Wednesday, December 30, 2009

WAA - Blazing Angels

This week's game for WAA is Blazing Angels, a flight simulator set during WWII. The game only has 7 Achievements and they are ALL very freebies to be had here!

The "One With Combat"Award: "Veteran"
Beat campaign mode. It should speak volumes about how difficult this Achievement set is that beating the entire freakin' game (and a tough game at that) is the easiest award to earn.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "The Ace of Aces" and "Hero"
Ace of Aces requires you to get an "Ace" ranking in every campaign mission, which in turn requires you to finish the mission VERY rapidly while recording a large number of enemy kills. For Hero, you need to get all the medals in the campaign, but to get all the medals you need to get Ace ranks in all the missions. So essentially, it's the same very difficult Achievement twice. At least you'll bank 325 points for all your effort.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Survivor"
First you have to unlock every plane by playing through the main campaign and mini-campaigns. Then you have to beat Arcade mode with each of 32 planes by downing 36 enemies within six minutes. That's 1152 kills to get this one, assuming you never get shot down, crash your plane, or run out of time. LAME.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Ace Killer"
It's you against a souped-up AI opponent one-on-one to see who the real Ace is. This one will definitely test your flying and shooting skills.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Hero"
This is actually a nice looking set. I picked this one because I like the shot of the WWII-era pilot in the background combined with the Blazing Angels logo in the foreground.

Achievement Set Rating - 2
This set does a lot wrong. There are only seven Achievements, and they're all really difficult. You could play the game for weeks, discover that the campaign is beyond your abilities, and walk away with nothing. There should be some easier awards so you feel like you're making more progress on the set as you go. Plus the "Ace of Aces" and "Hero" Achievements are essentially identical in practice, so why make them separate awards? Only the sharp icons save this from being a 1.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 9
No freebies...heck there aren't even any awards I'd call moderately challenging. Every Achievement is difficult, time-consuming, or both. Mostly both. Expect a minimum of 25 hours to finish this set, and likely much more. Worst of all, you might walk away with nothing if your flight skills aren't well honed.

The Maw

The Maw is an Xbox Live Arcade game that I picked up the other day when it went on sale. It won some awards prior to release, including the coveted Audience Choice award at PAX in 2008, so I was curious to see what it was like. For less than five bucks, I figured it was worth a look.

As the game starts, a small blue alien named Frank has been captured by galactic bounty hunters and taken aboard a quarantine ship. The ship crashes for unknown reasons, and the only survivors are Frank and an animate puddle of purple goo called the Maw. Maw is considered the "Deadliest Organism in the Universe" because it can eat just about anything (provided it's not too large to devour) and can grow to truly epic proportions.

Frank and the Maw become fast friends though, and together they have to find a way to escape the planet on which they've crash-landed while avoiding the bounty hunters.

The Maw is an odd little game. Essentially the point is to drag the Maw around and feed him local lifeforms as he gets bigger and bigger, allowing you to advance to the next area. At the start of the game he looks like this:

Left - Tiny Maw
Right - Frank checks out his cool new power bracelet

And here's the Maw towards the end of the game:

Left - Gigantic Maw
Right - Frank contemplates what his grocery bill will look like if this keeps up

The Maw can also absorb the powers of creatures he eats. For example, if he eats a lizard that breathes fire, he'll change form and breath fire as well. So the point of the game is to use Frank's power bracelet and the Maw's eating powers to solve puzzles and advance.

The controls work well, and I didn't have much trouble navigating the environment. One annoyance is that the Maw needs to be on his leash to follow you, so if you use Frank to solve a puzzle by himself, you'll have to go back and fetch the Maw. However, the levels are pretty small so backtracking is minimal. I also felt like Frank could use a sprint button because his default walking speed is painfully slow.

There's not much plot here. You move forward from level to level with no real plan or impetus that I could discern. I will say that the characters are relatively solid given that it's pretty much just Frank and the Maw, and the latter doesn't talk. Actually, Frank really doesn't say much either, but the cutscenes are well done, with enough subtext in the facial expressions and body language to convery the developing friendship between the Frank and the Maw.

While I found the Maw to be a pleasant diversion, it's very short (I completed it in about two to three hours), and I'm not sure I would have wanted it to be any longer. It turns out that under five dollars is probably the right price for this one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

WAA - NBA Street: Homecourt

This week's edition of WAA is NBA Street: Homecourt. It's a 3 on 3 arcade-style basketball game in a similar vein to NBA Jam and Arch Rivals. For basketball fans, it's a fun little title.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Online Showdown"
For this one, you just need to play 10 online matches. Wins and losses don't matter, so it's as simple as jumping into the lobby, choosing quick match, and repeating the process a few times.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "King of the Court"
Most of the Achievements are pretty easy, but this one can be tough. You have to win 10 online games in a row. The online community is fairly dead, and there's always the risk that you run into a great player who breaks your streak. The good news is that this can be done in private matches against a friend, so just pick one who stinks at basketball games and goad him/her into repeated play sessions until you grab this award.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Seeing Double"
The story mode has you create a player and work your way up in level until you can challenge for a Street Basketball Championship. This Achievement tasks you with going most of the way through the career mode a second time (Level 10), which is a pointless waste of time.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Dunkalicious"
This one is fun. You need to do five "jumpoff" dunks, which is when one of your teammates kneels on the ground and you jump off his back to do a thunderous dunk.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Ultimate Finish"
Win a game with a special "Gamebreaker" move. Oh Snap!

Achievement Set Rating - 4
The icons are mediocre, though I guess the award titles are "street". Mostly the list is just plowing through the career mode and a little bit of online play.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 2
None of the special dunks are hard to do, and the career mode is ridiculously easy (especially if you create a 3-point specialist). If you can dominate a buddy for the 10 straight online wins, you can wrap up the whole set in a weekend.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Penny Arcade: Episode 1

Penny Arcade is one of my favorite online comics (along with Ctrl Alt Del), so I knew it was only a matter of time before I took a crack at their first attempt at a video game. A while back it was on special for half off, so I downloaded it to my hard drive and promptly forgot about it.

But I finally got around to playing it this weekend. There are actually a series of Penny Arcade games (gotta' love episodic gaming), so this is the first chapter. It's subtitled "On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness", a tribute to the overly loquacious Tycho, half of the Penny Arcade duo.

You start the game by creating a character and doing a brief tutorial. Then you get into the meat of the plot...the general idea is that you join up with Gabe and Tycho to solve mysteries of a bizarre nature. The whole story is a twisted morass of sex-crazed robots, angry hobos, and evil mimes who worship a silent god. It's great! If you follow the comic at all, you can see Mike and Jerry's fingerprints all over this game.

As for gameplay, it's ostensibly a turn-based RPG. You can choose to attack, use an item, or to charge up for a special ability. As you defeat enemies, you gain experience and go up levels. Stats increase. New abilites are earned. You know the drill, I'm sure. Unlike most turn-based RPGs though, this one operates on a time based system. While you're choosing what to do, the enemies get to continue attacking. On top of that, there's a Mario RPGesque system in which you can use the triggers to block incoming attacks and even get counterattacks. The game runs pretty fast, so there's a bit of a learning curve involved. It's definitely an improvement over standard point and click RPGs though.

Penny Arcade also has some adventure elements (round up items to solve puzzles) and a few mini-games. But the point is mostly the's rife with humor and you get a fair bit of input into how you want your character to interact with Gabe and Tycho. There are tons of Easter Eggs for fans of the comic, so keep your eyes peeled.

Weaknesses? Well, it's an Xbox Live game so it's pretty short. I knocked it out with little trouble over the weekend. There really aren't a lot of alternate pathways so the replay value isn't great either. I also found battles to get a bit repetetive after a while...there are only a few enemy models in the game (though each one is GOLD), and you have to do a fair bit of fighting when I'd really rather just move on with the story.

Still, I felt like it was well worth a few bucks to play through the adventure, and I already own Episode 2 so it's inevitable that I'll check out future enstallments. If you're a fan of the comic, I definitely recommend Penny Arcade.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection

Last week I ripped through Sonic's Ultimate Genesis Collection. That's Sonic, as in Sonic the Hedgehog. It's a compilation disc containing Sonic's favorite Sega Genesis games. He's apparently a pretty narcissistic woodland critter, because it feels like Sonic himself is featured in about half the games.

The disc boasts 40 Genesis hits, though some of those are unlocked only after completing challenges in other games. It's a pretty wide variety, including RPGs (Phantasy Star), strategy games (Shining Force), brawlers (Streets of Rage), puzzlers (Columns), and a bunch of old-school platformers. Some of these games were pretty famous (who doesn't know Sonic?) while others were far more obscure to all but the biggest Sega fanboys (who the hell is Ristar?).

Since there are so many games on the disc, it would be pointless to try to describe every one of them. Instead, I'll just say that these are very faithful adaptations of the old Genesis titles, for better or worse.

If you're really into "nostalgia gaming", then you'll probably enjoy the collection. Me, I was more struck by the irony that I own a 2000 dollar television and a 300 dollar piece of gaming hardware so I can produce a picture like these:

And if you think those look a little rough these days, you should hear how they sound. It's actually a little amazing to think that this was cutting edge stuff a decade and a half ago. Now these games are comically low-resolution, and they sound like sharp pieces of metal being grated together.

Granted, some of these games were made really well, so the gameplay still holds up even today. The real question, then, is which games are still fun and which games are massively disappointing once the rosy-colored glasses of nostalgia are removed? Well, Shinobi and Streets of Rage are both still great. The Shining Force and Phantasy Star games were ahead of their time as well, so they've aged reasonably well. I hadn't played Comix Zone before, but I liked its visual style a lot and was impressed with the gameplay. And of course Sonic's platformers are still pretty fun.

On the other hand, Altered Beast has aged about as well as an NBA center. That thing was beat half to death with the ugly stick, and the emulated sound is beyond awful. Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic Spinball both sucked when they came out, let alone now. And Ecco the Dolphin...why was this a thing? Does anyone remember? He's a dolphin. He swims around. He eats fish. He uses sonar to talk to other dolphins. I don't really see the appeal.

But the biggest kick in the grapes was reserved for a game that I loved as a kid, Golden Axe. This is the danger of going back to these things later in life. It's one thing to fondly remember The Thundercats, but another thing entirely to sit through an episode today. Playing Golden Axe was both distressing and perplexing. Was this game always so shitty? Why did I think this was fun? Did the female warriors always look like dudes?

Anyway, if you have fond memories of Genesis titles and you don't mind risking them being sullied by the harsh light of present-day reality, feel free to give this one a shot. But I strongly recommend a rental...these games just don't have a lot of lasting power compared to today's digital marvels.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WAA - Dead Space

It only makes sense to end my Dead Space series with a spot in WAA.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Pack Rat"
You just have to store 25 items in your safe. Between enemy drops and the copious number of item caches to be found around the ship, you can squirrel away 25 items within the first two levels.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "Epic Tier 3 Engineer"
You need to beat the game on "Impossible" mode, which isn't even available until you beat the game on another difficulty. It's far from impossible, but the enemies are faster and tougher, while ammo and health packs are harder to come by. This difficulty definitely puts the "survival" back in Survival/Horror. My advice is to finish prone enemies with the foot stomp to save ammo, and don't be bashful about using stasis to slow the faster enemies.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Maxed Out"
None of the Achievements require that much grinding, though this one will force you to do another half playthrough past your first. You have to accumulate enough Contact Nodes to fully upgrade everything in the game, and there aren't enough in one playthrough to pull it off.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Ragdoll Check"
For this one, you need to find panels on the floor that jam enemies into the ceiling, a fate which is 100% lethal for them (and you!). You can either maneuver them into the panels while fighting, or you can use stasis and then give 'em a good shove!

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "A Cut Above"
The Ripper is one fun little gun.

Achievement Set Rating - 7
This is a fairly standard set for a shooter, improved by the presence of varied, colorful icons and the absence of multiplayer Achievements. They aren't breaking any new ground, but most of the bases are covered and I never felt annoyed while completing the set.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
You can get all but one of the Achievements on the Normal (or even Easy) difficulty setting. It's a straightforward set, though you'll need two and a half playthroughs to get them all. It's probably about 25 hours for the full set. Plus the game is fun, which always helps!

Dead Space - Nitpicks

After nearly 2.5 trips through Dead Space, I've accumulated some petty gripes. Remember that these are just nitpicks...overall I really liked the game and will almost certainly play the inevitable sequel.

- Isaac is you typical mute protagonist, so it's hard to feel strongly about him one way or the other. But your two "sidekick" characters during the game are gratingly obnoxious. The female computer expert is a hate-filled harpy and I actively rooted for her death throughout the adventure. Fortunately they aren't around much, mostly filling the role of narrating what your next objective is.

- The monsters in this game can continue to attack even after losing limbs, and even their heads. That's fine, but it's really hard to tell when they're dead versus when they're just reeling from getting a leg blown off. Some kind of death animation would help to prevent situations in which I unload an extra half a clip into a monster's corpse because it's still twitching a bit.

- The game uses a strange offset camera where Isaac sort of stands off to one side a bit (the left), and you see past him. It's almost like someone is filming his exploits from behind (like an episode of COPS). It's not a big issue but it takes some getting used to, especially because it means you have far less peripheral vision on one side than the other.

- The object physics in this game are a little...touchy. For example, if you bump into a dead body it can flip and careen around the floor, sometimes knocking limbs off for no good reason. It feels like environmental objects don't have the proper weight, as if gravity isn't working properly.

- The game has several sections where you move around in zero-G. This is actually pretty cool, and there's even a boss fight where you have to jump around to the walls and ceiling during the fight. Two issues though. One is that it's really hard to tell what constitutes an "allowed" landing point and what doesn't in this game. The other is that trying to run around a wall and fight monsters while hanging upside down with a whirling camera can be disorienting at best, and nausea-inducing at worst.

- The weapon progression is a little bizarre. Usually you start with a weak weapon and find better ones as you go. In this game, I found that the starting weapon (the plasma cutter) was the most effective in the game. It's accurate, it fires quickly, it carries a lot of ammo, and after a few upgrades it's pretty powerful. Most of the later weapons didn't impress me much, though the ripper certainly has its uses (what is it with me and chainsaw weapons...I was getting Dead Rising flashbacks!). I guess this isn't really a complaint, but it seemed strange to toss all the other guns into storage and stick with the original weapon.

- Finally, a quick note to whoever came up with the little creepy-crawly enemies that march along the floor in a swarm, are nearly invisible in a dark hallway, and jump onto your back, forcing you to hammer on the A button while Isaac dances around in a pitiful attempt to dislodge them: WHAT THE FUCK???

Monday, December 14, 2009

Dead Space - Gameplay

Comparing Dead Space to other Survival/Horror games, one bullet point at a time:

- Typical S/H games have gimped controls, with controller inputs that are purposely awkward to make the game less about twitch reactions and more about...well, survival. Dead Space largely breaks from these traditions by featuring tight, intuitive controls. The camera does turn slowly though, occasionally creating issues in those "There's something right behind you!" moments.

- Dead Space really de-emphasizes melee combat. You can pat impotently at enemies with your gun, doing negligible damage while they gnaw your face off, or you can SHOOT THEM. I recommend the latter. There is a footstomp which is occasionally useful for downed enemies, but it still isn't as effective as bullets.

- All the "enemies jumping out of nowhere" stuff that you've seen in other S/H games is repeated here, albeit more often. Those evil aliens have a real knack for falling right out of the ceiling on your head, eliciting a startled jump and a bunch of panic fire from the player.

- Despite that, the enemies are not terribly competent at dealing damage, at least at the normal difficulty level. They telegraph their attacks, they back off after they've hit you once rather than finishing the kill, and unless you get swarmed you won't die often. While this may sound boring, it actually fits well with a theory from one of my favorite game bloggers Shamus Young, who once wrote about how "perceived danger" is more scary than "deadly danger" in video games. The idea is that it's far scarier to feel like you ALMOST died in a video game than to actually hit the game over screen and realize that now you just have to reload and replay that section. Dead Space hits this note well.

NOTE: Shamus Young's site gets my highest recommendation for people who are interested in video games or other aspects of geek culture.

- Speaking of reloading, most S/H games have infrequent save points so punishment for failure is high. Some even tie saving to disposable items (ex. typewriter spools in Resident Evil) so you have to decide for yourself when you should use a precious save. Blech! Dead Space has frequent save points that you can use freely, as well as checkpoints between saves. Death means replaying just a couple minutes tops.

- The difficulty settings are also well done. My playthrough on normal was pretty simple...I only died a couple times due to environmental puzzles, and not once because of enemies. I'm a pretty experienced gamer, so most people would be mildly challenged. There is an easier setting as well for beginners. I'm now playing on the highest difficulty, and it's very challenging. I wouldn't say death is "frequent" but I do need to replay certain sections a few times to pass. For those who prefer a challenge, it's definitely available.

- NO QUICKTIME EVENTS. That's so important that I feel like I should say it again. Quicktime events are (unfortunately) a staple of S/H games. They are not fun. They are the opposite of fun. Dead Space doesn't have any. Three cheers for Dead Space!

Overall, Dead Space is a very well made game and a solid example of the S/H genre. It's without a doubt one of the best S/H games on the 360 (not the highest praise in the world, but still sincere). Just bear in mind that it leans more towards a shooter than a Silent Hill clone and you'll be on the right track.

Next time, nitpicks!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Dead Space - The Survival/Horror Genre

One quick note: I passed the 80,000 point mark while playing Borderlands last night. Six figures is definitely in my sights.

I've been pretty negative on the blog lately owing to a string of frustrating or outright crappy games. So I thought it was time to talk about a game I'm enjoying: Dead Space.

Dead Space falls into the Survival/Horror genre (at least, to the extent that you can shoehorn games into categories these days). I like this particular genre, but I'm forced to admit that for every gem (Silent Hill 2, Resident Evil 4) there's a lot of junk (the other Resident Evil games, anything featuring the words Alone in the Dark). Dead Space happily resides much closer to the "gem" side, not really in the same class as the two aforementioned Hall of Famers but a strong candidate for the All Star team.

S/H games fall into two broad categories based largely on gameplay. The first is the "Badass in a Freaky Situation" game (example: Resident Evil 4). In this one you'll usually play as a special forces operative, a police officer, or some other character trained in combat. The game will feature a number of weapons (probably guns), and the main character will be proficient in each of them right away. The game will play a lot like a shooter, but the controls will be a little awkward (purposely so) and the enemies will come lurching out of the shadows or popping out of closets to scare the player. Essentially, these are shooters with "atmosphere"...they're scary because of the ambiance but get less frightening as you realize that your character is equipped to handle the waves of enemies that they'll face.

The second category is the "Wrong Place, Wrong Time" game (example: most of the Silent Hill games). In these games, you usually play as a helpless civilian with little combat training. Weapons are mundane, generally melee (bats and crowbars are common), and the resources are carefully portioned to insure that you're always one major screw-up away from death. These games are emphasizing the "survival" portion of the genre by giving you a few enemies, very limited resources, and a sliver of hope that you can make it through alive. The gameplay is usually very awkward and unintuitive, especially in combat, to capture the feeling that you're controlling a helpless idiot that has wandered into a situation well beyond their abilities. These games are most closely related to adventure games, because they're less about killing enemies and more about exploring the environment, solving puzzles, and advancing the story.

Dead Space falls into the "Badass in a Freaky Situation" category. The protagonist, Isaac Clarke, may be a space engineer (I'll get more into the story in another post), but he acquits himself pretty well with the weapons you'll find. The game involves a lot of fighting, a little light puzzle solving, and a horde of monsters that love to leap out and say "Boo"...then tear your face off.

Next time I'll talk about how Dead Space went right where a lot of games in this genre go wrong.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

WAA - Bully: Scholarship Edition

This week's WAA focuses on Bully: Scholarship Edition. Actually, the game is called "Bully". The "Scholarship Edition" part comes from the fact that it was originally a PS2 title that they reworked for the 360 with added content.

Note: As much as possible I try to preserve the Achievement titles as presented by the game. That includes typos, bizarre capitalization, and plain nonsense. Bully uses Achievement titles with all capital letters, so that's how I've written them here. Personally, I find the all-caps approach obnoxious, but c'est la vie.

The "One With Combat"Award: "KICKIN' THE BALLS"
Step One - Find soccer ball lying around.
Step Two - Press button to kick ball.
Step Three - Repeat Step Two 99 times.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "PERFECTIONIST"
To get this one, you need to to complete everything in the game, including the story missions, the side missions, the classes, the collections...everything. There's no single aspect of the game that's difficult, but keeping track of what you've done and what you still need to do can be pretty tricky. Use the stats page under the menu to determine what you're missing.

The "Seriously..." Award: "THE WHEEL DEAL"
Unfortunately, there are a lot of tedious Achievements in this game. This one requires that you perform 200 wheelies on a bike. The problem here is that there's really no reason to do a wheelie at all besides getting the Achievement, so why make the number so ridiculously high? It seems like ten would have been plenty.

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "OVER THE RAINBOW"
This one made me laugh. You can give presents to girls in this game and eventually they'll kiss you. Score! But for the non-traditional gent, there's no need to feel excluded. Certain members of the male student body are also amenable to your advances. Collect 20 kisses from the boys and you score this humorously titled Achievement.

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "OVER THE RAINBOW"
Yup, I went there...

Achievement Set Rating - 5
This set has pros and cons. The variety of Achievements is impressive, and it really does a great job of encouraging you to explore everything that the Bullworth Academy has to offer. On the other hand, some of these call for WAY too much repetition of specific activities. Give 50 wedgies? Egg 25 cars? Bike 100 kilometers? Pick 50 flowers? This seems suspiciously like busy work to me.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 3
Of course, there's nothing particularly difficult about these activities either. Go to the flower garden and run around grabbing flowers. When your inventory is full, give them to girls, get a few kisses, and repeat. Or if you want the one for biking, hop on your bike and make circles around the driveway. The soapbox derby races can be marginally tricky but for the most part, it just takes time (around 20 hours to be precise).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Jumper: Griffin's Story

Congratulations are in order for Collision Studios and Brash Entertainment, the minds behind Jumper: Griffin's Story. After all, any game can suck in ordinary ways, but it takes monumental indifference to quality or even basic competence to create a game like Jumper. If there were such a thing as a "Shitty Video Game Hall of Fame" Jumper would be a first ballot honoree. It's easily one of the five worst games I've played on the 360, and bear in mind that I've spent time with some real turds.

I didn't see the movie (I have a fairly strict life policy concerning films that feature Hayden Christiansen), but it's about some people called Jumpers who have the ability to teleport. Like Nightcrawler from the X-Men, they're feared and misunderstood by the public. Unlike Nightcrawler, they're dull jerks with little personality who have no qualms about killing people by the dozens if it suits their needs.

The game follows Griffin, one of the characters from the movie (I gather). He's chasing after a Paladin (people who hunt Jumpers) who killed his parents. That's the whole plot...there are no interesting twists or revelations along the way. Griffin goes from one locale to locale, finding one clue that leads to another, until he meets up with the bad guy at the end.

As for the gameplay, this is a strictly linear brawler with no puzzle elements or exploration. Every fight is basically the same, with little evolution as the game progresses. You can find new combos or weapons if you care to, but none of it makes the combat feel fresh or different.

Speaking of combat, the fighting system in this game is really strange. Instead of mapping attacks to different buttons, they went with cardinal directions instead. So if the enemy is facing you and you want to attack his right side, you push the B button (on the right side of the controller). Rear attack? That's the Y button. In isolation it makes sense, but once everything starts moving? Not so much. See, if the camera turns, then the enemy's back may now be on the left side of the screen. So now a rear attack is X, while Y attacks his "right side". I'm not sure if this makes any seems like it would be easier to explain with a complicated diagram. But then, that tells you about how well combat flows in Jumper.

Further muddling matters is the fact that enemies have "strong sides" and "weak sides". If there's a little green bar on one side of an enemy, it's his weak side. Attack him there and you build up a special meter. But if the bar is red, it's his strong side and he'll immediately block incoming attacks from that direction and counter for heavy damage. It gets worse...the strong and weak sides move around the enemy at random moments while fighting. And sometimes enemies hunker down into a "defensive position" in which they're completely surrounded by red bars. So what we have is a fast-paced battle against numerous enemies where you can only attack from a specific direction that keeps changing, with a camera that's wildly rotating around the screen and the attack buttons remapping along with it. Fun!

This may make the game sound really difficult, but in fact Jumper is, as they say, "piss easy". Oh, you'll definitely die from time to time. But not because the bad guys outsmarted you. It'll just be because either 1) you got caught between camera rotations a couple times in a row or 2) because a couple enemies locked you into an unstoppable combo until you died. What's crazy is that these things just sort of happen randomly. You'll get your ass kicked in a fight thanks to some cheap camera/button remapping crap, reload, and breeze through it the second time. But outright failure is pretty rare. I'm not sure why these Paladins chose to feud with Jumpers...if this game is any indication then a single Jumper can mow through hundreds of Paladins without breaking a sweat. And if you ever do get in trouble there's usually a health item nearby.

Of course the biggest reason the game is easy is because it's so ridiculously short. There's an Achievement for beating it in 2 hours or less, and I assumed that was going to be difficult. Nope, actually I got it on my first playthrough without really trying. There are only six levels, one of which is the tutorial, and the longest of which is 20 minutes max. I guess if the game is going to be tortuous to play, it might as well be done quickly.

Rounding things out, the graphics are original Playstation quality. In particular, the character models are a joke. In big fights I often lost track of which character was me because all the characters are so bland and poorly designed. Also, it's been a long time since I encountered a camera that made me sick, but the low-resolution graphics and the overly touchy camera controls did a number on me this time. Thank God the game was short!

I should find some positive things to say, so here goes. Between chapters the plot advances in comic-book style cutscenes, which are over-the-top cheesy but otherwise tolerable. And the voice acting for the main character is fine, though he does repeat catch phrases a little too often.

Oh, and it's a great source of easy Achievement points if the camera doesn't make you lose your lunch. There's some mild collecting to do and two playthroughs are required for all the Achievements, but 800+ points for a lazy afternoon of stupidly easy brawling is good work if you can get it.

I don't recommend Jumper to anyone. Not even as a rental. This game is a wretched effort through and through. Jumper makes Disney's Bolt look like Half Life 2 by comparison.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

WAA - Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts

It's time for the Wednesday Achievement Awards! I forgot to mention yesterday that I'd also finish each of these with a rating (out of 10) for the quality of the Achievement set and another rating for how difficult it is to finish.

This week's game is Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts.

The "One With Combat"Award: "Blueprint Buyout"
Talk about simple. All you have to do is buy one blueprint from Humba in Showdown Town, which involves such challenging tasks as talking to her and clicking a button on one of the many blueprints she offers.

The "Mile High Club" Award: "A Lot of Trophy Pts"
No typos on my part there...that's actually how the Achievement is listed. I assume that "Pts" is short for points. In any case, every challenge in the game has three levels of success - the bronze level where you earn some notes but didn't really succeed (much like getting a certificate of participation), the silver level where you earn a jigsaw piece (which is what you need to proceed in the game), and the gold level which isn't really necessary but earns you a special trophy from Trophy Thomas. For this Achievement, you need to finish 60 of the 61 challenges at the top level, and while some of them are not that difficult, others are RIDICULOUSLY hard. There's not much advice I can give except to access the leaderboard on Live, which allows you to see a video replay of the top scores. Hopefully you can adapt some of their vehicle designs and strategies to beat the challenge. You'll still need sick B&K skills to beat some of these though.

The "Seriously..." Award: "Premier League"
Why are multiplayer Achievements such utter crap??? For this one, you need to complete a multiplayer "league" that includes every race and every sport/game available ALL IN A ROW. The good news is that you can do this locally if you have two controllers, so you don't have to find someone else crazy enough to go after this too. The bad news is that it takes several hours to complete with no breaks. I suggest starting up a local game with two controllers and then wandering off to do something else while it autoplays. What a stupid Achievement...

The "Little Rocket Man" Award: "Speedy of the Colossus"
Again, not a typo. This Achievement cuts to the heart of everything that makes B&K: Nuts and Bolts fun - designing crazy vehicles to meet a specific purpose. For this one you need to build an enormous vehicle of 200 or more pieces and then get it to go over a set speed (the game doesn't say, but it's pretty fast). Of course, that's not so simple because a big vehicle is heavy and so it isn't easy to get it moving quickly. If you're stumped, highlight this section for a hint: (Use wings to get high in the air, then use gravity and a little rocket power to build up some serious speed!)

The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: "Arcade Pwner"
Yes, just yes. This is everything that Achievements are about in my eyes. Within the game is a separate mini-game starring Klungo, the lizard assistant from previous B&K games. It's an old-school side scroller out of the Pitfall school, but with a hilarious take on the genre. If you beat all the levels (some are actually pretty tough), you get this awesome Achievement. As if that wasn't enough, you also get a free Gamerpic of the Achievement as well, which you can then use online. AND I DO!

Achievement Set Rating - 8
It's a very solid set. You'll find the Achievements come pretty steadily throughout the game, and there aren't too many multiplayer awards to get in the way. The icons are colorful and reasonably varied.

Achievement Difficulty Rating - 5
If you want around 800 points, you can accomplish that in 20 hours or so without much difficulty. The final 200 are going to take some real effort though, both in setting up online matches and grinding out those last few trophies.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Achievement Awards

It's like Achievements...for Achievements! I used to do these in my reviews on, and I've decided to bring them back. Each Wednesday, I'll pick a game and post my selections for its Achievement Awards. The categories:

The "One With Combat"Award: For the easiest Achievement
The "Mile High Club" Award: For the hardest Achievement
The "Seriously..." Award: For the most tedious/annoying Achievement
The "Little Rocket Man" Award: For the most innovative/fun Achievement
The Scientist Gone Gamer Award: For the best looking icon (because I'm the one person on earth who cares)

So check back tomorrow and I'll hand out some awards!

EDIT: It was pointed out in the comments that these titles might not be crystal clear to people who aren't IMMERSED in the world of Achievements. With that in mind, here are the origins of the awards.

"One With Combat" was the fifth and final Achievement in Avatar: Burning Earth. All five could be completed within 45 seconds of the game's opening with little more effort than tapping a single button repeatedly. These are the easiest (and cheapest) 1000 points available in the 360 library.

"Mile High Club" is from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. After beating the game, there is a short, timed bonus level to complete. This Achievement requires that you beat the bonus level on the Veteran (i.e. hardest) difficulty, which is a near-superhuman task. I'm not claiming it's the most difficult Achievement out there, but it is definitely not for the faint of heart.

"Seriously..." is a now infamous Achievement from Gears of War that tasks the player with accumulating 10,000 kills in online multiplayer. Current estimates put the time needed for this milestone at 400 hours. Also, the Achievement is known to be glitched in such a manner that some kills, while registering on your total, don't count towards the Achievement. Many people have reported needing up to 13,000 kills, which would add an additional 100 hours minimum. There is a difference between "Achievements" and "Ludicrous time wasters"...apparently Epic Games and Microsoft don't know the difference.

"Little Rocket Man" is from Orange Box and is one of my all time favorites. At the beginning of Half Life: Episode 2 you can find a garden gnome in a building. You have to carry the garden gnome with you throughout the entire episode and stuff it into a rocket that gets fired into space at the very end. The trick is that you can't fight or drive a car while holding the gnome, so you have to set it down for combat, wedge it into the passenger seat while driving, and above all make sure you don't lose it along the way. While it can be frustrating (particularly while fleeing from enemy helicopters!), this award makes you approach the game in a totally different way, the hallmark of a great Achievement.

Disney's Bolt

Yes, that title is serious. I played through Bolt. I did this despite the fact that it's based on a kid's movie. And despite the fact that I haven't even seen said kid's movie.

What a man will do in the name of Achievement points...

Anyway, Bolt is a simple little 3D platformer. It doesn't really warrant a full review, so here are some quick hit points:

- Anyone who reads my stuff should hear "3D platformer" and instinctively think "How's the camera?" straight away. The answer: surprisingly competent. I can count the number of deaths I incurred as a result of the camera on one hand, which I consider acceptable.

- The game is divided into sections that use Bolt (the dog) and sections that use Penny (the girl who owns him). The Bolt sections are combat heavy, while the Penny sections are stealth/platforming based. I have to admit that Penny's sections were actually pretty amusing. The platforming is tight and is complemented by the solid camera. Penny uses this weird retractable stick thing with wheels on both ends to roll along ledges and up between vertical columns. She can use knockout gas bombs to knock out enemies as well, which helps with the stealth bits.

- However, the Bolt combat sections are really tedious. This game is not bashful about sending waves and waves of identical bad guys after you. Bolt has a small arsenal of attacks that he'll use over and over and OVER to dispatch these foes. It's hard to believe that a game about a dog that shoots lasers out of his eyes could be boring, but when the enemy roster consists of hundreds of generic drones, you can get tired of just about anything.

- As far as I understand the plot of the movie (I've only seen the trailer), it's about a dog that acts in a T.V. show but doesn't realize it, so it thinks it really has super powers. The game makes the smart decision to abandon that and instead have you play through a few "episodes" of the show so that Bolt really does have super powers. Kudos to the designers, because I suspect following the actual plot of the movie would have made for a dull game.

- Bolt isn't quite as short as a lot of kid's games, but it certainly isn't long either. I beat it in a couple days, with the full 1000 Achievement points coming shortly thereafter. Thus a rental is probably the way to go.

- Speaking of Achievements, the list is solid and mostly fair. My one complaint is that you need to collect a bunch of power ups that are hidden throughout the levels. There's a chapter select to replay specific levels if you want to target a power up you missed, but there's no indication of which levels contain the missing collectible. As always, it's best to follow a guide so you don't end up casting randomly around in the game hoping to find the power up that you missed.

Bolt is okay for kids who have a high tolerance for repetitive combat, but I wouldn't recommend it much beyond that. It does offer 1000 fairly pain-free Achievement points though!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Prince of Persia - Complaints

I did a TON of gaming over the Thanksgiving weekend. Unfortunately I didn't do any blogging, so now it's time to play catch-up.

First I'll finish my series on Prince of Persia. I was pretty positive about the game earlier, but now it's time to vent some bile by pointing out all the game's flaws. In no particular order:

- The combat is boring and cheap. It relies way too heavily on quick-time events, some of which require the player to hammer away on a specific button for several seconds. Enemies block at random and can trigger special attacks whenever they care to, often multiple times in a row later in the game. I could do the platforming in this game for hours but the battles lose my interest in seconds.

- Enemies also sometimes glow a specific color that indicates they can only be hit by a certain type of attack. The color for a magic attack with Elika is black. The color for a throw attack is dark, dark, dark purple (i.e. black). If you call for Elika when you were supposed to do a grab move, she collapses in a heap until you can get to her position and revive her. Take a guess as to how this works out during a frantic, quick-time event laden battle. An Xbox can render THOUSANDS of different colors - why exactly did these two have to be identical?

- PoP is surprisingly glitchy for an Ubisoft game. In particular, the Epilogue is very poorly constructed. The most egregious was an audio bug that caused a high pitched screeching sound like nails down a chalkboard to loop constantly while playing. Most of the bugs are well documented in the online community, yet Ubisoft has done little to fix them.

- Speaking of the Epilogue, which can be downloaded from Live for a little extra dough, it is a FLAMING TURD. I've heard that some people complained the game was too easy, and Ubisoft apparently thought the best way to handle that complaint was to sharpen their platforming gameplay to a point and shove it under our fingernails as we tearfully apologized for our impertinence. The retail game makes you feel like a superhero as you swing and leap around the environment, while the add-on content makes you feel as if the Prince's hands have been replaced by walrus flippers, stumbling and flailing about the ridiculously lengthy series of jumping puzzles.

- Oh, and everything that sucks about the combat in the regular game is 100 times worse in the Epilogue. Same bosses as the original but even cheaper? Hooray!

- The Achievement list is mostly based on widget collection (1001 light seeds). All the icons are the same crappy picture. The whole thing is pretty uninspired.


- And the worst issue of all: the ending is CRIMINALLY bad. I would have been irate with the ending if I hadn't been so stupified with its pure idiocy. Not only does it not make any sense given the characters, but it completely nullifies everything you worked to achieve in the game. Then everyone complained that the ending sucked, so they made an Epilogue to give the game a more "satisfying" ending, only that one sucked too! You go through the whole game working your ass off to save the land, then undo it all in seconds. Why? So they can make a PoP2 and make you do it all again. Seriously Ubisoft...fuck you. That is a total dick move and I won't forget it.


I'm not sure what to make of Ubisoft these days. I've liked their games in the past, but we're not getting along so well lately. At least I got the sense that they were trying to make a good game with Assassin's Creed, even if they failed miserably. This PoP game has some strong points, but it's riddled with bugs and bad design decisions, plus the cop-out ending is a total deal-breaker for me. I'm not ready to cut them off completely, but a couple more bombs like this and we could get to that point.

For those still interested in PoP, I'd recommend renting the retail version and avoiding the downloadable Epilogue like the plague.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Prince of Persia - Plot

Most of the time I can see pretty early where a game is headed story-wise, and it'll be abundantly clear whether I'm going to like the plot or not. But occasionally a game will surprise me. Prince of Persia is one of those games.

PoP establishes a rudimentary plot right from the word go. Within the first hour you (as the titular character) meet a mysterious woman (Elika), save her from some bad guys, observe as her father opens the seal to a dark God in an ancient temple (why do people do never ends well), and escape with your lives. The rest of the game involves hunting down a bunch of McGuffins, in this case Light Seeds, and healing the various sections of the land to prevent the reincarnation of the dark god.

My first thought: LAME.

Sorry Ubisoft, but we've been down this road many times before. Preventing the re-emergence of an evil being of terrible power is a REALLY common video game trope. And in this case we get very little backstory to make the task more interesting. Where is this strange land? Why does the Prince, a wandering tomb thief, care about this? Who is this dark god threatening, and why? How does Elika fit into all of this?

But no, the game just throws you into the adventure and says "Get to work" without a bit of explanation. Needless to say, I was not impressed.

Here's the thing though - I was totally wrong. The game isn't about all that "save the world from the dark god" crap at all. I mean it is, but only in the sense of having a reason to run around, explore the environments, and get in the occasional dust-up with an enemy. The REAL story is the burgeoning relationship between Elika and the Prince. Yep, PoP is a love story!

Don't believe me? Check out the two main characters. The Prince is your typical bad-boy with a heart of a gold. He makes his way by stealing valuables, but only from the tombs of dead rich people. He's a little rough around the edges, but it's largely a macho front designed to keep people at a distance because he's been through a past trauma. He constantly talks about only looking out for himself because it's the only person he can trust. Of course, that doesn't stop him from dropping everything going in his life to risk his neck repeatedly for a mysterious female stranger. He's wandered throughout the world on a number of adventures, but it's always been ALONE.

As for Elika, she's a princess who has spent her life carrying a terrible burden for her people. She has magical powers that protect her people from the dark god, but because of that she must live in protected isolation, never leaving the bounds of the palace. Plus she has her own emotional baggage, with a mother who died while she was young, a father who suffered depression since, and no friends to help her along the way. She's tough and proud, but mostly just to hide the fact that she's lonely and has never seen the world.

Now, I'm no expert on romance novels (that's my wife's territory), but are these two not straight out of central casting? He's the dark, wandering hero who the Princess can find frustrating and yet intriguing at the same time. And she's the proud, beautiful woman who needs his help and just might be able mend his (nominally) wicked ways.

The crazy thing is that their romance is completely optional, because they only really interact if you press the L Trigger to keep their conversation going. You can just ignore it (much like the Z-button scenes in Tales of Symphonia), but you'd really be missing out on one of the best parts of the game. The interactions between Elika and the Prince feel realistic and make the story a lot more interesting.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Assassin's Creed Plot - A Lesson in Failure

More good comments from Rachel yesterday. She's wrong about one thing though...I have no issue with linking to her site no matter how big an Ubisoft fan girl she is. In general I really like Ubisoft and I've played a ton of their games. It's just that, thanks to Assassin's Creed, I'm once bitten and twice shy.

Speaking of Assassin's Creed, one of my biggest disappointments with the game was the story. A disgraced member of a brotherhood of assassins must redeem himself by slaying nine high profile targets in the ancient Middle Eastern holy lands, all the while unraveling the mystery of how they're connected and what terrible secret they're dying to protect? How can that miss? Well, it missed and by a wide mark.

More than anything, the designers' biggest mistake was in rationing out the story FAR too slowly. I like suspense as much as the next guy, but every time you eliminated a target you'd think, "Finally, they're sure to tell me a little bit about what's going on now!" But's just more of the same ambiguous crap and idle prattle that you've been given in heavy doses all along. By the time the game decided to tip its hand and give us a big reveal (at the VERY end), I had long since stopped caring. I think a lot of this was borne of the fact that they were trying to make a series of games and didn't want to use up too many good ideas on the first one. Here's a thought guys: make a great game first and THEN develop it into a series if people like it.

Plus the dialogue was insulting to the player's intelligence on a variety of levels. I remember the doctor who maimed his psychologically ill patients to keep them under control. And when I killed him, the magnanimous bastard had the audacity to make it sound like he was the good guy, chiding me that he was only doing what was necessary and "you wouldn't allow a child to come to harm if it was throwing a fit, would you?" Uh no, but I wouldn't break it's legs to shut it up either, dumbass. Who are you kidding here?

I only bring these things up because my next post will talk about the plot of Prince of Persia, which is greatly streamlined compared to AC, and yet it works for me on a more subtle level. Also AC2 comes out soon and I'm hoping against hope that the story is better conceived. The tedious gameplay of the first game would have been well worth it if the story had lived up to expectations.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Prince of Persia - Gameplay

Prince of Persia is a series reboot that Ubisoft released for a variety of platforms, including the 360. The previous games were much beloved, and I'd like to think this move was an apology by Ubisoft for the wretched release that was Assassin's Creed. For a full review of that monumental failure, check Jeff's Achievement Box here.

Playing Prince of Persia, I feel like Ubisoft could have made the perfect game if they had just combined it and Assassin's Creed into one uber-game. Whereas AC saddled their platforming masterpiece with a bunch of tedious busywork and design flaws, POP is all about scrambling through richly detailed environments. That includes climbing walls, hopping from pillar to pillar, leaping across chasms, and a number of other acrobatic moves. While there's certainly a learning curve, a little practice is all it takes to get the Prince scaling impossible surfaces with seeming ease.

I can't play a third-person platformer without commenting on the camera, and in the case of POP that means doling out some well deserved praise. The camera in this game is fantastic, easy to position and almost always pointed right where I need it. A sure sign of a great camera is that I've barely even thought about it while playing.

Another mechanic that works really well in POP is your companion Elika, the magical "do-over" machine. Any time you make a mistake and send the Prince on a flailing plunge to Jagged Rock City, Elika uses her magic to transport you back to the most recent solid ground you were inhabiting. It's the same effect as if you were saving the game after every series of jumps, but without the tedium of actually doing so. I really like the way Elika works in the game, because it encourages you to explore the environment without the punishment of a Game Over if you're wrong. Hmm...that column is pretty far away. Can I make the jump? Whoops, it looks like I can't...good thing Elika is here to save me!

The only area where I think Ubisoft needs more improvement is in combat. POP doesn't feature nearly as much combat as AC (thank God), but there's still a fair bit of it. They've replaced the frequent battles against waves of soldiers with occasional battles against boss monsters. The issue is that these are repeated quite a bit and they become pretty tedious over time. Again, Elika saves you before you can ever die, so it's mostly a matter of pattern recognition and attrition. By the time you fight the same boss for a fifth time, you'll probably feel just about done with the experience.

I'm a little over halfway done with POP, but so far I'd recommend it to anyone who likes well-designed platformers.

Trivial Pursuit - Add on Packs

Rachel brought up a great point in the comments, so I thought I'd address it in a new post:

"What about various packs? I really enjoyed the movie pack but are there others? What did you think of those?"

It's true that Trivial Pursuit offers downloadable question packs that can be added to your game. You can play any of the modes using just the downloaded packs, or you can add the packs to the original questions. The packs have themes, so there's a movie pack, a sports pack, and a video game pack to name three.

The movie pack was free so I downloaded it and tried it out. Overall I liked it. The basic format stays the same, but all the questions are now about a specific topic. So if you land on an orange square (Sports and Leisure), you'll get a question about a sports movie instead. For people who prefer to show off their knowledge on one topic rather than a broad range, it's a good idea.

I didn't buy any of the other packs - in fact, Trivial Pursuit is on its way back to Gamefly - but the video game pack would have been interesting.

Eventually I'll have to try one of the Scene It games available for the 360 as a comparison to Trivial Pursuit.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trivial Pursuit

Sorry for the radio silence lately...I was out of town and therefore not gaming.

But I'm back and better than ever! Or at least the same as always. I finished Trivial Pursuit yesterday so it's time to put it under the microscope and see how it fares.

As a recreation of the board game, Trivial Pursuit holds up reasonably well. You roll a die, move spaces around the board, and answer trivia questions in six different categories. There's a "Classic" mode that just uses the typical rules, but the gameplay is fleshed out with two additional bonus modes. One is "Clear the Board", a single player variant in which you answer questions for points as you collect the various pie wedges. I guess this mode is meant to satisfy antisocial people who like trivia, but I found it to be pretty dull. Far better is the "Facts and Friends" mode, a multiplayer variant in which each player shares one game piece as it moves around the board and the other players try to guess whether their friends will get questions right or not. It also includes bonus tiles that allow players to steal pie wedges or teleport the game piece around the board. It's a nice update to the classic rules that largely negates the advantage of one person being luckier with their die rolls than the other.

There are some key differences between the board game and this title though. First of all, questions are answered largely as multiple choice affairs rather than straight memory recall, as in the original board game version. Multiple choice definitely changes the dynamic, as seeing the correct answer will often jog your memory. Even eliminating a couple wrong answers gives a player a good chance of guessing the correct one. Beyond that, I still question whether this is an adequate replacement for the actual board game in local play. Certainly being able to play remotely with friends over Live is an advantage, but if we're in the same house then call me a Luddite but I'd still much rather roll the dice and read the cards to each other than sit on the couch staring at the TV.

A lot of board games have been translated into Live Arcade titles, including Catan, Carcasonne, and all the Family Game Night entries. But Trivial Pursuit was released as a full retail game, so it has to be judged based on those terms. Given that, I don't think it holds up really well. The experience is too shallow and fleeting to merit a full price purchase in my eyes. Although I will say that I never saw a repeat question, which is a plus.

In terms of Achievements, the full 1000 is a pretty simple task to complete. Most of them are earned for completing the various modes (classic, CTB, F&F) without missing questions in the six categories. The rest of them are tied to fairly simple tasks...there's a decent variety but there's really only so many challenges to be had in a game of Trivial Pursuit. While the icons are colorful, they're just pie wedges on colored backgrounds. I'm not sure what else they could have done given the limits of the material, but it's a dull and repetitive set.

Overall, I'd only recommend the game to a person who was a big fan of trivia games and wanted something to play with distantly located friends over Live.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

CSI: Hard Evidence - Review and Achievements

CSI: Hard Evidence is a game based on the very popular TV show. I'll say right upfront that I don't watch CSI, so I'm not really sure how true to the show it is. It does use actors and settings from the program. On the downside, the character models are primitive so the likeness between some of the actors and their virtual avatars is not terribly convincing.

The game consists of five cases that you must solve using techniques culled from CSI shows. You visit crime scenes, collect evidence like fingerprints and blood samples, interrogate suspects, and piece together the details of the case. It's all done in a point and click mechanic similar to PC adventure games of a bygone time. The gameplay works pretty well, though I couldn't shake the feeling that it would be a lot easier to interact with a mouse rather than a gamepad.

On the plus side, the cases are pretty compelling. Each one weaves a pretty interesting story, and there are always multiple suspects so it's not easy to narrow down who the guilty party is. The voice acting is mostly solid, which is good because a lot of your time is spent questioning witnesses and grilling suspects.

The game is also highly accessible. There are no tests of speed or dexterity can take as long as you need and skill with a controller is not mandatory. The game also provides hints if you want them at any time, though using hints hurts your final rating for the case.

The downside of the game is that it gets pretty repetitive once you learn the format. You find the clues, you process them in the same ways, and you click through conversation options until the suspect cracks and gives away key information. I found the first couple cases pretty enjoyable, but by the end I was mostly going through the motions.

I was also frustrated by some unfairly hidden clues. As an example, one case hinged on finding a matchbook in the back seat of an impounded cab. The cab was dark, and for some reason the garage where we were keeping it was poorly lit as well. So you have to fumble around in the dark until you put the cursor over the matchbook by chance, THEN the game lets you turn on your flashlight, and only then can you find the matchbook. Couldn't I use the flashlight from the start? Or better yet, could we set up some lights while inspecting a vehicle for evidence?

The Achievements are not well done, but they're definitely a quick source of 1000 points. There are only five awards, one for solving each case. You can beat the case with any rating and still get the Achievement, so it doesn't matter whether you deduce the facts on your own merits or make full use of every hint in the game. I'd estimate that it took me about 8 hours to beat the game and get all the points. Oh, and all the icons are the same crappy picture shown above...weak!

Still, I'll give CSI credit for what it is. It's a short but relatively well constructed foray into the world of a crime-scene investigator. Plus it's not every game where you have to swab DNA samples from both sides of a used condom, prompting your wife to ask, "What kind of game are you PLAYING?!"

Monday, November 2, 2009

Grand Theft Auto IV: A Review and A Revelation

I finished the first DLC expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV (The Lost and the Damned) this weekend. I have very little to say about it. If you love GTA4 then you probably already bought it. If you were indifferent or worse, then definitely give it a miss. It's all the same GTA gameplay with a shorter, dumber story and less compelling characters than the original game.

I did like how they called their biker gang a "motorcycle club" as if driving around on a Harley and beating people to death with a baseball bat is akin to bridge or needlepoint.

As I was playing the expansion though, I had a bit of a revelation that totally changed my view of the GTA games. You see, Rockstar has made a lot of these GTA games over the years (don't let the "4" fool you...there's like a hundred of these things) and they all follow the same formula: amazing technology showcased in a freeform universe, but with absolute SHIT gameplay. GTA4 stepped it up a notch by introducing high quality presentation, a relatively cohesive story (though it falls apart in places), and some genuinely sympathetic characters. And like always, as a piece of technology GTA4 is light years ahead of the competition. No virtual city has been more detailed and plausible than Liberty City. But the gameplay? SAME OLD SHIT.

Let me give an example of how a mission in GTA4 works to illustrate this concept. Spoilers abound, so if you want to play the game without hearing about one of the main missions, stop reading now:

Background - Your cousin Roman has been kidnapped by some nogoodnicks as a means of revenge against some of your previous actions. He's being held captive in an abandoned building near an oil refinery. You have to rush over to his location, gun it out with a small army of goons, and save him.

Attempt 1 - I picked up the mission halfway across the city from the abandoned building where Roman was being held, so the first thing I had to do was commandeer a vehicle and haul my butt over there. As I drove, my enemy Dimitri called to gloat about how he's got my cousin and there's nothing I can do about it. We hurl some generic threats and insults at each other. It's a moderately long drive and the conversation goes on far longer than is necessary. I finally arrived and stormed the building, killing wave after wave of enemies. You have to wind your way up to the top of the building and at each level more enemies spawn to attack you.

The first attempt seems to be going well...I've eliminated most of the enemies and haven't taken much damage. I'm being very careful to kill all the enemies on each level so nobody can get me from behind while I'm engaged with forward opposition. Imagine my surprise when I get near the top and suddenly find that I'm taking copious amounts of damage but no new enemies are visible. I quickly look around and discover that some baddies have spawned BEHIND ME on the metal girders supporting the buildings roof. So what, were these guys hiding in the rafters all day waiting for an intruder to show up so they could fire machine guns at him while precariously balanced 30 feet up in the air? That makes sense. In any case, this little ambush costs me most of my health and the next little group of enemies only need one shot to finish me off. Mission restart.

Attempt 2 - I start all the way back where I picked up the mission. Grab a car, endure another round of Dimitri's now-repetitive taunting, and arrive at the building. Same gunfight as before, but this time I know about the baddies that suddenly appear on the rafters. I blast them before they can get me this time, finish off the last group of thugs, and go through a door to an office. Another goon is using my cousin as a human shield and threatens to kill him. A prompt appears telling me that I need to pick off the bad guy before he kills Roman. Forget for a moment that it makes no sense for this guy to assassinate the person he's using as a shield. The game warns me that I need to use a steady, controlled weapon so I don't hit Roman. Bad news kids...I just got through a huge gunfight with a bunch of heavily armed killers and I didn't do it with a popgun - I was obviously using my assault rifle. I switch to my pistol and take aim at the bad guy, but IT'S TOO LATE! He kills my cousin, thus assuring a quick death for himself and a quick trip to Game Over land for me. Mission restart.

Attempt 3 - Steal car, call from Dimitri, battle through refinery, don't forget ninjas on the rafters. This time I make sure to equip my pistol BEFORE entering the office. Now that I know it's coming, I'm easily able to snipe the bad guy resulting in a cool slow-mo cutscene where the bullet just misses Roman and kills the bad guy. Awesome, though I'd have enjoyed it more if I weren't seething from having to go through this whole thing three times. Roman and I escape from the back entrance, head down a stairwell, and jump into the only available getaway vehicle, a semi truck. Roman starts shouting that the police are coming (you can hear sirens) and we need to leave quickly. Not wanting to risk a police chase in a semi, I make haste to escape. Unfortunately we're in the middle of the refinery and it's not clear which way we need to go. I turn the wrong way, realize my mistake, and carefully maneuver the truck to turn around. In doing so, I accidentally tap (emphasis on TAP) one of the many barrels littered throughout the place. It instantly explodes, as does (I wish I was kidding) our truck with us in it. Mission restart.

I got it on the fourth try, but only through gritted teeth. This is the essence of GTA games: you die over and over until you figure out how the designers wanted you to solve the mission. Every failure necessitates a restart from the beginning and a lot of pointless do-over bullshit. It's aggravating and unfair (they love to use tricks like making enemies invincible until they arrive at a preordained showdown location), but most of all IT ISN'T FUN.

I've always wondered how the same people who are so brilliant when it comes to world-building and utilizing technology could be so ignorant when it comes to making the dang thing fun. But while playing the expansion, I had my revelation and it was all instantly clear:


Despises them, as one would feel about crawling vermin that one might find in one's basement. The whole of the GTA universe was created as a giant monkey trap for gamers, who are then summarily tortured for the amusement of Rockstar's employees. It's not that they aren't competent enough to make a fun game that would complement their technological's that THEY DON'T WANT TO. The sprawling, detailed world is the sweet scent to draw you in to the Venus flytrap that is their shitty gameplay.

Dear Rockstar: I am on to you.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A New Gaming First for Me

Having been a gamer for over 25 years, I've pretty much seen and done just about everything in video games. But "The Lost and the Damned" - a downloadable expansion for Grand Theft Auto IV - provided me with a brand new experience.


Yup, I was just minding my own business watching a cutscene depicting negotiations between a biker thug and a corrupt politician when what should appear in all its fully rendered glory but the politician's one-eyed trouser snake, dangling for all to see. YIKES!

I find it ironic that, given the misogynistic leanings of the gaming industry in general (not to mention GTA in specific), my "bare crotch viewing scorecard" now reads 1 for the gentlemen and 0 for the ladies. It's not the way I would have drawn things up, but such is the life of a gamer!

Friday, October 30, 2009

My Current Playlist - 10/30/2009

Lego Indiana Jones is headed back to Gamefly, and I'm not sure what's on the way next.

I started Pure and I'll be working intermittently on that, though it's too repetitive to pound out in a few consecutive sittings like I do with most games. I passed on Lego Batman for now...a little Lego goes a long way form me so I'll put that off for a while.

I also started Borderlands this week. Since it's supposed to be best as a multiplayer game, I'm working through it with a couple friends. Naturally the trade off is that I won't be playing the game very quickly, because they can only really meet up once a week.

Until Gamefly sends my new games, I'll probably stick with some combination of Pure and Family Game Night, although the Grand Theft Auto IV DLC might get a test run at some point.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lego Indiana Jones - Achievements

I've already mentioned that you can finish Lego Indiana Jones in a weekend, Achievement whores are probably already thinking that it might be a good source for easy points. Well, for the most part they're right! It's no Avatar, but LIJ gives up the points pretty easily.

Each of the game's 18 chapters yields an Achievement as you progress. That's over one third of the awards right there. Another group of Achievements are earned by performing task X at total of Y times. Examples include digging up buried Lego parts 50 times or building Lego objects 250 times. If those sound like a lot, don't do most of this stuff a lot during the course of the game.

Then there are the more unique Achievements, which are usually my favorites.

"How dare you kiss me!" - 15 points
You get this one for using your whip to grab Indy's three main love interests from the movies (Marion, Willie, and Elsa) and giving them each a kiss.

"That's for blasphemy!" - 20 points
Recalling the classic scene from Last Crusade, you need to pummel Jones Jr. with Jones Sr.

My favorite aspect of the set were the titles. As you can see in the above examples, each Achievement is denoted with a related quote from the movies. Favorites include "It belongs in a museum!" and "How we say goodbye in Germany".

My least favorite aspect is probably the icons themselves. I like the ones that depict scenes from the movies with Lego characters, but there are far too many like this:

"Start the engines, Jock!" - 20 points
Fix 50 Lego objects with the wrench. So it's a wrench and it has the number 50...I guess that covers the basic gist of the Achievement but it's not exactly inspiring. How about Lego Jock holding the wrench, and get rid of the "x50" bit altogether?

I'd estimate that you can get all 1000 points for LIJ in around 15 hours of play without much trouble.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Lego Indiana Jones - Review

I finally put a stake through Resident Evil's heart last Saturday, so that night I started playing Lego Indiana Jones. The next day, around noon or so, I beat Lego Indiana Jones. And no, I wasn't up playing it all night or anything. The game is just really short and really easy.

Backing up a bit, I played both of the Lego Star Wars games and I thought they were pretty fun. They weren't gaming Hall of Fame caliber or anything, but they were amusing diversions. Now I'm a big fan of Indiana Jones (both Raiders and Last Crusade would probably make my top 20 films list), so I thought I'd give this game a shot.

To end any suspense, it's not as good as the Star Wars titles. That may be a little surprising since it came after them and benefits from some additional polish. But I think the failing is more conceptual, an inherent difference between Star Wars and Indiana Jones. In the Star Wars games, some of the levels are played on foot, say blasting Stormtroopers in the halls of the Death Star while saving Leia. Others are played in Lego vehicles, like piloting an X-wing or the Millennium Falcon. There was enough variety that the game didn't get dull...about the time you thought "I'm tired of jumping around this swamp with Yoda" they'd stick you on a speeder bike on Endor to mix things up.

But Indiana Jones doesn't really have that. Oh, there's the minecart section from Temple of Doom, but for the most part it's Indiana Jones running around in tombs, solving puzzles, and avoiding snakes. It's fun for a while but if you get bored of that formula, there's just more and more of the same. On top of that, the game really plays up the 3D-platforming during the puzzle solving sections, and you don't get any control of the camera. That leads to some unnecessary plunges into instant-death pits.

The designers tried to make up for these issues by making the game easy. Really easy. You can die as much as you want with essentially no consequences (just a little lost Lego studs). Now, I don't mind if a game is easy as sometimes it's fun to just experience a game without the frustration of constant failure. But combine the fact that it's easy and the fact that it's short, and you can see why I beat the game in just a few hours. You can go back into each level and comb for secrets, but unless you're trying to get all the Achievements or just desperate to justify purchasing the game, there really isn't much draw to do so.

Ultimately, Lego Indiana Jones is like the little bag of potato chips that comes with your Subway sandwich. It's tasty for a few moments, but ultimately it's disposable.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Resident Evil 5: Final Achievement Wrapup

I've covered every other aspect of RE5 exhaustively, but I finished off the Achievements last night so I'll finish up that series with a few comments about the set.

Overall, it's a pretty solid set of awards. Some are pretty standard, including the obligatory Achievements for finishing each chapter and beating the game on each difficulty setting. There are some collection Achievements for finding all the weapons and treasures...I usually hate collection awards but these make sense because there's obvious value to the items for which you're searching.

There are also some Achievements that are fun to pursue. Examples include shooting a stick of dynamite while an enemy is still holding it, trying to take out three enemies with one explosive barrel, and killing an enemy with a rotten egg to the face. The game also includes two secret weapons, and there are a pair of Achievements for killing a few enemies with each of those (they're both fun).

I only have two complaints about the set. The first is aesthetic: it' just not a very attractive set of icons. Lots of the pictures repeat, and the artwork is pretty mediocre. It's unfortunate because one of RE5's greatest strengths is the quality visuals.

My other beef is with the Achievement for fully upgrading every weapon. It takes A TON of cash to accomplish this task. I played through the game four times (admittedly one was a speed run), including one playthrough on Professional difficulty where you get double cash, and I still needed to grind through Chapter Select mode for around five hours to get the rest. A better idea would have been to make the award for fully upgrading one weapon of each type (handgun, rifle, shotgun, etc.). As it is, this one is a real pain in the butt.

If you do go for the weapon upgrade Achievement, make sure you keep all the weapons in your inventory, because it doesn't count if you upgrade and then sell them.

Friday, October 23, 2009

R.I.P. - Jeff's Xbox

Sad news on the gaming front...after four years of faithful service, my 360 finally gave up the ghost. I had a Pro system and was a fairly early adopter, so I was pleasantly surprised that the hardware gremlins plaguing so many owners (including several of my friends) didn't manifest for me.

But the picture had seemed way off for a couple days, and on Wednesday morning Rachel tried to turn it on, only to discover there was no video or audio output. Through process of elimination I was able to narrow down the issue to either the video cord (not so bad) or the video output chip in the machine (disaster). Trying to be optimistic, I bought a new video cord to replace the old one. No dice...the issue was unfixed.

Ironically the machine itself is running fine. It powers on and processes just like it should. But it won't send any video or audio signal out, which kind of defeats the purpose. So with a heavy heart (and light wallet), I bought a new 360 last night. It works fine (confirming that the old 360 is the problem), but it isn't quite the same.

I'm going to try and have the original one repaired. I could still sell it or keep it as a spare. But for now I'll just have to get used to this new interloper sitting in the spot where my old faithful machine rested only days ago.

This may seem like a lot of words to spill over a busted video game machine that I've already replaced (and I'm at least partly kidding), but you do have to understand that it was my favorite console that I ever owned. That's got to count for something!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

My Current Playlist

Rachel and I were playing some board games (Yahtzee and Battleship) on the 360 last night, and I scored a few Achievements that pushed me over the 70,000 point mark. That's an impressive monument to wasted time!

Anyway, here's a quick update of the games I'm either working on now or will be working on soon:

1. I'm about halfway through Professional mode on RE5. This will be my last playthrough, so for the most part I'll be done with the game. I've already written EXTENSIVELY about RE5, though I may do one last post to give an Achievement wrap-up (it's kind of my thing).
2. Family Game Night - I have all of the Yahtzee Achievements. I'm still working on Battleship, Boggle, Scrabble, and Connect Four. However, I didn't buy these as much for the Achievements as for having fun little diversions available, so I'm not looking to rush through them.
3. Lego Indiana Jones is here from Gamefly. In fact it's been here since Saturday, but I've been busy with RE5 so I haven't even put it in the machine yet. I'll give this a look soon...
4. I'd like to go back at some point and finish the Achievement set for Infinite Undiscovery and bang out a few more in Grand Theft Auto IV.
5. A while back I bought the two Penny Arcade games from Live and haven't had a chance to try them yet. Gotta' get on that soon too!
6. And I suppose when I send back RE5, Gamefly will send me something else. Do those people have no regard for my free time???

Sigh, the life of an Achievement whore is never restful...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Capcom - Racists or just Idiots?

A hypothetical conversation between two Capcom executives prior to the release of Resident Evil 5:

Jim: Hey, listen...I'm hearing rumors that game sites are previewing our upcoming release and calling it "racist". I haven't really been following the project that carefully, so is this something we should be worried about?
Slappy: Not at all. I put together some screenshots for you to look at. As you can see, there's nothing racist going on here.

Jim: Uh, this looks like a white hero locked in mortal combat with waves and waves of black people. That doesn't seem strange to you?
Slappy: Well, the game is set in Africa.
Jim: Oh I get it, so a viral outbreak - because ALL of our games are about a viral outbreak - happens in Africa and it affects the local populace. Okay, that makes perfect sense. We'll just get some PR guys talking to the media, they'll explain the setting and how it works within the Resident Evil conventions, and most people should understand that we aren't intending racism but merely verisimilitude.
Slappy: I don't know what "verisimilitude" means, but don't worry about the PR guys. We've already got it covered.
Jim: I'm not sure I like the sound of that...what do you mean covered?
Slappy: We made alterations to the game in response to the criticism. That should appease our critics.
Jim: I definitely don't like the sound of that. What kind of alterations?!
Slappy: Well, we made some of the mutated zombie villagers light skinned. See?

Jim: Wow, that's profoundly retarded. You do realize that it doesn't look like you mixed in some white zombies (which wouldn't make sense anyway), but that some Albino subgroup of the African populace was also infected? Because they have African features and are wearing local clothing...heck, it sort of looks like you spray-painted some of them white.
Slappy: Yeah, we pretty much just used the computers to recolor them and called it a day.
Jim: I don't think that fixes anything. Also, now that I read the design documents I'm seeing some other problems. It says here that the hero goes to a native village full of mud-and-stick huts? And the locals, dressed in rags and decorated with bones, feathers, and war paint, attack him with spears??? Is that right?
Slappy: Yeah, it's great. They make these yelping, growling sounds too. Spooky stuff. Well, not spooky like scary, but it disturbs the senses.
Jim: I'm definitely disturbed. You don't think that sounds a little over the top? I mean, spear chucking black natives...we're getting into some pretty blatant stereotyping here. And is this even necessary? How would natives living in isolation from the urban areas come in contact with the virus?
Slappy: Oh, they're being exploited by a pharmaceutical company run by white Europeans.
Jim: this some kind of commentary on the economic and industrial relationships between the Western world and underdeveloped nations? Sort of a "Constant Gardener" thing?
Slappy: Nah, they're just dicks. It establishes who the bad guys are. We couldn't think of a more subtle way to do it.
Jim: I'm getting a headache here...
Slappy: But don't worry, because I haven't shown you our trump card yet. The addition that makes it so nobody can accuse the game of being racist.
Jim: I'm afraid to ask.
Slappy: Meet the hero's partner, Sheva:

Jim: Yeah?
Slappy: Don't you see? SHE'S BLACK. So it's not a white person killing a bunch of black people. It's a white person AND a black person killing a bunch of black people. Bam - not racist.
Jim: Uh've got this all figured out. Why was I worried? I'm just going to check for openings in the video game field.
Slappy: Before you go, check out the best part. Once you beat the game and find all the collectibles, you can unlock her super-sexy "alternate" costume.
Jim: Oh Lord, this is going to be bad.
Slappy: It's great! Check it out:

Jim: Ah, so you've decided to kill the twin birds of racism AND sexism with one stone. Nice. I think I'll just put our lawyers on retainer now and avoid the rush.

Thus concludes our scene. For the record, I don't think setting a game in Africa and then having some of the baddies be Africans is racist. But Capcom handled this entire situation with the deft grace of a battering ram to the skull. It's unfortunate, because gaming companies will likely take the wrong lesson from this: namely that they should go back to putting only white people in games. Showing a little cultural variety is fine, heck it's encouraged, but applying a healthy dose of common sense at the same time would really help!