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Why all the hate for The Elder Scrolls Online announcement?

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I admit that sometimes I am amazed at how angry or worried gamers can get about release announcements. The excitement I have come to expect, but the apprehension still surprises me at times. Not that it should - games as media are far more interactive than music, movies or books. As a result, our level of investment increases as well. It is a major part of why we play these games - because we become immersed and feel we have a stake in the outcome.

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I have only played the last two Elder Scrolls games - Oblivion and Skyrim. Both had their flaws, both were still brilliantly realized games that have fostered a very engaged community (just check out the various mods on PC). There have been rumors about The Elder Scrolls series coming online in the form of an MMO - and with the recent announcement that this game is in fact a reality that is well on its way, there has been a very divided opinion on the internet over this reveal.

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I am very curious to see how this goes, personally. I know I am not alone on this front, but there are quite a few people who fall into a completely different camp. While their concerns may have merit (is it going to be buggy, is it really going to be any different than World of Warcraft, does it ruin the spirit of the series) - I still do not see why they often appear unwilling to give the game a chance.

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I have always felt like both Oblivion and Skyrim would have benefited from some sort of online interaction. You get to buy these beautiful houses and customize what is where for display. I spent more time doing this on Oblivion than I care to admit. And when my favorite house was done and I was happy with it - I had no one to share that with. I was playing on my 360, so I didn't even have the option to screen capture it. Even if I did, would anyone have cared? My son paused and looked at it for about two and a half minutes, said "That's cool" and went about his business.

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The world is huge, with sweeping landscapes and all sorts of environments you can explore. I think that the design structure of the worlds while often fascinating, can at times be a bit dull too. Why dull? Because you can walk in a straight line for long periods of time and see nothing and no one. A world like this would be very easy to fill up with other like-minded adventurers.

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Other personal touches, like creating and naming your own spells - don't those little bits of personal flair feel like they would be more fun when shared with others?

Now the concerns. Of course, there may be bugs. That's not a reason to not do this in my opinion. If anything, having servers where people can beta test and find bugs early may take one of the biggest complaints people have with Bethesda and offer them a means of ironing out issues well in advance - presuming they have the patience to make use of this window and not just push the game out too quickly.

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Really, right now we are mostly left with speculation. I feel like it is far too soon to tell. But that also means it is too soon to say this is a bad idea. I recall all of the hang wringing (or whining perhaps) when two other companies made bold choices in their design. One example is from recently, one is not. The more distant example was a company well-known for their strategy game polish and expertise, taking one of their worlds online to create a little game that became known as World of Warcraft. There were a ton of skeptics back then that the premise simply was an ill-suited one for the world and the developers.

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The more recent example? When Bioware wanted to add multiplayer to Mass Effect 3. Now that I've beaten the storyline, the only mode I've made use of over the last month has been the online, which has been awesome in my opinion (and the opinions of quite a few others).

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Of course, in the interest of fairness, adding multiplayer to a series is not always a sure thing. Far from it. The Elder Scrolls Online could turn into the Next World of Warcraft - or the next Final Fantasy XIV. But seeing as no video game is a sure thing - ever - shouldn't we give this one a chance to see what Bethesda plans to do with it, before dismissing it as ruining the series and a slap to the face of TRUE Elder Scrolls fans? I plan to, but I can't speak for everyone.

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Are consoles going to be too online dependent?

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I have a ton of reviews (some quick ones, a few longer) set to go over the next week or so, but in the meantime - I hope you all have a great weekend while I depart with these thoughts:

That title might sound odd - but keep in mind I'm not saying that consoles should not have online - I think it's a great feature and should be used. But is it going to be taken too far in the next generation of consoles? Based on what I've been reading, it's a possibility.

Without a doubt, one of the greatest achievements during this generation of video game consoles was the access to online community. Some of the consoles did it better than others (We're looking at you, Nintendo Wii - here's hopes you get it right with the Wii U), while computer gamers have enjoyed this sort of connectivity for years before there was a PlayStation Network or Xbox Live. The ability to play with friends, have conversations through voice chat, get updates to gaming content and watch player-made videos have really helped make this generation of gaming consoles the most successful to date because it appealed to a broader base of people and gave them a means of sharing these experiences.

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So, what is my concern here? I've already had a couple of posts on here where I expressed concerns about whether or not we need the next generation of consoles this year or next (we don't) and if blocking the used game market is a bad idea (it is). So what's this post addressing? The talk of an all-digital marketplace.

Don't get me wrong - I do believe we are going to get there. There were briefly rumors that the Xbox 720/Durango was not going to come with a disc drive. That seems unlikely now, but the fact that this was even a rumor, let alone one that quite a few gamers considered at least somewhat plausible, means we are getting closer and closer to that point. There is a certain level of accessibility to be had with downloading a game. You don't have to head out to a store or worry that it will be out of stock.

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One of the other persistent rumors is that the Sony Orbis will require a live internet connection to play any games. We already see this in some PC games, and it is done as a means of curbing piracy or game-sharing. While I can respect that goal, it fails more often than not. Let's be honest, if someone wants a PC game badly enough, they will find a cracked version that circumvents this measure. The bar is set a bit higher than in the old days where you simply needed a modified .exe file that bypassed online checks, but in the end these DRM policies just seem to hurt the legit players.

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I can't help but think that an online requirement would alienate gamers on consoles even more. For starters, not everyone has access to internet. I know that sounds ridiculous, and if you're reading that statement does not include you, but I do know quite a few people who have no internet or really, really shaky internet who still play video games. Also, what happens when Sony is down for eleven hours as they work on an update for the PlayStation network? Sure, the easy answer would be: go outside and play. Well, that's solid advice for a kid but after a full day of work if I want to sit on my lazy bum and play a title, I'd like to be able to do so with my system of choice.

There has been no confirmation to this rumor (or really, any of them to this point) - but I'm really hoping this one turns out to be completely unfounded.

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Moving on, there are some real concerns about bandwidth as well. I have run into this one several times, and I suspect it is only going to get worse. The ISP companies are really in many ways at-odds with digital distributors. On one level, they are often a competing service as most ISP providers are cable companies, and many people are dropping their cable television services in favor of digital distributors like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon. I logged into PSN the other night and out of my 11 friends online, 9 were watching Netflix.

The consumption of bandwidth is only getting greater as resolutions go up, games and movies become larger in size and ISPs penalize people who consume too much bandwidth with fees or termination of service. So while we get faster and faster speeds and the ISPs initially want you to believe it is a wide open internet highway:

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In my experience more often than not, it's more like:

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If games become completely digitally distributed, I'm afraid that we'll be limiting some of that broad market appeal games discovered this generation. There is a significant difference between having an iffy connection and doing some light multiplayer and voice chat, and asking someone to download a fifteen GB game. Not only does it affect your bandwidth;

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But our hard drive space as well:

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The other thing is pricing. Don't get me wrong. Gamestop and other companies who buy used games at a pittance turn around and make a pretty sizable profit when they resell these used games. A lot of people dislike this practice, and there's justification for it: these companies are making a ridiculous profit and the publishers see nothing outside of the initial sale and perhaps DLC/online passes.

I saw some online sales today though that caught my eye. Largely because Microsoft had their Xbox Live Gold deal of the week, and they had four LEGO titles at a discount. Thing is, that discount still priced each of those games at a higher cost than what I could find the physical disc for on Amazon.com earlier today. You don't need to chew up hard drive space, you don't risk the wrath of your ISP and you have a physical copy you can sell or trade in later when you beat it. Other than immediacy, there is no benefit in this situation to buying the game online.

The other example I saw was NHL 12 on PSN and Xbox Live. The title's been out for awhile, so why are they charging the full $60 for it? To me that makes absolutely no sense, and when I went out to Amazon again, I found it for nearly 30% off new, and nearly 50% off used.

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Steam's model works pretty well. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is 33% off this week as part of their midweek sale. You can pick up the enhanced version of The Witcher 2 for 15% off. Digital distribution allows the publishers to save money on things like physical copies of discs, boxing, shipping costs - unsold and wasted resources when the title sits on the shelf. It seems like a title like NHL 12 should reflect not only its age, but savings to the publisher since the only true value to the customer at this point is the ability to purchase immediately. Then again, if your ISP is slow, it might be quicker to run to your local Walmart than wait for the download to complete.

I do believe we will eventually be a completely digital form of media, but it won't be in this next generation of consoles. There are still too many barriers at this point, and pushing too hard in that direction will only serve to do damage to the growing gaming community. Hopefully publishers are aware of this and consider their pricing and practices going forward while they take these issues into consideration.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel we should be moving strictly or mostly to digital distribution on consoles on the next generation over the upcoming 2-5 years, or do you also agree that we are probably closer to 7-10 years out from being able to properly handle this as a gaming community? As always, I appreciate your thoughts and comments, and thanks for reading!

If you enjoyed this article and are interested in more like it, including game reviews, check out my gaming blog: Chalgyr's Game Room.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim - PC Review

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I started this game about a week after it released, when a friend got me a copy for my PC. He knew what a fan I was of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - which was one of my first games for the Xbox 360 and opened me up to a whole new approach to RPG games. I have not been a long-time fan of the series, however. I have never played the earlier games in the series, but even then I knew that the introduction of dragons to the series was a huge move for Bethesda.

For more posts and reviews, pay a visit to my blog and tell me what you think! chalgyr'sgameroom.blogspot.com

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I easily sunk over a hundred hours into Oblivion, and I had little doubt that I would do more of the same with Skyrim - and that suspicion of mine proved true as I only just beat the game for the first time. My son does not play it nearly as much as me, but he is about halfway through the storyline. Of course, the storyline is really only a suggestion. I spent less time on advancing the actual storyline than the rest of the game during my time with it.

WhenI described Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning recently, I decided to use one word to sum up my experience with the game. In that instance I chose the word: dense. There was a ton to do in Amalur, and a lot of places to visit. On the surface, there are enough similarities to Amalur and Skyrim coupled with their relatively close release dates that comparisons were bound to be made between them. However, I feel as though these are completely different kinds of games, and if I was going to use dense for Kingdoms of Amalur, I would use the very contrary term:

Expansive

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See, in Kingdoms of Amalur there is a ton to do, but it feels very packed in. Cities feel small. Even the most open of regions are actually pretty corridors with restrictive barriers. I did not find that a problem - in fact I enjoyed Amalur quite a bit. It was however, a very different creature than Skyrim - and that is both a compliment and a criticism because there are things both titles do very well, and then other things that one will do better than the other. But enough about Amalur - if you are reading this review you are likely trying to glean my thoughts on Skyrim, so let's have at them.

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Graphics - 9:

As I explored the land, I kept seeing scenes that reminded me of fantasy book covers or artwork I had seen. Obviously the more powerful your computer, the higher the level of detail you can see in the environment, but even at lower settings the game is far from ugly. And with the settings turned up? The landscapes are sometimes breathtaking, often reminding me of paintings. Is the engine flawless though? No, far from it. Oddities creep up in character movements which sometimes look a bit forced or stiff, and it is not uncommon to see characters moving just a bit... well, like they are glitching if they get caught moving around on their environment. Faces are a huge improvement over Oblivion, but still sometimes seem a bit off to me. Still, for me all of that goes away when I see a dragon soaring toward me or I stand near a beautiful waterfall with the sun just right in the horizon. In those moments I simply lose myself in the experience.

Hence all the pictures in this review.

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Sound and Music - 10:

Not all of the voice acting is amazing, but there is certainly a fair percentage that is. Characters convey emotions very effectively most of the time. The sound is actually handled very well also. Because this is an action oriented RPG, and one of your perspectives for viewing the world is through first-person, I can appreciate the intelligent designs that let me listen in and use those audio clues to let me know where that archer is at, or that a wild critter is heading right toward me.

And then there is the Music.

For starters it inspires so much creativity from others, such asthese two wonderful covers I discussedawhile back. Oblivion was one of my favorite music soundtracks in a long time when it came out. Once again Jeremy Soule crafted a beautiful, moving soundtrack for Skyrim that I love to listen to, even when I'm not playing the game. I especially enjoy it when I am reading, writing or working on game designs of my own for inspiration.


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Gameplay - 7:

Going to smack Skyrim a bit harder than most here I think. Combat is not my favorite. All too often you get into this odd pattern of lunge forward, strike, block or step back. Lather, rinse, repeat. There are definitely things you can do to vary it up, such as using magic or ranged weapons and stealth attack are plenty entertaining as well. Still, the combat does have a tendency to feel a bit clunky. Since I was on a PC, I found the game much more enjoyable with a controller than using the keyboard and mouse interface. I realize this might sound strange to PC heavy gamers, but I prefer a controller to mouse/keyboard input on most games, even shooters - and that was especially true with Skyrim.

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The other thing I have to pick on this game for is a common complaint for Bethesda's titles - bugs. There are so many bugs. Bugs absolutely destroyed my experience with other games like Fallout: New Vegas, but that is what this review is - a collection of thoughts about my experiences and while I definitely saw some odd things pop up during my time playing Skyrim, I never encountered anything game-breaking either.

I know the skill menu is hit and miss for some people, but I liked it. I had little difficulty in navigating it, and I found it to be aesthetically pleasing as well. Inventory management was not terrible by any means, and considering how much stuff you acquire, that is a blessing in and of itself. The crafting systems were decent, but kind of silly at the same time. I enjoyed improving my blacksmithing, but often those systems were exploitable (iron daggers, anyone?) when some basic checks for level or quality of the item made would have made a lot more sense. Still, the leveling system in general worked well for me overall, and certainly felt better than Oblivion's 'hop around everywhere you go' one.

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Intangibles - 9:

Wow, there is a lot to do here. But you never feel cramped. Final Fantasy XIII used a series of corridors to move you along a linear path. Amalur had larger corridors, but essentially that was what the world was made up of - sections that interconnected. Skyrim is this huge, living, breathing world with so much scope to it that I probably spent most of my first twenty or thirty hours doing nothing but side quests and exploration. The main story would be there for me later, I figured.

There are so many great moments - where you complete a quest, or you set your house up just the right way, or you stand atop a high perch and look out over the majestic landscape - and fighting dragons (at least early on) was every bit as exciting an experience as advertised (even if later in the game it did not produce anywhere near the same thrill for me). There is so much to see and do that it feels much more like a living, breathing world than most other games can ever hope to be.

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Overall - 8.75:

I generally don't get into Game of the Year discussions, because so many people look for different things in different games. Even weighing titles like Mass Effect 3, Amalur and Skyrim can demonstrate how a single genre can blur lines with other genres and I believe this is a very exciting time in the video game industry personally. I will say that I enjoyed my time with Skyrim, it was among my favorite games I have played over the last year or so, and I would have no problem at all recommending it to my friends who enjoy RPG games. It would have been very easy for Bethesda to simply expand upon what Oblivion did with few changes and no doubt it would have sold well, but there were enough innovations to the formula to make Skyrim feel like a bigger, better game than its predecessor and I for one am very excited to see what Bethesda will do next.

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Mass Effect 3: Collector's Edition - Xbox 360 Review - Part 2

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Unfortunately the character count prevented me from posting my full review in one blog post, so here's the second portion:

Intangibles - 8:
So, I will start with the feature that had a lot of people concerned from the day it was announced: multiplayer. I was right at first slightly concerned. Not because I did not think Bioware was capable of making a good multiplayer component, but because I was afraid it would take time and focus off of crafting the single player campaign, which is really what Mass Effect is all about. Then I read that this part of the game was actually being handled by another development team and I was considerably more at ease. At worst, the single player mode would likely be just fine even if the multiplayer component was a dismal failure, and at best it was a mode that could add replay value to a title that already boasted a lot of potential replay options
The good news is, I feel that it is more of the latter. Tying it into the Galactic Readiness was a cool idea, because what you do in multiplayer can actually have a beneficial effect on your storyline. Your Galactic readiness does have a decay factor, so even when you get to 100%, you have to play periodically to keep it up. You do not need it - you can certainly get the 'best' ending (which I actually got) without it, but it is harder to do without a doubt. I like that you can have so many characters in multiplayer as I have tried all of the ****s so far. Not only does success in multiplayer mean more success for your single player game, but there are a pair of systems built into the multiplayer that serve as hooks as well.
The first and foremost is the leveling system, which allows you to customize your character skill sets. You can also earn credits, which are used to buy supply packages (you can use Microsoft Points as well for those who would like to jump start the process). This system is akin to opening up a pack of basketball cards - you don't know quite what you will get. You can spend more on your purchase to ensure you get an uncommon or a rare item, but there is still randomization involved. This can range from anything to new race unlocks, customized appearance unlocks, near gear and supplies as well.
The game itself actually handles pretty well also. I would like to see more maps, and the basic premise has been done before many times over. It's essentially you and your team against waves of enemies. Along the eleven waves to completion, sub missions get sprinkled in where you need to hunt and destroy certain targets, or find and babysit a key location - goals that can earn bonus credits if you complete them within the allotted time and add variety to the missions. Nothing startlingly new, but still well enough done that I enjoyed my time with it.
There are the occasional issues with lag, but luckily this is a bit more of a tactical shooter than a quick twitch one like Call of Duty. Certainly that can get you killed, but the game feels a bit more forgiving to me in those instances where things lag up for just a bit. Additionally, they do not have matchmaking down pat yet. It is up to four players against waves of enemies, but if the host leaves the lobby or mid-game, you get a message about it migrating hosts, but that does not occur - you are cast out into the lobby to try and find a whole new group again.
Finding a group in the first place is a bit of a challenge since there are plenty of search criteria there, but you need a group of four to win. You need a really solid grou pto win on silver or gold difficulty. And before your group of four can venture out into it, you need to all flag yourselves as ready and then there is a really brief countdown. I think Bioware would do well to force everyone in a lobby to go active after say, 60 seconds or 2 or 3 minutes or something. There are definitely reasons not to initially kick the group into active mode since you may be shopping or modding a character, but I have had hundreds of aborted lobbies now because there are one or two people who simply will not flag as active. You can vote to kick them and get a replacement, but if it is the leader, you just wind up all kicked out of the lobby due to the lack of migration listed above.
Also, the online mode could use just a bit more content. There's only a handful of maps right off of the bat, and you can only get to level 20. Even with some clever unlockables such as races for the different ****s that add a twist to them, it really does not take that long to max everything out. I do like the community weekend bonuses for playing, but in some ways that just makes it easier to hit level 20. I did so with two characters last weekend, and promoted that ****(think of it as prestige in CoD). Now, this does give you a chance to build up that ****in new ways again (and I immediately got to level 6 with my first map with my newly minted level 1 character) - but it feels like an expansion in maps, levels and maybe modes would help keep things fresh longer.
All this talk on the multiplayer, and it is not even the most important aspect of the game? Sure, but by now most people are familiar with what Mass Effect brings to the table. You get a cover-based shooter on top of RPG trappings such as experience, levels, weapon customization, character customization and a storyline that is both excellent and something you help craft with your choices and actions. Some people are unhappy with the ending. Very unhappy. Angry even.
Was it everything I hoped it would be? No, not really. For a game series that defined itself by the impact of your decisions throughout, there were very few actual endings (I watched a collection of videos of the endings, and it is quite disappointing to see just how little variety there is between the different endings) and the weight of your decisions felt a bit discarded. That does hurt the replay value though quite a bit, and dings the final score of the intangibles section as a result.
Still, worst ending ever? Ruining the franchise? The talk of lawsuits? I don't think so. Worst-case scenario in my mind? You spend five or ten minutes disliking the ending. That does not diminish the hundred plus hours you spend across the three games getting to that point. This is an instance where the journey and your ability to impact it is a good that far outweighs the bad.
Even so, it appears Bioware is at least listening to fan feedback. Will they change the ending? Hard to say, but it has been done before (like in Portal to set it up for a sequel). If they do, what I would most like to see is not necessarily a drastically different ending, but one that takes into account more of your actions along the journey. It has not yet been made clear if the ending will be expanded upon, if it will be something tacked onto the game itself or through some form of DLC episode or game content.
On the whole though, there is a branching story with lots of choices you can make that alter where it goes. You can have all sorts of squad combinations. There is a wide variety of ways you can go with your gear and leveling powers. There is a multiplayer mode as well. There are plenty of reasons to play and replay this title.

Overall - 8.75:
One of my co-workers put it best in my mind:
I was happy with it.
If you knew this co-worker, you would understand this is high praise. He plays more games than I do, and he goes through them faster than I do. I'm not sure if I have ever seen him replay a game before, but he just finished his sound tour of duty with this one.
Another friend of mine? His thoughts were:
The first eight or ten hours were tough for me. It did not really feel like mass effect, but then I got into it and I felt right at home. He went back and beat Mass Effects 1 and then 2, and now has that new imported character working through another round of Mass Effect 3.
I had eleven friends on the Xbox Live network the other night and eight of them were playing Mass Effect 3. Some liked it better than others, but I think it is a testament to the appeal and interest this game has generated.
For me personally? It is a good third game to one of my all-time favorite video game series. It is far from perfect, but I have yet to play the PERFECT video game. I have no single favorite, no one game I would champion as the greatest of all time, but Mass Effect 3 is probably up near the top of that list.
I will toss in the disclaimer that language, situations, all of that may not make this title appropriate for young kids. For those who dislike shooters, you spend a lot of time running and gunning. This is not the perfect game for everyone, but it is one I readily recommend to my friends - the whole two or three who haven't tried it yet for themselves. This was already a long review, but there is a bit more for me to talk about below for those who are interested in the Collector's Edition.

The Collector's Edition:

- Metal case with images of Commander Shepard on it: Nice quality case, and I am personally a fan of these sort of tin cases in general.
- 70 page hardbound art book: This was one of my favorite pieces since it has hundreds of illustrations in it. Most of them can of course be found online as well, but as a fan of the series, I really enjoyed thumbing through it.
- Limited Edition Mass Effect comic by Dark Horse Comics: Not an amazing comic by any means. It has the look and feel of a slightly lower quality comic that is the sort of thing you find pitched in as a promotional material for a product, but it will still find a nice home in what is left of my old comic book collection.
- N7 patch: Quite simply, a small patch that my son immediately wanted.
- 4x6 lithographic print of the Normandy. I'm not sure if these prints vary in what you get or not, but the Normandy is cool and it looks nice, though I would have preferred some sort of character art personally.
- Additional in-game content: You get an arsenal pack that includes the N7 Sniper Rifle, Shotgun, Sub Machine Gun and Pistol. You get an alternate costume pack for your squad mates. There is a robotic dog wandering around the lowest level of the Normandy. The weapons were alright, nothing amazing though they added variety. The alternate costume pack looked okay as well, but I seldom get into worrying about alternate outfits. The robotic dog was a bit disappointing as he just walks around in big circles and all you can do to interact with him is get in his way or sometimes tell him to 'stay'. Kind of hoping they add a few interactive items for him on a future update.
- Digital Soundtrack: I love the music from this series, and that includes this title as well. Of course in time you can usually find these things for download in other places, but it was nice having it already in official format on day one.
I was unable to buy this on pre-order from GameStop, Best Buy or Amazon - but I was able to get it direction from EA who had it to me within two days of the release. Considering I was closing out my time with Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, the delivery time was just fine and I am overall very pleased with the purchase. Here is a quick screenshot someone else took of the various pieces of the Collector's Edition. It should be noted that this person framed the lithograph and the patch, that is not part of the actual collection.
And for my parting shot - a compilation of the endings of Mass Effect 3. It is really a bit sad how little variety there is between them, but here you go - for those of you curious what all of the fuss is about:

Mass Effect 3: Collector's Edition - Xbox 360 Review - Part 1

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Mass Effect 3 is probably one of the most anticipated titles to come out in some time. Like Diablo III will be in a couple of months, Mass Effect 3 has certain expectations that will be almost impossible to meet for some people. In truth, I feel the expectations are higher here then for Diablo 3. Certainly the wait has been shorter, but Bioware did something incredible when they brought choices made from the first Mass Effect into Mass Effect 2, changing certain parts of the storyline to add continuity to the storyline you crafted.

As a result, Mass Effect 3 has become a title that not only has expectations due to being part of a popular series, but because players have already become greatly invested in the storyline to date. Along the way there have been books and iPhone games to help tide gamers over, but none of those things compare to the primary three games in the series. There were a lot of design choices that people questioned along the way such as the addition of multiplayer and the ending of the game. I would have loved to have rushed out a rapid review on this game so it could be just a bit more timely, but my personal policy of playing through a game until I am done with it/beaten it once would not allow me to do so. Here are my thoughts on it.

Graphics - 8:

The visuals in Mass Effect have always been a bit of a mixed bag for me. I really appreciate the visual **** Scenes of space look impressive, there is a lot of detail both in the environment and the character models and a variety of lighting and smoke effects can be seen depending on where you are. A lot of the game takes place indoors, and a good portion is outdoors as well as you explore the galaxy.

There have been bugs in the visuals however, that date back to the very first Mass Effect. While facial expressions are great at conveying emotion most of the time, they can get into really odd states as well. This seems to happen more with customized faces in my experience, than using the default Shepard. That makes sense I suppose, given the amount of customization you can put your character through, but it is a bit disconcerting at times to watch my character talking to someone, tilts his head in such a way that the light on his face changes, and his eyes go weirdly vacant for awhile. Also, textures have a tendency to pop in and out in some environments (outdoors ones seem to suffer more than the indoor ones).

Framerate concerns pop up during some combat, but it was rare for me. I don't know whether to blame the sync issues with voice and lips on the video or the audio, but I'm inclined to think it is an issue with the video given the above flaws I have pointed out. All the same, the worlds you visit are varied and sometimes beautiful and I enjoyed exploring them in large part because of the artistic design. I had a few instances of limbs clipping through doors during opening/loading sequences. Too many technical problems to give a perfect score.

Still, I could not get over the ability the faces had for expressing emotion. The detail found in clothing, ships and panels on the walls was intricate and impressive. Sometimes I found myself just staring out of windows whether on a planet or in space, taking in the moment's scenery, which more often than not was brilliantly realized.

Sound and Music - 10:

There is a lot going on in this game, and that is a good thing when it comes to the audio. Whether you are in a firefight hearing the sound of shots being fired nearby, or comrades shouting out taunts or words of encouragement, the variety in in weapons fire and more - the combat feels alive and crackles with excitement around you. I recently acquired some Turtlebeach headphones and played this game with them on, and there was some great use of audio in the multiplayer in particular where you could tell which direction creatures were coming from based on gunfire and the sounds that they made. The same could be said of my surround sound setup in the living room.

It's not all perfect. While the sound and music design was smart and well done, there were a few audio glitches that crept in now and then. Not enough for me to take a point away, and maybe only four or five times, but the most annoying came on a sequence near the end of the game where I was powering up one of my weapons and then the game cut to a scene. That charging sound effect kept whirring throughout the entire scene. Easily the most egregious audio bug I ran into, and if it had happened more often I would mark down accordingly, but that particular issue only occurred once.

I have also been a fan of the music in this series, and that holds true in Mass Effect 3. Whether there is a sad, quiet song in the background during an important conversation or the throbbing techno pulse of the Purgatory bar's dance floor, Bioware did an excellent job with the soundtrack.

Then there is the voice acting, which is superb. Mass Effect has always excelled in this area, but even when things get a bit off with lighting effects or lip sync, the dialog is so well executed that you stay immersed in the story. You become invested in these characters because they are so skillfully brought to life by the actors and actresses behind them.

Gameplay - 9:

I am going to start off with two of the most common complaints that came out on release day - but customized characters imported from the earlier Mass Effect games can be subject to an annoying glitch that essentially erases the customized appearance you had. It is not something everyone seems to suffer from, but one of my friends definitely had that issue (I do very little customization and often use the defaults) and Bioware has apparently acknowledged it. It sounds as though Bioware plans to fix this, probably in a patch, but I haven't noticed one yet at least. There is also an odd issue where uploading your saves to the Xbox Live cloud does not work when you try to use a Mass Effect 2 file for Mass Effect 3. I have no idea why it works just fine off of a USB stick transfer, and not the cloud, but there it is.

One other complaint: I did not care for the scan/chased by Reaper mechanic, but I will take it over the cumbersome scanning method used in Mass Effect 2. Here it is much easier to zoom in on what you need to find and is not nearly as painstakingly boring. However, I really hate the fuel mechanic for zooming around from one galaxy to another. It does not really offer any challenge, and it is not in the least bit interesting. It just adds a sense of 'grind' to the proceedings that I could do without.

The combat is going to be a mixed bag for some people. It is quite clear that Bioware was attempting to tap into the popular shooter market more so than ever before. Mass Effect has always been a third-person cover shooter, and those mechanics are here again. The pace of the combat however feels faster and much more fluid than in either of the prior games. However, for fans of the first Mass Effect who bemoaned this increase in pace in the sequel, you will probably find Mass Effect 3's pace even more annoying.

Personally, I loved it. It still lacks the smoothness of Gears of War 3, which shares the same basic perspective and cover mechanics, but they are still pretty good here. Once in awhile I did find myself sticking to the wrong environment when I was trying to take cover, but it was usually easy enough to slide from one direction or piece of cover to another that it did not bother me much.

In comparison to the inventory of Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 3 is much easier to keep track of and use your weapons. I really liked the ability to modify or put attachments on weapons too. Some complained that there was not enough customization to your gear in Mass Effect 2, and considering what you could do in the first title, that was a valid concern. I think Mass Effect 3 really found a good middle ground though, and some of the modifications were really significant. Some are simply stat upgrades, while others like adding an enhanced scope actually alter how you use a weapon. I got my 'Mail Slot' achievement (scored by killing 10 shield-wearers with head shots through the horizontal view slot) using a sub machine gun and a scope.

Menus are easy to move around in, and like most RPG games (which this one still is at its heart), there are numerous ways to upgrade as you level and tons of lore to sift through as well. This is a fully realized world that has had life breathed into it through books, comics and various video games and it shows.

Aside from the sometimes quirky cover mechanics, the sprint button actually annoyed me just a little bit. I noticed it more in multiplayer when I was attempting to bob and weave around objects, but you really can't sprint laterally well. It is not a big deal, but it just seemed weird at times and almost made you feel somewhat 'on rails' when sprinting forward.

There is a lot you can do here to tailor your gaming experience too. There are the usual menu options for adjusting your visuals and sound to turning on subtitles as well. That said, there is a much deeper option in here as well. When you start up a new game you are presented with three options that give you a more action-centric experience, or a more story-centric one, or the traditional blend of both. I would lean toward the traditional one, or maybe the more story-centric one after a couple of times through the proper game.

Still, it appears that Bioware is again aware of and trying to be accessible to new players while also wiggling into the shooter marker a bit more aggressively than ever before. On my son, it worked. He immediately went for the action mode, so there is definitely a market out there for it and he says he likes it a lot better than his experience with Mass Effect 2. He pointed out that this game feels faster and for him, more fun and though he has not yet finished it, he has gotten a lot further through Mass Effect 3 than either of the prior offerings.

That is not to say there were no bugs. Compared to titles like Fable 3, Fallout: New Vegas and Skyrim, sure - Mass Effect 3 looks blemish-free. The reality is you still see items clip through surfaces (like an omni tool through a door when you are waiting for it to open), or voices from characters who are unseen (James and Iliara both had scenes in my game where you could hear them, and the camera even cued in on the asari - only she and James were both invisible at the time).

There was an odd, trippy virtual world experience partway through the game where on two separate occasions I had to restart the area because floor panels are 'generated' to meet you as you walk, and I ran/rolled the wrong way at the wrong time and found myself outside of the bounds of the forming tiles - effectively making me stuck.

I had some quest weirdness (there is a quest on the Citedel where you are tasked with saving someone's life) I ran into at one point as well.. When I ran to one door, I was told it was the wrong one, and when I ran to the other, it glitched and would not open - it sat there red instead of orange and I could not interact with it. I left the commons and came back, and the door worked fine. But on the whole? Given the scope of the game, the content vs bugs is quite favorable.

Oh and speaking of trying to appeal to fans of the shooter genre, there's multiplayer as well. I'll go into that next.

Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning - Xbox 360 Review

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Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning is a title has been in my sights ever since I stumbled onto a trailer for it, and after playing the demothis game turned into a pre-order for me at that point and I have had a lot of time to sit down and get to know this new fantasy RPG title over the last 100+ hours. Before I get into the specific technical breakdown I usually do, I figure a game I have sunk this much time into deserves a bit more of an overview first. One word really comes to mind for me when I think about KoA and describe it to others:

Dense

Why do I pick that term? Well, it's neither good or bad inherently but it can be descriptive and it does apply to several aspects of this game. As I noted above, I spent over 100 hours playing through it. There are so many quests you can do, many of them repeatable, that there is no excuse not to have enough money or experience if you really want to stockpile either or both. There is a ton of history here too. As has become the norm in some many RPGs now, you will find tons of books and notes a page to several pages long that help add some color and context to the world you are apart of.

You can interact with anyone on a very base level, and the majority of the characters have a canned response or two, but there are hundreds more with a variety of dialog options that serve as parts of quests, quest givers or just unique personalities that, like the books, try to add depth to the world for you.

There are also various crafting systems, a branching leveling system, factions you can join and lots of secret items and areas to be discovered as well. If you like the game and its formula, you definitely get your money's worth out of it then. I probably put in about 75 hours before doing hardly any of the main quest. There were some side quests you could not complete until getting further through the main quest, because that would unlock areas of the world for you, but there was tons to do all the same.


Graphics - 8:

This is an interesting topic right off of the bat. I absolutely loved the user of vivid and varied colors. I have seen the artistic direction compared to both World of Warcraft and Fable, and I can see those comparisons because of the third person perspective and the colorful way the world is presented. Artist Todd McFarlane was in charge of the design, and overall I really liked it. My wife even commented on how pretty some of the caverns were I traversed where waterfalls cascaded down rocks, flowering plants gave off a pleasing sparkle or leaves would drift down form overhead. The world feels vibrant and alive visually. Characters animate well and I almost never noticed any sort of slowdown, even when I was battling eight or nine enemies while occupying a landscape that had a lot of animation in the background.

However, on a technical level, it is not nearly as detailed as the painting-like world of Skyrim. Character models have a slightly cartoonish look to them, and the audio did not sync well with lip movement much of the time. There are occasional issues where you see things tear/pop through where they should not - such as the sword on my back poking through my shoulder armor or swings that do not even come close to actually landing on an enemy's model causing them to flail back from the impact. These do not happen often and you really almost have to be looking for them, but they are there.

Perhaps the biggest technical issue I noticed was the way textures popped in and out. In the over world landscapes I did not seem to notice it as much, but the caverns in particular seemed like they struggled with things like lightning effects, or rock textures as they suddenly popped in and marred the otherwise very pretty scenery.

Another small glitch which could go under graphics, sound or just overall tech, is that a lot of times if a character was triggering to say something, and you passed through a door, there would be a loading screen with voice work cutting in earlier than it was meant to. And there are a fair number of loading screens, though not as many or as long as I recall say, Fallout: New Vegas being.


Sound & Music - 8:

I will start with the sounds, which are fairly varied. Weapons clank, creatures groan and roar nicely, and magic has an appropriate crackle or burst to it that keeps combat feeling fresh and authentic. In the demo, there were a lot of odd issues where sound would cut out, or the quality would suddenly take on a tinny quality, and thankfully that was largely remedied in this game. There were still a couple of times I would talk to a character, and their voice work was muffled to the point of being almost completely inaudible, but it only happened a handful of times. Considering the absolutely massive amount of voice over provided in this game, that is more than acceptable in my opinion. The voice acting is generally pretty good, and really helps to add some flavor to the characters you interact with, though some are certainly more enjoyable than others.

The music is excellent and memorable overall. I went out and listened to several of the tracks independently of the game and could easily envision some of Amalur's more interesting scenes in my mind when hearing them - a good show of staying power in my mind. I am one of those people who really likes music, or likes to have the option to keep music playing in the background on games like this. World of Warcraft gives you an option to listen to the msuic play once, or to loop it - and I always choose to loop, and would have here as well, because while the soundtrack is very good, it does not really play very often. You can go fairly long periods of time with no music at all, and just sound effects.

While those sound effects were good, as noted above, they do not provide nearly enough meat to the experience to make up for the lack of music. In a game like Call of Duty, the sound effects really add to the experience because they can actually assist you in a firefight. Here they might let you know that you've stumbled onto a grumpy critter in the woods, but truth be told I was usually aware of them anyway because of my mini map.


Gameplay - 9:

The first thing everyone noticed was the combat in this game's trailers early on. It looked fast and fluid, but no one was quite sure how it would handle. Would the combat be a dressed up turn-based system like Dragon Age or DC Universe used? Or would it be high-action like God of War? Or something in the middle, like Fable? In my mind, it is closer to Fable's. The speed and sheer brutal impact of your weapons does somewhat remind me of God of War, but it is not quite that fluid - largely because in this game you are rooted to the ground. You do not jump around and have air born attacks, and that does slow the pace and cut back on the variety a bit. Still, the combat is a very important part of this game, and incredibly satisfying as well.

There is a large variety of weapons you can choose, and you have two equipped at any given time, which allows you to bounce back and forth between **** at the press of a button. Some people were concerned that combat would be too simplified, but I do not believe that was the case. Certainly there are limits to what you can do with it at a glance, but you can unlock combos to go with your varied weapons. There is also magic which is easily mapped to your face buttons on the controller, and they help add some nice ranged combat to the primarily (but not exclusively) melee feel of the weapons.



I usually play a warrior in games like this, but I actually took a rogue this time because I enjoyed the feel of the daggers complimented by the range of a bow. It gives you a nice balance in **** and also adds the perk of assassination attacks (stealth behind your target, and you have a chance with daggers or faeblades to unload massive amounts of damage that often prove immediately fatal). I was able to take on just about anything head-on by the end, but I still found myself stalthing around looking for these stylish, brutal assinattion strikes.

The one complaint I could make is that combat is not terribly hard, or when it is, it is at the wrong times. In playing on hard, you can find yourself outmatches pretty easily early on, but not so much at the end (even though the game does employ the type of leveling world around you that games like Elder Scrolls and Fallout have made popular). On easier difficulties, it's possible to go the whole game without dying. In large part, that is due to Reckoning mode, which is a timed burst of energy that slows down everyone around you while granting your character boosts to damage. Save it for boss fights and what was probably meant to be a challenging battle is over without breaking a sweat most of the time.

There are other aspects to the gameplay that I enjoyed as well. The menus were easy to get around, quests were easy to keep track of and the leveling system is simple but fairly deep (broken up into might/fighter, finesse/rogue or sorcery/magic). There are even Fateweavers throughout the game that, for a price, can let you rebuild the character the way you would like. Ken Rolston is well known for the elder Scrolls III and IV and his fingerprints are all over this game in the leveling and crafting systems.

The crafting systems are pretty fundamental, but man I picked up a lot of garbage. This is a loot drop heavy game - and I have no problem with those. I loved Diablo and similar games over the years. By the time I was done, I had over 2,535,932 gold, and was just salvaging all of my gear for parts.



Intangibles - 9:

You could almost argue there is too much to do here, that the game is - to use my prior adjective - dense. I thought the tutorial did a good job of showing you how things worked, and the world does sprawl out logically from the game's starting point. That being said, I think there would have been some merrit to starting your character off in a very small town with a limited number of quests and places to interact with. I absolutely ate up the information I was given, read every book I saw, talked with anyone I could encounter, but my son had a tough time with the amount of content coming his way and at one point lamented that he did not even know where to begin he had so many quests.

For people who like achievements/trophies there's plenty here that are easy to get. I got 46 of 50 before beating the final boss, and prompting picked up 2 more shortly afterward. Like Oblivion Skyrim Fallout and other fairly open RPGs, once you beat KoA, you can continue exploring the world, playing to gather up more items and finish quests. I do hope the upcoming DLC raises the level cap though, as I did max it out at 40.

One source of criticism I have seen since KoA released was that the world and storyline were generic. I suppose I can see that to a degree - the world has a sort of feel and ****that does feel like we have been here before through games like Fable or World of Warcraft. You have a lot of fetch quests and kill the creature quests and those exclamation marks and question marks over the heads of quest-related subjects feels both comfortingly familiar and at the same time 'been there and done that' to me, though in the end I appreciated the feeling of accessibility it afforded me.


The story, that the world is fated and you are a sort of tear in this fabric that can change everything that has been foreseen? I felt like that was a perfectly good backdrop for the game's storyline. Of course, you are starting as the blank slate/amnesiac hero that RPGs have been using and often been lampooned for over the years, but it makes sense in a game that wants to give you freedom to create your character (or rebuild your character without restarting the game anew) as you see fit. I wonder if in this case, the problem is people expected a bit more from a famous and beloved author such as R. A. Salvatore? While I found the world and its story decent, it certainly lacked the emotional, invested impact of R. A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'urden books, or one of my personal favorites, the DemonWars Saga.

One area that feels just a bit lacking are the decisions you make. Along the way, many of your quests give you a chance to take one of two forms of action. These do tend to affect how the immediately following cut scenes play out, and may even affect what kinds of follow-up quests are presented to you. Yet, they do not resonate with the sort of impactful decisions that titles like Mass Effect and Dragon Age tend to nail, and that really hurts the replay value in my opinion.

Part of it could be the core design. There are quite a few people who have said this title reminds them of an MMO in design, which makes some sense since it is more action-oriented than strategically positioned, and you travel as a solo character more often than not. Even when you have a companion with you, they are mostly just fodder to keep enemies busy and used to further the storyline of a specific quest. They offer very little in the way of actual muscle to your combat, and since they are only there for the short haul, you never have a chance to become invested in them either. This is of course a personal preference, but I feel much more ownership over a storyline that has a party of characters that you become regularly involved in, such as Dragon Age, Mass Effect or Neverwinter Nights, than a game where much of the time is a solo effort like Fallout, Elder Scrolls or Kingdoms of Amalur.

And yes, I know you can have companions in Skyrim, but really they just tag along and hit things. They really do not carry storyline threads with them that weave into the game's primary narrative


Overall 8.5:

Whether you are trying out new weapons in combat, upgrading one of your homes, creating magical gems, crafting armor to set the gems into, picking locks, dispelling magic wards, carrying out hundreds of quests or just following the storyline to its conclusion - there is a lot to do in Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I did not grow tired of the formula, though I did finally streamline my efforts in the last dozen or two hours of the game as I decided to reach the conclusion so I could move onto another title (Mass Effect 3 did just come out, after all). Already there is talk of the first expansion coming out (a DLC with a decided pirate theme to it).

Some people compare the ****of play and some of the game's mechanics (like the fact you don't need to stock arrows, though they do need to reload after so many shots) to MMORPGs, which is actually a fair observation in my opinion. No doubt the visual similarities to games like World of Warcraft help perpetuate those comparisons as well. There was talk when this title was released that 38 Studios was going to create an MMO based on this game, and their developers have said they would love to make a sequel as well if this title sells well enough.

No doubt this title will be compared to Skyrim for awhile as the two RPG's do have quite a bit in common with one another (given their related roots to Ken Rolston, that really should not come as any kind of a surprise). I think that they are similar, but also very different games when you look at them. They are both western RPGs with an action/combat mechanic in place. Depending on what you are looking for, I feel Skyrim (which will be getting reviewed soon as well) has a much more open feel to the world you are exploring. It is true that KoA is somewhat more limited in terms of exploratory scope. It is like a series of corridors linked together, which drew some comparisons to Final Fantasy XIII and XIII-2. Those are fair, but there is a feeling of openness that KoA does better than those two titles, while failing to be as truly expansive as Skyrim.

That said? I think the combat here is much, much better than Skyrim's. That is not to say I don't enjoy what I can do with my character in Skyrim, but there is a more satisfying, fluid feel to what KoA does than the sort of slash/step back/slack/block mechanics most commonly employed by Skyrim players. In the end I found Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning to be a deep, enjoyable game. It won't go down as my favorite RPG title ever, but it certainly felt like time well-spent for me personally.

I hope you enjoyed (and made it through!) this particular review. I think it's safe to say this is one (if not THE) longest post I have written so far. As always, I appreciate comments. Thanks again for stopping in!

Mortal Kombat - Playstation 3 Review

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I go back a long ways with Mortal Kombat. I remember playing the first one around the same time Street Fighter 2 hit the arcades. I used to go to a local 7-11 to play both, depending on which friends were with me. The two cabinets stood side-by-side, waiting to eat quarters. I've never been terribly good at 1-on-1 fighter games. Unlike something like Madden or NBA 2K where I tend to mop up most people I play against, my results in 1-on-1 fighting games are more middle of the road. But, I do enjoy them all the same, and I've been anxiously awaiting this reboot. Why is it considered a reboot?

Well, there's been about a zillion Mortal Kombat games now, and their storyline has become increasingly ridiculous over the last few releases. In my opinion, their crossover with DC Universe was not their most ridiculous storyline. That should say something right there. So, the idea is that Raiden sends a cryptic message back in time to himself, to try and prevent the atrocities to come. Essentially then, we get a reboot of Mortal Kombats 1, 2 and 3, starting just before the first battle in the first game. Sort of a Star Trek reboot if you will. The downtime with the PSN made it hard for me to give the online modes much playtime before they went crazy, so I really can't comment on how laggy it is or is not, or how the lobby looks personally. Local against a friend is ideal here. Let's go ahead and break this game down then.

Graphics - 8:

The actual fighting looks so much better than the storyline cut scenes. Characters feel tiff as they move about, and the textures just feel a bit lacking. That said, the overall game itself looks great. Characters are well-detailed when fighting, they move fluidly, torn clothing and bloody bruises accumulate over play (something I noticed in Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe last week too, but much more gruesome here). And the fatalities and X-ray attacks? Those are wince-inducing fun as you spill buckets of the red stuff (there's eve an achievement that tracks how much blood in pints you've spilled). There are some odd clipping issues with some of the fatalities, and while they're not a deal breaker by any means, they did bug me a bit.

Two examples are when Kabal does this fatality where he disembowels his opponent and jams his hook blades into the ground for the person to fall onto. Well.. I mean, they're rounded hooks at the end, so the person's shoulders should be slamming into them, not impaling. Another is a fatality where a head is ripped off by Kano and shoved into the loser's chest. A character with long hair like Sindel will see their hair poking out through the body. Small things, but they seem a bit odd when they occur.

Sound & Music - 9:

The voice acting is actually pretty good for the storyline mode, and the narrator with the end segments of arcade mode does a good job. There are a lot of sound effects in the game, and they sound great. Kicks, slashes and thuds all resonate with a certain weight to their impact that fits the combat perfectly Fighting Cyrex as a cyborg, your punch to his chest is rewarded with a nice-sounding metallic clank. Combat special moves from fireballs to bladed fans sound good when soaring through the air.

The music is not terribly memorable, but it is pretty good and usually fits the action pretty well. There's a bit of nostalgia value in there as well. Hearing 'flawless victory' 'fatality' and 'fight' all sounded good and succeeded in taking me back to high school when I used to play this game.

Gameplay - 8:

The fighting engine is very solid. They opted for 2-D over 3-D in terms of execution, which I think was a good choice. There are some pseudo 3-D effects, like when Raiden barrels into an opponent and drives them to the other side of the screen, the scene tilts and pans a bit to give a sense of depth. The fighting feels like there is actual weight to it, and that's a credit to both the control scheme and collision detection (and works wonders with the sound).

There are several good tutorials, including a fatality one which is awesome for people who want to use a character through the arcade mode and perform fatalities. There is also a fairly lengthy and entertaining story mode. Like Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, you are thrust into the role of a new character every chapter, and staged fights against storyline-provided characters carry the story and action forward. I really would love to see this show up in more games. Some games like Tekken and Street Fighter have so many characters and releases, that it would be nice to have this sort of 'canon' approach to the storyline.

There are new X-Ray attacks as well. Like most fighting games, you have a sort of super bar or gauge that fills up over the course of combat from things like performing special moves or getting beaten up. This allows you to unlock special moves like combo breaking counters, or extremely powerful X-Ray attacks. I think of them almost as mini-fatalities. They do a substantial amount of damage and try to depict the internal damage being done. They're fully scripted series of 2 or 3 attacks you chain together on your opponent (if you land them). They are suitably gruesome looking. This game strove for an M rating, and earned it. I play it at night when my youngest is in bed.

It's not all perfect, however. I hear people complaining a lot about how the bosses 'break the rules' - and that is true, but not exactly something new to the game. Those big goofy bosses have been around since the original. Truth be told, that happens in some other games too, like Tekken or Marvel vs. Capcom, so it doesn't bug me as much here as it does so many other people. Are Shao Kahn and Goro cheap? Absolutely. Those did not bother me quite as much as when I was in storyline mode, and being subjected to tag-teams while fighting them solo, or near the end where you are faced with fighting 3 combatants in a row without any health recovery while negating any 'stored' X-Ray bar energy with each new combatant. That was some tough stuff there, and probably a bit unfairly so.

Intangibles - 9:

There is a lot of game here. consider the modes alone:

Ladder/arcade
Ladder Tag-team
Test your sight/might/luck
Storyline
Online (which has some one-on-one and king of the hill modes)
challenge tower

There is also a krypt with a ton of unlockable content ranging from music tracks, to alternate costumes, to concept art and move. It takes a while to get through all of that.

Arcade mode is simply taking your fighter through a random assortment of enemies to get their end scene, which is sparsely animated with some voice narration over top of it.

Tag-team is just what you would expect, where you choose 2 fighters and tag in and out.

Challenge tower is interesting. It starts off akin to a training mode, teaching you basics for some characters, but it presents a pretty diverse range of challenges. Some of these challenges do work better than others though. For example, one challenge you are using ranged attacks to ward off encroaching enemies - it's more of a pattern recognition and timing mini-game than anything, and I didn't like that much.

But there is another where you fight Reptile,and he can only be hurt when visible. He will try to go invisible a ton, but one of your special attacks will break his invisibility and open him up to your attacks for a brief time.

There is a lot of hidden content as well. I've read about several 'secret battles' - and I've in fact unlocked one against Noob (not sure how I did it yet). And let me tell you, these secret battles? Not easy. I've run into Noob twice, and he absolutely destroyed me the first time and narrowly beat me the 2nd. Also, while there are no interactions with the environment during combat, some of the stages do have specific fatalities built into them (two I saw included me being uppercut off of a bridge and onto spikes well below, and the other was my character being thrown head-first into a living tree trunk that gladly proceeded to eat me).

The PS3 version comes with Kratos as a playable character - I've read about the 360 options but can't really speak to them. I will say that Kratos is a great fit. His games are bloody and violent as can be, and that translates well here. As I've been playing God of War collection a bit on the side, I can appreciate his insertion probably a bit more than usual. Still, he's a much more organic fit for this game than the inclusion of Yoda, Starkiller and Darth Vader in Soul Calibur 4 when that came out.

Overall - 8.5:

I really have been enjoying this game. How much have I been playing? Well, I beat story mode, I beat ladder with everyone, unlocked pretty much everything and have gotten more than halfway through the challenge tower. My hope is the online stuff will get a bit better later, because that will help me to continue playing the game when I've exhausted all of the single player content, which I've nearly done.

Again, it really is worth mentioning, but this game fully embraces its M rating. If you have younger kids, not even close to appropriate. Bones are broken, limbs are cut off, skin is burned off, screaming endures and women tend to have more visible skin than clothing.

Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe - Xbox 360 Review

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Not the Mortal Kombat you were expecting? Well, I'm still trying to get a bit more online in (barely got any before the PSN went crazy last week and weekend). But, I had picked this game up fairly cheaply awhile back (like $6 at Disc Traders) and figured it would be a good way to get by the week before the new release. I had completely missed this one when it first came out. I was aware of it, but it never made it onto my list of must-grab games when it released about 2 1/2 years ago.

The premise is pretty simple: come up with a somewhat silly storyline that merges favorites from two different 'worlds' and merge them into a single game. This has been done before (probably most notably by Capcom with their vs. Marvel stuff). To be honest, the story here holds up better. Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was a blast to play, but the story was paper thin. Here at least, there was an attempt made to explain things such as peoples' limitations (Supes is hurt by magic) and trying to balance out the roster (Joker can hit pretty hard for a skinny clown). Speaking of roster, that was one of my bigger curiosities going in, so here that is:

Mortal Kombat DC Universe

Scorpion The Joker
Sub-Zero Catwoman
Sonya The Flash
Shang Tsung Superman
Kitana Batman
Jax Wonder Woman
Liu Kang Deathstroke
Raiden Lex Luthor
Kano Captain Marvel
Baraka Green Lantern
Shao Kahn Darkseid

For those hoping to see Sueprman ripping someone's head off though, be forewarned that this game was aiming for a Teen rating. There's still some blood to be had, but it is not the vicious affair you expect from a Mortal Kombat game. Depending on who you anticipate playing it, that could be a good thing. I felt a lot more comfortable playing this in the living room during the day with the kids coming in and out, than I did the newly released Mortal Kombat. Interestingly enough, having played both games, I can see several elements of this game having made its way into the newer release from last week. So, let's get into the specifics, shall we?

Graphics - 7:

There's some nice touches to be had here. When you fight your opponent, they get beat up physically and their outfits take a toll as well. This is something they did in the recent Mortal Kombat reboot as well, and it looks pretty good here. It's not terribly bloody, but you can see some scrapes and bruises, with parts of Sonja's pants tearing away around the hamstring area, or a deep gash through the back of Flash's costume. The characters all look pretty decent in-game. They animate smoothly (if a bit slowly, but that's more of a gameplay concern) and have a vivid use of colors that reminds me of a comic book - which is probably a good thing given the source material. Backgrounds at first glance sometimes look okay, but upon closer inspection are a bit rough-looking. You tend not to notice it with the attention on the fighters in the foreground, but it is a bit disappointing. The characters in the cut scenes are serviceable if unspectacular, with the occasional goofy stance - or when you notice people turning their heads rapidly only to see their long hair remain perfectly stationary.

Sounds & Music - 6:

The music is not really bad or there - it's just good. It does nothing to stand out, and does the job of filling space, but I can't recall a single memorable tune coming out of it. The sound effects are good enough to get the job done, but they too are fairly unremarkable - and somewhat repetitive as well. Again, none of it is bad really - just none of it is terribly good either.

Gameplay - 7:

Okay, there's quite a bit to talk about here. For starters, the control scheme is rather interesting. The Mortal Kombat games originally were a strictly 2-D affair, while some of the latter ones became 3-D. This one merges the two together, using the analog stick to control the 2-D mechanics (like jumping and ducking) while the directional pad allows you to step up and down in the environment, giving it a sort of tangible 3-D feel.

Plenty of moves and combos give the characters variety, though some did feel stronger than others. It was also interesting to see how some of the DC characters had their powers brought into a Mortal Kombat game. Flash reminded me of Cabal with his speed and the special attacks he could use to make you start spinning. Captain Marvel had a ducking sort of lightning move that brought him up behind a character, much like Raiden. In that sense, some of the DC characters felt familiar, which is probably a good and bad thing at the same time.

Also, I can only describe the combat as 'floaty'. Jumps seem to hang a bit longer than then should, and when you punch in the air, instead of a fist driving down at your opponent on the ground, your kombatant hangs for a moment to execute the move, which felt a bit odd to me. Special attacks were easy enough to pull off, and there was plenty of environment interaction, which I've always liked. It's fun throwing someone through a stone statue, and some stages allow you to plow into your opponent and execute a free falling sort of quicktime event. There is also a close quarters kombat as well that uses the same principle. Cool ideas, but I didn't really like either as much as I thought I would.

The free fall was neat the first few times, but it felt like it slowed the game down. Ditto the close quarters (though it did give you a nice closeup view of the warriors, allowing you to take in some of the bruising and costume damage, which was nice). Also, the quicktime events really need to be handled a bit differently. I don't like it when games use those off to a side or corner - it pulls your eyes away from the actual action taking place. I prefer games like God of War that put them front an center for you to see overlaying the action.

Like most one-on-one fighting games these days, there is also a bar that fills up over the course of combat, allowing you to do certain moves - when it builds up all of the way you can do a rage/super that gives you enhanced strength and makes you harder to take down for a very brief period of time.

Intangibles - 6:

There is a story mode, and it's pretty interesting how it is told from two different sides. It gives you a reason to play through it twice - once as the DC and once as the Mortal Kombat side. Still, I'd guess both versions are less than 3 hrs to get through. They do use an interesting mechanic that shows up in last week's Mortal Kombat release as well - where you take control of a single character for a chapter, fighting off a series of staged opponents. I like that as opposed to just the arcade/ladder versions found in most fighting games where you fight a random assortment of enemies before facing a boss or two and then getting a canned ending. You still get that here from arcade mode as well, but that is sort of the 'norm'. To me the structure of this story mode is a good thing and I'd love to see a bit more of it as you are told an 'official' story, instead of trying to make sense out of 20 different characters' different endings.

There are online and challenge modes as well, but it's hard to score these terribly high. There's almost no activity online that I can see (no doubt due to the game's age and newer fighters out there) and the challenge modes were more frustrating than fun in my opinion.

There is a decent selection of characters though, and that kept me burning through the arcade mode for awhile (I'm one of those people who has to beat a fighting game with every character). Still, it really doesn't take much to burn through the provided content, and the lack of online life really hurts a game like this that was clearly meant to be competitive.

Overall 6.5:

Not a bad game. For the price I picked it up? I'd call it a decent if not great game. There are some cool ideas that got put in, and it was fun using characters usually not found in titles like this. The Teen rating will be a boon or bust for different reasons. For me personally, the finishing moves were kind of 'meh'. I'm used to old school Mortal Kombat where Johnny Cage uppercuts an opponent's head off, creating a fountain of the red stuff. Then again, this is a game I can play when my youngest walks through the living room, and I don't have to pause it. So, there is some give and take to be had. I would say buying the game at full price, it's a tough recommend, but if you can find it really cheap, it's not a bad deal if you're looking to kill a weekend or two with it.

Gaming Thoughts... 4/25/11

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Just sort of a random mix-up today.

I was hoping to have the Mortal Kombat review up, but there's a ton of content here, and I'd like to do more of it first. Aside from that, I haven't been able to get online with it hardly at all yet due to the PSN outtages recently.

I'm also working on my Retro Reflection to go with it, that will likely post a couple of days later, but it's not done yet.

Further distracting me is that I polished off a few more games recently (RISK: Factions, King's Bounty - Legend and Uncharted) and am midway through God of War (part 1 in the Collection remake), the Witcher (liking the game overall, but it's slow-going), Castlevania, FX Pinball - and of course a huge chunk of time with Mortal Kombat. Initial impressions: lots of fun, very bloody, good # of modes and unlockables.

Any new games you've been playing?

Also, trying to follow some of the recent news has been interesting (the upcoming Nintendo system, currently dubbed 'Cafe' is being strongly rumored in several locations to being 350-400, which is sadly in-line with what I expected, and talk that the controllers themselves will be at least $80, which seems a bit high - I expect closer to 60-70 based on the proposed specs, but we'll see).

Also, a buddy of mine picked up Portal 2 - so I'll get a crack at that soon. First one was cool - we got the Orange Box for Christmas and it's a title I keep meaning to spend some quality time with, but haven't yet.

Also, my wife got me Starcraft 2 for Easter. I'm going to have to get a lot better before taking on human opponents I think. :P

Lastly, I picked up the Potato Sack from Steam when they had it up for a couple of weeks. It came with a ton of titles, some with high ratings/pedigrees like Super Meat Boy and Amnesia, and several that were a bit more obscure. I plan to do a round up of several of the 'smaller' titles soon as well for those curious. Considering the package for all 13 games was roughly the price of Super Meat Boy and Amnesia at normal pricing, and those were 2 games I've been wanting to get? It was a pretty good deal for the package, but I'll comment on it a bit more once I get just a bit more face-time with the games. Thanks for peeking in on me!

Fallout: New Vegas - Playstation 3 Review

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I've been let down by a couple of games recently due to bugs. We borrowed Fable 3 from a friend, and I just could not get into it the way I could Fable 2. I'm going to give it another go soon and try to play it, hoping that it gets better after the first 5 hours or so, but I'm not a big fan. My son however, loved Fable 2 and 3 (though he enjoyed 2 a lot more). Problem is, he had a game-killing bug in Fable 3 that does not allow his character to move from the spot he's in now. It's fully patched and updated, but he put at least 20 hours into the game, and now it's basically flushed, so he's upset.

Why am I telling that story? Because like Fable 3, Fallout: New Vegas was horribly bug-riddled when it first came out. Obsidian did a decent job of fixing some of the bugs, but it still has some technical issues and I managed upon a bug that broke the game's main storyline for me as well. After doing research on several forums, I'm not alone in this - my options are:

1) start over

2) load a save before that event that broke my play through (which would take me back about 6 1/2 hours)

3) or give up on it.

I chose #3. I borrowed the game from a friend at work and let him have it back today. These two events really frustrated me, as both were franchises I have been very fond of in the past, and felt like both of them let me (or my son) down in their current states. But, I did log over 30 hours of game time into Fallout: New Vegas, so I'm going to share my impressions of it - the good and the bad.

In previous Fallout games, you were someone who lived in a vault and for one reason or another, came to the surface to see a world after nuclear fallout changed everything about it. There's mutants, destruction and violence as far as the eye can see. Places of beauty and safety are few and far between. It's an action/rpg hybrid, with first and 3rd person views. You gain experience and levels, and there's a lot of customization in how your character develops. There are a good number of conversational options as well. Combat is mostly real-time. Mostly because New Vegas kept the VATS system (sort of a pause-and-select system where you target specific parts of an opponent in exchange for slowly regenerating action points) that Fallout 3 introduced. I'll come out and say Fallout 3 was easily one of my favorite games when it came out. I had played the original Fallout on my computer, and while some of the themes are pretty similar, the games are nothing alike. I bought all of the expansions for Fallout 3 - something I almost never bother with. So it's safe to say expectations were high for Fallout: New Vegas.

Graphics - 7:

The engine looked a lot better when Fallout 3 released a couple of years ago. There really is not much improvement in the overall graphics, I the framerate was stuttering far too often for a game that just does not feel like a graphical powerhouse. The human characters look stiff and awkward moving, and their expressions are okay, but far from great. The actual world looks pretty cool at times, and I've always been a sucker for post-apocalyptic themes in games and movies, so that helps. Be prepared though - the color schemes are generally pretty bland, though it's an intentional choice that fits the theme of the game.

Sound & Music - 8:

There's really very little music to be had, which works for this game. There's often a sense of lonely isolation as you traverse the wastelands. You do have a radio that can be used to pick up specific radio stations if you get within range, and while they add a bit of flavor to the proceedings, they grow repetitive over the course of this large game.

Sound effects are pretty solid across the board. You can hear gunshots in the distance, the sounds of mutant creatures approaching you from behind and even the weapons have a fair amount of variety to how they sound when firing off. Additionally the voice acting is very good, and that is a blessing since so much of the game and its narrative is told through conversation with other NPC's in the game.

Gameplay - 7:

The game plays a lot like Fallout 3, which is a good thing. Character progression is handled well, the VATS system is fun (I like going for headshots) and there is a ton of gear to collect, modify, repair and sell. There are a lot of side missions as well, and these are generally pretty interesting and fit into the overall world nicely. They also added the ability to look down sites in this game (Fallout 3 lacked this) and that helps the combat out quite a bit. Companions are handled a bit better as well overall, than in Fallout 3, with a bit more control over them and the ability to converse with them. Some technical problems do hold the game back though on this front. There are a lot of pause times as you walk around the environment - a lot of them. Sometimes as often as every 30-60 seconds. They're short pauses, a half second or so - but enough to become very annoying. I've heard that on the 360 it is very bad, but that installing the entire game to your hard drive fixes it. I consider that a horrible solution - I have less than 3 gbs of space on my hard drive, I shouldn't have to dump an entire game onto it just to make it run smoothly. Also, I'm on the PS3 with my version, and did the install, and the problem never went away for me.

Intangibles - 2:

I'm killing the game on this one. When it released, it had an absolute boat load of bugs. It was borderline unplayable in certain places. Obsidian released patches and it got better, but I wound up in a state where I can no longer finish the game. At one point you have to recover something from someone - and you can do it a few different ways. I went with the guns-blazing route, and got that item (I'm trying not to spoil any storyline here). Quite some time later, after doing a bunch of side quests and investing 6-7 hours more into the game, I decided to get back 'on track' with the main storyline. I returned the item to the owner, and he instructed me to go use the item to unlock something and progress the storyline. Problem is, he didn't return me the item in question. I looked it up online, thinking maybe I had missed something, but it's happened to a ton of other people too. You cannot complete the primary storyline at this point - I spent at least another hour trying to, and could not advance it. Even if they patched the game now, it would not help my situation I'm sure.

Let me be fair and say these games are huge in scale. There are so many side quests, so many variables and so many things you can do. But I've also helped design games. If you break a core mechanic or storyline partway through, and people cannot complete the game and have no recourse to get around the issue, it's a deal-breaker for me. There's really no other way for me to look at it.

There are still gobs of other issues as well I've seen. Your companions frequently get lost or stuck, and you wind up having to go back to find them. One quest, I was told to go talk to a group of people and they would forgive me for my past transgressions. It was an integral part of the storyline. I went to them as instructed, and they began firing on me at will. I found several hugely exploitable bugs too, like one faction's camp - if you kill everyone, gather what you need, leave and sell it all - you can come back and re-loot their bodies again. And you can do that to your heart's content.

Load times are another annoyance for me. The constant pause/skip issue was bad, but there's a load scene every time you enter or exit a building, or use fast travel. You do those things a lot. Sometimes you get them while moving around in the building from one floor to the next. I realize there are a lot of things the game keeps track of, but it just seemed like a lot.

Also the game was freezing for me somewhat regularly - as in locking up my PS3 and forcing me to cycle down the power by holding down the power button. It did not happen a ton - maybe every hour, but enough that it was really annoying. I looked around online and checked with my buddy I borrowed it from, and they had seen all of these issues too.

Overall 6:

It's a shame really, because there is a very good game in here (though the storyline was not nearly as interesting to me as Fallout 3's was), but it's lost among so much technical debt that it started to become a bit more of a chore to play. There were improvements made to the successful Fallout 3 formula, and while Fallout 3 was not without issues, they were never quite as glaring to me as this. Then when the storyline came to a premature end to the game were lost to me due to another bug, Fallout: New Vegas just did me in. I know a lot of other people have rated the game well, and plenty of others have finished the game. I can't rate their experiences though, only mine - and mine was very disappointing in the end.

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