Oct 31, 2008

Mirror's Edge Demo: My Brain is Officially Blown

Oh. My God. I just finished playing through the Mirror's Edge demo (released today on both XBL and the Playstation Store). Wow.

You've never played anything like this before - trust me - and that's perhaps what excites me the most about this game. We're not just talking new IP - this is an entirely new genre. Maybe one could argue that ME is simply a first person implementation of the original Prince of Persia, but even at this early stage I'd have to argue that it's something more.

Now, I've been playing first person games for what - let's say 15 years now? I'm confident though, that I have never experienced this level of perspective and immersion. Dice has absolutely nailed their design concept.

I can only assume that the camera position and field of view were tuned, tweaked, and tortuously tested. The player is provided with a sense of position, motion, and inertia that, properly blended with an intuitive control set, make precarious, vertigo-inducing rooftop free running feel somehow natural and fluid. As you flow across the rooftops, you are in a body - not just floating along in a disembodied camera, all FPS-style.

Then there's the art design, and its implementation via the in-game engine. The city is beautiful, crisp and bright, yet stark, and the framerate blazes along smoothly. Your Kung Fu is indeed impressive, Dice.

Play this demo.

Oct 30, 2008

Happy Halloween from EA!

That's right, kiddies - apparently the Mirror's Edge Demo Hits XBL tomorrow! I'm sooo hoping this game lives up to my expectations (and doesn't make me barf playing on my 50" widescreen...)!

Fallout 3's "Blood Ties" Quest - 'Tis the Season! (spoiler free)

So it turns out that all my fumbling and bumbling to find The Family was rewarded in the end with a pretty cool quest. Those that know my taste in monsters will realize that this one was right up my alley (and seasonally appropriate as well).

When you finish the quest, be sure to talk to Vance if possible and ask him about, erm, joining the gang - if you dare. You'll be rewarded with a cool bonus Perk.

Infocom Text Adventure App for Blackberry!

Just wanted to send out a public thanks to William Johnson for his continuing work on a Z-Machine interpreter for Blackberrys (and other J2ME devices), Zaxmidlet. ConstantineXVI and I have been trying to drum up interest over on the Crackberry forums for someone to develop this app, and William came to our rescue like a bolt from the blue.

I just finished installing the newly-released version 0.1.4, and William seems to have deftly fixed all the little bugs I'd encountered in version 0.1.1.

Is that a Zork in your pocket, or are you just happy to have something to do on the plane? (No playing Leather Goddesses during boring church services, you perverts!)

Fallout 3: Stuck on the Blood Ties quest? Here's a solution.

If, like me, you are working on the Fallout 3 quest Blood Ties and have spend hours searching for The Family without success, check out this blog post from Kelly at Outer Heaven.

Oct 29, 2008

Fallout 3: Megaton of Fun?

So far, F3 really nails the Fallout feel. Especially the opening "character growth" / character creation sequence - that was really well done.

A quick comment on the organic character generation, though. Although it's fun to see what kind of character gets spat out, players may not get what they ultimately want. I tried not to "game" the aptitude test sequence, and did get a character that was pretty much want I was hoping for, barring one weirdly-placed skill focus point. Wisely, Bethesda allows you to tweak your three skill foci though, so all was well. (I think the original Fallout let you do a final tweak too.)

I'm not fond of the real time melee combat - the control feels muddy and mushy - maybe even drunken. Note that this comment is based on solely on baseball bat vs. nightstick scuffles in the cramped quarters of Vault 101 - hopefully melee is less annoying out in the open wasteland. I found this fact strange, because melee in Oblivion had seemed a bit more precise. (That said, my Oblivion character was an archery specialist, so I didn't do as much sword hackery as pointy-stick-launching.) Hopefully, the VATS system will make up for the mushy-melee shortfall, but my jury is still out on VATS.

So far I've played through the (extensive) opening sequence, left the vault, and after a quick scout around the surrounding landscape, made my way to the first town (Megaton).

I'm enjoying the characters, atmosphere, and dialogue so far. The Oblivion-engine facial models though, are still creepy. They are stiff and lifeless - especially compared to Mass Effect's exemplary showing in that area. I find the effect jarring, especially paired with the excellent F3 voice acting and dialogue writing. Given that older games (Half Life 2 comes to mind) have done a much better job with facial animations, Fallout 3 character faces end up looking very dated.

One last early observation - I can't seem to access a description blurb of the items present in Container or Barter windows. Sure, "Sawed-off Shotgun" is self-explanatory, but WTF is a "Schematic: Shishkebab"??

More after additional play time.

Oct 22, 2008

Fable II: Early Impressions

Man, what a whirlwind this morning at work. Need a sanity check - Ditlog take me away!

I got started with Fable II last night. Well OK, I played for like 6 hours… I’m really enjoying it. Not lightning-struck like I’d been with Morrowind or WoW or anything, but definitely enjoying it.

The moral choices set before your character, and their impact on the world around you, seem very well-implemented so far. The world, the characters, and all the events within it seem cohesive, interconnected and believable.

The mechanism for interacting with the average citizen, however, is not. Your character doesn’t talk, and can only communicate with fellow citizens through a short list of emote functions. This leaves the player feeling like a Cro-Magnon, unable to articulate his thoughts to his neighbors other than via mimed threats, idiotic dancing or whistling, or clumsily-juvenile romantic or lewd gesticulations.

Maybe times have changed, but when I was single it took more than whistling a few tunes, striking a pose, and performing a ridiculous Russian dance to convince my intended paramour to come home with me, or even sillier, accept my hand in marriage. (Or maybe I’m just that bad a dancer?) Not so in Albion.

The combat system is button-mashy and light, but becomes a bit deeper as your character gains in experience. I’m enjoying it so far, even though none of the enemies – in any quantity – pose you any tangible threat.

I’m a huge sucker for games that provide a palpable sense of exploration though, and Fable II delivers in spades. Albion is a visceral and wondrous fairly tale land, albeit with a bit of a dark side. One can sprint myopically from one quest to the next, but straying from Fable’s ingenious “glowing bread crumb trail” to check out what’s down the next fork in the path, under a bridge, or behind a copse of trees is almost always rewarding and satisfying.

Oh, one last comment. A few of the press reviews have commented on the frame rate. At this point, I've not encountered any hiccups that were noticeable. So far, the engine is handling Albion's sprawling vistas remarkably well. Now The Force Unleashed on the other hand? Those were some frame rate issues!

More as my game progresses…

Oct 15, 2008

All That is Old is Nerd Again

BattleMech Technicians Rule!

I recently started getting back into Classic BattleTech. Though perhaps more on hiatus then off, I've been playing this game for literally decades, and after a rousing game at our yearly weekend gaming fest, Nuke(m)Con, I decided to take the plunge and pick up the Introductory Box Set for my son and I to enjoy. (And, true to my typical nerd-zealotry, a map pack and a TRO too...)

Anyway, with this rekindled interest in BattleTech, I began searching for BT computer games. Firstly, I had never finished Microsoft's MechWarrior 4: Vengeance (a 2000 release), so I started checking to see if there is any widescreen support for it. (My PC is currently equipped with a gorgeous 21 inch WS Samsung LCD, and no way was I sullying it with icky stretched-out Mech graphics...) There does appear to be a registry hack. So far, so good.

Even better, MW4: Mercenaries (the 2002 standalone expansion to Vengeance) has received a ton of rapt aftermarket love from the community. First, MekTek.net has created a MekPak adding 29 more canon mechs to the game, plus more weapons, weapon slots, maps, and camo schemes. (Apparently, one can't use these mechs in campaign mode, however, without using a wonky "selling and buying back a mech three times" exploit. They are all available in the Instant Action and multiplayer modes, though. )

Second and even better, the folks at the MechStorm website have created a high-def patch for MW4: Mercs. It updates the graphics of all the original mechs (and many of the MekTek ones), adds upgraded sound effects, and improves the graphics of many of the rocks, plants, and buildings.

I've already placed an order for MW4: Mercs on nuLime.com...

Finally, a group is creating a total conversion of Crysis called Mechwarrior: Living Legends, and it's due out this winter. Be sure to check out their first teaser trailer - it's well worth the short download. This sucker is full-out BattleTech. It includes vehicles, infantry, aerospace fighters - everything! And stunning graphics that will probably break my PC...

And X-Wing Mechanics, Too!

Now, if you've been reading Ditlog lately (as thousands upon thousands of loyal fans do monthly - uhh, *cough*), you've noticed that I'm also all smitten with the Star Wars universe these days.

During a recent playtest of the starship combat in the SWSE RPG rules, we were talking nostalgically about the old Lucasarts and X-Wing and Tie Fighter games. My buddy Damon mentioned that there had been an updated X-Wing release in the not-too-distant past, so I looked it up.

Not only does X-Wing Alliance (1999) look sweet (and support widescreen), but a group at the X-Wing Alliance Upgrade site has been creating gorgeous updated models and skins for the spacecraft and scenery. I can't wait to try this one out too!

The next step will probably be finding a program to get a gamepad to play nice with these aging games...

Oct 6, 2008

My Bittersweet Affair with The Force Unleashed: a Spoiler-Free Review

Well, I finally finished The Force Unleashed yesterday (on Xbox 360). Let me first say that yes, I enjoyed the game - as did my son. In retrospect, I think there are two major factors leading to the lukewarm reviews the game has been receiving.

Kickin' Butt Old School

Firstly, in many ways the gameplay is very retro. To quote TFU project lead Haden Blackman, "this game is about kicking ass with the Force." Thing is though, one needs to kick an awful lot of ass to get from point A to point B. Distilled down, TFU most closely resembles a modern and more versatile version of classic arcade beat 'em up games like Double Dragon or Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Okay, okay - I can already hear the fanboys screaming (as if millions of nerds suddenly cried out in anger and refused to be silenced.) Bear with me and follow along:

  • You're moving steadily forward along a highly linear path? Check.
  • You are hindered in your progress by hordes of determined, but very similar combatants? Check.
  • Fighting involves a lot of button-mashing, and a few relatively simple combos are available to you? Check.
  • You get to fight a bigger, tougher, more interesting dude at the end of the level? Check.
  • Rinse, repeat? Check.

Now granted, this particular beat 'em up happens to feature some pretty spectacular graphics and sound. And the battlegrounds include cool spaceships, lush alien planets, and sinister space stations. (And it's set in the Star Wars universe too - I almost forgot.)

As I'd mentioned in my preview, the potential exists for the game to come off like a boring button-masher. Don't miss the boat, though - the designers intend for you to wade through your numerous enemies like an orchestral conductor weaving a symphony of dark side destruction. Mix and vary your force powers and attacks, make use of all the interesting combos available to you, and challenge yourself to fling that stormtrooper or punt that jawa just a bit farther than the last time. Because even so, your thumb will probably be sore by the end of your play session - to some extent it's up to you to make it interesting.

You will probably also need to approach the tougher fights like you would those in an old school game. In the end, almost all the bosses and unique sequences require following some kind of pattern or trick. Many of the press reviews complained about such segments of the game, but maybe I'm a little more immune since I'm a crusty old Gen X gamer who cut his teeth on content like this.

Test that boss for weaknesses, watch for patterns, and take advantage of soft spots. Personally, I found the boss battles very interesting and engaging, and once the "trick" was discovered, the difficulty of the fight was much less than at first blush. Don't be too embassased to check GameFaqs either - there are a few spots where the solutions just aren't very evident.

Regarding boss fights, I'm not sure I like the QTE's. That mechanic does allow the designers to involve the player during a cinematic sequence, but I find myself missing most of the action due to focusing on the next button-press prompt. I think my vote is "meh" - I prefer fighting the boss in real time and then watching a cinema after I've beaten them.

One last retro facet is the search for hidden "jedi holocrons" that offer additional experience and power-ups. Some are hidden, and many of the more obvious require a hackle-raising series of jumps and timing to reach. If you really want to max out your character by the end of the game though, make the search for these golden goodies a priority and have fun looking - I did.

Polished, it is Not

The second weakness of the game contributing heavily to the critical raspberries is the lack of general polish and fine-tuning. TFU simply feels a bit rushed to market. Yes, the graphics are beautiful and detailed, the sound and voicework commendable, and the physics modeling excellent. On the other hand, the camera control is often spastic and contrary, the frame rate hitches frequently, and the horizontal tearing is distractingly prominent. Perhaps Lucasarts is simply pushing the 360 to its processing limits, but I'd speculate that further optimization of the graphics engine would have alleviated most of these issues. Topping off the mechanical maladies, the menu system is clunky and annoyingly slow-loading.

The gameplay itself could have benefited from further tuning as well. The timing of many enemies' attacks seemed to coincide exactly to your character's recovery speed, such that even the lowliest EVO trooper is sometimes able to knock you down repeatedly. Hordes of such enemies - common towards the end of the game - find you frequently stun locked and frustrated. Add a sniping Scout Trooper or two to the mix, or maybe several rocket-firing Jump Troopers who hover in silently out of our field of vision, and you're off to the loading screen once more.

It also bothered me that several enemies were only defeatable through spamming a single attack - several force bars worth of the same attack, mind you. Such an arrangement often finds you running in circles, dodging attacks and waiting for your force power to regenerate. Your thumbstick skills will be tested, but such play is a bit one-dimensional.

Now to my final gameplay bitch. I know that the designers were trying to dream up ways to challenge your incredibly-powerful character, but if the Empire really possessed this many Force-immune super-troopers, would the jedi knights have ever posed an actual threat?


Despite all these drawbacks however, I still enjoyed the game. Sure, the gameplay can get a little repetitive, but you're repeatedly trashing stormtroopers with Force-lightning and lightsaber slashes. I'll take such tasks over hopping on mushrooms any day.

Speaking of weird flora, the planets (and starships) featured in the game are beautiful and varied, and your enemies behave convincingly and are well-animated and -voiced. The excellent application of physics effects also aids the player's suspension of disbelief.

In the end, after all of all its temptation towards the dark side of game quality, TFU is thankfully redeemed by its engaging story. Lucasarts has somehow managed to concoct a new and interesting character closely tied with major players from the movies, while successfully shoehorning him into the overarching movie plots in a manner both satisfying and uncontrived. I appreciated how the FU story paints Starkiller as a major influence on the events leading up to A New Hope, but not in a way that might raise the ire of lifelong fans. Bravo to Mr. Blackman and his writing team.

Oct 3, 2008

Star Wars Saga Edition >> 4E!

With the release of Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, my table-top gaming group spent a long time discussing our options. Many of the players were either miffed at WotC's handling of the release (and seemingly summary dismissal of lifelong players), or unsatisfied with the new rules engine.

We did run a short playtest campaign of 4th Edition. Many of us liked the ruleset, but versatility seems lacking compared to 3.X and the rules for arcane magic in particular just don't suit our Greyhawk-based home campaign setting. Maybe the fit will improve as more sourcebooks flesh out the options available to players, but most of us are heavily dissatisfied with the core mechanics. Time will tell as more 4E content is released.

We certainly have the choice to continue playing 3.5E, but much of the gaming world will be moving on. Personally, I'm worried about the slippery slope - that I might become one of those weird, wild-eyed bearded fat guys off in the corner at GenCon still playing 1st Edition...

Then there's Paizo Publishing's new rising star - the Pathfinder system. Many of our players have taken a shine to Pathfinder, but we're not keen to start learning beta rules, which may change again with the final release next August.

So what to do in the mean time? Hey - what about those cool Star Wars Saga Edition rules that Ken picked up last GenCon? Although I hadn't been able to attend, my group had playtested the SWSE core rules and found them very much to their liking. Saga Edition seemed like a perfect compromise for the time being, so we've made the decision to play SE for a year and see if the final release of Pathfinder suits our taste for our triumphant return to Obsidian Bay.

Between working on my progress in KotOR II while my 360 was out for repair, and my more recent tawdry affair with The Force Unleashed, I was already on a fairly large Star Wars kick. The Saga Edition rules have Force-Grabbed me by the collar though. I simply can't remember being this excited about a RPG campaign for many a year.

Normally, I'm pretty lukewarm about RPG gaming. Sure, it's fun because I'm getting together with buds and gaming, but typically I'd much rather play strategy board games (geeky scifi- or fantasy-themed board games, that is) . Weirdly enough though, SWSE has me gnawing on my dice in anticipation.

One last note - for any readers actually playing SWSE, be sure to check out the Order 66 podcast - very well done and informative.