Sunday, November 30, 2008
My first foray into the God of War franchise is the PlayStation Portable's prequel, God of War: Chains of Olympus, which just so happened to come with my Limited Edition God of War PSP Entertainment Pack. This also happens to be the first handheld game I've gone through since I was a kid with a Gameboy (I mean the original Gameboy from the '80's. Yes, I feel old), and while it can't compare to a full console system in terms of both graphics and scope, God of War: Chains of Olympus is an excellent experience that's simply a lot of fun to play.
Set about 5 years prior to the events of God of War, Kratos is fulfilling his servitude to the gods of Olympus on the promise that they'll remove the horrible memories of his family's murder. The game begins with Kratos in Attica, a city under siege by the Persian Empire. The Persian king has unleashed a Basilisk, a huge dragon-like beast minus the wings, and Kratos' main objective is to butcher the thing, a talent he is most skilled at.
Like its predecessors, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a third person action game where Kratos hacks his way through all opposition to accomplish his goals, solving a few environmental puzzles along the way for good measure. As the story progresses, Kratos finds himself enmeshed in a much larger plot that may hold dire consequences not just for gods and men, but for himself and his own personal desires, and he has no choice but to set off on another dire quest.
Using his trademark Blades of Chaos, swords attached to chains on his wrists, Kratos can unleash all manner of devastating moves and combos upon his enemies. As you progress through the game, you'll be able to acquire new weapons and items as well as Magic (handy for crowd control), and you can upgrade many of these by spending Red Orbs which you collect from defeating enemies, finding them in chests, and smashing stuff (Yay!).
Visually, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a very impressive little game. Again, while it can't match the power of a current generation console, the details and effects that the PSP is able to produce are truly beautiful, and on par with many last generation games. There are excellent smoke, water, and particle effects, character models are crisp and clean, animation is fluid, and environments are a visual treat.
Audio wise, the voice acting is average fair, with Kratos being the all-to-common gruff anti-hero, but the sound and creature effects are spot on. The music, however, is simply excellent, part of a growing trend I've noted in the industry with lots of titles featuring significantly improved composed pieces. The quality of the music alone really raises my opinion of the game's overall soundscape, as it goes a long way to helping immerse the player in God of War's mythical universe.
The controls for the game are very well implemented and wonderfully fluid. You use the Analogue Stick to move Kratos around, and the face buttons execute Light and Heavy Attacks, Jump, and Grab, all the standard fair you'd expect from a hack and slash. Left Bumper blocks, Right Bumper activates Magic in combination with face buttons, and Left and Right Bumper plus the Analogue Stick allows you to Evade (the only major control function that took a little getting used to for me). When all is said and done, the only thing you can't really do is adjust the game's camera angle, something normally reserved for the Right Stick on consoles, but of course this control-option is absent from the PSP. The game always determines your camera angle for you, but thankfully it does an excellent job of this, and I can count on one hand the number of times I was stuck with a bad angle.
One thing to keep in mind though is that God of War: Chains of Olympus is a short game, taking just over 6 hours for me to complete on Normal. While there were some challenges at this difficulty, both combat and puzzle related, most of the enemies are simply canon fodder for Kratos' wrath and they all fell quickly to my Blades. There are several varieties of foes, from common soldiers to mythical creatures (like Medusas) to larger enemies like Cyclops, and many enemies can be finished off with a Finishing move. Once they've taken enough damage, a face button will appear and float above their head. Get close to them and press the corresponding button, and you'll be tossed into a wonderfully animated sequence where you need to quickly press more buttons for a great looking finisher that nets you more Red Orbs, and sometimes Green Orbs which restore Hit Points, and Blue Orbs that restore Magic Points. The major trick with these Finishing Moves, aside from the fact that I'm used to the Xbox brand's face buttons, is using the Analogue Stick with them. Often, I found I just couldn't move that stick fast enough or at just the right angle to satisfy the game, and I'd get tossed out and have to try the sequence again. If you fail though, the sequence isn't just a repeat, but randomized, so you really do need to watch what pops up on screen.
Make no mistake, God of War: Chains of Olympus is a mature title. Not only does it feature a great deal of gore, but it also presents female nudity. Much to my surprise, the game features bare breasts everywhere, be it on statues, gods, or enemies. It's not the presence of breasts that took me by surprise, but the fact that Ready at Dawn was able to get away with including them so prominently and receive only a Mature rating.
Many of my younger readers may not remember, but during the mid-'90's many mature games began including bare breasts, not in a sexually manipulative sort of way, but simply as part of the character models being drawn. Diablo and The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall are excellent examples of this, but then along came the public outrage with Duke Nukem 3D, and the censorship whip was cracked. Hilariously enough, Duke Nukem 3D didn't feature any actual nudity, the game's strippers still wore nipple tassels, but our sexually repressed society was greatly outraged and developers began to steer clear, instead once more obscuring breasts in different ways.
The fact that the God of War series has been able to successfully depict female breasts in the buff again is a step forward, not for horny teenagers who have yet to feel one and will drool all over their Controllers, but for the maturation of the gaming industry itself as a medium and an artform.
For replay value, the game's hardest difficulty is unlocked upon your first completion, and there are also extra costumes that grant various abilities which will become available to you. Specific game challenges are also unlocked that you can try to complete to unlock other costumes, videos, or concept art.
Despite it's short length, God of War: Chains of Olympus is an extremely polished game, and has opened the door to the first Sony-exclusive franchise that I don't hate. The fun I've had with God of War: Chains of Olympus has me seriously considering whether I should pick up a PlayStation 2 or not to experience the previous two titles, and it makes me wish the PlayStation 3 would still support backwards compatibility. If you happen to own a PSP, I see no reason why not to pick up this great little gem.
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Like it's predecessor, Gears of War 2 is one of the single most hyped games on any platform for this holiday season. In fact, if you're reading this, than it's highly likely that you already own a copy and have played it to death. It's generated huge hype, received excellent reviews, and is generally accepted as a smash success.
But me, I'm your average Joe, and like I said in my review for Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition (which you can find right here), I call them as I see them. Is Gears of War 2 "bigger, better, and more badass" as Epic Games loves to tote? To sum it up, yes, Gears of War 2 is a larger, more epic experience than the first game, but when all is said and done, Gears of War 2 suffers for the exact same reason: it amplifies the issues that weren't corrected from the first time around. To pull a quote right out of my Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition review: "Gears of War is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played with some fierce and intense gameplay, but some annoying design decisions often leave a good bit of the game an exercise in frustration."
Gears of War 2 begins with a nice little intro summarizing humanity's constant state of war, Emergence Day, and the eventual deployment of the Light Mass Bomb that you delivered at the end of Gears of War. While the COG thought the Locust Horde decimated, the Locust have returned in force and are pushing right at Jacinto itself, humanity's last city and safe haven.
While Gears of War didn't feature much in the way of a story, Gears of War 2 actually does. The characters are developed a lot better this time around, they're generally explored and fleshed out (even Jack, who's constantly around and useful to the point where I actually care for the little guy), and a lot of the concepts hinted at in the original game are brought to the forefront and built upon, if not completely revealed. While some of the story is rather hokey, let's face it, this isn't BioShock, it gets the job done, and even features a few moments that are really sad and touching.
I also feel it important to mention at this point that we actually get to see Anya more than once in the game, and Fenix isn't just standing there staring with a proverbial thought bubble above his head that says "Marcus see girl." This fact alone elevates the sequel above it's predecessor in the realm of storytelling. True, there's the odd part of the story that rather crumbles, and I thought the last third of the game got real sketchy from a story standpoint (not to mention the loss of feeling that you're a small part in a major offensive), but there's enough here to really call it an advancement and to set up another sequel.
Collectibles have also been revised, and even turned into a storytelling medium. In Gears of War, you collected COG tags scattered around the levels. Now, you collect various collectibles from COG tags, to documents, to books, and all of these collectibles provide story info with associated text, and they're actually quite a nice touch to the traditional item hunt.
As always though, I'm jumping ahead of myself, so let's get back to the beginning of the game. After a brief training period (that you can skip) in which you show Carmine the "Golden Rule," Marcus and Dom are called in to help repel another Locust incursion in a hospital. This here is tried and true Gears of War, in which you navigate beautifully designed levels taking cover and popping out to fire bursts at your enemy. The cover system is near identical to the original game, but it feels more refined, and a few moves are executed a little quicker and smoother, which is a big plus. The core gameplay mechanic of take cover, neutralize threats, and advance are just as addictive and satisfying as last time around, and it's the kind of experience that only Gears of War can offer.
Of course, the pop and gun gameplay is only as fun as the game's weapons and enemies, and thankfully, weapons like the signature Lancer Assault Rifle with it's wonderful Chainsaw bayonet return, and now you can ram your Chainsaw through an enemy's gut from behind, or engage in quick Chainsaw Duals with other Lancer-wielding foes. The Locust Hammerburst has also been redesigned, now functioning with more staggered bursts and a lot more kick, but it's better at long range and can blow an enemy's head clean off, something the Lancer is incapable of doing.
Other weapons, such as the Gnasher Shotgun and Longshot Sniper Rifle return with a few minor tweaks, and several new toys are introduced to add to the mayhem. I would say the highlight of these are the heavy weapons, such as the Mulcher and Mortar, large weapons that you carry around at the expense of movement, but they do significant damage (similar concept to the heavy weapons found in Halo 3) and add some nice variety to the game's standard mechanic. As does the Boomshield, an actual shield you can acquire to protect from all sorts of damage, and you can even stick it in the ground for use as static cover. It's simply a great, excellent innovation not only for damage reduction, but also as an expansion to the cover system.
Another overhaul on combat is the introduction of stopping power. Now, if you're shooting an enemy, they will actually slow down, which prevents people from simply rolling into you for a quick Shotgun kill, and changing the way the game is played forcing players to be that much more cautious.
Enemy wise, most of the Locust return, some with a few new tricks and others totally overhauled, and of course you have an assortment of new baddies to contend with. Most will make excellent use of cover and provide a suitable challenge, and with new enemies like the Kantus Monks who can bring non-gibbed Locust back from the dead, you're going to have your hands full.
Graphically, Epic Games has pushed the Unreal Engine 3 very nicely, and character models are more detailed, better lit, and they have more fluid animations than before. The game world itself is more vibrant than last time around, and Epic has been able to squeeze even more detail out of both environments and items. Simply watch the Lancer's barrel smoke and turn red after sustained fire to see what I mean. Awe inspiring, and as of this typing, Gears of War 2 stands as the best looking game I can think of on the Xbox 360. The game features some very nice panoramas, excellent cinematics, and larger (and more unique) locals than it's predecessor to fight in, which all add up for a visual delight.
Audio wise, the voice acting is the standard gruff fair like in the original game, and the sound effects are vivid and spot on. The game's soundtrack, though, is spectacular. So many of the game's compositions literally get you psyched up for battle, and I found myself humming them as I Curb Stomped Locust skulls in, and Curb Stomped I did.
Previously, you'd fill enemies full of lead and they'd die. Simple right? Well now, often times an enemy won't die right out (excluding blowing them to bits, of course), but they'll be Down but not Out, in which case they'll slowly crawl around bleeding out, trying to make it to an ally to revive them. If they reach an ally before you get to them or gun them down, they're revived and back in the action. If you get to them first, you can Curb Stomp them, perform an Execution (of which there are several delightfully nasty new moves), Pummel them to death, or pick them up as a Meat Shield, whip out your Pistol, and let them act as a bullet sponge for you. Get tired of lugging them around, you can drop them or break their neck with a satisfying snap that makes your own spine tingle!
The wonderful thing is that the Down but not Out system now applies to you, whether in Co-Op or Single Player. If you can get to an ally, they'll revive you, and you're right back in the game instead of loading that last Checkpoint. I literally yelped with glee when I first experienced this, simply because it's a solid offset to the game's horribly inadequate Checkpoint system, which has seen no improvement since the original game.
Seriously, what is it with console game developers and their obsession with shoddy save systems? Let me illustrate an example from Gears of War 2 for you. As shown in an early Campaign Gameplay video, towards the beginning of the game you're riding on these large vehicles called Rigs. After an exceptional cinematic showing the COG rallying for war to take the fight to the heart of the Locust, complete with awe inspiring music that really gets your adrenaline pumping, you're treated to one of the most poorly designed sections of the game that completely crushes the high you were just feeling.
Sections like these, and other such "turret sequences" found at several points throughout the game, are the exception to the wonderful cover and pop gameplay the series is so well known for, and they are the single biggest issue with Gears of War 2.
To continue with the current example, the Locust of course start attacking the Rigs, and as the Campaign Gameplay video showed, you need to shoot down Nemecyst and then some attacking Reavers. On the easier difficulties, this isn't too much trouble, but try it on Insane, and you'll be ready to put your Controller through your TV.
There is no margin for error in this sequence. A few Nemecyst hit the Rig, you die. That Reaver hits your Rig a few times, you die. The Down but not Out system has no bearing here, the cover system is useless, and it's a sequence that's clearly designed with Co-Op in mind, not Single Player, and is nothing more than an exercise in Checkpoint loading frustration. And what happens if you die? You have to load your last Checkpoint, but of course, it won't start you right at the beginning of the action, it'll start you at the beginning of the attack where you're forced to stand around and wait a minute before you can engage in combat. In short, just like the original game, the shoddy Checkpoint system kills momentum, pacing, and enjoyment.
It's the kind of design decision that makes you want to sit in a room with the developers and straight up ask them what were they thinking? Like it's predecessor, there are so many parts to Gears of War 2 that will thrill you, engage you, and provide you with experiences like no other game, but then Epic goes and drops the ball hard with several questionable design decisions that should have been stamped out earlier in the design process. There is a distinct love/hate relationship with Gears of War 2 because of this, and you suffer through these parts simply to get to the next rush, and I don't know whether to hate Epic Games for this, or to praise them for structuring the game well enough where I'll put up with the crap and keep going.
As many of you know from my reviews and posts, I have no tolerance what-so-ever for shoddy design. None. And why should I? In this industry that I love more than any other, in this industry that's doing so well that it now grosses more than Hollywood, why should I put up with something sub par? I can presently name you half a dozen titles, easy, that have been released this year alone that would qualify as must-own games, so if something has flaws, why should I spend my limited time on it? In the end, Epic Games should consider itself lucky that it has done more right than wrong, that the Gears of War 2 experience taken as a whole is so well done that horrible and inexcusable design decisions such as these "turret sequences" can be overlooked once passed.
Once you are done with the Campaign, which is a solid experience despite my above rant, you can then jump into the game's Versus and new Horde modes. Versus has the standard Multiplayer modes, but also some other interesting twists thrown in, like using a Stranded as a living flag to capture, and Horde mode sees up to 5 players working cooperatively against a maximum 50 waves of ever increasingly difficult Locust enemies. Gears of War 2 also features a wonderful Multiplayer training section in which the game shows new players the ropes in great detail, and this is an excellent edition that I really wish had been included in the first game. In fact, I was so impressed that a Multiplayer tutorial was includes, I actually played through it prior to touching the Campaign!
If you happened to spend the extra $10.00 on the Gears of War 2: Limited Edition like I did, you're treated to a wonderful SteelBook case which houses the game disc as well as the game's bonus disc. You also get a hardcover artbook, a code for a Gold Plated Lancer to be used in Multiplayer, and a keepsake photo of Dom and his wife Maria.
The bonus disc has a good "Making of" documentary called "Beneath the Surface," which highlights a lot of the design process on Gears of War 2, though honestly I found it mainly generic and forgettable unlike the original game's bonus DVD which showcased the relation and conflicts between developer and publisher. You also get some gameplay and cinematic trailers, an art gallery featuring character, weapon, and location development that has commentary but also likes to pause itself the second your Wireless Controller shuts itself off (and of course the bonus disc doesn't recognize the official Xbox 360 Media Remote), and there's also some Gamerpics that you can install to your HDD. Honestly, the bonus disc is rather disappointing save for the inclusion of four main tracks from the game's soundtrack, which as mentioned, are exceptional.
The hardcover artbook turned out to be all in French, and a softcover English book was thrown in for the rest of us. Not only is that a bit of a downer seeing as how we all paid for a hardcover book, but the artbook itself didn't provide us with anything we didn't already know. While the original game's artbook actually gave important backstory, the sequel's is, like the bonus disc, a bit of a letdown. At least Microsoft has put in place a program to have hardcover English artbooks sent out, though as of this typing I'm still waiting for mine.
Lastly, the Gold Plated Lancer codes weren't all working correctly at launch, but those issues are all fixed now and anyone can re-download them. But again, having an exclusive code that doesn't work right away isn't the best way to leave an impression, and overall, aside from the great SteelBook case, I have to say that the Limited Edition of Gears of War 2 is not worth it, and a disappointment over previous collector's editions.
So, there you have it. Bigger, better, and more badass indeed, but Gears of War 2 takes the scope of all it does well, and also amplifies all it does wrong. Beautiful graphics and intense gameplay are tempered with some shoddy level design and a horrible Checkpoint system, and the game's Limited Edition was rather lackluster as well.
Don't get me wrong, for all that Gears of War 2 screws up, it does a lot more right, but keep in mind that the game is not the be-all-end-all title for the Xbox 360. One major artistic element that Epic Games has constantly mentioned for their Gears of War franchise is that of destroyed beauty, how the world, the characters, and the encounters, the very style of Gears of War reflects that which once was beautiful, but has now fallen. It's a wonderful concept, and Epic Games has implemented it so well, that they may not even be aware that it's the perfect definition for their gameplay design, their mechanics, and their final product itself; the perfect definition for irony.
Epic Games has released some premium Themes for their smash hit shooter, Gears of War 2. These Themes are designed with the New Xbox Experience in mind, and don't have stretched images like original Themes now do. They also have animated and related backgrounds for the Friends Channel. You can find these premium Themes on the Xbox LIVE Marketplace for a lovely overpriced fee, but if you've already downloaded the original "Bare Your Teeth" and "Hope Runs Deep" Themes, you're in luck as Epic Games as replaced these Themes with Premium Themes.
Now, if you just go through the conventional Xbox LIVE Marketplace, the Microsoft Point cost is still there and it looks like you've got to pay, but if you go through your Download History, find your original downloads and redownload them, voila! These two Premium Themes are free! Not only that, but you also get to keep the original Themes you downloaded to!
Epic Games has also released a Title Update for Gears of War 2, which will patch the next time you launch the game while connected to Xbox LIVE. The Title Update mainly addresses matchmaking issues and a few other minor tweaks.
Details on the new Premium Themes here, and Title Update details courtesy of ActionTrip here.
A while back I downloaded the Left 4 Dead (Xbox 360) Demo, and didn't get around to trying it out until this morning.
The concept for the game certainly sounds great, and as the first TV Spot shows:
- Zombies. Check.
- 4 Player Co-op. Check.
- Apocalypse. Check.
Sounds like a perfect recipe for a shooter, doesn't it? So... what went wrong?
At present, I tried the demo's Single Player mode, which is the same as 4 Player Co-op save that your three allies are AI controlled. You start at the beginning of the game on a rooftop (watch the game's intro cinematic to see how you get there) where you can stock up on some ammo, items, and an extra weapon, and then you have to navigate through the building and streets to get to the next Safe House, the level's end.
The first thing that hit me was how old the Source Engine is really looking. While the character's facial animations are still top-notch, and the lighting and environments are well done and detailed, character models and texture quality look really drab and last generation. The Source Engine is really showing it's age, and it just can't hold a candle to newer graphics engines anymore, such as Epic Games' Unreal Engine 3.
Story wise, there isn't much of a back story presented, but it's a zombie apocalypse and we all know that deal by now. So for the first time every in my discussion of a Valve Software product, I won't ream them on a poor job done story wise (yes, I'm scared to). You're stranded in a zombie infested city 2 weeks after the initial infection and you're trying to escape with three other survivors. Nice, simple, and works for me. The rest of the game's experience should all be made up for with gameplay and atmosphere, but this is where Left 4 Dead really falls short.
I played on Normal difficulty, and while the gameplay wasn't bad, it lacked both challenge and variety. As you navigate the infested areas, you encounter Infected who will attach you. The zombies in the game are slow until they notice you, then they rush you, and at certain times, you're rushed by a horde (literally dozens of Infected) who come running and screaming down alleys, breaking through walls, or jumping over obstacles. You'll also encounter various "boss" infected, such as Smokers who lasso you with long tongues and drag you in, or Witches who spazz out and go berserk if you shine a Flashlight on them.
But not matter what type or how many enemies you have to fight, there's no real master strategy to it save to keep firing until they're all dead; the gameplay's as bland and cookie cutter as the same enemies you're facing again, and again, and again. Sure, you can Melee or use some Inventory items, such as Molotov Cocktails or Pipe Bombs, but it's really just a glorified shooting gallery and feels like a huge step backward for the shooting genre.
This is exaggerated by the fact that you don't really need to even switch weapons! I made sparse use of a Shotgun ('cause everyone knows you need a Shotgun when battling hordes of undead), but I mainly used dual Pistols and everything fell before me. Your AI allies do a good job of killing enemies and serve as damage sponges, and while you can't save mid-level, you can patch yourself or teammates up with a disposable Medkit in your inventory or give them a temporary boast with Pain Pills, and they'll do the same for you. The game's friendly AI is probably one of it's best aspects.
The level design is extremely linear, and it really bothered me that this screamed at me right on my first playthrough. No matter what building, room, underground subway tunnel, etc. you were in, it's always the same style horde that rushes you, the same solution of just firing until nothing dead is moving, and then you patch yourself up if needed. And this really killed the atmosphere, and the predictable Infected removed any sense of tension or fear.
Lastly, I was also disappointing that you couldn't remap the controller. While this is a common plague on console games, I'm surprised to see this from Valve as they've always allowed controller remapping.
In the end, I did not find the Left 4 Dead demo scary, which killed the atmosphere really fast, and most importantly, it was not a challenge what-so-ever, and I can seriously see the game having an atrocious replay value. For this reason, there's no way I can justify full retail price, and with all the other great titles released this holiday season, at best I'd say give it a rent.
Bungie has officially renamed it's upcoming stand-alone expansion for Halo 3 from Halo 3: Recon to Halo 3: ODST.
For those unaware, ODST stands for Orbital Drop Shock Trooper, an elite branch of marines found in the UNSC, and it just so happens that you'll be playing as one in this title.
Personally, while I understand name changes happen, Halo 3: ODST just doesn't have the same ring to it. I would personally have preferred a rename to Halo 3: Helljumpers, the nickname for the ODSTs, but sadly it was not to be.
Still, so long as the game itself has solid gameplay, that's all that will really matter. You can check out the full details straight from Bungie right here.
Earlier this week, Bethesda Softworks announced the first downloadable content for Fallout 3 will be released for the Xbox 360 and Games for Windows via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and Games for Windows LIVE in January.
Entitled Operation: Anchorage, you will be able to enter a military simulator to fight in some of the greatest battles from the Fallout universe.
In addition to Operation: Anchorage, two additional downloadable content packs have been announced: The Pitt and Broken Steel, which will be released in February and March respectively.
In The Pitt, you will be able to journey to an industrial raider town in the remains of Pittsburgh, and in Broken Steel, you'll be able to join the Brotherhood of Steel and hunt down the remnants of the Enclave.
To date, not content has been officially announced for the PlayStation 3 version of Fallout 3, and no prices for the content has been revealed.
For full details, check out the press release right here.
EA has released a demo for Dead Space via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and the PlayStation Store.
Focused around the game's dismemberment-based combat, you can use four different weapons as well as Stasis and Kinesis to overcome your Necromorph enemies.
Considering how highly I regard Dead Space, if you haven't had a chance to play the game yet I encourage you to check the demo out.
For full details, take a glance at the release right here.
This December, Lionhead Studios will be releasing a premium content pack for Fable II, Knothole Island, which features a remote island containing new quests, items, and characters. The cost will be 800 Microsoft Points.
At the same time, Lionhead will also be releasing a free Fable II downloadable pack which will include new armour and items, and it will be required for players to have should they wish to play Co-Op in general with those who've purchased the Knothole Island Downloadable Content Pack.
For full details, check out the official announcement here.
Saturday, November 22, 2008
Today, the Xbox 360 has officially turned 3 years old! At last check, it's the second best selling console of this generation and is first place in software sales with seven retail games sold for every console. The current best selling game for the platform is Halo 3, and we just witnessed an innovative software redesign with this week's launch of the New Xbox Experience.
Xbox LIVE continues to be the top console online gaming service with over 12 million members, and the Xbox LIVE Marketplace remains an excellent source not just for Xbox 360 game related content such as game add-ons, demos, and Xbox LIVE Arcade games, but also for watching and renting movies and other videos.
Over the last three years, Microsoft has also improved the console's overall functionality by adding Windows Live Messenger integration, adding an HDMI port on newly manufactured consoles as of Fall 2007, and recently allowing for Parties with the New Xbox Experience to stick together and hop from game to game.
While having already won over the hardcore gamer with such blockbuster hits as Halo 3, Gears of War 2, and Mass Effect, Microsoft has begun to widen the console's appeal to the casual gamer with the addition of sissy Avatars, more family oriented games and content, easy access to Parental Controls, and innovative price points. As of this typing, the Xbox 360 Arcade console is the least expense current generation console on the market at $199.99.
While we've watched the Xbox 360 grow and mature as a platform, we've also had to weather some storms, mainly in the form of poor hardware reliability like the three flashing red lights, however Microsoft has not only extended and expanded upon their warranty to make it one of the best covered console's in the business, but they've also introduced several hardware revisions in current model Xbox 360's, such as new motherboards, to minimize hardware failures as much as possible.
Though it hasn't been the smoothest ride at times, there's no question of the success that the Xbox 360 enjoys, and even though it's three year old hardware, it's current crop of games still look top notch and visually impress all but the most jaded hardcore PC gamer, and with the recent software redesign, Microsoft is poised to support the Xbox 360 for years to come.
So thank you Microsoft for such an excellent console, and for all the great gaming experiences we've had over these past three years, and here's a toast to many, many more. Cheers!
As previously mentioned, I love being able to install games to my Xbox 360's HDD with the New Xbox Experience. The Xbox 360 is quieter, generates a little less heat, and many games have seen increased performance with this feature, and the only major problem I've encountered is that most games are a little under 7 GB, which amounts to having only one game installed at a time on my 20 GB HDD. To overcome this, I caved and picked up the 120 GB HDD earlier this week, which happens to come with a Transfer Cable and Transfer Software Disc.
Traditionally, you could only transfer content from one HDD to another with a Memory Unit, or by re-downloading any content via the Xbox LIVE Marketplace, however with the Transfer Cable, you can efficiently do a one time transfer of all your content off your existing 20 GB HDD to your new 120 GB HDD.
The process is extremely simple. First, you turn on your Xbox 360 with your original 20 GB HDD still attached, and then you use the supplied Transfer Cable to connect the 120 GB HDD to the USB port at the back of your Xbox 360 console. Next, you pop in the Transfer Software Disc, and follow the on-screen instructions, which begin by asking you to format the 120 GB HDD in preparation for the transfer.
Sadly, this means any preloaded content is lost, however that's where the Transfer Software Disc comes in, as it appears to install a host of preloaded content back. Once the process was complete, I had four retail game Demos and several Xbox LIVE Arcade Demos, as well as several videos that I've never had before, and the only place they could have come from was the disc.
However I'm jumping ahead again. Once your 120 GB HDD is formatted, you can then confirm that you want to transfer all your content over from your original HDD. You can also cancel if you wish, and you can apparently cancel at any point during the transfer and all your content will remain on your original 20 GB HDD, though note that I did not test this nor did I interrupt the transfer. The time for your transfer will vary, depending on how full your HDD is. For me, it was an estimated time of 1 hour and 32 minutes simply because I had something along the lines of 80 MB left free, and while I didn't time the transfer itself, I'm pretty sure it took a little less than that.
Once complete, you get a splash screen telling you everything's done, and to eject the Transfer Software Disc to end the process. Note that on this splash screen will be a message saying some data from your original HDD was corrupt and could not be transferred, yet when I checked, everything appears to be there and thus far everything is working fine. After doing a little online research, it appears this message is standard in the splash screen and everyone seems to get it, and I can only assume it's Microsoft's way of covering themselves incase something really does go wrong (it does say in the manual that Microsoft is not liable for any lost data).
With the data transferred, your original 20 GB HDD is completely blank and makes for a lovely paperweight, and you now have a whole lot of room to install your retail Xbox 360 games! At present, I'm sitting with about 84.6 GB free on my HDD, and loving my noise-free gaming experience!
Sony has released firmware update 5.02 for their PlayStation Portable, with the major addition of note being increased performance and stability while using the PlayStation Store from your PSP.
For full details, step right this way, and for no reason at all, here's a pick of some chick licking a PSP. Must be low in trans-fat.
In this week's Weekly Update, Bungie spills the beans in detail on exactly what an ODST is, since you'll be playing as one in their upcoming game, Halo 3: Recon.
ORBITAL DROP SHOCK TROOPERS (ODST)
United Nations Space Command (UNSC) Orbital Drop Shock Troopers (ODST) are under the operational authority of Naval Special Weapons (NavSpecWeap). Their methods of operation allow them to conduct missions against targets that more conventional forces cannot approach undetected.
The ODSTs perform highly specialized, small scale, high-risk operations such as:
• Deep ground surveillance (DGS)
• Direct action (DA)
• Unconventional warfare
• Counter-terrorism operations
• Counter-contraband operations
• Personnel and special equipment recovery/capture
ODSTs are recruited from the Special Operations Groups of all the nations of the Unified Earth Government (UEG). Since the first group of “handpicked volunteers” was activated, ODSTs have been dropping “feet first” into combat.
For a great read, as well as stuffed bun, head here.
My favourite feature of the New Xbox Experience is the ability to install games to your HDD. Not only is it a much quieter experience, but many titles have increased performance in the form of reduced load times.
Like all new features, not all "older" games are able to properly take proper advantage of this simply because they were never designed with this feature in mind in the first place. Unfortunately, such is the case with Halo 3, the best selling Xbox 360 game to date.
Bungie did such a great job optimizing Halo 3 for use with the Xbox 360's DVD drive that the nature of how the game caches and loads maps simply takes longer if it's installed to your HDD. While this doesn't really affect the Campaign, it _does_ effect Multiplayer, forcing everyone to wait for the maps to load longer. This has led people to quit more games before they start, and thus has increased the wait times when Matchmaking and trying to find proper games to join.
In response to this discovery, Bungie has officially advised people to play Halo 3 the traditional way via the DVD drive, and _not_ to install it to your HDD if you plan on playing Multiplayer, though of course the choice is yours in the end.
For full details, as well as Bungie's official technical gobblety goop about why maps load slower from the HDD, head to their blog post here.
Microsoft has relaunched the Xbox LIVE Marketplace via Xbox .ca so that you can now browse content via the interweb and cue up downloads to begin once you turn on your Xbox 360 and sign in to Xbox LIVE.
It's a small touch but really this is excellent integration that can allow you to browse, shop, and save a little time when you're bored at work or school or whatever.
To celebrate the launch of the New Xbox Experience, Microsoft is hosting a Download and Win Sweepstakes via Xbox LIVE where you could win 500,000 Microsoft Points!
To enter, head over to the Games Marketplace and download the NXE Download and Win Gamer Picture, and then you need to purchase anything from the following categories:
- TV Show
- Full Arcade Game
- Xbox Originals
- Game Add-On
- Music Video
For each item you download, you receive one entry up to a total of ten. So basically, your spending Microsoft Points in the hopes of winning a whole lot more!
For full details, go here.
Friday, November 21, 2008
The option to remove those lousy Xbox LIVE Arcade trials you played prior to the Fall 2007 Dashboard update from cluttering up your Gamercard with their 0 point scores! You can actually nix any game that you have no Gamerscore for, but I see it as very usual for getting rid of those old trials that stain your record.
You can find a tutorial video on the how-to below. And there was much rejoicing.
I want the Succubi. What?
ActionTrip is hosting some lovely new screenshots of Ensemble Studios' upcoming Xbox 360 RTS, Halo Wars, which you can view right here.
The official Halo Wars site has also had their concept art section updated with images of Flame Marines, Jackals, and Hunters. You can check those out right here.
Microsoft is one of the largest names in software and surprisingly, they've never actually had their own online store. Until now. Introducing the Microsoft Store (cue Windows boot-up chime)!
You can now purchase hardware, software, games, etc. online from Microsoft directly. This includes PC products, Xbox 360 products, and Zune products.
Unfortunately, there doesn't look to be any special discounts, which I would have figured since you're buying from Microsoft directly, but hey, it's a step forward, and in truth, it's not that Microsoft has an online store that makes this post news-worthy, but the fact that they've never had one before. And even more so that I never bothered to realize they never had one before. You see where I'm going with this?
Oh, forget it. You can check out the newly launched Microsoft Store right here.
Spotted at ActionTrip.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Fearless Leader recently mentioned that We, the Staff (TM) were playing through the PC version of Fallout 3. We dutifully promised that We would post our impressions of the game, followed by a full review once we had completed a full playthrough of the game. Fallout 3 is a Bethesda Softworks product, very much in the vein of their Elder Scrolls series of games, most specifically 2006’s The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
We, the Staff (TM) did not play through the original Fallout or Fallout 2, which were released in 1997 and 1998, respectively, and published by the now-defunct Interplay. With the exception of a very brief exposure to 2000’s Fallout Tactics, Fallout 3 counts as Our first exposure to the Fallout universe. Anyway, Bethesda obtained the rights to the franchise, and have now delivered us a proper sequel to the Xbox 360, Playstation 3, and PC platforms. Since we are currently without our X360 in the UK, and have only our laptop available to us, We thus invested in the PC version of Fallout 3.
Fallout 3 can easily be described as Oblivion with Guns. Bethesda, as usual, have produced a very deep, expansive game world to explore. Fallout 3 takes place in the post-apocalyptic vicinity of Washington, DC. It follows well and truly in the spirit of the franchise’s blend of post-apocalyptica with 1950’s societal values. That is, while you are exploring the nuclear-ravaged landscape, you see constant remnants of the society that existed at the time of the universe’s nuclear holocaust (circa 2077). The norms of 2077 are strangely similar to those of the ‘50s, and the events of the game take place some two hundred years later, in 2277.
You begin the game in Vault 101. The Vaults are vast, underground facilities that were established as a means of preserving 2077 society. Your character perceives the story from the moment of their birth, and the story fast-forwards through your childhood until you are 19 years old. At this point, your father mysteriously leaves Vault 101, and you set off to find him. Thus you are exposed to the vast, external, nuclear-ravaged world.
Once out in the world of the DC Wasteland, as it is referred to in the game, you are pretty much free to do whatever you please, whether you set off immediately for Dear Old Dad or go off and explore with no particular direction. This is typical of Bethesda’s previous game worlds – you can either pursue the seemingly crucial main story/quest, or promptly give all that the virtual finger and go wherever you want.
Setting up your character is guided by the Fallout universe’s seemingly proprietary S.P.E.C.I.A.L. system. That is, Strength, Perception, Endurance, Charisma, Intelligence, Agility and Luck. You select your particular attributes at a very early stage and go off to explore the world.
Gameplay wise, Fallout 3 is most enjoyable in a very similar way to Oblivion. You gradually progress from level 1 through to level 20 (the Fallout series has always instituted a level cap at 20, unlike some other RPGs such as Oblivion). Our character is currently at level 8. Like Oblivion, enemies have a tendency to level up with you, so combat remains a challenge throughout. Fallout 3 also introduces the VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Target System). It allows you to temporarily shift the dynamics of the game’s combat system from real-time to semi-turn based, and target specific areas (head, torso, limbs) of an enemy. Theoretically, this is supposed to result in a “bullet-time” style, graphic depiction of your enemy’s end. This sounds fine on paper, but thus far, even though Our character is at level 8, this system fails miserably more often than not. We usually just wind up blasting (or slicing/pounding in the case of melee weapons) excessively until Our enemies are no more.
Visually, Fallout 3 certainly succeeds in portraying a very realistic post-apocalyptic environment. It was quite an experience when our character first emerged from Vault 101 into the DC Wasteland. Clouds of dust swirl, ruined buildings can be seen on the horizon, and no vegetation save for stunted grass and dead trees permeate the landscape. PC system requirements are not terribly steep, but a current system is needed to properly take advantage of the higher settings.
Aurally, Fallout 3 casts a mood similar to Oblivion. Whilst you are exploring the wide-open wasteland, ethereal and exploratory music sets in. Once you encounter some enemies, the music changes accordingly. Sound effects are very capably produced, and help with the immersion.
Aside from the development work that has gone into the game, We, the Staff (TM) have noticed one annoying setback with the game’s integration with the Games for Windows label. The game has achievements, like any X360 title, but logging these achievements are dependent upon the installation and proper operation of the Games for Windows Live application. We, the Staff (TM) had a peculiar bug where once we patched the game outside of Live’s auto-update feature, it lost all connectivity to Live. Thus, no achievements were logged until we resolved this issue by reinstalling the entire game and patched it through Live. We do not fault Bethesda for this bug, but Live (i.e. Microsoft) itself.
We have thus far logged sixteen hours of play time with our first character in Fallout 3, and will post a complete review once We’ve finished our first playthrough.
Sunday, November 16, 2008
While the New Xbox Experience officially launches on Wed. Nov. 19th, I was fortunate enough to get into the final wave of the Preview program. As of 5:00 pm this past Friday, the New Xbox Experience was made available to me, though I wasn't able to actually fire up my Xbox 360 until yesterday morning.
Thus far, the New Xbox Experience is an impressive overhaul of the Xbox 360's Dashboard. It is cosmetically beautiful, easy to navigate, and even the sissy little Avatars haven't annoyed me. But of course before you can check out any of that, you'll need to install the Update.
The installation process is a painless one. When you power up your Xbox 360 console and connect to Xbox LIVE, it'll pop up telling you there's a new Update that needs to be downloaded, just like any other System Update. The download will commence, and this will take approximately one minute. Your console will then reboot itself, and a launcher will execute downloading and installing whatever else it needs. This process took about 5 minutes overall.
After the installation is complete, you're greeted to a brief and stylish intro video and then you're introduced to the sissy little Avatars. A bunch of the wusses will run on screen, and you can choose anyone to use and either stick with that, or immediately customize him/her.
I took several minutes to make my Avatar look as close to me as possible (complete with receding hair line
As I mentioned above, the Dashboard is now really slick and easy to navigate, and once you log into Xbox LIVE, you're presented with several Channels that you can easily peruse using the Left Stick. Up and down scrolls through each Channel, and Left and Right scrolls thr
My Xbox is
Generally speaking, the My Xbox Channel is essenti
The Game Marketplace and Video Marketplace Channels respectively are a re-org
The Friends Channel is a nicely animated section showing your Friend's Avatars:
The Xbox Guide has also been completely overhauled, and uses a Blade setup si
The Xbox G
To the lef
To the right of the Home Blade is the Media Blade which is a combination of the classic Media Blade and the original Xbox Guide's music player controls, and to the right of the Media Blade is the Settings Blade which allows you to manage your Profile, Notifications, Preferences, Family Settings, System Settings, Account Management, and Turn off Your Console. Overall, the Settings Blade is a hybrid of the old Xbox Guide and the former System Blade.
Now, the big thing I was really looking forward to about the New Xbox Experience was being able to install games to my HDD. While Sony's PlayStation 3 has already allowed games to perform partial installs to their HDDs, the New Xbox Experience allows you to copy over the entire game right onto your HDD, and you'll then only
I tested this feature out with Gears of War 2, and the game weighs in at 6.7 GB and took approximately 12 minutes to install. Overall, this was not a bad wait time, though for those of us with an original 20 GB HDD, we really will only be able to have one game installed at a time, two if we're lucky. I presently have 809 MB of free space remaining because of Gears of War 2, when prior to the install I had about 7.5 GB free, close to half my HDD's overall available space.
The two m
One thing I haven't really tinkered with is Offline mode. The New Xbox Experience is much more Xbox LIVE centred than the previous Dashboard was, and for me this is a good thing as I'm almost always online when using my Xbox 360, however I did quickly check out an Offline Profile just to see what would happen.
Basically, you get to select and customize an Avatar just like an Xbox LIVE account does, but the Channels are a little different. There is no Spotlight Channel since this is Xbox LIVE dependant, and you start at the My Xbox Channel. The other Channels are present, however they all just contain quick details of what they could offer if you were connected to Xbox LIVE. In brief, if you have an Offline account, you will only really be using the My Xbox Channel and in a very similar manner to how you used the original Xbox 360 Dashboard, but considering the excellent new layout and cosmetics, this is by no means a bad thing and you will benefit greatly from the System Update. The Xbox Guide also has any Xbox LIVE dependant options either missing or greyed out. If you have an Xbox LIVE account and for whatever reason go to Offline mode, my expectation is that this is the setup we'd also have.
So after tinkering for about a day thus far, those are my impressions of the New Xbox Experience. Overall, a very nice cosmetic change, and save for the Marketplaces, much simpler and easier to navigate. The install to HDD option is a dream, assuming you have the space, and Microsoft has really gone above and beyond with this System Update. Considering the Xbox 360 turns three years old next Saturday, the simple fact that an Update of this magnitude is not only being released but being released for free is an excellent display from Microsoft, and will certainly help the Xbox 360 maintain its competitive edge for as long as Microsoft chooses to support it.
Now let's just hope Xbox LIVE is prepared for the server load come Wednesday...
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Ensemble Studios has updated the official Halo Wars site with concept art for the game's two special edition units. Both are _not_ available via the retail version of the game, however both can be easily obtained if you want them.
To acquire the UNSC "Flaming" Warthog, you simply need to pre-order the game, and the Covenant Wraith Honour Guard comes with the Halo Wars: Collector's Edition.
Me, I'll still wait to see if I like the game, and if I can justify the cost of the Collector's Edition. I have a suspicion I'll miss out on these two units.
With the New Xbox Experience nearly upon us, storage space is becoming a greater commodity for the Xbox 360, and that's why for a limited time, owners of an Xbox 360 Arcade console can purchase a refurbished 20 GB HDD and a 3 Month Xbox LIVE Gold membership card directly from Microsoft Game Studios for $29.99.
For full details and the order page for this great offer, step right this way.
LucasArts has now released a premium Costume Pack for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, which allows the player to play through the game as several famous characters such as Luke Skywalker and Anakin Skywalker.
As far as I know, this Costume Pack does not change gameplay in anyway, and like most content of this nature, I view it as a simple cash grab by publishers.
Full details can be found at TeamXbox here.
For those Canadians like myself who purchased the Limited Edition of Gears of War 2, you may have been disappointed by the fact that the hardcover Art Book included was actually a French version, regardless of whether you bought it in the province of Quebec or not.
For those of us that only speak English, we got a softcover Art Book tossed in that doesn't fit in the case's sleeve that well, and while the overall contents are the same, we technically paid for a hardcover book.
Thankfully, Microsoft Game Studios has head the complaints, and is offering a chance for us to request an English hardcover Art Book.
To do so, follow the instructions on the official Xbox Support page here, and then allow 8 to 10 weeks for delivery.
EA has released several Premium Upgrade packs for their sci-fi horror master piece, Dead Space, which can be purchased from the Xbox LIVE Marketplace or the PlayStation Store.
These Premium Upgrade packs include items as simple as new skins for existing weapons and RIGs, to enhanced, and even a few exclusive items.
If you read my Dead Space review here, you'll know I think exceptionally well of this game, so I'm going to be honest with you: These Premium Upgrade packs scream cash grab, and I'd recommend skipping them and simply playing the amazing game itself.
Regardless, you can find the full details as well as the prices via this TeamXbox article.