variety offered by the Flood.  The Crawlers are more of a nuisance than anything and provide a distraction for players.  The Watchers fly over the battlefield in a support role, placing Hard Light Shields down in front of troops, catching player thrown Grenades and tossing them back, and resurrecting destroyed Forerunner troops.  All in all this isn't a great challenge, but the Knights are where the real meat of the Prometheans lie.

The Knights are more or less the Elites of the Prometheans, though I've found them a bit tougher.  While they sport shields, the classic noob combo of a precision weapon and a Plasma Pistol is no where near as effective since a headshot alone on an unshielded Knight will not kill it.  Combine that with the fact that they move at a good speed and can get in close or retreat quickly, use specific Armour Abilities to good effect, can spawn a Watcher, and have a nasty Blade Arm to slash you close-in, and you've got a fun and challenging new foe to face.  Knights also use a robust group of Forerunner weapons new and exclusive to Halo 4, and yes, you can use them as well.

The Halo franchise has a long standing roster of both Human and Covenant weapons to choose from, and many of these make a return in addition to some new tools of destruction.  For example, both the Battle Rifle and DMR are present, and the Sticky Detonator replaces the Grenade Launcher featured in Halo: Reach.  The Railgun is a new UNSC entry to the franchise and somewhat functions as an anti-vehicle and anti-personnel weapon.  On the Storm Covenant side, the Plasma Rifle and Plasma Repeater are gone, replaced with the Storm Rifle, which is essentially a Covenant Assault Rifle mirroring its UNSC counterpart.  I personally find this a shame as the Storm Rifle is not very effective in my opinion, and it takes away from the diversity of the Storm Covenant arsenal.  It looks like 343 Industries was really trying to standardize the weapons more between the factions, which is good for balancing but really restricts variety, and it's a great shame that this design principle was applied to all the new Forerunner weapons as well.

All the Forerunner firearms featured in the game are brand new and never before seen, yet they're all counterparts of standard UNSC weapons with perhaps a bit different functionality.  So instead of the DMR or Battle Rifle, you have the Light Rifle, instead of the Shotgun you have the Scattershot, and instead of the Assault Rifle, you have the Suppressor.  While the Forerunner weapons are generally good and throughout the Campaign you'll be using a lot of them, they're completely unoriginal and mundane.  What it boils down to is you now have three sets of weapons, Human, Storm Covenant, and Forerunner, that are very similar to one another so much so, that I spent a lot of the Campaign using the same tactics with the Light Rifle and Scattershot as I would have with the Battle Rifle and Shotgun.  Again, gameplay wise this isn't bad, it just lacks innovation or originality.

Armour Abilities function very much as they did in Halo: Reach, with Sprint becoming a standard control function available at all times (finally!).  Many of the usual staples, like Active Camo, Jetpacks, Hologram, etc. are there, as well as some new Abilities courtesy of the Forerunners.  You can create an Autosentry, for example, which is the single most useful Armour Ability in the Campaign, and another new one would be the Hardlight Shield (sort of like a Jackal's shield but tougher).  Some Armour Abilities are only available in Multiplayer, so let's talk about that.

Unlike past versions of the franchise's Multiplayer experience, 343 Industries actually grounds it properly in true Halo fiction.  Infinity Multiplayer is set on the Infinity itself, and the War Games are training matches between groups of Spartan-IV's.  These "simulations" are the classic Halo multiplayer experiences you know and love with some tweaks.  Infinity Slayer, Oddball, and Flood (a revised form of Infection) are all there as are most of your favourite game types, the difference is how you rank up your Spartan-IV and with your use of Loadouts.

As you progress through your Multiplayer career, you earn XP that ranks you up and each Spartan Rank unlocks new customizable options.  Unlike Halo: Reach, loadouts are not standardized and you customize them, bringing the franchise more inline with current shooters.  While many will like this, I actually don't as it clearly gives advantages, however minor, to those who spend a lot more time on the game.  So if you're new or low Rank and you're playing with players who are higher Rank than you, their Shields will likely recharge a bit faster, they'll reload a bit faster, they might be able to Sprint longer, etc.  While this doesn't break the game, it does mean that matches no longer start everyone off on an even playing field where skill alone is the determining factor, and I find that a big negative.

As you rank up you also earn Credits (cR) which you can use to purchase additional weapons, Armour Abilities, Tactical Packages, and Support Upgrades for your Load Outs, making your Spartan-IV more effective.  Unlike Halo: Reach, you no longer need to purchase armour permutations as these unlock natural as you progress.  New poses for your Spartan's Lobby Cards and additional Emblems also unlock as you climb in Rank.

One of my favourite game modes from the last two titles, Firefight, is completely absent from Halo 4.  While I'm sad about this, it does feature a new Cooperative Multiplayer mode entitled Spartan Ops, in which new Episodes are available for download pretty much on a weekly basis.  Spartan Ops is a sort-of story driven Cooperative experience with a cool cinematic that prefaces each new Episode, but the actual gameplay all boils down to your Spartan-IV blowing stuff up for good measure.  Set six months after the conclusion of the Campaign, the Infinity is sent back to Requiem to investigate the planet and secure the technology there-in.  They find Storm Covenant and Prometheans still present, allowing you and your buddies to clear them out while achieving or securing various objectives.  There aren't Sets, Rounds, and Waves like in Firefight, and you basically find yourself clearing out different zones on a map as you progress forward.  Ammo also seems scarce in Spartan Ops, and enemy dropped weapons disappear far too quickly for my liking, making dying and respawning the most effective way to replenish your ammo, which I find rather silly and removing from the modes tactical element.

Theatre also makes a return, though this time you can't view Campaign in it at all, and only War Games, Spartan Ops, and Forge matches are viewable.  I'm honestly not sure why 343 Industries decided to pull Campaign support from Theatre, but I personally find that a real shame, and as such I couldn't take some great Campaign Screen Shots for this review.  As mentioned Forge also makes a return and from what I hear it's more customizable than ever before, however I don't use Forge myself so you'll need to look elsewhere for further details.

Visually speaking, Halo 4 is the single most beautiful Xbox 360 game I've ever played, clearly showing that the console's seven year old hardware has some legs left on it yet.  Environments are simply gorgeous vistas with significant detail and lighting effects, and character models are the most crisp and detailed I've ever seen in the franchise.  I wouldn't call the facial features of human characters as detailed as in, say, the Mass Effect franchise, but they're very close.  I did notice that when you get close to some Storm Covenant models, such as dead Jackals, their skin tended to blur a bit, but this wasn't a huge deal as you won't be doing that too often, or at least you won't notice during regular gameplay for the most part.

One thing I do need to comment on is the new Mjolnir Gen-II armour design:  Personally, I hate it.  Again, I know 343 Industries has made the franchise there's, but I find many of the new armour designs that you can unlock for your Spartan-IV to simply look ridiculous and they don't have the same ground-in-reality feel that Bungie Inc. traditionally employed with their armour designs.  I also do not like the Chief's revised Mark VI armour design, which has no story reason what-so-ever for the vast visual differences.  The Covenant races also have been visually overhauled, and while most look exceptional, I wasn't keen on Jackals looking far more reptilian than avian.  Overall, these are all minor quibbles, I know, but aesthetically speaking I'm not keen at all on some of the new designs.

The game's audio, however,  is simply exceptional all around with solid voice acting and effects throughout.  The Chief speaks far more in this title than in the original trilogy and it really helps to flesh out his character and provide him with some much needed personality, and some of the audio work as Cortana continues to decline into Rampancy is well done.  I found the implementation of her Rampancy overall a bit cheesy and half-baked in the first half of the game, but it develops beautifully towards the end in a climax that I found very sad emotionally.  343 Industries re-did all the weapon and vehicle sounds from scratch, and most of them are great.  It does irk me that some weapons I've been listening to for over a decade sound a bit different now, but again, it's not the end of the world.  The game's musical score is also spot on and a nice departure from traditional Halo-themes.  I find it grand yet sad at the same time, there's always a hint of sorrow to most of the tunes, and it fits the overall theme and mood of the Campaign very well.

In terms of controls, the Chief moves, shoots, and generally feels just like he did in the original trilogy save for one big improvement:  Sprinting.  While Sprint was originally introduced to the franchise in Halo: Reach, it was an Armour Ability forcing players to choose it over something else, in Halo 4 it's a constant ability.  This is huge and allows you to play more aggressively or defensively than you have before.  Oddly though, some vehicles feel different than Bungie Inc.'s iterations, and not in a good way.  The Banshee, for example, feels extremely stiff and less agile, which is disappointing for a vehicle that's known for being swift and easily maneuverable.

Halo 4 also introduces a few new vehicles to the mix, the most notable being the Mantis.  For all intents and purposes, it's a traditional Mech that we're seeing more and more introduced to shooters today, and it pretty much functions as such.  The Mantis gets the job done both in Campaign and War Games, but I wasn't blown away by it at all.  Perhaps I'm just too much of a traditionalist, but I still prefer a Warthog, Ghost, or a tried-and-true Scorpion.

343 Industries also took note of how much players enjoyed the Sabre sequence in Halo: Reach and designed a much longer sequence for Halo 4 in which the Chief gets to pilot a Broadsword, a new kind of UNSC fighter, through a kind of trench run similar to Star Wars fame.  While full of potential, I actually found this sequence poorly executed with far too many environmental obstacles to collide on, making the entire process tedious and no where near as enjoyable as the Sabre sequence was in the previous game.  Of note is that the Chief also gets to pilot a Pelican Gunship in a similar fashion to how Noble 6 used a Falcon in Halo: Reach's "New Alexandria" Chapter, and the Pelican Gunship handles very smoothly and was fun to use.

Now, for those of you who purchased the Limited Edition of Halo 4 as I did, you get a bunch of physical and digital bonuses with the package.  Each Limited Edition comes in a numbered case (each number is unique as far as I know) and the package design is beautiful and well crafted and closes magnetically.  Needless to say I was very impressed with this case, and once you open it up, you're greeted to a nicely detailed Steelbook case containing both game discs, the first being a play disc and the second being a Multiplayer install disc which you only need to use once.

Behind the Steelbook case, and keeping with the tradition of the Halo: Reach Limited Edition, you'll find items packaged straight from the Halo universe itself.  The first is a UNSC packet containing download codes for a digital copy of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, early access to Specializations, an Armour and Weapon skin and unique Emblem for your Multiplayer Spartan-IV, as well as the War Games Map Packs (available at no extra charge when they launch).  A Spartan-IV Recruit Armour and a Cryotube Prop for your Avatar as well as a 14 Day Xbox LIVE Gold trial card are also included.  Behind this packet are a Mjolnir Requisition chart for a Spartan Ops character, a sealed Mission Briefing packet that you actually need to rip open to read the contents of, and an introduction manual for the UNSC Infinity, which somewhat functions as a manual for the game seeing as how games don't come with paper manuals anymore.

I personally bought the Limited Edition as I thought it was coming with a special extended edition of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, but this wasn't the case; it was the same web series we already saw, save edited together as a cohesive piece with all the Cortana bits cut together at the beginning.  That was disappointing for me, and the physical content, while beautifully presented and authentic to the universe, wasn't as informative or story-important as what came with the Halo: Reach Limited Edition.  The digital content is great for those who really want to play the game's Multiplayer, but for me I've always primarily enjoyed the franchise's Campaigns, thus, I did waste my money on the Limited Edition of Halo 4 and essentially bought a glorified Season Pass for Multiplayer Map Packs.  Had I known this in advance, I would have purchased the standard edition of the game and saved myself a good bit of money.

Overall, however, I've greatly enjoyed Halo 4, and I must credit 343 Industries with a job well done.  They took a very well established franchise, made it theirs, and released a solid product and a great addition to the series.  While Halo 4 itself isn't a revolutionary game and lacks a significant amount of innovation, it is loads of fun and really captures the original Halo spirit while taking the franchise's story in a new direction.  I will be playing through the Campaign a few more times and will be enjoying Spartan Ops and some War Games with friends for months to come, and without question Halo 4 is well worth being a part of any gamer's library. 

Mortal Kombat (PlayStation Vita) Story Mode Completed on Hard

Last week, I completed the Story Mode in Mortal Kombat (PlayStation Vita) for the second time, my first on Hard, which makes for my third overall playthrough of the game's Story Mode when you take my original Xbox 360 version playthrough into consideration.

With the exception of a few matches while playing as kombatants that I'm not skilled with, I actually didn't find Hard very hard at all, however that makes perfect sense considering I traditionally play Arcade Ladder on Expert Difficulty now.  Even the final battle against Shao Khan was the easiest I've ever had it, though in truth I didn't play through Story Mode again for the challenge, I played through it for a love of the game's story.

NetherRealm Studios really did such a great job of introducing a cohesive, well told story to the fighting game genre, and they really fleshed out some twenty year old concepts that were always a bit hokey to begin with.  While essentially a guy's soap opera, I did enjoy watching the exploits and efforts of the Earthrealm warriors as they sought to stop Shao Khan's invasion, and really, it's my love of the overall characters that make the experience so great.

I still wasn't a huge fan of the Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 section, especially when Sindel comes in and tromps everyone, but of course I was expecting it now, it's done and a known quantity, and evidently not everyone stays dead forever.

For the PlayStation Vita version it is a shame that the cinematics transition into the platform's native graphics, which are no where near as detailed or high quality as its console counterparts, but since the gameplay is perfectly intact this is only a minor con to the enjoyment of the overall piece.

Should I decide to tackle Story Mode again, I may do so on Expert Difficulty to see how I really fare, even with kombatants that I have no skill with.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Dead Space 3 "Two Ways to Play" Trailer

EA has released a new trailer for their upcoming horror shooter, Dead Space 3.  Entitled "Two Ways to Play," the trailer highlights being able to play solo, or experiencing the game cooperatively.

You can check the trailer out here or below:

Halo 4 Spartan Ops Episode 6-10 Trailer

The sixth episode of Halo 4 Spartan Ops will release on January 21st, and to wet our appetites 343 Industries has released a trailer teasing Episodes 6 to 10.

You can check it out here or below:

BioShock Infinite Delayed, Official Box Art Revealed

BioShock Infinite has been delayed for the second time, though not by too much longer.  The game will now release on March 26th, 2013.

Irrational Games has also revealed the game's official box art.  I swear that Booker DeWitt looks like Ken Levine, at least that was my first thought.

The box art will also feature a reversible print, similar to Mass Effect 3, and we, the fans, get to vote between six alternate designs.  You can check this out and vote right here.

South Park: The Stick of Truth Official Trailer 2

I haven't kept up with the development on this one, but I've got to admit, this trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth looks absolutely awesome:

Seriously, if I didn't know this was a game, I'd have figured it was an upcoming movie.

Friday, December 07, 2012

The History of Mortal Kombat - Episode 06

It's been several months, and Mortal Kombat Secrets has at last released the sixth episode in their series, "The History of Mortal Kombat."

This episode is entitled "Soul of a Warrior," and highlights the feature film, Mortal Kombat: Annihalation, the short lived live-action television series, Mortal Kombat: Conquest, and the Sega Dreamcast exclusive launch title, Mortal Kombat Gold (a game I'd be interested in playing).

You can check the episode out here or below:

LEGO The Lord of the Rings (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

As someone who's spent a good bit of his life gaming away, I actually haven't experienced the LEGO games all that much.  Outside of a few demos, I really just played and enjoyed LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game back on my Xbox some six and a half years ago.  When I heard they were releasing LEGO The Lord of the Rings though, my interest was peaked, and I was pleasantly surprised to find a demo waiting on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace last weekend.

The demo features the battle for Helm's Deep, one of everyone's favourite battles from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and players can take control of Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimili as they fight to protect the fortress.

Visually, I thought the demo looked real good.  The environment was rich and detailed and close attention was paid to the set, and of course much of the environment is LEGO-built giving it the charm and style the franchise is famous for.  The character model mini-figs are also well detailed and animate smoothly.

The music is taken straight from the films, and this is the first LEGO title, demo or otherwise, that I experienced where actual dialogue is used.  One thing I loved about LEGO Star Wars: The Video Game was the lack of dialogue, and how the story I knew so well was told in an over-exaggerated fashion with lots of campy jokes.  Personally, I wish that was still done here as I found the dialogue, though taken straight from the film, felt out of place.  The developers were trying to do the usual jokes I've come to expect from the franchise, however the humour just didn't contrast well with the serious sounding voice acting.  Not only that, but the voice samples seemed to be of a lower sampling quality, killing the feel even further.

The gameplay is the same tried and true formula we've all seen before, and this isn't a bad thing at all.  Aragorn can hack and slash his way through Uruk-hai, and Legolas can switch between his bow and arrow to pick off targets or use his knives for close in work.  Gimli attacks with his axe and can also smash certain blocks or stone with a power attack, making him very useful for situational specific puzzles.

Often though I found enemies could hit me while attacking, or Legolas would surge forward too much and miss, making for less press combat than I'd hoped for.  This wasn't the end of the world but was a bit frustrating when it resulted in death and the loss of some studs I'd collected. I did really enjoy the sequence on the wall, where you had to keep knocking down ladders with arrow shots or Gimli's special attack.

Despite the dialogue design decision that I wasn't keen on, I enjoyed my playthrough of the demo, and I will look into the full retail title when it hits the $19.99 price point.

Halo: Silentium Cover Art Unveilved

Saw over at Halo Waypoint that Tor Books has unveiled the official cover art for their upcoming novel, Halo: Silentium.

The official press release is as follows:

Cover art for the third novel in the New York Times bestselling Halo Forerunner Saga,
written by legendary science fiction author Greg Bear

New York, NY – December 5, 2012 – Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, the largest publisher of science fiction in the world, and 343 Industries are excited to unveil the cover art for the forthcoming hardcover and trade paperback edition of Halo: Silentium (March 19, 2013) by #1 New York Times bestselling author Greg Bear. The New York Times bestselling Halo series of novels, based on the hugely successful Halo videogame franchise that has sold over 50 million copies, is part of a global phenomenon that has dominated the science fiction landscape over the last decade.

In Halo: Cryptum, Greg Bear began a three-book arc set in the era of the Forerunners, the ancient and enigmatic creators and builders of the Halos, which continued in Halo: Primordium. Now, in the last years of the Forerunner empire, chaos rules. The Flood, a horrifying shape-changing parasite, has arrived in force, aided by unexpected allies. Internal strife within the ecumene has desperately weakened Forerunner defenses.

Only the Ur-Didact and the Librarian, a husband and wife pushed into desperate conflict, hold the keys to salvation. Facing the consequences of a profound tragedy, one of them must commit a great atrocity in order prevent an unmatched evil from dominating the entire universe.

The Halo franchise is an award-winning collection of properties that have grown into a global entertainment phenomenon. Beginning with the original Halo: Combat Evolved for Xbox in 2001, the rich fiction of the franchise has since inspired a series of blockbuster Xbox and Xbox 360 video games, New York Times best-selling novels, comic books, action figures, apparel and more. To date, the Halo franchise has sold more than 50 million copies to date, with sales eclipsing $3 billion over its lifetime. Halo 4 marks the beginning of a new saga in the iconic universe, as Master Chief returns to confront his own destiny and an ancient evil that threatens the fate of the entire universe. Developed by 343 Industries exclusively for Xbox 360, Halo 4 released on Nov. 6, 2012, earning high marks from industry insiders and fans alike.

About Tor Books
Tor Books, an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, is a New York-based publisher of hardcover and softcover books, founded in 1980 and committed (although not limited) to SF and fantasy literature. Between an extensive hardcover and trade-softcover line, an Orb backlist program, and a stronghold in mass-market paperback, Tor annually publishes what is arguably the largest and most diverse line of science fiction and fantasy ever produced by a single English-language publisher. Books from Tor have won every major award in the SF and fantasy fields, and for the last twenty-five years in a row the company has been named Best Publisher in the Locus Poll, the largest consumer poll in SF.

I'm really looking forward to this novel, and I'm hoping it ties up nicely how the Didact becomes a "bad guy."

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Halo: The Thursday War Review

When I received my copy of Halo: The Thursday War, I admit that I had very strong reservations about it.  For those unaware, it's the second novel in Karen Traviss' Kilo-Five trilogy, and the first novel, Halo: Glasslands, was one I did not enjoy at all (reviewed here).  Halo: Glasslands just got so much wrong, taking established canon and established characters and changing them for no reason at all, that I personally found the whole novel rather frustrating.

Not only was I disappointed with Halo: Glasslands, but many fans were as well, and a huge discussion thread appeared on the official Halo Forums debating it.  I don't know if Traviss and 343 Industries took all the fan criticism to heart or if the plot development of Halo: The Thursday War was already planned out, but I'm relieved to say it's a significant improvement.

Picking up where Halo: Glasslands left off, Osman and the rest of Kilo-Five race back to Sangheilios to rescue Philips who's caught up in the beginning of the Sangheili Civil War.  I'm very happy to say the Brute Gardeners rebel right in the first chapter and are dealt with, forcing Avu Med 'Telcam to move against the Arbiter prematurely.  This grants ONI an opportunity to further manipulate events in their favour and provides Philips with the means to explore some Forerunner ruins with implications that lead into the story of Halo 4.  

Meanwhile on Trevelyan, the renamed Forerunner Shield World once known as Onyx, an ONI scientist continues to study Jul 'Mdama, who himself searches for a way to escape the artificial world so he can warn his people about the human's manipulation.

The two primary locations in the book, Sangheilios and Trevelyan, feature very different tones as one deals with gritty war and combat while the other is all veiled calm and quasi religious reverence, but both focus heavily on Forerunner details and foreshadow much of the Didact and his role in Halo 4.  On Trevelyan we also get to learn some very interesting new facts about the Huragok, which I personally found quite interesting.

We also get to read about the Infinity's maiden voyage, and see what it can really do as a ship built to dominate against the best the Covenant has to offer.  We get to learn about the weapons it has, the Forerunner enhancements the ship has over other vessels in the UNSC fleet (both by design and bu addition courtesy of the Huragok), and the impact the vessel makes immediately on intergalactic politics.  

Since Halo: Glasslands is published and canon, not everything can be changed or corrected in Halo: The Thursday War, but the novel is laid out in such a way to minimize the errors of the previous novel.  For example, the Spartan-II's and Spartan-III's are completely absent, as is Chief Mendez, which is a very good thing as their lack of presence means the characters can't be changed any further.  Established characters like Admiral Hood and the Arbiter are featured, however the former was never hugely developed in previous works (novels or games) and Traviss gets to really flesh him out and make him that much more real.  The Arbiter is mentioned significantly but only appears sparingly, which I feel was a very smart move.

Traviss' core strength, in my opinion, has always been character development (not to make light of her military expertise), and she works best with new characters or ones she's created or guided from the beginning.  Halo: The Thursday War plays up on that, whether it's the strong dynamic between the members of Kilo-Five to the back and forth between Parangosky and Hood, there's a lot of action in both the literal and figurative sense.

Having said that though, in recent years I've found she tends to get a bit too repetitive with character's empathy towards one another.  One strong example from the novel would be Naomi-010's feelings dealing with the fact that her father is an insurrectionist, and while it's important and quite essential to explore this character dynamic, the nail gets hit on the head far too often.  We know it's hard and that she finds it difficult to deal with but keeps her real feelings bottled up, and we know the other members of Kilo-Five find it hard in general and for her, but really, we don't need to be told or reminded as often as we do.

Despite that though, I must say that I did enjoy Halo: The Thursday War.  It's not the strongest novel for the franchise and not Traviss' best work, but it's leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor and that gives me a great sense of optimism for the next novel in the series.  If it improves over Halo: The Thursday War as much as Halo: The Thursday War did over Halo: Glasslands, then we'll be in for one heck of a treat.  The novel leaves lots of very interesting questions to be answered, and I am looking forward to see just how things wrap up.

Mass Effect 3: Omega Trailer

The latest DLC for Mass Effect 3, entitled "Omega," is out now and an official trailer has been released which you can view here or below:

Like all the franchise's DLC, I'll wait for an inevitable sale, as 1200 Microsoft Points is a rather hefty asking price.

Halo 4 Spartan Ops Episode 5 Trailer

The latest trailer for the 5th Episode of Halo 4 Spartan Ops is out now, and you can check it out here or below:

The Episode becomes available this Monday.

Halo 4 Crimson Map Pack Trailer

The first map pack for Halo 4, entitled the Crimson Map Pack, will provide three new arenas for your Spartan IV to compete in.  The new maps are Shatter, Harvest, and Wreckage, and you can see them in action in this trailer here or below:

The Crimson Map Pack will be available on December 10th for 800 Microsoft Points.  If you purchased the Limited Edition of the game or the War Games Map Pass, you can get this for no additional charge when it launches, just make sure to download it via the in-game menu so you're not charged twice!

Injustice: Gods Among Us - Deathstroke Trailer

The latest character for Injustice: Gods Among Us has been revealed, and it's no surprise to me at all that it's Deathstroke.

You can check out his reveal trailer here or below:

He looks absolutely awesome, very badass.  In truth, I'm expecting most if not all of the DC Universe characters from Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe to make an appearance.  Of course time will tell!