• 2008
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Yearly Archives: 2008

Merry Christmas

Yes, it was another fancy dress party. Go Team Christmas Tree!

Thunderous

One thing I never like doing is waxing lyrical about Rare’s own products. I obviously do do it on occassions, but I always worry that as I am in their employment it may either seem that I sound like a marketing bot. This, of course, is never my intention.

That said, my game of the moment is Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. This is basically the game Lego should have made as it allows you to take a handful of blocks and throw together some bizarre working machines and vehicles. I’ve already seen Eikzilla make fairground rides and Kindling recreate the Star Trek space crafts, whereas I have gone down a childhood route.

First up with have the Thundertank; my first stab at an interesting vehicle. Based off the tank from Thundercats I was tremendously excited when I found out I could actually get the arms to raise to reveal the weaponry underneath.

Next, may I introduce Thunderbird 2. This is my finest work. Not only does this aerial vehicle have the necessary drop pod in the centre, but that drop pod itself contains a detachable car that Banjo can ride out on once it has touched down.

In my head I’m already planning out exactly how many of the Halo vehicles I can make and just how the Indianna Jones boulder could be made. The workshop area of this game is currently sucking my life away. I love it and am now praying that one of my younger cousins suddenly gets Lego next week.

Edit: All screenshots can be found here.

Review: Left 4 Dead

Who doesn’t like zombies? No-one, that’s who. Unless, of course, you’re running for your life from them, which is exactly where you find yourself in the co-op centric Left 4 Dead. Taking on the role of four armed survivors of the zombie apocalypse, you move from safehouse to safehouse searching for an escape from The Infected.

Between safehouses the path is anything but hospitable; zombies are everywhere. On their own they are manageable, but an onrushing horde is enough to cause crosshairs to wave wildly in panic.

A cool head and teamwork is vital to survival. Those running off alone will only last so long before the pack attacks and separates you from the safety of your friends. It may not be on a par with Rainbow Six when it comes to checking corners and clearing rooms, but you need your buddies close to apply first-aid and pull up those who have been knocked down. Plus the trivial matter of helping keep the undead at bay.

The experience of seeing of your first horde descend is a memorable one. There are no slow, pondering zombies here. Expect a sprinting 28 Days Later style that will pour from the surroundings in their droves. Bicycle clips are recommended.

As well as your standard Infected zombie model, there are also Special Infected. Taking the shape of large tanks, swift hunters and ranged smokers that can lash you from a distance with their tongue. Each has their own distinct cry and all can incapacitate a member of the group in their own special way, causing the rest to concentrate their efforts on freeing their comrade before it is too late. The introduction of these special types keeps everyone on their toes, awaiting the noise through the trees that signals a hunter’s approach.

Worst, though, is the Boomer who can turn a moment’s calm on its head. A huge, obese monster whose vomit attracts vast swathes of zombies from seemingly nowhere. Taken out at range they prove no bother but yards from a safehouse with low ammo and low health they can be a downright pain.

Disappointing, Left 4 Dead only has four chapters, each taking roughly an hour to complete. Its replay value comes from an “AI director” that spawns Infected as and when it sees fit. Dawdling too long will probably provoke a zombie rush, but take too much punishment and the director might ease off giving you time to regroup. Whilst this does add variety and unpredictability, it doesn’t seem enough with the blandness and linearity of the levels and your mission.

A different dimension is added to the experience through the adversarial mode, where you are placed in control of the Special Infected. Being far weaker than the humans, Infected must play cat and mouse with their prey. Charging in alone is a definite way to see the respawn screen very swiftly and so waiting in ambush or following in on a horde rush are your best methods of getting the brains you desire.

Played offline Left 4 Dead is a midly interesting affair but ultimately just an average shooter. Played with friends the experience is definitely lifted, but no matter how much the AI director plays with the game’s tempo those spending extended periods with the game will be retreading an awful lot of ground.

7/10

Review: Fallout 3

Last year, Bioshock became the darling of the gaming world because it combined a beautiful but tortured historical aesthetic with an engaging narrative. Whilst comparisons with Fallout 3 may at first seem misguided, they both share very similar themes: a world in ruin, an unlikely hero with a series of moral choices, and an art style set in the recent past. Not wanting to give too much away, but Fallout, like Bioshock, is an exceptional title.

As the opening cinematic fades away, the initial scene reveals a very unique experience: that of your own birth. Part of the quality of Bethesda’s epic RPG is the seamless way it weaves in the character creation stages, and what could be more natural than birth? It continues through childhood with important events shaping the adult who you will become: a toddler’s ABC book will assign characteristics whilst skill points will be gifted through school tests. Even the introduction of your Pitboy 3000 – your inventory manager, guidance system and quest book – is handled in the manner of a birthday present.

The style of the forthcoming adventure is molded through these handouts and there is plenty of scope to create a wide array of characters. From hackers to brawlers, marksmen to scientists, the world can be tackled in a variety of ways, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

This period of growth does a wonderful job of rolling out the Fallout universe, too. It is a world in a post-apocalyptic state where the denizens of the US have sought shelter in giant underground vaults. However, with the stage set in your cozy subterranean home, everything is turned upside down as your father decides to leave the safety of Vault 101. Keen to find out just why he abandoned his only child, you follow in his footsteps and set off in pursuit across the dangerous Capital Wasteland.

It is here where the game starts to shine. With the shackles of the vault cast aside, you stand on a hillside surveying a scene of utter devastation: buildings torn asunder, bleak landscapes and nothing but a gray palette for miles. Coming from the colour-rich Fable some may feel subdued by this depressing panorama, but the sense of freedom is immense.

Whereas Oblivion’s landscape was usually curtailed by hills, forests and city walls, Fallout hides nothing of its desolation. More often than not you can see far, far into the distance. Glimpses of strange buildings and settlements lurk in the distance, pulling you from your goal with the sheer intrigue of what they might hide.

As soon as I emerged blinking into the light, I took one look at my primary objective and promptly marched off in the opposite direction. Nearly a dozen hours passed before I took my first steps towards seeking out my father. Whether that makes me a bad son I do not know, but in the meantime I discovered abandoned towns, happened upon hidden weapon caches and had run away from more than one giant scorpion.

For those focusing solely and millitantly on the main storyline they’ll be able to polish off Fallout 3 in roughly ten hours. Kudos. They’ll also be depriving themselves of exploring a rich world populated with colourful characters. Wandering the barrens introduces many communities hidden away. Scared slaves living in ruins, an undercity full of mutants and towers housing the pre-war upperclass. Many have a tale to tell, some may even partner up with you, and searching for these groups often opens up quest chains that tells the story of the Wasteland yet further.

The sheer variety and detail of these quests is impressive. Players will rarely feel like they are facing the same challenge twice, aided and abetted by the narrative and their branching nature. Case in point, when asked to remove a troublesome ghoul, said ghoul also has a story to tell. Do you then continue with your orders to off him or is it now far more lucrative to keep him alive? Whose word do you value most? Should you follow the path of greed or righteousness? Choices, choices.

Although your early stat distribution will have shaped your character in one of many fashions, a good majority of quests are ultimately resolved by gunfights. Whilst it may be feasible to stealth around hordes at night and hack your way through security doors for sneaky shortcuts, lead will eventually fly. There are situations that can be resolved through diplomacy or cold hard cash and they are refreshing when they crop up, however, it is always worth dropping a few skill points into firearms not matter what the chosen character build.

What saves this adventure from turning into a sprawling shooter is a system called VATS. Entering VATS will freeze time and combat will change to an almost turn-based system where individual body parts can be targeted. Each will show the percentage chance of hitting and so the trade-off must be made between the high-risk, high-damage head and the relatively easy but more durable torso.

To maintain balance, using VATS costs action points, which take time to recharge. Once all are spent then combat reverts to a more traditional shooting mechanic. The basic FPS controls are not the game’s finest moment and so the mix works well. Players can choose between holding back for their recharging action points or charging in ala Quake, each giving their own experience.

Whilst combat may still be a work in progress (although a step up from Oblivion), Fallout 3 is ultimately an immersive world where it is possible to lose yourself for hours upon hours. Drawn in by tales of survival and the vast map just begging for exploration, the goodies that lie at the bottom of long abandoned vaults and the search for your missing father, there is so much to do it is hard to see a better value game this year.

For those of you who lost your lives to Oblivion, then prepare to do so again. Those who did not, and I was amongst your number, I would still consider putting Fallout 3 at the top of your Christmas list; it will keep you going long after the last of the mince pies have been eaten.

10/10

First Impressions: Guitar Hero World Tour & Rock Band 2

I’ve held off of my rant against the god-awful pre-budget report and decided to focus on shiny things instead. Like my new Guitar Hero World Tour drum kit! Coming in a box large enough to house a full family of wombats, it surely is a thing of plastic beauty.

First thing to report is that the Guitar Hero World Tour drum kit is a marked improvement on the original Rock Band equivalent. The RB kit, although a fresh idea at the time, always felt a little flat and awkward with its four pads. My main issue being the spacing and that when I was staring fixedly at the note stream if my hands wavered it wasn’t always easy to differentiate between the middle pair. GHWT has solved this by stripping down the basic drums to three and adding a pair of raised symbols. It may not be much of a refinement but the definite placing of all five pads just lifts the whole experience for me – you know exactly where you need to bring the stick down, no matter where you are mid-flail.

It feels more satisfying, too. The simple aesthetic addition of the symbols still can’t separate you away from the fact that you are playing an oversized Fisher Price toy but the actions played out on it are just far more satisfying. You know exactly when a symbol smash is coming and bashing those elevated quarter circles of black rubber feels amazing, far better than the flat equivalent in Rock Band.

The moveable and more sturdy foot pedal is also a welcome upgrade as I no longer feel my foot is cramped underneath the tiny frame.

And so to the Rock Band 2 v Guitar Hero World Tour software battle. In summary Rock Band 2 is by far the better game. It has oodles of downloadable tracks already, its difficulty curve is friendly to newcomers, it has a varied but lengthy career mode to plough through and it has the all important “no fail” mode for when you get a drunken band together. In contrast, Guitar Hero is much harder for novices, its career mode’s progression is extremely strict and DLC are currently scarce.

What World Tour can offer, though, is drum arrangements that are more involving. Throughout the game there is are strict definition of what pad means what. For instance, the left symbol is always high hat, the right being crash. Rock Band may do similar but not to the same level and it is the consistency in GHWT that makes it a better drumming experience. What makes the comparison fairer is that both games share a lot of songs and having played Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer and others on both, I much prefer the style in which World Tour lets me hit things with sticks.

So it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. I’d heartily recommend GHWT’s drum kit for all the little things like the spacing of the inputs, the foot pedal and the build quality as a whole, but I’ll be playing it on Rock Band 2. Now Ali’s taken up the bass I can’t see our band, The Secret Society of Buzzlegums, ever moving back to GHWT… although I may sneak over for the odd solo.

Avatars

When Avatars were first announced I did think it was a slightly odd choice of name for Xbox’s Mii equivalent. You see, in the code that we use at work an “avatar” is simply an in-game object. Spades, fence pieces, tiles, houses, totem poles, garden furniture, eggs and most other simple items are all classed as avatars. Even the slightly more fanciful characters like Cooper and Leafos have avatars constructs hidden within them. I couldn’t help but think it was quite a cold name.

Obviously, the rest of the world doesn’t have this hang up. Since they’re release this week these caricatured playthings spread across the Xbox community and are now grinning back to me in abundance from my friends list.

Personally, and I’m not just saying this I promise, I like them. I have always felt, as amusing as they were initially, the Miis just were a little too bland. The concept was amazing but I didn’t quite feel as attached to my Mii as I probably should have been due to the abstraction.

On the opposite end of the scale, the characters I’ve seen from Sony’s Home are too trendy. Every video of them has almost intimidated me into not wanting one of their’s. From a glance at their shots it seems that you have to live in an ultra trendy part of a fashion conscious town to be accepted in their beautiful people community. I could be completely wrong but I do not like the vibe that’s coming forth.

And so we have Avatars. They’re not perfect but they’re a nice middle ground. Support for them is rising forth from several Arcade games but it will be the full retail games where they make their mark.

365 Word Review: Army of Two

Army of Two tries, bless it. It tries to expand EA’s license dominated catalogue and offer up a fresh experience. Drawing on principles usually seen in MMOs, this third-person shooter places players in the bodies of two meat-head jocks working for private military contractors. Sent around the world fighting for a paycheque, this pair need to work closely together to push through each exotic level.

Against a stream of foes, the two must use cover and distraction to progress. When either shoots or advances they generate aggro. The more aggro generated, the more invisible your partner effectively becomes with the enemy forces preferring to focus on the biggest perceived threat.

This is where it really does try something different. This very clear idea of where your enemy’s attention is focused allows for tactical movement through the battlefield. Good communication between partners can make short work of those in your way. Those, however, with no clear plan could find themselves bogged down in arduous firefights.

Extending the teamwork principle, even if someone takes a tumble it’s not necessarily game over. Dragging them to a quiet corner allows for some emergency first aid. There is no limit on the amount of times this can be employed, the only deterrent is forcing the other into harm’s way.

Whilst in principle the game’s ideas are sound, there a far too many niggling problems to see Army of Two live up to the initial promise. The main offender being the enemy AI which can flip suddenly from overly reclusive to suicidal lemming. The controls simply can’t cope with fast moving foes close up. The targeting is not responsive enough and all too regularly you’ll get clotheslined by an onrushing soldier which cannot be countered.

The game does bring a handful of fresh ideas to the table, including coordinated sniping, a “back to back” mode which sees players at the centre of an on rushing horde and a parachuting section where one steers and one shoots, but none of these ideas truly raise the bar. Army of Two can be put down as a commendable effort to buck the licensing trend but something that ultimately falls short of reinventing co-op play.

6/10

“Please release me, let me go”

Looking at the release schedule, which has steadily been growing week upon week until the current “What’s Out” listing looks comparable to the north face of K2, this Friday’s has to be the most demanding of the year for me. These last seven days will have brought Gears, Banjo, Left 4 Dead, Guitar Hero World Tour, Mirror’s Edge and End War to the shelves, and this is on top of my pre-existing love affair with Fallout 3. What is a boy to do?

The one release that passed my silently by was Wrath of the Lich King, a World of Warcraft expansion. Quite strangely it was only brought to my attention by BBC Radio 5live covering its midnight launch. They were interviewing someone who had camped out since Tuesday in order to be first in line and were quite reasonably discussing its addictive properties.

Part of me is quite disappointed that I am no longer interested in World of Warcraft enough to be excited by or even to notice a new chapter working its way out to the masses. Having played two serious stints before, the second triggered by the release of the previous expansion, I definitely count myself as a fan but I believe my time has been and gone is Azeroth.

World of Warcraft still can claim home to some very memorable gaming moments due to the team work and social engagement it brought with other players in the world. A core four from within Rare formed our party but in the end it required so much planning to get the whole quartet together at the same time on the same night that the feasibility of playing just dropped away. At higher levels, its scale is hardly something you can dabble in at lunchtimes.

Currently I wander the plains of a different world, Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland, and until that has been put to bed I can only see a certain rhythm action game being played in parallel. Everything else will just have to wait.

Technical difficulties

One of the reasons why recently this “thing” isn’t updated nearly as much as it used to – I have twice tried to upload a Fallout 3 First Impressions – is because of some severe technical difficulties. I don’t know what’s going on or why my website hates me but 75% of the time I cannot access my blog. I can 100% access my test page and at the moment I can only dream of that reliability translating to my main offering.

If anyone who can actually reach this page has any ideas as to why straight html webpage access is fine but WordPress/SQL lookups are iffy then I will gladly take any advice going.

Trick or treat?

An exciting weekend as for once I got all dressed up for Halloween. No, not “some bod from Mortal Kombat” but the Cardboard Tube Samurai from Penny Arcade.

The Cardboard Tube Samurai... use Google if you're confused.

What was most impressive about the costume for me was the fact that six hours before I went out I didn’t have any idea what I was doing. A quick and desperate trawl of the local charity shops managed to turn up a complete set of bright yellow sowesters. Thrown together with some black edging, a cardboard hat and some Pacman motifs, the CTS was born.

Also out and about were the mummy, the witch, the dark jester and the headless horseman. The latter was particularly impressive and dedicated considering he could hardly see, drink or breathe easily with his costume on.

Insert scary noises.

So on Friday night, the five of us all turned up at The Old Contemptibles in Birmingham, ready and raring for a spooky party only to find that it was just us and the bar staff in costume. Everyone else was wearing suits having popped in after work for a cheeky pint. Considering there were signs all around the bar for a “Halloween Bash” we felt a little let down.

Not to be beaten, a quick taxi ride later saw us rubbing shoulders with Dracula’s bride, a chap on the wrong end of a chainsaw attack and various other freaks. We were at home amongst them and merrily danced our way into the early morning.

So, how did Halloween pan out for you?