Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Earth Defense Force: Insect Armageddon Preview

The Xbox 360 has had it's share of budget titles but none really shine, in my book at least, besides Earth Defense Force 2017. This Graphically abysmal title is more fun than most triple-A titles available these days, I've never had more fun leveling an entire city while also trying to save it from the onslaught and alien-insect invaders. It's sequel slated to come out in just a few weeks looks to improve upon 2017's standing reputation. I can't wait to see more of this title at E3 and, even more so, can't wait till I get my hands on EDF:IA.


This mod for Oblivion looks more like a re-imagining than a mod. I may have to pick up Oblivion for the PC to try this out. Too bad the narration isn't in English. Regardless, it still looks epic. Modding communities surrounding games like this and Minecraft really make a PC purchase worth while, adding free player driven content years after the titles release.  

Sunday, May 29, 2011

XBLA Review: Outland

Housmarque's Outland dropped on XBLA and PSN a few months back and was widely well received. With a beautiful art style, puzzling platforming, and some old school action its pretty easy to see why. Outland takes a lot of cues from classics like Mario, Metroid, Ikaruga, and others. But, it never really crosses over into rip-off territory. It's familiar yet original and a satisfyingly unique adventure from it's outset to the games final moments.

A vague over-arching story starts with our silent protagonist visiting a shaman to analyze his dreams. Having visions of a great warrior from the past who fought to keep the world in order, our protagonist wonders what it all could mean. The shaman divulges that he feels rumblings of the hero's return, as well as the return of the sisters of light and dark who created this world, which they will soon look to destroy. The shaman believes our protagonist is the hero reincarnate and sends him out to stop the sisters once and for all. While the story doesn't ever evolve beyond that, you'll be sporadically treated to a narrator reading the back-story of the various bosses you'll encounter and defeat. It's not much but, it is a little bit of insight into the world as well as the characters and a nice device to keep the tale on your mind.

The story really takes a backseat to the art and level design in Outland. The beautiful silhouetted foregrounds blended with splashes of bright colors and epic backdrops is really something to behold. The game is broken up into a few different areas each with it's own take on the overall visual style. The one consistent thing in all the areas, besides the silhouettes, is the presence of light and dark enemies represented by blue and red respectively. Foes and turrets spit out waves of color, sometimes creating incredible visual patterns akin to a lot of bullet-hell style games, but are much more artfully implemented. These patterns create puzzling mazes of color and make for some exhilarating platforming.

The duality of light and dark energies is a major device throughout the entire game. Very early in our adventure our hero gains the ability to alternate his body color between light(blue)and dark(red) energies. This mechanic quickly becomes integral to the second to second gameplay, allowing you to absorb "bullets" of which ever color you currently happen to be. Switching colors also allows you to interact with platforms of your same color; Some will move when you hop on them as the appropriate color, others won't act as a platform at all unless you're correctly colored. The flip-side here is that you can only attack enemies of the opposite color.  All of this combined makes for some really frantic sequences where you'll be challenged to quickly shift colors and attack appropriate enemies while jumping through waves of, sometimes unavoidable, bullets. Defeating enemies and smashing urns will net you gold for upgrades a refill your magic meter a bit.

Boss battles are both challenging and puzzling. Half of the fight is figuring out the unique movement and shooting patterns of your current foe. All the bosses are incredibly different. Some require precise jumps, others speed, almost all require you to be constantly switching colors and the final encounter incorporates all of these. Since most bosses have multiple phases a lot of it ends up being trial by fire but when you finally do defeat your generally gigantic foe you feel accomplished and are rewarded with a special ability or a magic attack.

While initially your combat repertoire is limited to only a three-hit combo, you'll unlock several combat upgrades as well as some magic powers and abilities to help you navigate the world. Though your initial three-hit combo will be your bread and butter in defeating most of the enemies Outland constantly throws opportunities to use these new found powers and abilities at you. Your first trek through most levels will reveal that many areas that are unreachable without a specific ability. Generally, these hard to reach places are full of gold and hidden upgrade stations making the backtracking well worth it. By the end of the game these upgrades, abilities, and magical powers make you feel almost unstoppable.

Housemarque did an excellent job delivering one of the best XBLA games to date. Outland takes a chance by blending classic gameplay conventions with a beautiful art style that shines through every second of gameplay. While much of the game will feel familiar to most gamers it's hard to argue that there is something truly unique here. All the parts come together to give you one hell of an adventure that is definitely worth your time.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

First Impressions: L.A. Noire

Rockstar is known for it's open world crime narratives but with L.A. Noire we have something a little different. Gone are the means to wreak havoc in whatever fashion you find suitable, You're beat cop Cole Phelps trying to climb the ladder of law enforcement. After returning from the big WW2 you find yourself investigating crimes during a few of the bloodiest years in L.A.'s history. In the first few hours of the game you'll learn the ins and outs of investigating and cracking cases as well as chasing down the people responsible when they decide the law has gotten a bit too close for comfort.

The mechanics of L.A. Noire are noticeably reminiscent of GTA but, Rockstar has managed to re-purpose and refine much of the general gameplay into a completely different product, not to mention the core additions of investigation and interrogation to the mix. Those looking for an action heavy game may want to look somewhere else for there fix as the pacing here is much different than the rest of Rockstar's stable of games. We do get some really great gun play at points but the bulk of the main game is the investigations. So far the longest of these has taken me about an hour and had a pretty spectacular action oriented ending. Aside from the main story missions you'll get dispatch calls while driving around that you can choose to respond to or not. these are much shorter more action oriented sequences, based around normal(or in some cases not-so-normal) street crimes.

Rockstar faithfully recreates not only the atmosphere of 1940's L.A. but also the chilling air surrounding crime scenes. Roped off and usually surrounded by reporters you really feel like your investigation is important. Searching the scene for evidence and leads gets more intriguing by the case. The more I played the more I found myself honestly getting into the cases and trying as hard as I can to get any lead possible.

I'm really enjoying my time with this game so far. It's a breath of fresh air when it comes to open world games and I think Rockstar has crafted something truly unique. The investigations have all been interesting and all the characters are fully realized, especially with the new facial animation. I'm looking forward to finishing this up and getting the full review out. 

Friday, May 13, 2011

Brink: Full Review

I'm gonna start off by saying this, Brink does a lot of things right. The little amount of innovation we see here will hopefully push future games to try and shake things up a bit as the shooter genre has grown a bit stale over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, for every thing it does right, there is a small flaw that somehow makes the experience of playing just a little more frustrating than it should be. For those willing to look past the flaws there is a deep shooter rooted in maneuverability, team-work, and customization waiting to be mastered.

Before diving into the campaign you'll be able to customize a character with the handful of outfits that are available at the beginning of the game(you can have a stable of up to ten unique characters). Your newly created avatar will level up persistently offline and online by gaining experience completing the list of tasks associated with each level, buffing teammates guns or health depending on your class, or damaging and downing enemies. Leveling up will unlock new outfits, abilities, and audio logs(which further explain the canon of the story and sometimes have useful tips for playing a specific class.) There are four classes to choose from(Medic, Soldier, Engineer, and Operative) each with its own set of unlock-able skills and three body types(Light, Medium, and Heavy) which offer different amounts of health, movement style, and weapon selection.

The SMART(Smooth Movement Across Random Terrain) System works really well and is something I've wanted to see in a first person shooter since I can remember, especially after Mirror's Edge. Depending on the body type of your current character you'll be able to Utilize SMART differently. Light body types have the ability to vault, climb, slide, and do some Matrix-style wall running. Medium types get that minus the wall runs and Heavy body types can't do any type of parkouring what-so-ever but gain a bit of health and the ability to carry the heaviest guns in the game. Splash Damage did a great job of designing levels with SMART in mind. You'll find several different routes to every objective on the map and dodging enemy fire is more fun here than in any shooter currently on the market.

The campaign plays out through the eyes of two different factions warring on The Ark; A futuristic city adrift in the open ocean that was supposed to be some kind of new utopia but slowly became over populated with slums and shanty towns. Depending on which side you choose you'll either be trying to get your self off The Ark(Resistance) or you'll be trying to save it from the revolutionaries that have slowly populated the floating city(Security) The story is instantly forgettable and the short cut scenes before each mission serve only to give you an idea of what you'll be encountering in the upcoming area.

This is where Splash Damage's claim of seamlessly combining offline and online play starts to unravel. The offline missions are identical to what you'll be doing online, the only difference being that you'll only be accompanied by AI bots in the solo campaign. The frustrating thing is that the AI doesn't seem to do all that much. You'll find your self switching between the four classes in the game several times during one mission to complete every objective. On the rare occasion that a bot does try to complete an objective they usually fail leaving you to have to do it anyway. I will say that the AI does do it's job in some areas, you'll constantly hear them say they've grabbed you a command post which nets your team health and damage bonuses given that you're in proximity to it and more often than not they'll buff your health or gun damage and revive you if you're downed. The other problem is that there's no split-screen co-op. I never understood the downfall of couch co-op and why developers think people don't want to actually hang out with their friends while playing. A MESSAGE TO ALL THE DEVELOPERS WE ALL LOVE COUCH CO-OP! Jokes aside campaign mode is, if anything, a good training device for the online arena. Running around completing all the objectives lets you see the flow of given level and helps you choose which class might fit you best.

Other than the campaign there are four(thats right a whole four) challenges which each have three different difficulties that you can do solo or with a team of friends. Doing any of them solo on the first two difficulties will unlock the weapons and attachments in the game. Completing any on the third difficulty will upload your score to a global leader board. The sad thing here is that all the weapons and attachments can be unlocked in a day. It doesn't really give you a sense of accomplishment when you've seen almost everything the game can throw at you in the first 24 hours. The other downside here is that there really aren't a whole lot of weapons or attachments and a lot of the games guns feel incredibly similar.

Online is where this game really shines. With a solid group, you'd be hard pressed to find a better objective-based team shooter on PS3 or Xbox 360. Having actual teammates at your side really shows you how the game is supposed to work and allows you to better feel out which of the four given classes really works for your play style. There's a few different game types to choose from, the standard being 8 on 8 or competitive 5 on 5. It's unfortunate that online matches(specifically 8 on 8 games) are plagued with lag issues, depending on your host you'll get significant rubber banding and freezing. Splash Damage has already patched the game(and promised free DLC for all your trouble) which has definitely addressed the issue somewhat but there are still some kinks to be worked out.

Brink is a great game if you can get past it's flaws. It presents some deep customization and some fresh gameplay that, when everything is working well, really delivers a solid online experience. While I can't recommend this to people without Xbox Live I can absolutely recommended it for those who do. Hopefully we'll get to see some more of Splash Damages vision with a sequel or future DLC.


Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brink: First Impressions

I've been waiting for brink to come out for a year or two and finally picked up my copy tonight at my local Gamestop. The amount of hype surrounding the title has really divided the gaming community between it being an over-hyped so-so title(see: Fable 2&3) or one of the only truly team based FPS games to date. I popped it in my system as soon as I got home. Here's what I think of the single player so far after playing for a few hours through some of the story mode and the challenge mode, multiplayer impressions to come later of course.

Brink is an odd beast when it comes to the campaign. Bethesda and Splash Damage have tried to seamlessly blend the online and single player experiences. When playing a mission offline it plays much like an online game but your allies are controlled by bots. The result is kind of frustrating. Your AI allies aren't nearly as competent as a human controlled character. This leads to some incredibly tough firefights where you'll be overrun by enemies and wishing they had added the, now, ever elusive couch co-op option due to the computers lack of priority.

Regardless of the fumbling AI the missions still present some kind of enjoyment and maybe even a little bit of training for the online arena. The real winner playing solo is the challenge mode. This is where most of your unlock-ables will come from. While there only seems to be a handful of challenges they offer a slightly different take on the single player experience by forcing you into the different classes to complete objectives arena style. Each challenge has three difficulty levels which you unlock sequentially by beating the normal difficulty first. These challenges range from escorting and protecting a repair bot to defending a command center from waves of baddies. Completing any of the challenges on the first two difficulties will unlock a hefty chunk of accessories, guns, and upgrades which really makes these challenges worth while. the third difficulty posts your score to an online leaderboard so you can really show all your friends how awesome you are.

The gameplay is pretty solid overall with the myriad of customization options available it really allows the player to tailor the different classes to their liking. This is also one of the first games i've seen on a console that lets you complete customization of your controls. They have a ton of different presets and allow you to create a custom preset if you're not a fan of any of the given choices. I went with the default. While the controls take a bit to get used to, particularly the SMART system, after a few rounds I was more than accustomed to the slight nuances of Brinks gameplay and I was hopping barriers and sliding under pipes in no time. This is the one thing that sets Brink apart from the crowd. Ever since I've been playing any kind of FPS free running has always been something I wanted Integrated into the experience and brink does a great job of bringing this to the front of your gameplay experience.

The guns handle a bit like Call of Duty, allowing you to look down the barrel through your iron sights or equipped scope to be a bit more accurate. I did find the amount of damage bullets do to be a little off and I still can't tell whether or not headshots really matter but this is just another thing I go used to in no time.

Once I get through the campaign and start playing online I'll post a full review. Thanks for reading!