Tuesday, December 28, 2010
At last year's Xbox Canada Community Birthday Party, I won a copy of the retail version of Plants vs. Zombies. Fast forward about a year later, and I finally opened the box and installed the game. I know, I know, it took me a while, but I was busy! I still have a game backlog I'm working through, you know.
As most of you probably know by now, Plants vs. Zombies is a thoroughly addictive tower defence game by PopCap Games that's available on a host of platforms, from desktop to console to mobile. The game's premise is simple: There are zombies on your lawn, and they're trying to get into your home to eat your brains. Your only defence, aside from the advice of your neighbour Crazy Dave, is a host of plants ready to combat the undead horde!
Colourful and cute, Plants vs. Zombies allows players to use up to 49 different types of Plants to fend off 26 different types of Zombies across 4 game modes. The primary game mode is "Adventure," basically the Campaign. It's here that you're introduced to the game's economy of Sun, which you collect as it slowly falls from the sky. Planting Sunflowers is essential to your efforts as they'll create Sun for you. As you progress, you gain access to a host of combat, defensive, and trap Plants. The basic Peashooter, for example, costs little Sun and provides simple direct attacks to damage incoming Zombies. The Chomper is a fly trap that will eat approaching Zombies that shuffle too close, and good old Wallnut functions just like his name implies, as a wall that Zombies need to eat through to advance.
Different types of Zombies have weaknesses to different types of Plants, and as the player you'll need to choose which several Plants you'll want to use for that Level. The environments also range from your front lawn, to your backyard which has a pool, to elemental problems like fog and the occasional storm. This all adds to the variety and strategic challenges presented to the player.
As you progress, you gain access to an Almanac that provides details for all the Plants and Zombies you've encountered. Not only does it provide hilarious descriptions of each, but the Almanac will also inform you of general toughness, damage potential, and weaknesses, so it's a good idea to read up on any new entries before moving on to the next Level.
Aside from Adventure Mode, there's also Mini-Games, Puzzles, and Survival game modes. Mini-Games are a host of odd gametypes, such as bowling and a Zombie aquarium. Puzzles are specific scenarios that require players to really think their way through various challenges, and Survival sees the player facing wave after wave of Zombies in an effort to survive.
As you progress through any gametype and kill Zombies, you'll earn money which you can use to purchase items or a small amount of upgrades from Crazy Dave, and in time you'll also earn access to the Zen Garden. The Zen Garden allows you to grow and nurture specific plants which in turn will generate additional money for you. The entire set up and interaction between game modes is both cute, clever, and engaging, ensuring players will take a vested interest in everything Plants vs. Zombies has to offer.
The graphics are simple and colourful and certainly get the job done, but the game really shines with its sound scape. The music is both fun and enjoyable and really helps to set the atmosphere for each Level, and the very limited voice acting, be it the blabbering of Crazy Dave or the grumble for brains of approaching Zombies is fantastic.
My only major gripe with Plants vs. Zombies is the game's difficulty. I personally found it far too easy, and in Adventure Mode I only ever failed one Level once simply because I made a bad selection in my choice of Plants. Some of the Mini-games and Puzzles have proven far more challenging, thankfully, and successful completion of those tends to net the player more cash which in turn allows them to further invest in their Zen Garden, which in turn nets more cash to buy Upgrades that prove useful in any game mode. See what I mean about interaction between game modes?
Plants vs. Zombies is a wonderfully simple game that will chew up far too much of your time faster than the undead scavenging for brains. With a price tag ranging from $9.99 to $19.99 (US) and hours upon hours of entertainment to be had, this tower defence game is a sound investment on any platform and for gamers of all tastes and skill levels.
3) Gears of War: Anvil Gate. Considering that the Gears of War franchise is certainly _not_ known for having a strong story and character development, it never ceases to amaze me how well Karen Traviss continues to flesh out this game's universe.
Under the careful penmanship of Traviss, I've really come to care for not only Marcus and Dom, but also for characters like Hoffman, Baird, and Cole. She takes her gritty approach to military fiction and deep human stories and pretty much rams it down the COG's throat with very fine results.
Gears of War: Anvil Gate is no exception, focusing on the refugees of Jacinto as they further establish and secure their island haven while preparing to face the new threat of the Lambent. True to the series' story telling style, the present day events are contrasted with a similar tale of woe from the past, once again courtesy of Hoffman and his role in the siege of Anvil Gate.
The back and forth narrative between present and past, combined with solid military sci-fi and strong character moments make this novel a must read for any Gears of War fan.
2) The Children of Hurin. What else can I really say save that this tale was a hundred years in the making, and it certainly shows. Begun when Tolkien first began crafting what would be Middle-earth, The Children of Hurin represents the most put-together version of "The Tale of the Children of Hurin."
Young Turin Turambar must flee the land of his birth after it is subjugated by the forces of the Dark Lord Morgoth, and with the tutelage of the Elves he learns to be a warrior of great skill and valor. Yet a darkness hangs upon Turin, for the malice and doom of Morgoth is always with him.
What follows is a rich tale of fantasy and culture as Turin seeks to defeat his doom and master his own fate, and his exploits will not only affect the remains of his family, but all of Middle-earth itself.
Tolkien is a master storyteller who's works have certainly stood the test of time, and this edition features wonderful illustrations by Alan Lee that helps bring Turin's legend to life. For anyone with an interest in The Lord of the Rings or simply an interest in fantasy itself, The Children of Hurin makes an excellent read.
1) Order in Chaos. With this third and final volume, Jack Whyte brings his Templar trilogy to a close. A master storyteller of historical fiction, Whyte consistently writes deep and complicated tales with ever evolving characters that keeps the readers glued to the pages.
The Order of the Temple is no more, having been usurped by the greedy King Philip of France. Sir William St. Clair must lead the remnants of his brethren to the only safe haven he knows, that of his homeland of Scotland. But Scotland itself is in the midst of war, both Civil and with England, and while St. Clair and his knights seek refuge in this land, the very virtues of their Order will be called into question and put to the test.
To compound things even further, St. Clair and a few of his senior remaining brethren are part of a secret society that not only created the Templar Order as a front to conduct their own business, but that secretly opposes the will and corruption of Holy Mother Church. In the land of Scotland, isolated from the larger politics of the world, St. Clair will have great secrets revealed to him that will forever change both his path and those of the remaining Templars.
Weighing in at 921 pages, Order in Chaos is a fantastic read filled with history, military prowess, and romance, and as such an amazing and well rounded fiction, it's clearly the choice for my novel of 2010.
Monday, December 27, 2010
Now, as I mention every year, I am not a professional game reviewer and as such, I don't get review copies; what I play is what I buy with my hard earned cash just like you. This means that I don't play everything since I'm not going to spend my money on a title I'm not interested in, so keep this in mind if you see a Triple A title missing from the below list.
3) BioShock 2 (Xbox 360, PC, Playstation 3). The original BioShock was an exceptional game. Combining survival and psychological horror as a shooter with RPG elements, BioShock took players to Rapture, an underwater city that was the monument of a failed vision. The catch with BioShock, however, is that it was a game that didn't need a sequel.
When I first saw BioShock 2 announced, I was both excited and hesitant for that very reason. As gameplay footage began to surface, my hesitation grew as it appeared to me that 2K Marin, the new studio developing the title, was simply actioning up a game that shouldn't have been actioned up. Because of this, I passed on launch day.
Fast forward a few months later, and I saw BioShock 2 on sale for $34.99 and decided to bite. And I'm glad I did. While not as innovative as its predecessor, BioShock 2 is a wonderful return to Rapture with a story that proves to be far more touching, if less disturbing, than the original's. Not only did BioShock 2 provide a very enjoyable 20 hour single player experience, it also introduced Multiplayer to the franchise, which surprisingly was also quite enjoyable.
The overall package is a strong one, allowing players to experience Rapture as a Big Daddy for the first time, and fans of the franchise should not pass up this latest sojourn into the Atlantic.
2) Halo: Reach (Xbox 360). Bungie's swan song to their cherished franchise, there was never any doubt that Halo: Reach was going to be an epic title. Spanning nearly a decade, the Halo franchise has been a household name with the Xbox platform and a huge leader in sales for Microsoft.
Halo: Reach is a prequel to the Halo trilogy, telling the story of Noble Team, a group of Spartans, and their part of the valiant but hopeless defence of the planet Reach. The Campaign sports the high end polish of fast and furious shooter action coupled with excellent vehicle scenarios that we've come to expect from Bungie, and it also features the best enemy AI I've ever experienced in a game, bar none. Being a prequel the Elites make a cunning return as enemies to the franchise, and they're both a joy and a bane to fight.
Rounding out the excellent 10 hour Campaign is the exceptional Multiplayer experience. Bungie desired to offer players the greatest online Halo experience ever, and they've certainly accomplished this goal. With new Armour abilities adding variety to the standard mix, great new game types such as Invasion and Headhunter, and full, proper, customizable support of Firefight, there's hundreds of hours of content to keep gamers busy over Xbox LIVE.
The Halo experience and Bungie's efforts with it are one that has, without question, changed my gaming life, and it is with the greatest sincerity that I thank them and wish them the best on their future projects.
1) Mass Effect 2 (Xbox 360, PC). While the overall Halo experience has been an amazing decade-long journey, one company has provided engrossing and exceptional action RPG experiences for nearly as long. BioWare's latest offering, Mass Effect 2, is without question not only the greatest game I've played this year, but also the greatest game I've played in the last few years.
Featuring exceptional character development and superb storytelling, BioWare's sci-fi masterpiece is a 50 to 60 hour experience that is light years ahead of anything on the silver screen, let alone it's digital competition. Allowing players to import their characters from the original game, your choices as Commander Shepard truly have meaning and not only affect your current game, but your future games to come. Combine that with improved combat and conversation systems, compelling characters and side stories, and a whole galaxy for players to explore, you truly have a rare gem of a title in your hands.
No other game provided such a full, complete, and emotionally compelling experience as Mass Effect 2, and PlayStation 3 owners will get their chance to see how amazing this game is when it launches for their platform at the end of January 2011.
Ironically, Mass Effect 2 was such a massive experience that BioWare was required to place it on two DVD's, requiring players to swap discs at least twice throughout their playthrough. Given the scope of the game, this minor inconvenience is easily overlooked, and it is with great pleasure that I award Mass Effect 2 our Game of the Year for 2010.
Without question, Dead Space is one of the scariest games I've played this generation. Possessing an exceptional survival horror atmosphere, Dead Space had me jumping in my seat many, many times.
On January 25th, the sequel will launch on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC, but a week ago a fully playable demo was released to the Xbox LIVE Marketplace and PlayStation Store. Naturally, I had to download it and fire it up right away.
Suffice it to say, EA has certainly kept the creepy and tense feel of the original title. Surviving the horrors of the Ishimura, Isaac Clarke now finds himself aboard the Sprawl, a large station situated on one of the moons of Saturn. By means unrevealed in the demo, however, the nightmare of the Necromorphs has followed Isaac here, and the station appaears to be overrun.
The demo begins with Isaac trying to connect with other survivors, and you navigate what appears to be cryo or stasis tubes that contain Necromorphs. Of course, not all of them are frozen/dead, and it's here you'll encounter your first of the demo's new enemies, the Puker.
The controls for the sequel's demo are more or less as you'll remember from the original game, with a few tweaks here and there (Aiming and pressing "Y" now uses Stasis, for example). You can still aim, use alternate methods of fire, smash and stomp enemies, and you still have the traditional inventory and navigation tool, though the Map itself appears to be missing (which is fine since I never found it that useful anyway).
The demo starts Isaac with the tried-and-true Plasma Cutter, which I used for almost the entire demo, and also features the return of the Pulse Rifle (which now features a grenade secondary fire) and the Line Gun. The new weapon in the demo is the Javelin Gun, which I never bothered to fire once. Well, I am a proud owner of the One Gun Achievement.
The Plasma Cutter, combined with Stasis, was great for taking down Pukers, Slashers, and the new Slasher Monk, but when faced with the Pack, a group of children turned Necromorph, the rapid fire assault of the Pulse Rifle saw me through.
While you collect Credits all over, you only encounter one store in the demo and it only features the Advanced Suit, which happens to cost $0. What's cool in Dead Space 2 is not only will Isaac now talk, but we'll also get to see his face much more often, as demonstrated when he decks out in his new Advanced Suit.
A great boss battle against the Tripod is also featured, which was very reminiscent of the Tentacles from the original game, only much more epic and somewhat disgusting. Definitely a nice, tense moment.
My only major gripe with the demo, and Dead Space 2 itself, was the changes made to zero gravity. In the original game, Isaac used magnetic boots to jump to and cling to various surfaces. In the sequel, it appears he can now "fly," using little thrusters to move around. The downer is I found his movements to lack precision, and though this sequence was brief, it frustrated me and took away some enjoyment.
Still, the core of the demo was Dead Space through and through, and a wonderful survival horror experience. The environments were dark, moody, and atmosphere, and the demo's sound scape often sent chills up my spine. And yes, Necromorphs still love to pop out of random vents, amongst other places.
Less than one month until Dead Space 2 launches, and if the demo is any indication, we'll be in for one hell of a treat!
For about 100 years now, the works of J.R.R. Tolkien have captivated readers around the world and heavily influenced fantasy in general. Thanks to the success of the films, everyone knows about The Lord of the Rings, but the truth is the War of the Ring is only a very small part of the greater fiction.
When Tolkien first began crafting his stories, he focused on what would later come to be called The Elder Days; the First Age of the world. These tales told of the War of Jewels, in which the Elves fought against the first Dark Lord, Morgoth, a god. Central to this long, sad war was the "Tale of the Children of Hurin."
Worked on for decades in various forms, the "Tale of the Children of Hurin" tells of the fates that befell Turin and Nienor, the children of Hurin and Morwen. Hurin was a great warrior in the service of an Elf-Lord, and after the Battle of Unnumbered Tears in which Morgoth's forces were the victor, Hurin was taken alive as a prisoner and there he defied with great force of will the malice of Morgoth. As such Morgoth cursed him and his kin, and this curse of doom followed Hurin's children for all their lives.
Set in the lost land of Beleriand in the west of Middle-earth, smashed beneath the sea by the time of The Lord of the Rings, the entire history of the First Age is briefly explored in The Silmarillion, and the "Tale of the Children of Hurin" appears here in published form for the first time, about 50 years after its first conception. The chapter is entitled "Of Turin Turambar," and in truth it became one of my favourite chapters in the book.
An expanded version of the tale appeared in Unfinished Tales, entitled "Narn I Hin Hurin," or properly translated, "The Tale of the Children of Hurin," and it was filled with greater character development and exposition. Now, 27 years later, The Children of Hurin is published, a novel dedicated specifically to the "Tale of the Children of Hurin." Further expanded and refined, this novel presents the fullest and most complete version of the tale ever published.
What always fascinated me about Turin was that, due to his mood and the sad doom that ever weighed upon him, he developed into what we'd now consider an anti-hero. For though he was great in deeds of daring, courage, and valor, oft what he sought or designed went astray. This resulted in him regularly being viewed in a darker light no matter what good or ill he achieved.
Being a tale that was never properly finished, it's fascinating to read The Children of Hurin in such an unbroken form. The greatest addition to the narrative, though there are many little changes and expansions here and there, would need to be further detail on the Petty Dwarves and Turin's time with the outlaws. Always a fascinating sequence of Chapters that expands upon Turin's personality and mind, they were never-the-less always broken up or contradictory of one another. Now, in this version of the tale, they flow more smoothly than they ever have before.
Due to his love of both detail and language, Beleriand comes alive under both Tolkien's written word and Alan Lee's illustrations. Scattered throughout the novel are the most beautiful images, in black and white, that help flesh out and inspire the mood of the legend. Not wanting the ruin the images for myself, I found myself reading faster so I could get to each new chapter and see what piece of art awaited me. Of course I didn't rush and diminish my enjoyment of the story itself. Whether exploring the halls of Doriath through Turin's young eyes, fleeing through the forest with Nienor, or confronting the great worm of Morgoth, Tolkien is a master of painting the moment, and of simply but delicately bringing his characters' emotions and trials to life.
The Children of Hurin is a fantastic read, of rich fantasy, heroic deeds, and substance, and like much of Tolkien's fiction, it almost feels like you're reading a real history book. Almost.
Complete with appendices that describe the process of the Tale's completion, collection, and publication, as well as an index of place names and a map of Beleriand itself, The Children of Hurin is an excellent read for any book lover this holiday season, and a must for any Tolkien fan looking to further explore the days lost to the Sea.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
My Commander Shepard is a badass, and not just because he saved the galaxy on Insanity Difficulty, but also because he "romanced" Miranda. In the engine room.
As I understand it, all romances in Mass Effect 2 happen in your quarters except for Miranda's. With her, you bunk right on the floor of the engine room, or as Kasumi puts it: "Oh Shepard. The engine room! Really? Right there where Tali works?"
Yeah, Shepard has an entire small deck as his personal quarters with a lavish bed and lounge area. Miranda has the only other official private quarters on the ship, and while not as large as Shepard's, it also features a large bed and "living room" area. So what does Shepard and Miranda do? Bunk on the engine room floor (where Tali works), an area of the ship that conveniently has windows from every other deck looking in on it.
Now that takes balls.
Oh, and I saved the galaxy on Insanity Difficulty.
In typical playing-a-BioWare-game fashion, I took a break after making it about a third of the way through and came back to the game in force a few weeks later. The end result was an epic 55 hour experience. I completed all Cerberus Network add-ons and DLC (save for "Lair of the Shadow Broker," which I don't own) and every single Mission and Assignment was knocked off. All items were researched save for the Surgical Unit, and the only items remaining in stores were a few N7 Armour pieces I didn't need. Every fish, model ship, and the Space Hamster now reside in my personal quarters.
My Commander John Shepard was a balance between Paragon and Renegade, being ruthless to get things done but compassionate to his crew and people in need. I played as a Solider, my first time playing the class in the franchise, and I primarily relied on Miranda and Grunt throughout the whole game, using Zaeed before I recruited Grunt. Though I completed all the Loyalty missions, I failed to gain Zaeed's loyalty, but at least all my squad members survived the suicide mission, and I rescued all lost crew members as well.
On Insanity, Adrenaline with Sniper Rifle head shots was a huge help, and you really needed to manage your Squad, directing them where to take cover and who to focus on. I also used Fortification as my bonus Skill, which proved helpful in a pinch and when moving from cover to cover. Overall though, I didn't find Insanity that insane. There were certainly several challenging parts that required proper use of the 3 P's, but overall it was far simpler than Mass Effect on Insanity, which I was unable to complete.
Now that I've conquered Mass Effect 2 on Insanity, a few things I'd like to see changed in the upcoming sequel:
- Remove that annoying stun disorientation. When you get smacked good, you're often left disoriented and trying to "shake it off," while all the while getting shot up and dying. This caused a lot of profanity on my part, and when I want to slam into cover, I want to slam into cover. And for those of you thinking disorientation adds more realism, we're talking about a hero who was brought back after dying from asphyxiation and burning up in re-entry. Reality's kinda outta the airlock at that point.
- Bring back Medi-Gel. I don't mean Unity for your Squad, I mean actually using Medi-Gel to manage your own Health. The regenerating healing model simply doesn't feel right, and while I like the revised lack-of-an-inventory system introduced in Mass Effect 2, I miss properly managing my own health.
That's about it really. They implement the above, and in my opinion, BioWare will have the perfect action RPG. They're story telling and most certainly their character development is top notch, and Mass Effect 2 is an excellent experience that no one should miss, on any difficulty.
Oh, and Mordin thought I was hitting on him. No joke.
In their latest article, Blizzard Entertainment discusses the changes they're making to enemy AI in Diablo III to provide players with increased challenges and frenzied combat. They give two specific examples, listing how the tactics you used in prior titles may not work this time around, illustrating that you'll need to adapt to survive.
Such battles will make up the Encounters of Diablo III, and you can check out the article and some nice screenshots right here.
Just in time for the holidays, Blizzard Entertainment has released a playable demo of their latest real time strategy hit, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
The demo allows those who have not yet experienced the retail game to play the first three missions of the Campaign, and to play Skirmish as the Terrans against an AI Terran opponent. No Battle.net account or active internet connection is required to experience the demo.
For more details head over here, read the official FAQ here, and to download the demo, step right this way.
The first two chapters of the next Halo novel, Halo: Cryptum, are now available to be read online.
Chapter 1 can be viewed on Tor's very site here (registration required), and Chapter 2 can be read on Halo Waypoint here.
Taken straight from Tor themselves:
HALO: Cryptum takes place 100,000 years before the events of the Halo games and serves as a great entry point into what has become one of the most successful science fiction franchises of all time. These two exclusive excerpts will be the first place to begin this deep exploration into the time of the Forerunners, the creators and builders of the Halos. Almost nothing has been revealed about this ancient race. This new series will delve deep into the reign of these enigmatic beings, and tell the epic story behind one of the great mysteries of the “Halo” universe: the complete disappearance of the Forerunners from existence, while also revealing an amazing tale of human origins.
An icon in the science fiction community, Greg Bear has penned such critically celebrated international bestsellers as Eon and The Forge of God. His recent novel Hull Zero Three was published in November by Orbit Books and met widespread acclaim. Bear’s talent for taut narratives, intellectually rigorous themes, and realistic, appealing characters make him the most qualified author writing today to begin a new chapter in this blockbuster franchise.
Greg Bear will also be appearing with special guests from 343 Industries at University Books in Seattle for an exclusive signing and launch event on January 4th, 2010 at 7 PM.
With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, I haven't had a chance to read either chapter yet, but now that things are quieting down I plan to in the next few days. The Halo franchise is such a rich science fiction universe and there's so much mystery revolving around the Forerunners, I'm anxious to find out as many details as I can about them!
Saturday, December 18, 2010
Based on the successful comic series of the same name, The Walking Dead is the smash hit new series from AMC that, unlike the hordes of random zombie fiction out there, actually features strong character development and plot. At least, it did at first.
The series premiere was an hour and a half long, and I can honestly say that it is better than most zombie features that I have seen, strongly combining suspense, drama, and shock. In fact, it's one of the best zombie pieces I've seen/read period. The series opens after the apocalypse has happened. Rick (Andrew Lincoln), a police officer who's on his way to Atlanta, stops to try and find gas at what appears to be an abandoned station/survivor camp. He doesn't find any gas, but he does find one Walker, a little girl, whom he has to put down. Suffice it to say that even though the girl was a zombie it's a very serious way to begin any series, killing a kid.
An immediate attention grabber, the show then reverts to just before the apocalypse and introduces us to Shane (Jon Bernthal), Rick's partner, as they end up in a shoot-out against some thugs that lands Rick in a comma and in the hospital. When Rick awakens an undetermined amount of time later, the world he knew is dead, literally. The first episode focuses on Rick coming to terms with the zombie apocalypse, and he begins his search for his wife and son whom he believes survived, heading to Atlanta which was, at the time, a safe zone.
Along his journey, Rick meets many other survivors, and while they're beautifully acted and developed in the pilot and the second episode, the series' character development strength begins to falter afterwards. Originally meant to be only six episodes long, The Walking Dead falls into the trap of cramming to much in too short a time frame. Later survivors become the typical archetypes we've seen in other media, and the fates of some are completely unresolved by the season's end.
After only two episodes however, the show was so highly praised that it was immediately renewed for a second season (scheduled to begin airing on Halloween 2011), so hopefully many of these character issues will be resolved, but of course only time will tell.
The first few episodes of the series are excellent, however, and should most certainly not be missed. The Walking Dead not only features great zombie action and gore as fans of the genre would expect, but like any good fiction, the focus isn't on the zombies themselves but rather the human factor, the character interactions with one another, and though this falters in later episodes it's still good enough to entertain.
The first season represents a solid start to the series, and hopefully the show's strengths will fully resurface next year.
Sunday, December 12, 2010
You can check out the announcement trailer here or below:
Slated for a holiday 2011 release, Mass Effect 3 will see the conclusion of Commander Shepard's story ark and will allow players to import their characters from Mass Effect 2 to preserve their Shepard's continuity.
The official site has been revamped into "teaser" mode, and you can check out the trailer there or below.
Here, there be dragons.
Well, well, this is some unexpected and great news! Fans have screamed their outrage, and Halo Waypoint has listened: Stat tracking will not be removed for Halo Wars this coming Wednesday after all!
As officially announced here, the official forums will still merge with Halo Waypoint's forums, and Title Update 5 will still be released, however Halo Wars.com itself will remain active and we'll still be able to log in and check our stats. Should the site ever close down completely, stats will remain active elsewhere and more details will be released at that time.
Excellent news, and thank you for listening to your customer base, Halo Waypoint!
Entitled "Emergency," you can give it a watch below.
Really looking forward to the demo, and greatly looking forward to the sequel!