Friday, January 25, 2013

The Walking Dead (Xbox 360) Review

I haven't touched a proper point-and-click adventure in many, many years and in truth, they were never my preferred genre of game.  I am a huge fan of The Walking Dead, however, and when I heard Telltale Games was making an episodic adventure based on the comics, my interest was piqued.

Personally, I wasn't sure what to expect as I don't have any personal experience with Telltale Games' products, however when the first Episode launched last year everyone was raving about it, and every Episode released thereafter.

Using my mystical powers of deduction, I figured the series would go on sale during Holiday 2012 courtesy of the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, and I was not disappointed as the first episode was offered for free and Episodes 2 to 5 were available for a grand total of 800 Microsoft Points.

Thus I sat down and began my adventure through the apocalypse.

In The Walking Dead, players assume the role of Lee Everett, a man convicted of murder and being transported to West Central Prison outside of Atlanta at the beginning of the zombie outbreak.  The police car Lee is in hits a Walker and crashes off the road, allowing Lee to escape and ultimately face the horror the world has become.

As Lee flees pursuing Walkers, he stumbles into a suburban backyard and encounters Clementine, an 8 year old girl hiding from the living dead.  Lee then takes Clementine into his care as they attempt to escape and try to survive.

While it might sound odd at first that a convicted murderer is looking after a lost little girl, the narrative for The Walking Dead is its strongest point and wonderfully complex.  Players get to decide how their Lee will be and to shape him and his relations with Clementine and the other survivors he meets.  As NPC's interact with Lee, conversation options become available, but unlike such great action RPG's like Mass Effect, the time you have to select your choices is literally limited.  In calm situations you can have a long while to give an answer, but in the heat of the moment, you may literally only have a second or two to make a choice, and those choices can save someone's life.  Or not.

And survival is at the top of everyone's list.  Throughout all five Episodes of The Walking Dead, you'll come across and ally with, or fight against, some interesting characters.  These conflicts can range from simple conversations, to limited hack-and-slash sequences, limited shooting sequences, to light puzzle solving.  The cast of characters you meet is very consistent throughout, allowing you to get attached to them, save for one character who was oddly introduced at the beginning of Episode 2 (he's just there).

The general conversation process I described above, and during them the moral choices you need to make are often quite ambiguous, and doing what you think is the right (or wrong) thing may not actually be.  Throughout my play experience there's people I tried to help and horribly failed, making things worse, much to my surprise.  It is crucial to talk to people, however, as conversations are the major narrative points that move the gameplay forward, and often times you're required to speak to everyone to advance.

This isn't an action game or an RPG, so you don't have a real inventory, and often the limited combat sequences are very basic, having you click to swing a weapon killing various Walkers or aiming and shooting to kill other enemies.  The melee sequences worked well and were pretty intuitive, the shooter sequences were generally horrible with crazy poor control.  On a PC with a mouse, I suspect there'd be far less of an issue, but using the Right Stick to track and aim with the Xbox 360 controller in this game was really bad, often leading to my (or others) deaths forcing me to start from the last Checkpoint.  Thankfully the shooter sequences are rare, but they do occur.

Like any good adventure game I've ever seen, The Walking Dead features fun puzzles to solve.  The puzzles in the game aren't too challenging, and often require you to walk around an area looking at various objects to see if you can interact with them.  You can turn off indicators in Options if you'd like, making solutions harder to find, but really the puzzles aren't too mind-straining and work well with the game's environments.

The game's graphics are cell shaded and very much resemble a motion comic, fitting right in with the theme and style of the franchise.  The characters are all nicely detailed as are the backgrounds, and while it's nothing we haven't seen before it works very well.

The game's audio is simply superb.  From the sound effects, to the emotional musical score, and the exceptional voice acting.  Seriously, the voice cast did a phenomenal job of portraying their characters, and they really sold the delivery of the beautifully written and emotional script.

There are several moments in the story where I was actually angry over the events that occured, not because they were done poorly but because they were so shocking.  And also, there were several moments where I really had to struggle holding back some tears.  It's true, and I'm man enough to admit that the characters were so well written and I got so attached to them that certain scenes were extremely moving.  There were a few points in Episode 5 where I found my suspension of disbelief truly pushed to the limits, but the overall narrative's presentation is very realistic for the game's theme, and so I found that easy to forgive.

And that is what makes The Walking Dead such a powerful, engaging, and enjoyable experience.  The personality, the character, and the struggle to survive.  The relationship that forms between Lee and Clementine is wonderful, and as the game progressed I truly did just want to protect her, to look out for her, and to help give her a future in a world where one generally no longer exists.  I'd love to say more, I really would, but that would get far too challenging without revealing any major spoilers, and this is a game that you absolutely need to experience spoiler free.

At the end of each Episode, stats are given pulled straight from the Telltale Game servers to show where you stacked up against other players in the Episode's key decisions.  It's great to see how you compare to others when faced with very difficult situations, and also adds to the replay value to try and do things differently.

The Walking Dead is a very simply designed game that's beautifully executed; there's no other way to put it.  You will get emotionally invested in it as you play, and that attachment will only help your experience and give the decisions you make that much more impact.  If you haven't tried out The Walking Dead yet, I urge you to do so, as you're truly missing out.  Here's hoping we won't be kept waiting too long for a second installment.

Halo 4: Spartan Ops Episode 7 Trailer

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

Episode 7 unlocks next week and is available for free to any who own Halo 4 and have an Xbox LIVE Gold membership.

Dead Space 3 Sneak Peek Trailer

EA has released a short trailer for Dead Space 3 entitled "Sneak Peak," showing a few glimpes of what we can expect to find in the game.

You can check it out here or below.

For those of you with Xbox 360's and PlayStation 3's, remember the demo is now available to all allowing you to get a real sneak peek at the game.

Dead Space 3 "Mass Effect N7 Armour" Trailer

And EA's tradition of including armour from other franchises in their games continues, this time in Dead Space 3.

For those who have a Mass Effect 3 save file on their HDD's, they'll unlock a suit of N7 armour for Isaac Clarke to wear.

You can see it in action here or below.

Well, unless there's a reason not too, I'll likely end up using it, especially if it gives any kinds of beneficial bonuses or enhancements not available earlier or.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm Opening Cinematic

Fourteen years ago, I was all over Starcraft and its expansion set and clamouring for a sequel.  Sadly, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty didn't arrive until a few years ago, far too late for my interest and long since after Blizzard Entertainment changed into an MMO machine instead of a developer focusing on the style of gaming they once got me hooked on.

Having said that, the cinematic intro for the upcoming expansion set, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm, looks exceptional and brings back a lot of very fond memories.

You can watch it here or below.

The Elder Scrolls Online "The Alliances" Cinematic Trailer

Being an MMO, a genre I'm not interested in at all, The Elder Scrolls Online is the first The Elder Scrolls game I won't be bothering with in almost a decade.

Despite that though, this is one very fine cinematic trailer for it.  Entitled "The Alliances," you can enjoy it here or below:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Dead Space 3 (Xbox 360) Demo Impressions

Earlier this week, I was privileged to score early access to the Dead Space 3 Demo (Xbox 360), and I spent the last few evenings going through it.

Set several months after the events of Dead Space 2, Isaac Clarke crashes on the abandoned and frozen planet of Tau Volantis and is separated from Ellie.  Either solo or with his new ally, John Carver, Isaac travels through the frozen wasteland and abandoned complexes in search of her and to try and stop the Necromorph menace once and for all.

The Dead Space 3 Demo features three different ways to play:  Solo Campaign, Co-Op Campaign, and Weapon Crafting (found under Solo Campaign).  In past games Isaac was able to upgrade his tools and weapons with Power Nodes to increase Damage, Clip Size, Reload Rate, etc., but actual Weapon Crafting is new to the series, so I decided to give this a whirl first.

Since Tau Volantis is an abandoned world, there are no Stores or Credits for players to collect and use, and Power Nodes are gone as well.  Instead, the Workbench has more or less been merged with the Store, and from a Workbench players can now build new and custom weapons from spare parts or collected blueprints, upgrade said weapons, manufacture disposable items like Health Packs, Stasis Packs, and Ammo, and store items in the Safe.  Several scrap items used in the construction of all these things replace the Dollars you used to collect.

While story-wise this all makes sense, I confess I do miss the Stores as they were a Dead Space staple.  Constructing a weapon is as simple as matching up components, and weapons now support top and bottom pieces, so it's entirely possible to have, say, a Line Gun with a Flamethrower under it.  Because you can essentially have two guns in one, Visceral Games decided to limit you to carrying two weapons at a time for the first time in franchise history.

After Crafting a few weapons and having Necromorphs attack me in the Weapon Crafting room to test them out (you have unlimited Health, Stasis, and Ammo for this test), I confess I was unimpressed with them.  Sure they killed things, but I found them less effective than tried-and-true staples like the traditional Plasma Cutter.  So I switched back to that, which Isaac starts with, and dismembered stuff far better.  I suspect with the retail version of the game I'll make limited use of Weapon Crafting and simply stick to general Blue Prints for traditional weapons.

The downer for this, of course, is that I'll only be able to carry two weapons at a time.  The traditional Plasma Cutter is actually considered two weapons in one now, and it has a piece that rotates it from Vertical to Horizontal; upper and lower weapons.  Adding to this oddness is that upper and lower weapons have their own separate Upgrade Nodes, meaning the Vertical upgrades for the Plasma Cutter do not apply to the Horizontal ones, which is extremely silly and inconvenient.  Personally I'm not a fan of that at all, but since I have no choice I'll have to make do.

In somewhat of a compensation though, ammo is completely universal now; all tools and weapons share the same kind of ammo.  While not game breaking, I'm actually not in favour of this design decision either as managing ammo and being forced to use other weapons when your primary ammo was low or gone in previous titles added to the challenge, tension, and thrills.  It helped force you to experiment and be creative, and that's now gone.  Such a shame.

I next fired up Solo Campaign and for those concerned that Visceral Games was actioning up the game too much, I can tell you your concerns were unfounded.  This is still Dead Space with a solid amount of thrills, scares, and exploration.  The environments in the Demo are more open than the usual corridor crawl we had in the previous two titles, but the style of Necromorph attacks is very familiar.  They'll jump out of the snow or corpses that are playing dead actually aren't, and you dismember them to kill them and find items to collect.

The traditional Slashers are present, though some of the Necromorphs have a few new tricks up their sleeves.  One kind of enemy, when dismembered, has its lower or upper half sprout tentacles and claws to continue the attack, and some newly turned enemies use guns.  They're sloppy and not accurate with them, so you're not fighting highly trained zombified soldiers, but it does add another threat to the gameplay.  Human enemies are present, however, and they do shoot accuratly and try to flush you out with Grenades, but the Necromorphs also target and infest them as well, so it's an even playing field.

The game controls very much like Dead Space 2 with a few additions to help against human enemies.  Clicking the Right Stick now has Isaac crouch, allowing him to somewhat use cover, and double tapping Left Bumper while pressing the Left Stick in either direction has Isaac role to dodge.  I found rolling a bit clunky in the game and it certainly wasn't effective in the demo's enjoyable boss battle, but at least it was present.

New to the franchise is the Co-Op Campaign, which is the same as the main Campaign where friends can drop in and out.  Carver accompanies Isaac directly in Co-Op, and player two controls him.  He handles just like Isaac and one very cool design decision is when one player picks up an item, like ammo, said item is still left there for the other player to collect.  This is great as if you're playing with randoms or item hogs, as they simply won't be able to not share.

I found the Campaign chapter went much faster and was far easier with a buddy, and the story differences weren't anything drastic at this point.  There's an extra conversation or two between Isaac and Carver, and it wasn't anything too deep (though it wasn't out of place either), so for those only interested in one game mode I doubt you'll miss too much by not touching the other.  I will say that chatting with a buddy while playing did reduce the fear factor by a good bit, and Visceral Games didn't seem to add any extra enemies or such to the Co-Op Chapter, so if you are playing for atmosphere I would recommend doing it solo first.

 Visually the Demo looked great on the Xbox 360's aging hardware.  Character model's textures are showing their age now, but the environments are gorgeous and I really liked the boot prints you'd leave behind in the snow.  White out conditions are presented well and add to the overall atmosphere.  The sound effects and voice acting are right up there with the rest of the franchise, and the music has taken a more epic presence than before, actually reminding me more of something sad but dynamic from a Super Hero game, like Batman: Arkham Asylum.  A bit odd, I supposed, but not unwelcome and my Co-Op partner agreed with me on those impressions once he gave the menu tunes a good listen.

While sporting a few odd design decisions that I wasn't keen on, my overall impressions of the Demo are positive and I'm quite looking forward to the retail release of Dead Space 3.  For those who didn't score early access to the Demo, it'll be available on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 for all this coming Tuesday.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Halo 4: Spartan Ops Episodes 6-10 Launch Trailer

This coming Tuesday, Episode 6 of Halo 4: Spartan Ops will release, and the Season will round out at a full ten episodes.

343 Industries has released an official launch trailer for Episodes 6 to 10, which you can check out here or below:

Remember that all of Season 1 is free to those who own Halo 4, so enjoy!

Halo 4: Spartan Ops Episodes 1-5 Recap

Next week, the second half of the first season of Halo 4: Spartan Ops kicks off.  For those looking for a recap of the first five episodes, you can check out this video here or below:

I'm almost done Episode 4 myself, and with any luck I'll have all five episodes completed by tomorrow evening just in time for the second half.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim PC and PlayStation 3 DLC Details

For those of you playing The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on PC, the latest DLC, "Dragonborn," will be headed your way February 5th courtesy of Steam.

For those of you with the PlayStation 3 version of the game, very good news for you.  All the DLC will be coming to the PlayStation Store this February, and best of all, it'll be 50% off during each add-on's launch week.

"Dragonborn" will release first, preceded by the 1.8 update.  "Hearthfire" will release shortly thereafter and finally "Dawnguard" will be released, and again, all three add-ons should be out this February.

For full details, you can check out the Bethesda Blog here.

Dead Space 3 Dev Team Edition Announced

The real collector's edition for Dead Space 3 has been announced, and it looks pretty slick.  Entitled the "Dev Team Edition," it features some great collectibles, and you can check out the reveal in the video here or below:

I'll be passing as it's pretty pricey and I don't know where I'd display the stuff anyway, but for real fans of the franchise this is one cool edition.

You can also check out the details and pics on the official Dev Team Edition site here, as well as order the collectible items only without the game (handy for those who want the extras but are interested in a digital copy of the game).

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Xbox 360) Review

The Elder Scrolls franchise and I have an interesting history with one another.  My first foray into the series was with The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition on my Xbox, and I was absolutely blown away by the shear size of the game-world, the volume of Quests, and the beauty of the game's exploration.  I will never forget the first time I ventured into Vivec City, or Ebonheart, for example, and many small and fully functional towns and villages in-between.

Bethesda Game Studios had crafted such a massive and detailed game world, and with all the factions to join there was so much to do in the game.  All told, I must have spend somewhere around 60 to 70 hours before I actually decided to give up.  The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of Year Edition features some of the most poor in-game Quest sorting in a Journal that I've ever seen, so much so that I started having to keep a real world journal just to track what I was doing, and that's when it ceased to be fun and I began to really loose my feelings of accomplishment.

And so I sold it, (and bought it a few more times and sold it again) and The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition remains to this day as the greatest game I never finished.  As a result of this love/hate affair, I was hesitant to pick up The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion for my Xbox 360, but I did take a chance and loved it.

It was pure, digital crack, once again featured a vast game world with unparalleled exploration, a fun Main Quest, and several factions and guilds to join.  All told, I must have spent well over 200 hours playing The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion with several characters, a good bit more if you include its add-on "Knights of the Nine" and its official expansion set, "Shivering Isles," and I know I still haven't seen everything in it yet.  However I completed all major Quest lines and a significant amount of Side Quests and misc. objectives and finally retired the game after years of enjoyment.

On Remembrance Day of 2011, the long awaited sequel was finally released, and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim allowed gamers to return to Tamriel, to the province of Skyrim, to face a new threat.  Dragons, long since spoken of in rumour through previous games but believed to only be a legend, had returned to the world of Men and Elves, and they sought to conquer all.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is set 200 years after the events of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and its expansion, which is a first for the franchise as all four previous games were roughly set about ten years apart from one another.  Tamriel has indeed changed since last we visited it, as the Thalmor, a faction of High Elves, have taken control of their home province of Summerset Isle, resting it away from the Empire, and they conquered the Wood Elves of Valenwood and the Khajit of Elsweyr to form the Aldmeri Dominion.  And the Dominion made war on the Empire and almost conquered them.

An uneasy truce was finally reached, in which the Empire had to abandon the worship of their human god, Talos.  Many in the province of Skyrim took strong exception to this, and a civil war broke out where the Stormcloaks, lead by Ulfric Stormcloak, seek to liberate Skyrim from the weakened Empire.  Ulfric killed the High King of Skyrim and lead many skirmishes against the empire, but he was finally captured and brought to justice.

Thus, you begin your journey through The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim as a prisoner in a wagon, amongst others, caught trying to enter the province.  You are transported to the town of Helgen where you are to be executed by the Empire along with Ulfric Stormcloak himself when Alduin, the great dragon, attacks and lays waste to the town.  It is here you escape and begin your Quest to stop the Dragons threatening the world, shortly learning that you are Dragonborn, a person with the soul of a Dragon not seen since The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion when Martin Septim, last of the Septim-line, sacrificed himself to stop the Oblivion Crisis.  As Dragonborn, you absorb the souls of Dragons you slay and use these to learn Dragon Shouts, words in the Dragon tongue that augment your power.

In traditional Elder Scrolls fashion, you choose your character's race, gender, and can customize their appearance, however breaking away from the norm you do not get to choose a class or a birth sign.  Instead, you can play however you want and as you Level Up you earn Perks that you can apply to your Skills to enhance them.  Skills in general still become more effective the more you use them, so if you mainly use a sword and shield you'll become very proficient with melee weapons over time.  If you focus on archery you'll become an expert bowman in time, and if you focus on one or more of the Schools of Magic you'll become an expert spellcaster in time.

It is a far simpler system than what's come before, and I originally started off melee-focused but about halfway through my playthrough I easily switched up to archery with a bit of spells.  I have mixed feelings about this, as on the one hand, it's great you're not tied down to choices you made several hours earlier and you can really enjoy the game with any play style you like, but on the other hand your choices have less meaning and consequences.

For Signs, instead of choosing one at the game's beginning and being stuck with it there are Standing Stones found throughout the province of Skyrim, and touching a stone will align you with the Sign that it represents.  Thus, you can change your Sign any time you wish by Fast Traveling to and touching the appropriate Stone (once you discover them all).  How The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim handles character development is the way games are going today, simpler with less hard choices, however the system does still work as no one forces you to change your play style or Sign and really, the overall game does indeed feel like an Elder Scrolls title.

In fact, I personally found The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim felt very much like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, far more so than The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  The nature of the Quests and factions, the people inhabiting the province, the level of violence, maturity, and drug and sexual references all seemed more in line with the darker tone of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, and I personally loved that.  In a sense, it felt like I was playing through the greatest game I never finished again, save that this time I did complete it.

In addition to the Main Quest, which you're free to explore and complete or ignore as you see fit, there are several factions with their own Questlines to join.  Players can become members of The Companions (Fighter's Guild), The College of Winterhold (Mage's Guild, which joining is oddly required for the Main Quest, even if you're playing as a non-magic character), the Thieves Guild, and the Dark Brotherhood (Assassin's Guild).  Each Questline is fully fleshed out and will take several hours to complete, adding a significant amount of substance to the game and the game's world.

I personally really enjoyed the Companions Questline as well as that of the Dark Brotherhood, which I felt was one of the best written in the game.  The Thieves Guild Questline has an excellent story but I wasn't as keen on the Questline's layout and misc. jobs you had to keep doing during it.  I personally wasn't so fond of the College of Winterhold Questline, as I've never been a big magic-user, but I went through it anyway.

In addition, you can also partake in the Civil War Questline by joining either the Imperial Legion or the Stormcloaks, and you can then pacify or liberate Skyrim.  This Questline does tie into the Main Questline but is not required, and I actually completed it afterwards.

I joined the Imperial Legion in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind - Game of the Year Edition but sold my Imperial Armour shortly afterwards, which was apparently a bad idea as no one would talk to you if you were "out of uniform," and disappointingly I was unable to move forward with the Questline any further.  The Legion was present in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but you're unable to join them, so I was excited to sign up with the Legion here in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Once I played through it, however, I found the Civil War to be the poorest and blandest Questline in the entire game, in stark contrast to the quality design of everything else.  Most of the Quests are simply raiding enemy forts and killing all enemies within; very repetitive and, honestly, boring.  I confess I was truly disappointed here, but again, as only one Questline in a vast game it's not the end of the world.

And what a world Bethesda Game Studios has crafted for us.  The province of Skyrim is, without a doubt, beautiful.  From lush forests, to open plains, to mountain ranges and peaks, a whole series of environments are present and they're all there to fully explore.  This is what I've always loved about the franchise the most, simply to start walking and find what there is to find.  And in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, there's lots to find.  From random beasts, bandits, and Dragons in the wild to caves, forts, towns, and villages to explore, without any exaggeration there's no shortage of anything to do in Skyrim.

Truly, the environment artists, character artists, modelers, and effects teams outdid themselves.  Textures are crisp and clean, the world is supremely detailed, rugged, and lived-in, and full day and night cycles along with weather patterns are present.  Characters animate smoothly and cleanly and like in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, townsfolk have actual schedules where they go about their lives eating, sleeping, and working on set routines.  I also love how if you're using a Torch in a dungeon, for example, and then you unequip it, you're character is momentarily light-blinded as your "eyes" adjust.  This occurs if you look into the sun or other strong light sources as well, and adds a great sense of realism to the world.  My only visual gripe with the game is that certain stone textures with snow on them, specifically those found at Nordic ruins, look very flat and the snow looks painted on once you get up close.  This is something you get used to after a time, but you'll see it a good bit throughout the game and it did pull me out of my sense of immersion occasionally.

Audio wise, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is extremely well done.  The voice acting is varied and spot on, employing far more voice actors than what was offered in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Every Imperial no longer sounds alike, ever Dark Elf no longer sounds alike, and every Orc no longer sounds alike.  There's a few voice actors per race now, and you'll definitely hear many inhabitants who sound the same, that's unavoidable for a game this size, but it's less noticeable or bothersome as it was in the previous game.

The soundtrack though, the game's soundtrack is without question exceptional.  Jeremy Soule has done a superb job with the music for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  The core music features several remixed tracks from The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which I absolutely love.  Remixed in a Nordic fashion, the tracks are both powerful and instill a strong sense of nostalgia in me.  Beyond this, there are many new tracks of the same overall theme, and many subtler and more passive tunes for various villages, inns, or general outdoor exploration.  Even after hearing the soundtrack for countless hours, I'm far from tired of it, it's that moving and well composed.

Gameplay-wise, if you've played any of the previous Elder Scrolls games on a console, you'll likely be right at home here.  Instead of using the D-Pad for 8 programmable slots (one per direction), you can now Favourite items in your inventory and pressing "Up" on the D-Pad pauses the game and accesses this list, allowing you to equip Weapons, Spells, Shouts, etc. with ease.It's a simple and intuitive layout that works.

Another change is that Armour no longer wears down and breaks, again simplifying the overall experience.  You can now train in Smithing to improve the quality of your Armour, but you no longer need to worry about something breaking on you in combat.  Alchemy functions very similar to as it did in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, save that you now bring your ingredients to an Alchemy table in your home or at a store, removing the need to carry Alchemical tools around.  Regrettably, the franchise now imposes a cap on the amount of Gold a merchant carries on them.  What this means is that if, like me you collect a lot of stuff to sell, it can take you a long time to sell it all off as you need to wait for merchant's to get more Gold, which usually takes a few days.  I've literally spent several hours selling stuff because of this limitation, and while more realistic I actually found it more aggravating than anything.

Unlike past games, you can actually find or hire a permanent Follower to share in your adventures.  Your Follower will attack enemies and perform other basic tasks, and you can also give him/her items to better equip them or to simply serve as a mule for you.  I actually found AI followers in the game to be very useful, and they actually helped me take down many enemies.  On occasion they'd block a doorway and prevent me from moving through, which was annoying, but I ultimately just used the Shout Unrelenting Force to "push" them out of the way, and their benefits far outweighed this inconvenience.

The Dragon battles are a lot of fun and quite welcome to the franchise.  As random encounters in the game world, they function somewhat like Oblivion Gates in the previous game.  After you complete a certain Quest in the Main Questline, Dragons may randomly appear and attack you, or you'll see one off in the distance and you can pursue or ignore it.  A Dragon will fly around and attack, and sometimes land and try to chomp or hit you.  It's far more fluid and engaging than what it sounds, and many Dragon battles were great highlights for me.  When you kill a Dragon, or any enemy for that matter, you may be treated to a great killcam animation, where it shifts to third person and you see your character perform a clean decapitation, assassination, or arrow shot to kill the enemy.  I personally loved these as they  added a nice cinematic quality to the game.

Like the previous titles, there's a host of books to read and enjoy scattered throughout the province.  In towns, dungeons, or libraries, you'll come across Tomes that increase your Skills by reading them as well as getting a neat bit of fiction to enjoy.  Many books appeared in earlier games, and many are new to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  I read all that I could find, and must have spent several hours simply reading in the game.  For me, it all adds to the realism and superb history of Tamriel.  The game world truly feels alive and with substance, and there's so much lore and history present hear.  Just entering the capitol of Solitude or visiting the town of Dawnstar, quite the experience.

Unlike my playthroughs in past games, I decided to tackle all of the Quests with one character.  I played as a male Redguard named Nathan, and since launch day it took me approximately 250 hours to complete everything and earn all the retail Achievements.  Technically I'm not done everything yet, as there's still several Side Quests and misc. objectives in my Journal, but at this point I think enough's enough.

Like all Bethesda Game Studios games, there's a host of odd bugs that you'll experience throughout, including some that can break Quests, but for me I only had a few Misc. Objectives bug up and no major Questlines had these issues.  For any normal game I'd criticize this far more, but given the sheer scope of all that's offered in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim I find this quite forgivable and, knowing the developer, expected.

At 250 hours though, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has truly provided me with an epic and extensive experience.  Aside from some relatively minor frustrations, I've absolutely loved it and the biggest con is how much of my life it took up.  Without question, this is an amazing Single Player game and a superb role playing game.  If, for some reason, you haven't experienced The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim yet, I strongly encourage you to do so on any platform, that is, provided you have the free time to live another life.  Well done Bethesda Game Studios, you've clearly proved that quality Single Player only games are far from dead, far from lacking innovation, and far from missing replay value.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is a supreme accomplishment for the art form, and one of the greatest and most immersive gaming experiences I've ever had.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Halo 4 Completed for the Second Time

I just wrapped up my second playthrough of Halo 4, this time on Heroic.

For the most part, I enjoyed myself.  The story is extremely solid and 343 Industries did a fantastic story telling job.  The traditional first person shooter sequences are also a lot of fun, despite the generic "new" weapons, and I realized you could drop an Elite by charging them with your Assault Rifle firing like crazy, something you haven't been able to do since Halo: Combat Evolved.

The game is absolutely gorgeous for an Xbox 360 title, and I can't stress enough how great it is to be able to Sprint freely and easily while also being able to use an Armour Ability.  These are all great things meshing a nice feeling of nostalgia and advancement for the franchise.

I also went for all the Heroic-based Achievements and got them all except for "Bros to the Close," which requires you to keep six Marines alive throughout a sequence in Chapter 4.  The challenge comes into play where the Marines are plain dumb (the franchise's friendly AI has been in decline for five years) and charge to their death constantly.  With them rushing ahead it's hard to even give them better weapons, as Forerunner firearms does improve their chances.

I got past the penultimate battle with all six Marines surviving and saw it Checkpoint me, so I "Saved and Exited" to long save that point, but it didn't do it; first time in franchise history a Checkpoint didn't properly save for me.  I was pretty furious and was only able to pass the penultimate battle for this Achievement with five Marines surviving on all subsequent attempts.

The fact that a Crawler with a Binary Rifle spawning inside a tree preventing us from killing him but allowing him to snipe us didn't help matters.  Thus, I'll try for this Achievement later on in Co-Op, as I hear it's far easier with a buddy.

Actually, I've found Halo 4 to be the buggiest title in the franchise to date.  Most of the bugs are annoyances and hardly game breaking, but they do get frustrating at times.

Once such example is about a third of the way through Chapter 3.  You're on a Ghost and have to wipe out a bunch of Storm Covenant so you can disable a Forerunner generator.  There's ground troops, enemies in Ghosts, and two Banshee's flying around.  If you're fast you can kill an Elite running for a third Banshee before he can take off preventing another one from getting into the mix.

Halo 4 is the first title in the franchise where I found that enemy controlled vehicles are durable and deal good damage, but once you take control of them they're firing peashooters and made of paper.  This made this battle insanely hard as those enemy Banshees were such a problem to deal with, and even if you use a Banshee of your own you're far outgunned; not to mention that 343 Industries' version of the classic aircraft handles extremely sluggishly.

Around my 15th attempt I found higher up a nice outcropping of rock, so I decided to fly and land there and use my Binary Rifle to start picking off ground troops.  As soon as I exited my Banshee I clipped through the rock floor and fell to my death.  This really frustrated me as I know this would not have occurred in a Bungie Halo title.

The Broadsword sequence at the beginning of Chapter 8 was also horrible, as 343 Industries seemed to take the general Sabre design from Halo: Reach and extend the time you spent in the vehicle (a great idea) but they make you go through a Death Star-like trench run (an okay idea) and toss in a bunch of moving and shifting obstacles that you can too easily crash and die against, kind of like that room Sigourney Weaver's character complained about in Galaxy Quest, that room that made no sense and shouldn't even have been there (thus, this was a horrible idea).  The Broadsword could have been amazing and a highlight of the game, but instead it's a massive letdown an exercise in frustration.

Oh well.  Overall though, the experience was great and I will be trying a solo Legendary run in a few weeks.  Despite it's flaws, Halo 4 is still a solid first title for the new developer.

Dead Space 3 "Better with Kinect" ViDoc

EA has released a new ViDoc entitled "Better with Kinect," showcasing Dead Space 3's upcoming functionality with the device.

You can check it out here or below:

Everyone I talk to keeps telling me Kinect's voice recognition is pretty poor.  If you have the peripheral added stuff for it doesn't hurt, but I'm not running out and buying one any time soon.  Thankfully I won't be missing much.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Review

When I first heard that Peter Jackson was splitting The Hobbit into three separate films, I confess I was rather concerned.  The Lord of the Rings stands as one of the greatest movies I've ever seen, being both an artistic and technical masterpiece, and so much work was done on it that Extended Editions of each film were able to be released.  There was a lot of source material for Jackson to draw upon as the depth of story and character showed, however for The Hobbit, the book itself is only a fraction of the size.

This makes three films stretching to a total of about nine hours a rather odd choice, however I decided to place my faith in Jackson as he certainly delivered before, and with each trailer my excitement to return to Middle-earth grew. The first film, entitled The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, released last month and on New Years Day I went to see it in IMAX 3D.

I was not disappointed.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is set 60 years prior to The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and sees Gandalf (Ian McKellen) enlist a reluctant Bilbo's (Martin Freeman) aid to assist a company of Dwarves who wish to retake the lost kingdom of Erebor, the Lonely Mountain.

Years earlier Erebor grew in spelndor and wealth, and word of the kingdom's riches reached the ears of the dragon Smaug, who attacked and conquered the kingdom and who lies there still.  The Dwarves who survived the attack were forced out and became refugees, and after a failed attempt to retake the ancient kingdom of Moria, they settled in the Blue Mountains of the far west, but many always thought of their lost home.  None grieved and brooded more than Thorin son of Thrane (Richard Armitage), grandfather to the now deceased King Under the Mountain and former ruler of Erebor.

At long last, Thorin has assembled a small band of Dwarves with plans to retake the mountain, and after gaining the assistance and council of Gandalf the Grey, they seek to use stealth as their primary advantage and as such need an expert burglar to complete their group.  This "burgler," or so Gandalf calls him, just so happens to be Bilbo Baggins, a Hobbit of the Shire.  After a little convincing, Bilbo joins the group and so the company makes their way eastward to begin their impossible quest, a quest that will see Bilbo claim a very important ring from the twisted wretch Gollum (Andy Serkis) that will influence the powers to come.

Unlike The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit is actually a children's book, featuring many quarks, antics, and songs the likes of which don't usually feature into adult works.  The tone is certainly present at the beginning of the film and works well in the innocence of the Shire, but shortly after the journey east begins, Jackson introduces a more mature tone to what Tolkien wrote before.

Once again taking details and liberties from the Appendices featured in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Jackson introduces characters like Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) and has guest appearances by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman the White (Christopher Lee).  The Necromancer also makes an appearance, and I believe he'll have a larger showing and plot in the upcoming films than in the book.

I greatly enjoyed seeing many of the set pieces from the original trilogy, such as the Shire, Weathertop, and Rivendell.  Many classic weapons, costumes, and architectural themes return and this consistency in visual and historical style help to ground the film in the living fantasy world we know so well.  Howard Shore also returns as the film's composer, and his score is just as wonderful and thematic as it was a decade ago, reusing some old themes but expanding upon them and introducing new themes to the mix.

One of my favourite scenes from the film is the flashback to the Battle of Azanulbizar, in which we see an entire legion of Dwarves in full battle armour in desperate combat against the armies of the Orcs of the Misty Mountains.  It is here that Thorin Oakenshild distinguishes himself as a leader among his people by defeating the Orc leader Azog and defending himself using only a large piece of oak.  While this battle fits wonderfully into the story, my only criticism of the film is that many scenes are rather actioned up over their literary counterparts, and while I understand why Jackson did this, as The Lord of the Rings had some great action and battle sequences, that was a full war while The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is the first stage of a smaller quest.  The excessive battles did feel out of place and I would have preferred more character development, however really this is a minor complaint as the film certainly features a lot of  character.

In fact, by films end I didn't feel exhausted or overtaxed at all, which is quite the accomplishment for a three hour film.  Jackson paced things well and seems to have properly thought out the breakdown from book to film, and my fear that things would be quite drawn out were unfounded.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a wonderful film and a great re-introduction to Middle-earth.  This is a quest of hope, of history, and legacy, and a foreshadowing of darkness to come.  Filled with wonderful acting, character, and effects, for those who love great fantasy and a wonderful tale, and certainly for those who enjoyed The Lord of the Rings, you'll not regret taking your first steps of this adventure.

Dead Space 3 "The Story so Far" Trailer

For those of you who haven't played Dead Space or its sequel and are interested in the third game, or for those who just need a general refresher on the trilogy's story, you can check out this latest video entitled "The Story so Far" here or below:

In all honesty though if you haven't played Dead Space or Dead Space 2 I highly recommend them.  Each game is pretty cheap now and can generally be bought for about $19.99 each on consoles, or even cheaper on PC.