Thursday, March 26, 2009

You have a rendevous with death...

This review for Gears of War 2 comes late because I had the chance to play it co-op throughout, once a week, with a friend. Developed by Epic Games and published by Microsoft exclusively for the X-Box 360, I think it’s fair to say that this was one of the most anticipated games of the year. The first Gears of War set a standard, not only for third person shooters but as a graphics benchmark for consoles in general. Gears of War was in my opinion the most impressive looking game of its time and it remains a fantastic showcase for Epic’s much-licensed Unreal Technology 3 game engine.

With over five million copies of the first Gears sold the anticipation for the sequel was sky high. Did it deliver? If I may cut to the chase I would say it certainly did. Gears of War 2 improves on the original in every way and serves as a textbook on how to deliver a worthy sequel.

The story of Marcus Fenix and company continues as the Locust Horde’s relentless assault on humanity reaches endgame. The cities of Sera colony have sunk into the crust, one after the other, until only the final bastion of Jacinto remains. As a testament to the polished mechanics of the first title, return players will be glad to know that the control scheme is completely intact. It worked fine then and it works even better now! This insures the game feels comfortable right from the first scene. Other then that they did what a sequel should do and that’s advance the core concept in any way they can. The additional enemies, weapons, vehicles and tactical extras added a tremendous amount of variety to the Gears universe, which is proving to be an even more wacky and wild place than previously thought.

It’s not just that the game play is good; in some scenes it’s bloody excellent. Battles taking place in bizarre environments are brutal and unpredictable. Interesting combinations of enemy types and unusual set pieces create a constant challenge with nothing becoming bored or stale. Overall the pacing is quite good. I thought the game started with a bang and ended with some very satisfying battles that put the skills you honed to the test.

I quite liked the story in Gears of War 2 and there were many great scenes, both big and small. Many have said that Dom’s subplot was clumsy and ineffective but I disagree. Without giving anything away I think the story illustrates a hard fact about civilians and conflict that was told in a stark and brutal manner. I also like how this game ended. It was a satisfying conclusion that opened up the possibilities for the inevitable third game.

The online multiplayer segment of the game is substantial but came riddled with issues. Patches have since been dutifully released but some bugs remain. New to the game is a co-operative Horde mode where you team up to form an online quartet and look to survive wave after wave of Locust enemies. It’s a lot of fun and sure to become a stable game mode in the future.

Gears of War 2 promised to be a badass blockbuster and I think Epic was true to its word. I had a ball, I will play it again, and I am really looking forward to seeing how this world and its heroic characters continue to develop in future games. So long as serialized titles come out as great as this, you won’t hear me complain in the least!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Once upon a time in the magical kingdom of Zzzzzzz... Trolls! Must pop troll zits with my pistol... Zzzzzzz...

For a change of pace over the holidays I went through Fable 2, a light-hearted fantasy role-playing game developed by Lionhead Studios and its industry leading founder, Peter Molyneaux. Between the first and second Fable Lionhead was purchased by Microsoft, meaning that Peter was now in the market of making X-Box 360 exclusives. I was especially curious to see if Peter and his team were going to take special advantage of the console like Epic Games has done with Gears of War. Sadly this wasn’t the case.

Before I get into that however let’s give the good stuff its due. In Fable 2 you play a hero born from a powerful bloodline, one that allows you to wield magic. A hero hunting villain is hot to kill you in hopes of ending the line and preventing your kind from stopping his plans for world domination. For the rest of the story you are building yourself up in order to facilitate this final showdown. The quaint land of Albion is a pretty enough place to go for a walk in the forest. You’ll encounter a modest variety of enemies throughout the realm and dispatching them is Fable 2’s best feature. At any given time the player can use a melee weapon, a missile weapon, or a suite of magic spells. Mixing up these attacks as you see fit is what kept me in the game to its completion.

Fable 2 claims to provide variety for your character but I was left nonplussed with the customization available. In theory the things your character does has an effect on their appearance. Good characters begin looking saintly, evil characters demonic. Eat pies and get fat, eat celery and get thin. Use melee weapons to get buff, use magic to get enchanted looking. In practice however characters get funnelled in certain ways. All characters will use the three attack options on a continuous basis, I mean they're there and fun to use so why wouldn't you? This means that each hero is strong looking, tall, and has blue lines of power on their face. My wife played completely differently than I did in almost every way but by game's end our characters could have passed for brother and sister. By that I also mean that she looked a lot like me, a VERY BIG girl with cankles and the quads of a linebacker. Going on the all-celery diet couldn’t halt this genetic predisposition. That my wife couldn’t make a heroic female that looked feminine in the traditional sense, or even a sword-maiden possessing her own slim figure, was in her own words: “disappointing.”

This lack of depth is a theme that can be found throughout the game. Fable 2 has all the options of a role-playing game but there is little below the surface. There are few weapons to match the mere handful of skills and spells to master. What this means is that after just one play through your character can already do everything so there is no point in going through it again. The wardrobe is threadbare, the equipment list equally so and most of it is silly. You can buy property and earn rent money but all this money is good for is buying more houses because everything at the market can be bought for a handful of coins. The world itself is cut up into bite-sized regions that can be entered and exited only in certain places. It’s not an open world in the real sense of the word. The quests you undertake can be amusing but they’re all short, single-chapter affairs and there aren’t many of them. The jobs available are beyond repetitive and most use the same mini-game mechanic as social interaction with people, so both aspects of the game get old real quick. Marriage and child rearing is present but more even tedious than in real life. (I don’t know how they even managed that!)

One aspect of the game I liked was a jump forward of many years. There are opportunities to do something (or not) and when the story jumps your choice has a definite impact on the world. Buildings will have gone up or have come down. This alone could be the basis of a great game but like everything else it was handled in a very basic, limited fashion. You get just a taste of this mechanic. The idea itself, like so many others in Fable 2, seemingly don’t benefit from having earned the developer’s strength of conviction.

Worst of all however are the bugs and other forms of technical imprecision that abounds throughout the game. Your character moves poorly and tends to get caught on objects. The game slowdown and stuttering is brutal during combats. Finding button prompt locations is a chancy, clumsy exercise. The menus lag badly and weren’t given enough thought as to how people were going to use them. The maps (not that you need them much given the simple geography) are not helpful. Finally the co-op feature touted in this title is unplayable because they couldn’t do anything reasonable with the camera. An exclusive game of this nature demands a modicum of polish in order to properly represent its console and Lionhead failed to deliver in this regard.

My wife downloaded the Knothole Island addition and after completing it in a single sitting I’ll warn you that it’s just more of the same. You’re also paying too much for it. If I paid $60.00 for thirty lukewarm hours of Fable 2 gaming then Knothole Island should come to us for about $4.00 but it actually costs about triple that. It’s also way too easy if your character has already completed the main quest. If Lionhead wants to pump this game for more money they should at least make their episodic content a real challenge as chances are it’s going to be played by advanced characters.

That my wife played the game every bit as much as I did was a nice change. We got to talk about the title throughout our play and witness the consequences of each other’s actions. This was especially handy because we got to watch the ending twice, which made us both perfectly certain that it was rubbish and a waste of time seeing as for the last hour of the story you do NOTHING of consequence. She made no bones about why Fable 2 grabbed her attention though. She’s very busy and has her mind on other things right now. She is willing to play a game provided it’s both exceedingly simple and ridiculously easy. She could and does play better but can’t be bothered to expend the energy these evenings past.

She’s quite right, as usual. Fable 2 is indeed simple and easy but on the other hand it isn’t smart or polished enough to come off as charming, merely as struggling. Thin content and shallow depth might be the hallmark of a game geared towards casual play and in truth the stink of that particular fear lay thick on Fable 2 but it’s more than just that.

Lionhead Studios has never been a technical powerhouse but you don’t need to be to make a great game. That said it appears that Molyneux’s Microsoft-owned company is getting outstripped mightily by other game developers, especially its role-playing peers. After playing Fallout 3 and Fable 2 in the same season it feels like the former came from a future generation. It didn’t however, games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect have become the standard and so the comparison works in the opposite direction. Fable 2 feels old right out of the packaging and is a lacklustre showcase of what the X-Box 360 can do. If you are only going to sink time into one role-playing game this year, Fable 2 isn’t what I would recommend. Better to stay with the times.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

IT'S... ALIVE!!!

Activision Blizzard C.E.O. Bobby Kotick came up with an interesting answer to the question: How do you exploit a successful game franchise with yearly titles and have them not turn into watered down crap? Actually it was a question of his making and ‘exploit’ was his term of choice. It wasn’t a move for squeamish gamer purists however, people who might hesitate just because an idea could be considered artistically unsavoury. What he did was take the popular Call of Duty brand and allow two separate developers to work on alternating titles. Each team had two years to make a game and they would be published on concurrent years. The games would get the time they need to ensure a minimum level of quality and yet there would be a new product to push every Christmas. The people who cared about games would be happy and the executive who only cares about money would be happy.

One thing this plan had going for it was Activision-owned Infinity Ward, creator of the original Call of Duty and its sequel. These were the developers that initially captured lightning in a bottle with their tight gun play, intense atmosphere, and dedication to historical facts. All other companies that would make a Call of Duty game, be it for personal computer, console, or cell phone would have an established standard to achieve, to say nothing of their proprietary engine and other essential pieces of game tech.

The catch - and there’s always a catch - is that the other company, called Treyarch Corporation, did not share in equal success. Call of Duty expansions and the number three title in the series were generally considered good but not great. This consensus was exacerbated when Infinity Ward’s next game, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare became a smash hit, one of the highest rated shooters of all time, and a multiplayer power house.

It was at this time when enthusiast gamers began expressing their impatience with the Kotick business model. It was clear that the now revered Call of Duty franchise was at its best when in the hands of Infinity Ward and that Treyarch’s attempts were a distraction. When Activision announced that the next title in the series, the unnumbered Call of Duty: World at War, was not only going back to Treyarch but back from the fresh modern setting to the overplayed World War II theatre there was much dismissal and general disdain. Not to worry, we were told. Call of Duty 3 was not indicative of Treyarch’s abilities, they weren’t given enough time to shine and that would not be the case henceforth.

So now, with the kinks of the Kotick plan ironed out what was the result? How does World at War stand on its own and how does it measure up to Modern Warfare, one of last year’s best games?

The first thing I’ll say is World at War is an unsettlingly accurate clone of Modern Warfare. I use the term unsettling because while playing the game feelings of a Frankenstein transplant were evoked, of a brain being moved from one body to another. I’ll credit Treyarch with this: they managed to make a game that doesn’t feel like they made it.

That said however, they did copy an award winning game and so naturally World at War has a lot going for it. The thing is the game is so much like Modern Warfare that if you read that review a year ago you’re pretty much up to speed on this game. (In truth that’s why I took so much time laying out the unusual history of the franchise rather than talk about the game itself.)

But on to it we’ll go: World at War looks and plays nicely, exactly like Modern Warfare did only with a World War II skin. There have been some minor additions to the game engine like limb damage and flame throwing effects. Other than that it’s a by the numbers Call of Duty with a tank level, a plane level, a sniping level, etc. This isn't the first time we players get to attack the Reichstag in a war game but they do a nice job and it is the first time we get to experience the event in High Definition. The horrors of war are revealed to the player dutifully, from torture to air strike survivors to soldiers on fire falling almost gently to their knees before lying down. You can play the single player chapters in co-op mode but in what must have been a design oversight you have to complete the level in single player mode before it unlocks for co-op. This was an annoyance for those of us who wanted to play with friends right off the bat.

The multiplayer component mimics its wildly popular predecessor right down to the levelling up for new weapons and perks. The expansion here was the addition of tank levels, or levels where tanks re-spawn and can be entered to boost firepower. These levels are larger to accommodate the vehicles which results in more sporadic fighting amongst the infantrymen but I found it to be a nice change.

One value added feature deserves true praise and that is the ‘Nazi Zombie’ mini-game. Nazi Zombies you ask? I say why choose? In this mode you (and a buddy or three if you wish) are holed up in a building while wave after wave of Nazi zombies try to get through the windows and into your sweet, succulent brains. You get points for every zombie you kill and these points can be redeemed for weapons hanging on the wall or to open up new areas. This mode has become a gamer night favourite and is a great example of what other kinds of games can be made with the engine. A full game version of this mode with an expansive haunted mansion to explore would be an instant classic!

So yes, World at War is a good game and yet my usual enthusiasm for titles of this calibre is usually more effusive. I’m finding it strange to applaud a developer whose best effort to date, their crowning achievement, was to become the shadow of another team. Am I being too sentimental in thinking that games should have their developer’s personality within, their sense of style embedded somewhere in the code? Or is cloning success the cost-effective wave of the future? Mr. Kotick, who upon Activision’s merger with Blizzard under the auspices of the Vivendi media conglomerate, now runs the largest video game empire on earth. I would guess that he’s the one with the most say in the matter, at least until he discovers another product with more appealing numbers than video games.

Surely there are other industries worthy enough to be exploited? I hear he likes modern art.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

A Ten Megaton Triumph! Break out the Fancy Lad snack cakes!

Another year, another attempt to resurrect my neglected blog. I have buried myself in all of the excellent game titles that crop up come year's end to say nothing of the momentous news events of 2009. I've been absorbing all and not letting a drop out, reading rather than writing, playing rather than pontificating. Now I've come up for air and will do my best to provide some reviews...

Video game enthusiasts can be a particularly demanding breed of customer. These days every industry makes use of the Internet to connect with their base to a certain degree but game players were pioneers in this regard and they have taken the outlet further than most. To that end they are not only opinionated but determined to project their views in a public forum. As a result huge groundswells of public sentiment are not uncommon.

There are advantages to this phenomenon. Game developers can receive as much feedback on their work as they are capable of processing. One hopes this constructive criticism assists in creating a better product down the line. There is a dark side to this feedback as well however, when enthusiasts erupt into rabid howls of protestation when one of their sacred cows switches owners and moves into another dairy farm. Such was the dilemma Bethesda Softworks found themselves in when they had the audacity to secure the rights to the formidable Fallout franchise from Interplay Entertainment. Despite the hail of outcry from such highbrow institutions as the fan site ‘No Mutant Allowed’ Bethesda persevered to release Fallout 3.

The story begins with brief, character building scenes of your birth, infancy, childhood, and approach to adulthood. All of this takes place in a hermetically sealed Vault that protects your community from the ravages of a nuclear holocaust that occurred some two hundred years ago. Play truly begins with a tragedy that forces you to leave the Vault and enter the irradiated wasteland where Washington D.C. barely stands. There you will find mutated life forms, pitiless raiders, and the last remnants of human civilization in all their motley factions. You will arm up, pick a direction, and scavenge your way towards adventure!

Those familiar with Bethesda’s Elder Scrolls games will feel at home here. Their signature open world in the first person perspective is on display. To say however that this game is merely ‘Oblivion with guns’ is grossly unfair. It’s obvious that Bethesda has learned much from each game they have made and Fallout 3 in my opinion is their finest effort yet.

There are few games one will spend more time with than a roleplaying game. In Fallout 3’s case it was around sixty hours from beginning to end, making sure to take my time and see what the world offered. I was delighted to discover that nothing got old in this time, nothing felt repetitive. The combat, a combination of real time and turn based style remained satisfying throughout. The many computers to be hacked and locks to be picked presented some well thought out mini-games that broke up the fighting scenes nicely. The conversations with non-player characters along with your dialogue options were not as advanced as what we have seen in similar games such as Mass Effect, but they were to the point and got you back into the action with minimal fuss.

Given all that must be done to create an open world game I was impressed by how expertly all aspects of this title was crafted. This was especially true with the character development system, the statistics that tell you who your character is. The system is better than what Bethesda has used in their Elder Scrolls games, it is not nearly as exploitable and each of the twenty levels the players advance through adds something interesting to the character. This information is conveyed to you with a simple yet stylish menu system that I found pleasant to navigate and manage. The point of all these disparate components in a roleplaying game is to immerse you in your character, to let you know who that person is so that you may better become them while you play. In this regard Fallout 3 did an excellent job. While playing I became my character and acted as I thought she would rather than what I might do. This is perhaps the greatest compliment I can give the game designers and I feel what must be at the heart of a successful roleplaying game.

The second part of that immersing equation is the world itself, is it worth exploring and interacting with? Again Bethesda did fine work in this regard. It was a brilliant idea to have the game take place in Washington D.C. after the bombs fell. Seeing America’s greatest monuments, scarred but still standing is a surprisingly emotional experience. To discover the regal throne of Lincoln, all but the Great Emancipator’s head, is to experience not only the awe of standing before the real thing but also to feel a great injustice at its defacing. I had no reason, or quest if you will, to fight my way into the Capitol Building but I did, as any tourist of the age would. Despite its ruin it still felt sacred. Though my character was heavily armed I still performed the cautious tread of one who walks on hallowed ground. The game abounds in such history and the dread of what may come if humanity’s Final Solution comes in the form of a nuclear holocaust.

If all this sounds too sombre and dreary for your tastes then worry not, for Interplay’s original vision of camp 50’s Americana clutched in the cold war mentality remains. A retrospective on the Duck and Cover era continues to be perversely humourous. Bethesda has made sure to mine the material and provides a light hearted counterpoint to the horrors of the waste. When hiding in the dark, eating mole rat meat and drinking toilet water just to survive, the anecdotes of President John Henry Eden on the radio will always cause you to crack a smile.

I found the various missions or quests throughout the game to be enjoyable and their rewards interesting. Many have been unsatisfied with the game’s ending and in truth Bethesda could have thought it through a little better. This is not uncommon however; ending a game seems to vex developers of all calibers. In games however the final ten minutes does not have the impact it would on a movie. Sixty hours of play over the course of a month is a true journey after all. You do it to get there and if the game is good then you don’t want to end at all.

Bringing the Fallout franchise out of the 90’s and into the new millennium required significant changes to the formula. When Bethesda did this they were the objects of an inordinate amount of disdain. This is regrettable, made even more so by the fact that Fallout 3 is a terrific game. Thankfully the final product seems to have silenced most detractors and even the most nostalgic of players must grudgingly admit that the franchise is in able hands. While not the most polished or refined video game I’ve played this year it is still one of the best and surely the most ambitious. It should not be missed and given the level of overall improvement I’ve seen, I’d wager Bethesda’s next offering will also be a must-play.