Absolute Blue (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Intermedia Ware || Overall: 5.5/10

Absolute Blue, seemingly a part of a recent movement by independent developers to bring back the side-scrolling space shooters, is just that: a side-scrolling space shooter made by an independent developer. Even though the game looks pretty, that doesn’t save it from the deplorable aspects of game play and absent improvements on the genre itself. While not touting the title of being a horrible game, Absolute Blue is just plain not good. Especially when there are superior space shooter-type games, like Jets’n’Guns, which is also made by an independent developer, Absolute Blue pales in comparison to the feats accomplished by such games.

For being an independent game, Absolute Blue looks excellent. However, while the screenshots for the game may give a false first impression about how good the game’s “fun factor” might be, what makes the game ultimately very frustrating and very tedious (and ultimately not very fun) is the game play and the basic controls. Maybe I was spoiled by the amazing game play and almost-flawless controls of Jets’n’Guns, but Absolute Blue really is a snore-fest to me. For the most part, there is nothing imaginative or “innovative” about the game to even consider it being anything more than an average game. The game is ridiculously linear, and in the fashion of the older games of this type from the 80s, once you die you start all over. While there is a save game function, you’re only allowed to save once you clear a full area (which contains separate levels within it), if you even get that far. Needless to say, if you have a hard time getting past the first area, you’re going to become very frustrated, as you will most likely die many-a-time, and then be forced to replay through the areas you had just gone through so that you can get to the point you had just died at before to try it again. Hopefully you won’t forget what you were supposed to do or die again, being forced to start the whole area yet again. When it gets really frustrating is if you keep dying in the first area; it seems like no progress has been done at all, as you basically restart the whole game constantly.

There’s no story. The game plops you in the middle of space, and off you go. There isn’t even any acknowledgement about what you’re supposed to do, collect, kill, or save. But, as always, it’s probably something to do with saving the universe from an evil alien race and you being the last hope. Why is it always up to us to save the universe? That’s a heavy burden to undertake if you think about it. And there are never any other aliens to help out, now that I think about it. I guess the goal of the whole game is to obtain enough parts of crystals to add up to three crystals, all done by visiting all these areas and blowing stuff up in the process (but its ridiculously easy to just not shoot everything and still get pretty far in a level). And then you use the crystals to save the universe. Maybe.

There are four areas to the game, each with their own set of levels. While you’re not able to select any of the levels to play that each area has (or even see how many there are), you must complete the levels in a linear fashion to get to the progressively harder levels, ultimately beating an area to go to another area. Only one area is available at the start, which is not necessarily bad, but it’s not good either. The selection of levels come in the form of a deep space/asteroid place, a weird black log (what I can only assume to be a spaceship), a brown planet, and one white planet. That sure is a scenic tour, considering the aliens who are attacking are attacking the whole universe. Of course, you can see the reason behind the aliens’ interest in each of the areas you fight them in, especially the deep space void that has a bunch of random spiked walls and floors randomly floating around or a big black log in the middle of space. Yes, I know it’s not supposed to be realistic, but I can’t help not thinking about it.

As I said before, the graphics are nice. However, the enemies you encounter aren’t very imaginative or interesting. The enemy’s projectiles, most being small red balls, can also be too hard to see since they are usually very small and blend in with the background too much. Even your enemies are hard to see because they blend in too well with the background.

The Dearth of Good Things

So, what else besides the graphics are actually good about this game? Well, they do get some things right when it comes to the game.

There are the usual things, such as a health bar, lives, and the purpose of the game being to obtain points. While you get points for just destroying an enemy, more often than not, they will release a floating orb with a number on it that, when collected, gives you extra points. There are obstacles in the game that utilize timing and the scrolling of the screen, or what I like to call “screen crunchers.” As levels progress, the scrolling speeds up, forcing you to think fast, or slows down, allowing you to deal with an obstacle/problem.

On the ship enhancement side of things, there are your standard power ups and speed ups. There are also power down and speed downs, so there are certain decisions you have to make (whether or not it’s worth it) to try and get a power up or if you should sacrifice one of your power levels to get through an area easier. There are also satellites that have different kinds of firing characteristics that can be found through levels so that you can kick ass easier. When holding down the firing command for the satellites, you can’t use your ship’s regular weaponry because they’re only used once for every fire key press. Unless you press the fire key a lot, you’re basically using one or the other, depending on the type of satellite, however.

The soundtrack is also a good part of the game, as it is very electronica-oriented, and goes well with the space setting, as well as the levels you’re in. Though there are crappy-sounding voices used in the game at random times, they sort of fit with the songs, almost sounding as if they are part of the song that is playing since they have a little bit of a European accent to them.

A nice part about the game is that it gives you the freedom of using a keyboard, a mouse, a joystick, or even a joystick with force feedback. But these good control preference choices quickly turn into bad things.

The Abundance of Bad Things

Let’s start at the beginning. When you boot up the game, there’s a long start-up time. You’ll be sitting there for a while watching the load bar slowly fill up. There’s a lot of “decrunching,” whatever that means. Besides that, once you start up the game you’re not able to adjust volume while you’re in the game or it will crash. If your speakers have a volume adjustment, you can do it from there with no problem, but if you’re doing it from your keyboard and not in the options for the game, then it will most certainly crash. But, it could just be a problem that arises from the kind of computer I have and not necessarily so for others. The fact of the matter is that it happens, and that’s not good. Another slight annoyance is that there isn’t a quick exit from the game. The only way to exit is if you go to the title screen and select exit game. It can take up to around a minute to get to depending on what screen you’re at in the game. They also disabled the use of Alt-F4 for the sake of forcing you to go to the title screen to exit. How convenient is that? You can always go to the Ctrl-Alt-Delete box and end the program if it really comes down to it, I suppose. Aside from all of those issues, is the fact that the frame rate drops when a lot of explosions or actions happen on the screen.

First and foremost, however, the control issues drag this game down from being as good as it could (and should) be. Even on easy mode, the game can be challenging, mostly due to the control issues, not because of the difficulty of the game. Though you are given a wide array of options to chose to control your ship with, those of us without a joystick are left with either the keyboard or mouse control options. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. The keyboard is harder to use than the mouse for shooting because of the simple fact that each time you push down the fire key, one shot comes out. That means you’ll be hitting your space bar or ctrl key a lot. However, switching the control preference over to your mouse brings up another problem, as it becomes very hard to move your ship fast enough and far enough to really warrant its use. This mostly happens because there is no mouse sensitivity gauge in the options. Unfortunately, there are no keyboard/mouse hybrid controls either, so you’re either stuck with one or the other, which will most likely be the keyboard because moving is a very important part of the game. This also leaves another problem, because even the keyboard isn’t perfect when it comes to controlling your ship, as one millisecond longer of holding the key could mean certain death for your ship. Even if you have full health, if you accidentally miscalculate and graze the floor or a spiked wall, your ship will blow up instantly, only adding to the frustration of the game, since there are many times where they have “screen cruncher” obstacles that will result in your instant death.

I also found it interesting that as you progressively got higher levels of weaponry, your back fire weapons seem to have more power than the front ones. The front weaponry itself isn’t very strong (unless you have a satellite with you, but that’s not very often) because the lasers shoot in almost all the directions you can think of except for what’s most useful: forward. Most of your shots will hit a wall rather than an enemy, making power ups not really as valuable as how fast you can hit the fire key. It leaves to the imagination why someone would make a ship that fired stronger, more concentrated blasts behind instead of through the front. It also left to the imagination why the programmers thought that was a good enough idea to put in the game.

Absolute Blue has no real redeeming qualities to it, and with a similarly priced game, which outclasses it in every way already out there (namely Jets’n’Guns), you shouldn’t waste your time with Absolute Blue, unless you’re really up for a frustrating challenge.

 

.hack//G.U. Vol. 1: Rebirth (PS2) Preview

If you’re one of the many fans of the .hack series that was released in four parts (Infection, Mutation, Outbreak, and Quarantine), you’ll be pleased to know that there is a new .hack game being developed for a 2006 release. Named .hack//G.U. (the G.U. standing for “Grown Up,” and also having 12 different meanings in the game itself), you can instantly see from the trailer on CyberConnect2’s web site that the game has a more mature look, feel, and mood. What is instantly noticeable is that the game takes on a truer anime style than its predecessors.

For those who haven’t played the aforementioned games in the .hack series, the .hack games revolved around a popular MMORPG called The World, and the weird occurrences happening within and outside as a direct result of what happens inside the game. By creating a fake online world, the .hack games capture the feel of an MMORPG, while blending it with storyline often utilized in single player RPGs. The experience is very unique, to say the least.

Announced at E3, .hack//G.U. takes place in 2017 (seven years after the previous four-part series). Being inserted into an all-new story where The World becomes a place where Player Killers (known as PK’ers) and warring guilds are constantly causing disruption in The World creates an interestingly new atmosphere to play in. The game of The World has been upgraded to have new areas, monsters, and jobs; however, with the constant pandemonium of players fighting each other, it causes The World to be a lawless virtual reality that the system administrators can’t control.

In .hack//G.U., you play as Haseo, a gray-haired male known as the Terror of Death. Wielding an awesome weapon which seems to be a Sword and Chainsaw hybrid, Haseo earned his nickname by hunting down PK’ers. Other characters that were named in the trailer were: Atoli/The Mirage of Deceit, Kuhn/The Propagation, Yata/The Prophet, Sakubo/The Machinator, Endrance/The Temptress, Pai/The Avenger, Ovan/The Rebirth, and what seems to be Kite (supposedly being named as Tri-Edge), except he has a seemingly zombified expression on his face coupled with amazing powers and abilities.

While not many actual story elements were revealed from the trailer, you can tell that something happens that involves places and possibly some characters from .hack parts 1-4. Kite, the main character of the first four parts of .hack, is a given, as there is a one minute fight scene between Kite and Haseo. It’s left to the imagination whether or not others will take a place in the story, and it’d actually be surprising if they weren’t mentioned.

Fans of the series won’t have to wait as long as 2006 to re-enter the .hack universe with .hack//G.U., as there is another .hack game in the works and is being released before .hack//G.U. Even less information is known about it, but from browsing CyberConnect2’s web site, it seems to be named .hack//Another Birth. Whether or not .hack//Another Birth is going to be Part 5, or a kind of extra game to link the first four parts to G.U. remains to be seen at this point.

 

Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity (PS2) Review

Developer: Pinegrow / Publisher: Atlus || Overall: 7.8/10

Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity is Atlus’ new strategy RPG for the PlayStation 2. Taking place in a world where all the regular enemies you see fall into around 15 different classes (each class having only one sprite model so you’ll know what they are), you’re in for many long hours of strategy “fun.” Well, not really “fun.” Between instances of unfulfilling storyline full of bad voice acting, you’ll find yourself having to level up for about an hour, which definitely becomes a chore at times.

I’m not going to lie; I really thought the setup of the world and story in Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity was actually very interesting. Unfortunately, the game didn’t live up to my expectations. Maybe it was the bad voice acting or the excessive use of dialogue devices that annoyed me (including, but not limited to, just saying a name and having to guess what they mean by just saying someone’s name or trailing off in their speech and not completing it). It seemed like at times the story was written in a way that I had to read the storyteller’s mind to understand what they were trying to imply in the context of the events. However, the main fault of the story is that it took too many predictable turns, making the game seem more run-of-the-mill than it really should have been.

The graphical style used in the game more closely resembles Japanese anime than cel-shading found in most games that try to achieve a “drawn” look to them. While I didn’t have any real complaints about how the game looked like in this regard, my roommate gave his generous opinion and basically said it looked like crap, as if “some kid finger-painted that ****.” I can see how the art style might not appeal to everyone, but I personally think that the graphics are more or less nice to look at; however, you can tell the colors are kind of bland, and nothing really jumps out at you. Dedicated story scenes are most of the time delivered in still shots of characters with backdrops behind them. There are different pictures depicting interesting interpretations of emotions as well, for example, bugging out of the eyes when mad/disgusted. The character art is fairly well drawn, but you will never see more than one (if there is one displayed) character in a story scene at the same time, as the pictures will jump back and forth between the conversing parties. Not that this is necessarily bad — it just leaves out certain characters’ appearances through parts of the story and you’ll begin to wonder if they’re even there. Sometimes they’ll leave a character out of a whole conversation and then insert a part where that character pops in and has “…….” as what they say, just to give you the feeling that they are there and listening, I suppose. Sometimes you’ll see story delivered in in-game animations. There are practically no Full Motion Videos (FMVs), either.

When it comes to actual game play, Stella Deus doesn’t get much more generic. All the basic principles of strategy RPGs are there and not much more to build upon. Typically, you gain Exp and SP after each action you make in battle. Depending on your level and whatever formula the game has, you’ll gain a number amount anywhere from one or more Exp/SP for each action. Exp is used to increase levels and SP is used to increase abilities or gain skills. To achieve the next level for a character, one needs to gain 100 Exp, and it doesn’t matter what level you are. The amount of Exp you gain correlates with what level you are, meaning an action you gained ten Exp for at level five only gets you one Exp at level 10. A fault (or maybe it was on purpose) of the Exp system becomes apparent when you get closer to the 100-Exp-threshold. For example, if a character has 98 Exp and you defeat an enemy, gaining 62 Exp for doing so, you’ll in effect lose 60 Exp points, because once you get to 100 or more, you start at zero instead of having the Exp rollover and start at 60 exp. This is annoying to say the least. SP is gained in a similar fashion, but instead of the problem you have with Exp, you never have enough SP, making it a potential chore to have to battle a bunch of times, outside the course of the main story, to get enough SP to do whatever you wanted. SP is used to learn new skills, and to gain more base stats (if you ever wanted to waste them like that).

There are a couple of unique things that Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity brings to the table, however. The most unique, dare I say innovative, aspect of the game is how you are able to control your characters during battle. You have two choices in the options menu, one is “Command” and the other is “Direct” for your controlling preference. Command is the usual menu-based control scheme in strategy games that list all the possible things you can do (like Move, Attack, Item, etc.). The control scheme known as Direct takes these commands and assigns them to particular buttons on your controller, allowing you to conveniently accelerate the pace of the battle. Cutting down the time of each turn you have your characters take makes the game less boring, in a way. Other interesting aspects of the game are Team Attacks and Zone Skills. Team Attacks allow you to combine forces with another character in your party to deal some serious damage on your enemies. The game almost forces you to take advantage of Team Attacks, because the levels get progressively harder faster than your characters develop (without practicing in battles a lot). Depending on who is in the Team Attack (which seems like it could be up to five at a time), they do different types of attacks. Zone Skills are also an interesting part of the game, as you can affect the status of your characters or the status of your enemies depending on the skill you use. Possible skills include Healing (for your characters) or a chance of inflicting the status of Fear on your enemies, and as long as either is in your character’s “zone” they may take effect.

There are also some side-quests available in the town portion of the game. Seemingly, each town you go to is an exact copy of all the other towns in the world you visit, and every person looks the same, too. Actually, the “town” is just the same “town” you go to each time you go to the “town,” meaning there are no unique towns in the game. The side-quests break up the linearity of the story, and gives you something else to do than go to the Catacombs (where you practice your battling to gain Exp and SP, going to increasingly deeper levels with harder battles). You’ll find different quests that simply make you go somewhere with an item, have a battle somewhere, or do something that’s pretty much stupid. You can acquire interesting items and new party members (although they stem from the enemy sprite pool, but at least you’ll only get one character for each class of enemy) for doing the mini side-quests, and since they really don’t take that long, it may be worth your trouble.

When it comes to sound, it’s not the game’s strong point. While the music is OK to listen to, it can get kind of monotonous, especially when you constantly have to listen to the same song during battles, and you’re in battle 90% of the game; basically, not much to choose from. The sound effects are average at best. All of your enemies use the same set of voice-overs for their cheesy quips they say before and after an attack, and all the unique characters in the game (who don’t share the same character model as one of your enemies) have their own voice-overs that are equally as cheese-filled. When it comes to regular story voice-overs, the voice-overs are bad. There are a couple of main characters that have moderate or even good voice-overs, like the characters of Viper and Grey. It gets to the point where you can tell which characters have the same person doing the voice-over because they sound almost the same, or you can tell by their abilities as a voice-over actor/actress. While they do get the job done, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth sometimes. It also doesn’t help that a line of speech randomly has lower volume than the other lines being spoken. Though it doesn’t happen often, it happens enough to mention.

To veterans of RPGs and strategy RPGs, Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity may be an underwhelming experience, but it doesn’t go as far as to completely disappoint. Most of the elements that have made strategy games good in the past are present, and if you’re looking for a game to feed your strategy RPG yearning, Stella Deus: Gate of Eternity wouldn’t be a bad choice. The game can get rather involving to a point, and could spark interest as to where the game’s story will lead, but all in all, you’re not going to find anything else that is very different from most other strategy RPGs.

 

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat (PC) Hands-On Preview

Developer: DICE | Publisher: Electronic Arts ||

The Battlefield franchise is coming around for a new shot at the market with EA’s Battlefield 2, developed by DICE. Battlefield 2 supplies those who yearn for a modern combat Battlefield game (since the other games were based on WWII, and Vietnam), by making all the stuff in the game, well, modern. There are tanks, jeeps, helicopters, and guns just like those that are being used in combat nowadays.

The traditional Battlefield formula has been preserved well in the demo I played at E3 for Battlefield 2. While the only mode that was allowed was multiplayer, there were eight people playing at the same time. Needless to say, once you got used to playing the game on a PS2 controller rather than a PC set-up, the game becomes fairly involving. As with the other Battlefield games, the game revolves around taking over and controlling all the spawn points as dictated by the map you play on. While you can have some very hard times making it to the point where you control all the flags in the game so that there is no spawn point for the other team (thus winning once all the remaining enemies are left on the map are killed, unless they take another flag over), you can win by killing members of the other team until all their tickets run out. Usually killing the other team for all their tickets would take a very long time (since you start out with a couple hundred usually), so it becomes the priority to take over all the spawn points.

The multiplayer-only demo I played for Battlefield 2: Modern Combat captured the same feeling as the other games in the series. Being able to chose one of five different positions in your respective team, you can be equipped with a special ops gun, an M16 with a grenade launcher, a sniper rifle, a rocket launcher, a shotgun and other secondary weaponry to help you in your conquest of the map. This allows for flexibility in what kind of gun you like to use, and you don’t mess around with picking up your gun off the floor.

The demo’s sound was excellent for being in such an early stage of development. Almost all parts of the gameplay were very good as well, but there were a couple of issues I did notice. A minor issue is when you move (with the left analog stick) and then let go of it, your player keeps moving afterwards, and it feels almost as if they are sliding. The other issue which is more annoying is the lack of precision using the right analog stick in aiming with your weapon. Hopefully these issues will be solved before it hits retail.

Though there was only one map available for play, it looked fairly nice. A lot of the objects and textures were sort of bland, but most likely the graphical look of the game will be improved as well.

Playing Battlefield 2 for about an hour, I can say that the development of the game is going well, and the game can only get better from what it is now.

 

 

Close Combat: First to Fight (PC) Review

Developer: Destineer / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.8/10

With the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there has recently been quite an upsurge of FPS’s that take place in the Middle East. Close Combat: First to Fight takes its place among the many recent FPS titles that allow you to shoot at radical Arabs. In this striving-to-be-realistic shooter, you take on the role of a Marine lance corporal (put simply, the leader) in a four person squad of America’s few and proud. The game is based on imagined “occurrences” taking place in Lebanon, in the distant year of 2006. You will play an important part in resolving the problems between Lebanese radicals and the Syrians who help them.

First to Fight will take you through building after building and street after street, gunning down these stereotypically radical Arabs with turbans and beards, who shoot at you with AK-47 bootlegs called AK-74s, all while yelling in Arabic, or rather what they try to pass off as Arabic; it’s mostly just incoherent yelling. With the help of forty U.S. Marines fresh out of battle from Iraq, First to Fight claims to be so realistic that the Marines use it as a training tool. Given this logic, however, one could say that Pac-Man could also be used as a training tool for the Marines. Fact of the matter is, I doubt very seriously that First to Fight is actually used for training; while it tries to be realistic, it’s really not. It even says on the box it’s not approved, endorsed or authorized by the Marine Corps or any other component of the Department of Defense, which isn’t surprising, because First to Fight is not realistic enough that it could be used as a “training tool,” despite it’s claims.

The main goal of First to Fight was to be a realistic representation of how real-life U.S. Marines operate in battle. With a few squad-based commands, you’ll go around shooting your 3-shot-burst rifle, raiding rooms, killing enemies using truck-mounted machine guns (realistically, with no recoil), all while being jealous at the fact the other member in your squad gets the cool gun. This is hardly a realistic representation. While the settings they put you in look fairly “realistic,” they also look like they could be the slums of a poor European city, especially after a few buildings were bombed out. If the Arabs were replaced with Nazis, it wouldn’t be too hard to believe this were a World War II game.

As mentioned before, First to Fight utilizes squad-based tactics as you make your way through the urban landscape. While it’s not purely command-based in the way you can utilize your squad SOCOM, in how you can send your team members to location points and all sorts of different advanced commands to complete the mission, you can give your Marines a few commands mainly consisting of Suppress, Cover, Take Down, and Frag Take Down. Suppress is usually used when you want to travel across a hot zone full of gunfire. When you enable this command, your Saw gunner (the guy with the really good gun) will start shooting in no particular direction, clearing the way for you to move across to another part of the area in conflict to get a better shot at the radicals. Cover is another tactic used to help you reposition yourself, but instead of firing in random directions, all of your squad members will stay in the place they are and make sure you make it across safely. Take Down and Frag Take Downs are used when you’re in a building, and is used very often when you want to clear a room you’re about to go in. In a regular Take Down, your marines will storm in and shoot everything they can. In a Frag Take Down, they’ll toss a grenade into the room, letting it explode and then charge in with guns-a-blazing. Using these four commands will be the only times you really have to control your marines. The rest of the time, the marvelous AI will take control of your marines, helping you shoot down those crazy radicals, most of the time taking more of the kills than you do. In the end, First to Fight tries to give off the impression that it is more complex than normal FPS games by having seemingly complicated explanations as to how your units work, but you learn within your first hour of playing that it doesn’t really matter you have a squad with you.

Starting a new campaign game will take you through “training levels” of sort in which tutorial videos are played to teach you about a particular aspect of the game. While there’s only a couple of these, the first one is fairly long, clocking in at about five minutes. The intro-tutorial video teaches you all about how the Marine squad operates, naming all the positions of the different people in the squad, and how they are automatically programmed to do things like Marines do (such as go down the sides of streets instead of down the middle). The tutorial video also makes it clear that your squad members are smarter than you when it comes to playing the game, so you really don’t have to help them every step of the way through your mission. While your squad-members do help out a lot, you tend to feel like a babysitter, healing your members when they need it, and always making sure they’re near you so you don’t risk losing two and failing the mission.

There is the option to request help from other Marine forces in the area, as you’re given a limited amount of times in which you can call in for an air strike or a sniper to help you out with a situation (as if they’ll only give you the favor a limited amount of times, not because they want you to finish the mission or anything).

The story is delivered through “news broadcasts” by the International News Network (which seems to be run by the British). This gives the feeling that you are playing the game on a “global” level rather than an individual level, while keeping up with the developments of what happens in the fictitious divergence. Consequently, you don’t actually have a story with the marines you impersonate. There is no drastic turn of plot events like the Marines disobeying orders and going into a dangerous part of town that hasn’t been secured yet in a valiant effort to be proclaimed as heroes, or anything that may have made an interesting story. Basically, all you do in the game is receive orders to go somewhere. After you get there, you shoot some guys to “secure” the area, then rinse and repeat. If you get a kick out of shooting people who pop out of doorways or from behind objects like a jack-in-the-box screaming fake Arabic, then get ready to have the time of your life, because that’s all this game is.

Even the most basic game play mechanics aren’t flawless. Too often when I walk around I feel like I’m tripping over something. The regular movement is very slow consequently, and if you decide to “sprint” there is an over-exaggerated swaying of the camera from left to right, making it difficult to really see where you’re going. You’re usually stuck with hobbling around with a floating gun. Although it is nice that they added it, melee attacks have no use at all. Using a melee attack grants no particularly advantage to its use, as you have plenty of ammo already to give out to the needy, and there are plenty of AK-74s lying around to pick up and use for yourself. There are also too many different commands on the keyboard for you to remember, probably more than what should have been necessary.

Keeping true to the games “realistic” approach, it doesn’t take too many hits for you to be killed. Also keeping true to this aspect, your enemies will randomly disappear! I wouldn’t have mentioned the enemies disappearing had it not happened more than four times (that I noticed) while I was shooting in their general direction, only to find that I had somehow vaporized them with my rifle bullets. I didn’t think the American military was THAT advanced. But the AI itself isn’t all that great to begin with. While the AI provides a fair challenge, (mostly due to the fact they look exactly like they’re surroundings) and because it doesn’t take much to kill you to begin with, you may run into some situations where you become careless, die and restart at the last checkpoint you passed. Quite often, the AI will stare at you for nearly a minute before deciding to do anything, making them very easy targets.

Despite all that I’ve said already, the presentation of the game isn’t bad. I found the music to be well-composed, lending a good feeling to the “modern-combat.” Even though this is a Middle Eastern-themed game, there is no Middle Eastern-sounding music in the background. Instead, it focuses on the triumphant “we’re-going-to-kill-you” feeling you should get from a FPS. The graphics also aren’t half-bad. While they definitely aren’t the greatest I’ve seen, they’re above average for a PC game. When you crank up the settings to their most advanced, you will have some nice visuals to look at. The settings show quite a bit of detail, and really make you feel as if you’re in a war-forlorn area. A downside to this; the minimum requirements to run First to Fight are quite demanding. With the requirements of a 1.3Ghz Pentium III, 256 mb RAM, 32 mb video card, broadband for multiplayer and 2.8 gb of hard drive space, your computer will have to be nearly top of the line to play without any slowdown with all the settings cranked up. On a side note, loading takes about an average amount of time, but most of the time it’s fairly quick.

I’m not sure how big of an importance multiplayer takes with First to Fight (even though it is an important aspect of all FPSes). Being squad-based, it doesn’t seem to me like it’d be realistic for people to follow all the rules your AI squad-members would adhere to. With two multiplayer modes, Four Man Co-Op and Head-to-Head, Four Man Co-Op seems to provide the only good mode to play this game online. If you like the single player missions included in the game, you’ll get through them about four times faster since there’ll be four guys running around the game shooting all the crazy Arabs they can find. If you wanted to play Head-to-Head, the urban settings found in the game could provide for some fun.

Oddly, I found the shooting of endless hordes of zombies in Deadhunt much more fun than playing this game. While First to Fight has a few good points about it, it does not live up to what it claims it is, and is “realistically” only a less than average FPS. Possibly the greatest fault of the game is the price tag it totes: an MSRP of $39.99. If the game were priced for a budget release, maybe half of what it is currently, this game could be worth a look to the FPS enthusiast.

 

Dave’s E3 2005 Journal: SNK and a Box of Neo-Geos

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Dave's E3 2005 Journal

When I went on the second day of E3, I had the pleasure of seeing the event how it should be: with all the lights on. Needless to say, everything looked brighter. I don’t know if it was the affect of brightness that made it more apparent that AJ was wearing a trench coat that was particularly eye-catching (to say the least, since like 50 people came up to ask him where he got it and stuff), but that wasn’t the only highlight of the day. No siree.

We left a little later than I would have liked. I’d say we’d actually gotten on the road at around 8:00 or so, because we had to wait in the drive-thru for Jack-In-the-Box. But that wasn’t even the part that took the longest. From Point A to Point B, we were in traffic that was crawling at about Five MPH. We didn’t even get to the LA Convention Center until about 9:15 or so, and I didn’t hit the speed limit once.

When we got into the actual building, I called Dan to tell him we were there. He said they were in the press room along the far wall. It should be noted that every time I talk to someone on the phone, I have to ask them to repeat what they said about five hundred times before I can understand them since it’s so loud, and I have a thing about not holding my cell phone the right way. After a little confusion (it took us longer than I’d like to mention) about actually where this mystical “press room” was, it turned out that it was the same place we got our badge holders in. Silly me. Another funny part of it is that each time AJ had gone down the hall that we were supposed to, I told him to go down another hall with me. So he went down the right hall twice before we actually went the right way together.

We met up with Dan and Marcus who were doing stuff on the web site at the time. Since I forgot that we were supposed to make business cards of some type, Dan gave us a handful of his to use between us, so that we could just write our stuff on the back of it and give it out. We left the area afterwards, and went to the floor, looking at the games we’d already seen the day before, and stepping in to play a few of them. This encompassed most of our day, and except for a small period of time between 10:40 a.m. and around 12:15 p.m.

The games I had played today, and forgotten to mention about yesterday are as follows:

StarCraft: Ghost – I hadn’t actually played the game, but I did see it played in what could be described as a Capture the Flag mode. The game was ridiculously awesome, especially since I’m a long-time StarCraft player (not exactly a veteran, but I do love the game) of about seven years, so it was really cool seeing how all the vehicles and Terran units were modified and changed after ten years since the first game came out. I had always wondered why they hadn’t done anything more with the StarCraft franchise, but the empty space in my heart has been filled with just watching other people play StarCraft: Ghost. From the looks of it, it seemed like it was better, and more unique than Halo. Since its set in the StarCraft universe, people could chose to be a Ghost, Firebat, or Marine, and drive Siege Tanks, Vultures (which seem like they handle exactly like a Ghost in Halo), and other original vehicles made for the game. The mode that was currently being played in multiplayer was a very interesting version of Capture the Flag. Instead of retrieving a flag and taking it back to your base, the object of the game was to infiltrate a factory, lift it off, and land it in your base for a certain amount of time. It looked really fun, because players of the other team were constantly raiding the factory, taking it over, and launching it off the ground back towards their base. I predict StarCraft: Ghost will put the Halo name to shame, even though I loved the original Halo.

Battlefield 2: Modern Combat – This game is another from the development team DICE and publisher EA, who have worked together in the past with Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield Vietnam. Battlefield 2 is a modern combat game, using all of today’s weaponry, and the added surprise (to me at least) of artillery fire. While the featured demo was multiplayer and featured only one map, once you got used to the PS2 controller, the game became really fun. All the soldier classes (considering the types that are usually included in a Battlefield game) were available to choose from, so it provided a wide variety in the troops. I played for about an hour or so. You can read my preview of the game here:
http://www.gamersmark.com/previews/view/253

Burnout Revenge – I only played the original Burnout for all of about half an hour on the Xbox at my friend’s house, and was really not that into the game. Three games later, (and while I haven’t played it, I hear Burnout 3 is really good) Burnout Revenge has really impressed me. What could only be described as high adrenaline racing, you drive into your competitors, trying to crash them into walls, and it’s helpful to just be as reckless as you can while still trying to win 1st place. The crash scenes and the explosions are really amazing because of the angles and slow motion they use to efficiently deliver all the action that is happening. There were two courses available for play in a single player mode for the E3 demo that was on display. I’m definitely looking forward to the final product.

Kingdom Hearts II – Kingdom Hearts II builds on top of what made Kingdom Hearts so great, and added some level of complexity. This is definitely a welcome change for those who bought the first game, but I’m not sure how it be for little kids who played it. Complexity issues aside, Kingdom Hearts II is an all new adventure, bound to be full of the characters that were in the original, as well as different Disney movies like, Mulan as well as others, which will provide the setting. Hades (from Hercules) takes a big part in the game from the looks of it. There’s a boss battle where you fight the Cerberus with Auron from FFX, which allows for some really cool cooperative attacks. In the first Kingdom Hearts, the FF characters didn’t accompany you on your journey, but the demo obviously seems to suggest otherwise for the sequel. The battle system is just as fluid as ever, and with the inclusion of a concept of “forms” Sora can change his fighting style (the one included in the game allowed Sora to have double Keyblades) which makes for some pretty exciting innovations. One thing is for certain though, if Kingdom Hearts II includes the Gummi Ship minigame thing they had in Kingdom Hearts, then I’ll probably just scream, because I never understood how to do anything with that freaking ridiculous concept.

Now its time for the SNK predicament. This is a very special part of my E3 journal, because if I hadn’t played Kingdom Hearts II ,
Battlefield 2, and Burnout Revenge afterwards, I would have been pissed off.

10:30 – I realize its 10:30, and stop playing Kingdom Hearts II. AJ and I have an appointment with SNK Playmore, which is in the hall that we weren’t in. So we had to go — quick style.

10:40 – We arrived at the SNK Playmore booth. I went up to the Press Desk to check in, and told them who I was and that I was with GamersMark.com. The lady looked at the list she had, and “gamersmark.com” was listed on it. She asked me for a business card, which I gave to her with information I had written on the back of it. She asked me who I was supposed to meet, but I didn’t know any name because we weren’t given one. She said to hold on, went into the backroom, and disappeared forever. That’s right, I never saw her again. Maybe she was really hungry and decided the business card would be a delectable treat. So, under the impression that we had to “hold on,” AJ and I looked at the old Neo Geo stuff they had in a case. Then we sat down, still waiting. AJ took out something and started reading, sitting on the floor. I looked around and saw that someone was done playing Metal Slug 5. I took it upon myself to play Metal Slug 5, since all the other games they had were relatively uninteresting old games they were porting to the current generation of systems which would all eventually have Live-enabled multiplayer. Whoopidoo.

10:59 – I notice it’s nearly 11:00, and figure that they should be coming out to greet us soon. So I continue playing Metal Slug 5.

11:04 – I look at my cell phone again, and notice its 11:04. So I thought “Ok, maybe they forgot.” So I went to the Press Desk again and did the whole process again that I had with the first woman that was there, since the person there now was completely different. She asked me for a business card, and then went to the backroom. We waited for about a minute, and she came back out and waved us in. So I called to AJ and then we went in. The lady then said “he’ll be right out.” So we took a seat on the couches. At this point it was about 11:06.

Interlude: 11:06 – 11:40 – During this time, amid weird looks by other members of the “press” at AJ’s trench coat, AJ and I read all the magazines and stuff we got for free. I drank a can of Sprite. I got up and got a small turkey sandwich with a thin piece of lettuce in it. While I was getting the sandwich, the guy I had seen walking around every which way through the room complained to me about how they had no mustard for the sandwiches, because they had it yesterday. I just said “Oh, that sucks.” It was then I thought that it would be funny if that was the guy we had to meet for our meeting. At this point we had waited about fifteen minutes already. So I went back to my seat, and ate the sandwich. This random guy comes from somewhere, with a sandwich and takes a drink from the bowl on the table. He asked AJ where he got his trench coat, and after AJ said the same thing he said to everyone else, the random guy asked us who we worked for. We said “Gamersmark.com” and the random guy said “Oh, really. I think I heard of you. Kind of ’up and coming.’ I hear you guys are pretty cool.” Yeah, right. I doubt he’s ever heard of us. That was the most general statement for any web site. That’s why we ignored him after, and acted like we had no interest in him. After a while later, I finished my sandwich, and then the random guy picked up his stuff and left. Afterwards, we waited for like another ten minutes before I got frustrated.

11:40 – I just about had it at this point, because we checked in 20 minutes early, only to be ignored. So I went back outside to the Press Desk to see what was up. There was another different person there (so that counts as three different women I saw at the desk). She was talking to someone else, so I stood by waiting for her to stop talking. While she was talking to him, she looked right at me, so I had assumed that she would talk to me after. Turns out, that wasn’t the case. Another dude comes out of nowhere and asks her a question, and they talk for about a minute, so I stepped in closer to where she was so that she would pay attention to me.

11:45 – I told the 3rd lady that we had been waiting inside the backroom for about 40 minutes and hadn’t met anyone yet. She said she’d see what was up, so I followed her back there, and then sat back down next to AJ. She went into a room and told someone that we had been waiting for about an hour. So, whoever she was talking to was supposedly in a meeting still. So when the guy in the meeting left, the guy who I could only think is the Manager/Director of the booth for SNK came out and apologized for the long wait. He asked who we were supposed to meet, and I said we didn’t know, we just know we had an appointment with SNK at 11:00 a.m. The Manager apologized again and asked if we had taken any food or drinks. I said we did, and he said that was good. He said “You’re supposed to meet my pr representative, let me go get him.” So after he went chasing after him for about another five minutes, he brought back the mustard guy.

11:50 – “Ohhhh, so YOU’RE Gamersmark!” is what the mustard guy said. No shit, Sherlock. We’d only been sitting in that room for the last half an hour watching him walking around the whole time because we weren’t there for any particular reason. But then I guess I couldn’t expect him to actually look for two guys that work for Gamersmark.com that he was supposed to meet at 11:00. So, we finally got our meeting underway, except we had to do it together with another guy. Wanna guess who it was? The Senior Editor of Play Magazine. Great, not only do we get ignored for an hour, we get overshadowed by a more prominent figure in the video game media than us lowly Gamersmark.com staffers.

12:00 or so – The mustard guy told us about which of SNK’s games that they were porting from their Neo-Geo to release on Xbox/Xbox 360. The mustard guy said that SNK loved Xbox because the fanbase likes 2D games more than that of the PS2’s. Supposedly all their 2D game sell horribly on the PS2, and all their games being released are for Xbox, save for the Metal Slug 4/5 combo pack that’s coming out later this year. Depending on the success of that, they may or may not become exclusive to Xbox. He also said that they were making a Metal Slug game in 3D. During the whole time, the senior editor dude kept pressing for special treatment of playing the games that weren’t available out on the floor. So between my nods, and saying “yeah” to transfer the message that I was listening to what he was saying about release dates for games, I had to listen to the annoying senior editor guy asking about being able to play games that no one else could. The mustard guy said that they’d have something after the show just for them. So, lucky him. That was basically all that happened. I didn’t go away from the meeting I had with SNK with the same feeling I had gotten from Namco. Maybe it was because we were ignored for so long, or maybe because Namco actually made us feel like they wanted us to find out about their games and had people actually working on the game explain them to us. We got press kits from the mustard guy then left. On the way out, the Manager acknowledged us when we left, and we said thanks to him. The Manager was a nice guy, in hindsight.

So, thanks to all that, there’s a lot more on today’s journal than originally planned. Be happy. The rest of the day we just walked around, and played some more games. We left when we got tired. On a side note, I don’t hate SNK.

 

Dave’s E3 2005 Journal: Lines Everywhere but No Power Anywhere

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Dave's E3 2005 Journal

Today was the first day of the exhibits at E3. A lot more happened today than I could have really anticipated.

I thought that it was impossible for E3 to suck at all, except for one thing that could happen, that could make it suck. A power outage. And that’s what happened this morning in the LA Convention Center. It wasn’t the LACC’s problem, it was the city’s problem, so there was no telling when they’d be able to get the power back up. Fortunately, they had generators running to keep the emergency lights on around the building and the parking lot. That didn’t keep the parking lot from looking like a dungeon though.

After AJ and I got to the parking lot, we drove around looking for a parking space. We drove around for a half an hour at least, constantly behind a long line of cars, wondering if I had wasted money on the parking ticket I bought. After a while, we were finally directed to an area, by staff. In a dark abyss of a corner, there were finally some parking spaces. When we finally got in the door, people had to deal with the power outage, quite simply because there wasn’t really anything to do because of it.

We met up with Dan and Marcus, who were in line waiting for the media briefing that was held before the exhibits opened. Everyone in line would get a bagel and listen to the media briefing. Dan and Marcus lost interest in attending the media briefing, and both decided to go to McDonalds and eat something there. Since AJ and I already ate, we just stayed in line because there was nothing to do. However, because of the power outage, some dude that worked there (I’m assuming) said some stuff about “since the power outage is blah blah blah, so the media briefing won’t blah blah blah.” I couldn’t really hear him because it was really loud and he was kind of far away. So, AJ just said we should just leave because they probably weren’t going to even hold the briefing. But I contested wholeheartedly because we’d get a bagel. AJ said it would be a shitty bagel, but I said “how do you know?” Other people in line made some comments about what we were talking about, but we didn’t pay attention to them, because they were stupid.

We walked around for about fifteen minutes in the lobby. We were handed some publications to read by some random people. One was an issue of GameInformer, and the other was an E3 Newspaper thing made by the ESA (the group that makes E3 possible). We sat around outside (because it was hot inside) and read what we were given, wondering if there’s going to be an E3 still because of the power outage. We waited until about 9:55 a.m. before we went back inside. Then the doors opened to E3, and the huge herd of people flooded into the E3 with cheers. Took a little while to actually get in, but we did.

The whole day we walked around pretty much, looking at all the different games around. I saw a lot of games being premiered for the first time like Shadow of the Colossus, Jak X Combat Racing, SOCOM 3, and like a thousand other games. There were big screen TVs everywhere and it was freaking loud.

Random information I gathered:

Square Enix is releasing a slew of RPGs in the coming months, such as Kingdom Hearts II, Radiata Stories, Romancing SAGA, Fullmetal Alchemist, etc.

Namco is trying to make all new franchises for their expansion into the PC realm of gaming instead of porting their games from the consoles, so the games have a feeling that is more than “Oh its on PS2, but now they’re putting it on the PC,” however it wouldn’t be stupid to think that some could transfer to console systems. When I poised the questions to different members of the Namco staff on-site at E3, they declined to comment on any possible porting of the PC games to the consoles, which could be a good sign in certain cases, depending on the type of game.

Of the games I saw, I only played/learned about a few enough to actually know something about the game. The following games qualify for the list of “what I know.”

Phantasy Universe – I hadn’t played a Phantasy game by SEGA since Phantasy Star Online on Dreamcast. I instantly noticed the control scheme was amazingly better than PSO. I didn’t know if it was online, but whatever mode I was playing, I was accompanied by three NPCs in my team. I thought that it could be a really good game from what I had played.

Before Crisis: Final Fantasy VII – This is the mobile game we’ve been hearing about which is a prequel of sorts to FFVII. It was all in Japanese, so I couldn’t tell you how the story was or anything, but by the way it looked, it had the best graphics for a mobile phone game I’d ever seen. But the controls don’t make the same impression. While it was still only in development, I’ve seen games that come out and have horrible controls regardless, so I had told someone about the way I felt the game should be improved a little bit. It was definitely hard to control your character in an action-battle setting, where you had to dodge around and hit your enemies, while they were firing at you and moving around as well. Needless to say, you need something better than a mobile phone to control that well. Also, if you were hit by the enemy who had a gun (you only had a sword, since you were that red-headed Turk), their rate of fire was that that you couldn’t hit them with your sword before they hit you, making it hard to get any hits in at all. Another minus was that the enemies had a lot of HP for being such low level ones. I can only wonder how hard boss battles (or the final boss battle, for that matter) would be. I’d gander a “near impossible.”

Kingdom Hearts 2 – looks like it plays just like what made the first Kingdom Hearts so great. They probably improved certain aspects of the gameplay and stuff, but I didn’t have a chance to actually play it. Perhaps in the coming days I will be able to.

Warhammer – One of Namco’s PC-only games. Its going to be an RTS game, but all they had of the game was a trailer with no in-game footage. Warhammer is a cool concept, so its possible the game could be very good.

Hellgate: London – I can’t say anything bad about it. I really think it’ll be one of the best games to come out on the PC. It mends together aspects of First Person Shooters and RPGs in a really cool way. You can read my preview for it here: http://www.gamersmark.com/previews/view/235/

Mage Knight Apocalypse – Another game from Namco’s wave of PC titles. Based on a table top game, Mage Knight Apocalypse prides itself on the fact that even though its an MMORPG-type game, there is no leveling up at all, which they feel takes away from the experience of playing the game, because it pulls you away from it while you level up. They explained that the stats increased as you used certain skills during the game, such as swinging your weapon or using spells. The skills that are increased would only be increased based on what you actually used during the game, so that means that if you use melee weaponry, you won’t get a magic skill for doing so.

It was a long day, and there’s two more coming up. We’re going to be concentrating more on playing the actual games than looking around and getting a feel for what’s around so we can prioritize our time the next day or two. And on a side note, the displays and booths look really cool. Each company has its own style. All the non-creative/low budget companies took up cubicles in the back of the halls though, so they weren’t as interesting.

We also saw some dude from Australia who had a virtual reality hardware thing called the a_rage. The technology and concept was really cool, since virtual reality was actually feasibly possible with it. They are an independent company, so I hope their product succeeds to some extent.

(Thanks to Marcus for subtitle name for the article.)

 

Hellgate: London (PC) E3 2005 Preview

Developer: Flagship Studios | Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment

I had the pleasure of being invited to an appointment to check out Namco’s new PC games today at E3. The games I had seen were Mage Knight Apocalypse, and Warhammer, and Hellgate: London. Namco’s goal in their expansion to the PC market is to create new franchises that aren’t featured on consoles, to give the made-for-PC attitude in their upcoming PC games. Mage Knight Apocalypse was available in a playable form, but Warhammer was just shown as a trailer. The only game I had actually gotten hands on with was Hellgate: London.

The version of Hellgate: London that is on the E3 floor was still in development, but it had a lot of elements already added in the game for playing. The actual story for Hellgate: London is fairly simple. Being set 20 years in the future, demons come from Hell and you have to stop them as part of the last surviving humans on the Earth. Similar to adventure games with RPG elements, Hellgate: London stresses character development and increasing the abilities of your character and his weaponry. In this respect, the game becomes very unique when it integrates its weaponry choices. There are many different kinds of guns and melee weapons, that you can create different combinations of in both of your hands. The only melee weapons currently in the game are swords, but a representative of the development team said that they will be including different kinds of weapons, such as a cricket bat, so that you can kill things in a style that you want. From what I’ve seen, there are rifles and pistols that have futuristic kinds of ammo/uses, some in an almost magical way. The rifle that I saw (almost similar to how a shotgun works) unleashes white balls of light that spread out among the area and create a lot of damage, though not very accurate. The rifle works really well when there’s a large group of zombies, demonic creatures, or other enemies. The pistols aren’t anything too out of the ordinary from what I saw, but the kinds of ammo they have are unique. You can upgrade your weaponry as you collect more weapons, and also equip more items to your body, changing your character’s appearance.

Hellgate: London is not a pure first person shooter; rather it uses a combination of first and third person views. It is useful in some cases to use the first person view, and also switch out of it to the third person view to get a look more at what’s around you. The first person view can only be used when you have only guns (meaning no combination of a gun in one hand a melee weapon in the other), because using melee weapons in first person is hard to use, and wasn’t included. I had asked the member of the developer team (who was the art director) whether or not that would be included. He said it might not be, because it was undecided whether or not they would put that in. Through my experience with playing a game called Thief, which used first person melee attacks, it was hard to function. In this regard, the ability to switch between perspectives is a very much welcomed aspect. He also mentioned that Shops would take a big part in the game, though they haven’t been included yet. Shops would be used to sell the items you gather and save your game when you visit. Some sort of a quest-structure is to also be included in the game, so that the game can move along when playing single player. The RPG elements, the concept of modding weaponry, and the beat-em-and-shoot-em-up feeling you get from the game can appeal to a broad audience of PC gamers, as it reaches a middle-ground between FPS and a game like Everquest.

While the game takes place in London, there are two parts to the game: above ground and underground. All the maps are generated randomly, so you’ll never go into the same area again, as the main purpose of the game is just to develop your character in classic RPG style. Upon the question of whether or not there would be multiplayer included in the game, the art director said they haven’t included it in the game, but they do want to put it in. If there are the standard types of competitive online game modes we’ve seen with most first person shooters and having some sort of a quest mode be played co-operatively.

The actual version that I had played was quite impressive. For being Flagship Studios’ first game and a part of Namco’s first wave of PC titles, I was very impressed by how good the graphics looked; the game was very fluid for being in an early stage of development. The development team did an amazing job in creating the settings and areas. The ruined look of a city ravaged by demons, gave the actual feeling that if a demon invasion happened in the real world, it would look just like they had portrayed it. The art director told me that as you progress through the game, enemies get tougher, weapons get better and more improvements are available for your character.

I have no doubt that Hellgate: London will not disappoint. I came out of E3 today looking forward to being able to play more of the game and to see how it turns out more than any other game I had looked at while I was there, mostly because of how well the development was going in such an early stage. The release date for Hellgate: London is to be determined, so whether or not it will be released this year or next year is left to question.

 

Dave’s E3 2005 Journal: Calm Before the Storm

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Dave's E3 2005 Journal

So, I woke up today at around 6:30 and took a shower. When I got out of the shower, I got dressed and then called AJ. After I told him he was coming with me, I drove over to his place, and like we had decided last night, we went to go eat somewhere, but first AJ had to get batteries for his camera and some cash. Afterwards we went to eat some doughnuts. Anyway, there wasn’t too much traffic on the way there, since we caught the last bits of rush hour I believe. When we got there, there was no trouble parking, but I can only imagine how hard it’ll be tomorrow for that.

When we got in, we got our media badge holders, and looked around. Everything was still being set up, so nothing was actually being shown yet. Its a good thing we got our badge holders and everything really easily, because it’ll probably be hell tomorrow morning.

Me Standing In Front of Cardboard GTA Chick

After we got our badges we went back down to the lobby and looked around some more. I called Dan to tell him we were there. They said they were parking right then and that they’d call when they got to the lobby. So we hung out around the lobby some more, and AJ walked around behind the escalators, and low and behold we found the new Batmobile for the upcoming “Batman Begins” movie.

The New Batmobile from “Batman Begins”

When AJ and I met Dan and Marcus for the first time, we shook hands and stuff, then they asked where they could get the media badge holders. On the way there, they asked what was going on today, and we said nothing except the Nintendo conference. While they were getting their badge holders, AJ and I figured out that the Nintendo Conference wasn’t even at the LA Convention Center. Needless to say, we were kinda mad. So, since that was the only thing even happening today for the most part, we didn’t know what to do at all.

We looked at the event list and saw that there was an Educational Game conference hosted by MIT or something like that. We decided to just go, since nothing else was happening, and while AJ and I were looking around some place else, we lost Dan and Marcus. They didn’t say they were going right in, but we assumed they did. AJ was saying we should probably just leave since nothing was happening, but I thought we should at least tell Dan and Marcus before we actually left.

So we went inside the MIT conference thing, and saw Peter Molyneux (game designer for Fable, Black and White, and Black and White 2) talking about his new game where you can make a movie and then share it with people. It seemed pretty interesting. He was talking about how educational games can still be fun, as well.

He was talking about how educational games can still be fun, as well. He talked a lot about all the different things that game developers making educational games had to deal with, and the rising costs of development for the next generation consoles (upwards of 20 million dollars). The main points he made during his main talk was that he wanted games to be used in the classroom to teach. He made a reference to how he learned more about world history from the Civilization games than he had ever known previous. He also mentioned he liked to make games that gave you a choice of being good or bad, because people could see the consequences of their actions whether they be good or bad and see how things happened, similar to real life. He mentioned that in America, 75% of the people chose to be good in games if they were given the chance, but in Europe it was the exact opposite, with them saying 75% of them would chose to be evil. After a while of him talking, he took some questions from the audience. All together that probably took a good 45 minutes. Or at least it felt like it.

A funny part of the conference was that Marcus asked a question about what markets they hoped to appeal to with educational games even though they cost so much because of increasing next-gen development costs. After he answered the question with saying there are enough people out there who would buy an educational game (or to that affect), later on someone else in the audience stood up and made the statement that educational games always sell well, and that “they” (meaning Marcus) should check their statistics again, because she hates it when people say that educational games don’t sell well. I wanted to tell her to stuff it, cause it seems like she was trying to snub Marcus for asking that question, though she really didn’t know who he was. She probably worked for a company that made educational games now that I think of it.

Peter also made a reference to Leroy Jenkins from World of Warcraft, if you know who he is. Molyneux said that he supported the Xbox 360 (but not specifically ONLY) because of its abilities regarding multiplayer games, which he is all in favor of, because people would be able to go on quests with each other and stuff.

He said that major thing in the next-gen platforms was how they could bring people together to play with each other, and that was a very important value for him.

Another question that was brought up in the conference was about the fact that with increasing quality of games, it would be hard for schools that will always have outdated PCs be able to use the games that are top of the line. Molyneux responded with saying that a remedy for that problem would be using video game consoles instead of updating all the PCs every year, since consoles only come out every five years or so.

He also said that there are many games that could help teach courses, such as the Civilization games for world history, or using the Half Life engine (which he said was very useful) to create educational games.

After Peter’s interview/conference session was over, people started to get up and leave, while people stayed for the next conference by Leap Frog. AJ and I already decided we’d just leave after we told Dan and Marcus, and we stayed for the whole conference to do so. So we told them we’d just go since there wasn’t anything to do. They’re probably just hanging around there still, taking pictures and stuff.

 

Stronghold 2 (PC) Review

Developer: Firefly Studios / Publisher: 2K Games || Overall: 6.0/10

Nowadays, it’s debatably hard to find a real time strategy (RTS) game that can compare to the classics. Games like StarCraft, Age of Empires II, the Command & Conquer series, and the Krush Kill n’ Destroy series (one of my personal favorites) really set the standard for me to judge other games in the genre against. Firefly Studios’ Stronghold 2 pales in comparison to the aforementioned, outright. While Stronghold 2 does have some interesting aspects to it, they are not executed as greatly as they could have been. While it can create a minute interest for the long-time RTS PC gamer, Stronghold 2 falls devastatingly short of being what it strives to be: a good RTS game.

The biggest thing about any RTS game is the actual strategy you use to thwart your enemies. There are two ways to play, either militaristically or economically. If you chose the military route, your castle will concentrate more on creating units to fight against your enemies. While you still have to keep your economy up, the main point of it is to fight. If you chose the economical route, you’re in for a more or less long game. You’ll focus on making your castle a bustling center of economic activity, creating enough food to feed your people with, as well as gathering resources to build up an army to attack or defend against invaders.

The kind of style you pick will affect the kind of game you play, whether it is in Campaign or Free Build. Campaign will take you through objectified missions where you will complete a mission given to you by your superior. How you get to that point is up to you, but the purpose of it is to get to that point. Unlike most RTS games, once you complete a mission, the next mission you undertake will use the same map and base you had just built, still being able to use what was created. During campaigns, you will always be able to see the whole map screen, being able to keep an eye on neighboring estates and castles. In the Free Build mode, you’re able to just create your castle and watch it bloom. Or you can undertake the task of going head-to-head with a computer player. There is also a Multiplayer mode and the ability to play user-created maps made by the in-game map editor.

Castle towns in Stronghold 2 revolve around three important buildings: the Stockpile, the Granary, and the Lord’s Kitchen. The Stockpile holds all the materials your peasants gather from the surrounding environment, and bring it into the storehouse until it is used. There are many types of resources that can be gathered, such as wood, pitch, stone, iron, etc. The most vital resources you will use (mainly to build buildings and castle parts) will be wood and stone. Other resources are used to create weaponry or other different objects. The Granary stores all the food that your peasants will harvest, including apples, meat, dairy, and wheat. Your granary can hold an infinite amount of food, and will also control how much food you distribute to your people. The Lord’s Kitchen is the storage house for the finer foods of back in the day, such as pigs, eel, geese, wine/grapes, and vegetables. Using the Lord’s Kitchen, you can hold feasts in your name, thus increasing your honor. To gather all the different types of resources, you have to build different buildings to which your peasants will automatically go work in as soon as you build them. Whenever you run out of jobless peasants, you can build more housing space (called a Hovel) for more people to live in and wait for new jobs to be undertaken.

How well your town does depends on the two important factors of Popularity and Honor. Popularity is basically how much your peasants like you, and if there are any displeasing or pleasing things happening in the way you’re keeping your town going, it will be shown. To achieve more popularity, you can do things like increase rations or not tax. The maximum amount of popularity you can have is 100, so if you’re at 100 and there’s no loss of popularity, it’d be to your benefit to reduce rations to normal, so that a larger stockpile can be gathered in your Granary. Things that can damage your popularity, making people leave in eventuality, would be if you taxed them (more tax will have more popularity loss) or left piles of “gong” around without having someone clean them up. Another aspect is “honor” in which you gain a certain amount of to use mostly for military needs, and to “buy” more plots of land from your king to use for yourself and expand your ventures. A very good way to increase your honor is to hold feasts, using the food held in the Lord’s Kitchen. There are a few other ways to increase your honor, such as attending church, getting married (to a woman, if you’re wondering), holding a jousting tournament and holding medieval dances to name most of them. The “industries” that create particular types of resources may be turned off fairly easily, should the need ever arise, but there is no option to stop just one building from doing what it is doing, resorting to having to destroy the building to stop it.

Laying down this framework, just like every other RTS game, you build a mass of soldiers and spend a good deal of time trying to take over the whole map.

Experienced RTS gamers may find a few very annoying parts to the game, to say the least. Probably the most apparent thing is that you can’t control your peasants at all. They are controlled by the computer at all times, and even if they were being attacked by a wolf, you can’t tell them to run away. There’s also a non-traditional way of seeing how many resources you have. Other than the ever-present information about your Gold, Honor and Popularity, you have to click on your Stockpile to see how much of each resource you have. If that wasn’t enough already, the most important part of an RTS game, combat, is slow. Half of the problem would have been remedied if your units didn’t move equally as slow as well. So if you’ve got a wolf problem or an invading army already attacking a building of yours, chances are a few bad things are going to happen before you have a chance to do anything about them. Also, it will take some memorizing (and frequent reference to the instruction manual) to use all the buildings, as there are a lot of buildings whose names don’t clearly reference to what they actually do. It may be hard to figure out that the Fletcher’s Workshop is for making bows and arrows or the Hop Farm is used to make ale. Unless you just happened by this information in your ventures through education beforehand, it might be kind of hard for you to remember which building does what.

The graphics utilized in the game are not very pleasing overall. While I did enjoy how the environment looked like (mostly because of the trees), I came to the realization that the graphics were not that great, especially when I zoomed in closer to objects I was looking at. In the game there are buildings, humans, and animals, all of which look lackluster unless you zoom in. Though, there are many different views to look at your castle and land in full 3D. The sound is about average quality. The best part about the sound would be the music and sound effects. The voice-overs included in the game are some of the most horrible stuff I’ve ever heard. Everyone in the game sounds like an idiot, to be frank. I hate to hear the stereotypically dumb peasants who like to say “liege” when referring to you, and hear about how “the rations are not good, but they’re not bad and that’s about all there is to say about that.” But, you can learn to live with it if you try to restrain in ever clicking on your peasants to see their status.

The two big complaints I have about this game stop it from attaining a decent score. First is when you start up the game; it takes forever to load. You’ll be sitting there for what seems like ten minutes, wondering why it takes so long to load a menu screen, only to see that it’s been loading a five minute movie, which you have to press escape to not see and go to the menu screen. The other comes with the atrociously low frame rate your game will inevitably have as you build more buildings and create more living space for peasants. The low frame rate makes the game very unpleasing to play, nor is it avoidable, even if you have a computer that far outweighs the minimum (and recommended) requirements of a 2.0Ghz processor, 512mb RAM, and 64mb graphics card. The computer I use actually is the minimum and recommended settings combined, and I still had problems with the long loading and slow frame rates. Though there is an update that increases the version number to v1.1 (currently), these vital issues are not fixed.

I really wanted to like Stronghold 2, but the unfortunate result is a lackluster RTS that will be easily forgotten. If the developer is able to fix the game’s major flaws and tweak the game play (it wouldn’t hurt if the graphics were made just a little bit better) in a possible second sequel, then it would be worth another look, but in its current state, Stronghold 2 is a game any self-respecting RTS gamer should stay away from.

 

Metal Gear Acid (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 8.7/10

If you’ve ever thought a Metal Gear game would fail to deliver an amazing experience, shoot yourself now. Metal Gear Ac!d takes a completely different spin on the franchise in what can be best described as a “card-based-strategy-board-game.” Similar to strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, the major difference between this game and the rest of the card-based genre is that Ac!d is not an RPG, as cards (and luck of the draw) dictate every part of the game. Metal Gear Ac!d delivers a truly unique experience, while still including all the major elements from the Metal Gear Solid series its fans have come to know it for, including interesting characters, and an entertaining storyline.

Like most people who heard about the game being card-based when it was first announced by Konami, it was left to question whether the game would catch on as the “normal” Solid games did. For me, it was hard to imagine what the game would actually be like, and whether or not the gameplay would measure up to the Solid series. When I finally loaded the game for the first time, I went in with lackluster hope that this game would be as good as the Solid games, but I kept an open mind about it. Recently becoming a fan of the Solid series, and just finishing Metal Gear Solid 3 about a month ago, I was ready to get into another Metal Gear game; Metal Gear Ac!d exceeded my expectations.

Taking place in the future (the year 2016 to be exact), the game starts with an airplane being hijacked. The person or persons behind the hijacking are not known, nor is their intent. The plane is filled with a muscle relaxant called vecuronium bromide that could be fatal if inhaled in excess. To make matters worse, a major presidential candidate named Senator Hach is aboard the airplane. The hijacker demanded only one thing: the prompt delivery of the mysterious project known as “Pythagoras.” This is where you (Solid Snake) enter. The stage has been set, and Snake is sent to a secret base owned by a corporation in the Moloni Republic, located on Lobito Island. It is here that Snake will try to figure out what exactly “Pythagoras” is, as well as uncover the mystery and past events which occurred on Lobito Island, in which Snake plays a big part. About a quarter of the way into the game, you’ll join up with a female agent named Teliko, who will help Snake along the way, and act as a team together. She is also a big part in the story.

The way the story is delivered, Metal Gear Ac!d seems like it shares events from the Solid games, because there are light references to them. For instance: “I’ve been in worse than this before.” All in all, the story is completely different from any other Metal Gear game, and seems like it could be the beginning of a completely new story arc for Snake, but I wouldn’t reject the idea of Ac!d being another part of the main Metal Gear storyline. However, it seems at times like they were trying to make a new Metal Gear story detached from the main timeline, so one has to wonder. Story is either shown as in-game animations or through the usage of drawn stills. While it was initially a let-down there weren’t any traditional CG cutscenes, the artistic style of the stills is fairly appealing as an alternative, and it helps in creating a different approach for Ac!d in storytelling devices when compared to it’s console brethren.

The actual gameplay itself takes a little bit of getting used to, so it’s good that the first couple stages serve as a tutorial; it helps out tremendously in learning the games basic functions. There are four different types of cards you can use through the game: Weapon, Item, Support, and Character. A card can usually be used in two ways: for the special ability grafted into it, or to move. While most cards have this basic option, there will be a few cards that only allow you only one option.

While the basic idea of how to use the cards is easy to get a hang of, they tossed in a bunch of different card characteristics and the vital feature of the game, “Cost.” Cost, as defined by the game, is the amount of time it takes to do a particular action, and is represented on the cards you can play as a big number in the right corner of the card display. Cost directly affects the order your characters and enemies take their turns in, so the more cost you accumulate during your turn, it’ll take longer for you to have your turn again. While Cost is the only aspect of a card I ever really paid attention to, each card has a characteristic called “Interference.” Interference only matters when you equip things to an equipment slot. The Interference of an equipped card can affect cards equipped next to it, such as the power of a weapon and other fairly unimportant things. I never worried myself with Interference, as I hadn’t directly noticed anything different that happened with Interference. It will take a few stages before being able to fully understand how to use the cards efficiently, but once you get used to actually using the cards, your only problem will be in what order the cards are drawn in.

Packed with nearly 200 unique cards, Metal Gear Ac!d offers lots of options for the cards in your deck. When you start out the game, you are able to place 30 cards in your “deck” (which you can compile through the “Intermission” screens between stages of the game), but as the game continues that number will rise higher and higher, allowing for a more customized deck. If you don’t want to deal with manually customizing your deck, you can have the game create the best deck you can have from the cards you currently have.

There are a couple ways to acquire cards through the game. The primary way you’ll achieve cards is by buying them in 3-card Packs from a deck that contains cards that are name after and unique to prior games in the Metal Gear series. Each pack costs a certain amount of points which are achieved after completing a stage. In total, there are four card packs to choose from, but they’re only available to buy after certain points of the game, and each new one costing more per deck than the one before it. You’re told as to when you’re able to buy packs of cards from new card decks because a commercial-like advertisement will pop in after completing a stage/viewing a story scene. You can also gather a few cards by collecting the Packs that are floating around in-game and earning them as a clear bonus.

Using some “special” cards activates a special cut-scene from the game of the deck was based on. For instance, when you use the Cyborg Ninja card, you will see a cutscene from Metal Gear Solid. During the beginning of the game, you will only see characters from the original Metal Gear Solid (the PSOne version). Not until later in the game do you actually see cutscenes from the PlayStation 2 Metal Gear Solid games. It’s impressive that the PSP can replicate the graphics of the PlayStation 2 so well.

The Metal Gear games have always been know for their unique, over-the-top bosses who are usually require doing things that are out of the ordinary to beat. While there wasn’t a whole group of bosses to fight in Ac!d like in the Solid games, Ac!d only had two bosses to really speak of (excluding the final boss), and only one of them actually stands out from regular gameplay, requiring you to do something completely different. To say the least, the amount of bosses worked into the story is not fulfilling, as much of the game is taken up by regular game play. It would have been nice to see more boss stages where they used the aspect of the cards to create a unique situation. This isn’t the only annoyance either. There are instances early in the game where Snake will stop in the middle of his move in order to show some story. This can leave you screwed without any cards to use so that you can move. Fortunately, the occurrence of these situations stop around one third of the way into the game.

As noted above, there are a few cutscenes of characters from the Solid games, as well as a few from the original Metal Gear games on the NES. However graphically, the game isn’t too shabby, especially for a launch game. Ac!d sports graphics that could be best described as “a smoothed out PSOne game.” When one considers the graphics are coming from a handheld, they’re pretty amazing. As I said before, there are no animated cutscenes, so the only movies you’re going to be seeing are the ones from the character cards. I also mentioned that most of the games story scenes are told through in-game animations and still-drawn pictures. I personally liked the still pictures, but they do give off a feeling that the game was rushed to meet the PSP’s launch date, as there isn’t a lot of variety in the pictures you actually see.

The musical score is nothing less than what should be expected in a Metal Gear game; in other words: great. The music accompanies what is taking place on screen, carrying the mood of the game and the specific events that are unfolding, whether they be on Lobito Island or in the airplane. While the music is great, the fact that there are mostly no voice-overs detracts from the experience. As a whole, there is very little actual voice-work at all. The only time you’re going to hear someone talking is during the “commercials” for the new decks that come out, and one word that a boss says before an attack. David Hayter-enthusiasts (the voice actor who plays Snake) might be disappointed at this fact. Once you get used to having no voice-overs in the game, it won’t be that big of a deal, but again, the game feels more rushed because of it.

Metal Gear Ac!d is an excellent extension of the series, and provides an exciting, new way to play the Metal Gear series. The somewhat experimental use of cards in the game can be make it hard for players to get into right off the bat, if you stick with the game, a rewarding experience will develop, as will a new storyline. Metal Gear Solid enthusiasts will definitely enjoy the game, but may find it hard to adapt; it isn’t part of the normal stealth-action genre Metal Gear Solid helped to define. Hardcore fans of the series will find more differences between Solid and Ac!d, but in the end will likely find the game to be worthwhile.

 

Deadhunt (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: REL Games || Overall: 8.6/10

Usually when you play a first person shooter (FPS), you play through elaborate levels full of enemies trying to complete a particular objective. However, Deadhunt takes a completely different approach to the FPS genre, in this crazy and all-around hectic game with an arcade flavor. Some may see similarities between Deadhunt and Serious Sam, but what makes Deadhunt great is the fact it challenges your FPS skills with each progressing level in their campaign mode. However, Deadhunt has nothing in it that can be claimed as innovative. For this reason, I see the game as more of a “training platform” for other FPS games, and little more than that, as Deadhunt is a fairly simple FPS, that goes back to the basics, while executing it very well. In Deadhunt, you kill zombies 90% of the time. The hordes of zombies you will encounter carry varying types of weapons and armor, at times making them more difficult to kill, and more dangerous. Other enemies you’ll encounter consist of skeletons and various types of spiders (ranging from big to small), but what you’ll mainly come upon in the game are zombies.

Deadhunt offers a number of game play modes that will keep players entertained for a lengthy amount of time. Tutorial isn’t hard at all, and if you’re completely new to the genre, it’d be a good idea to go through here and learn how to play, as Deadhunt plays exactly like every other FPS you’ve come across except for a few particular things (but we’ll get to that later.). Greed, just like the name implies, will put you into the game shooting zombies to get as many points as you can before you die, but before you die, you have to kill one particular zombie. Survival mode, even though you get to pick what weapons and power-ups you get, is very hard, and you just try to kill as many zombies as you can before you die. Survival is sort of like Greed, except Greed has a little bit of strategy in it. Campaign is the best part of Deadhunt, hands down. With three difficulty levels, Campaign will eat up most of the time you play Deadhunt.

Deadhunt is quite different from most other first-person shooters. Every time you start a new game, you’re assigned one weapon that they chose, and that’s basically it. There’s no changing weapons (except for when you get a “power-up” that changes your weapon for a limited amount of shots) at all. There are also no melee attacks, so if you’re in the middle of reloading and there’s a zombie about to hit you, you’re not going to be able to hit him with the butt of your rifle. However, what “covers the bases” when it comes to these facts is that you have an unlimited amount of ammo to use. Some may say “well that makes it easier,” but Deadhunt is hard enough that even with unlimited ammo, you’ll be having a tough time regardless. There are a wide-array of guns to be assigned with, such as a Desert-Eagle powered Pistol, an Uzi, an Assault Rifle, a Shotgun, an Auto Shotgun, a huge Machine Gun, and a Gauss Rifle (which is pretty much a sniper, but there’s no zooming in), so it does make it interesting when you play through with particular weapons, because (based on the weapon) it will tell you how many monsters will come at you and how hard they will be. You’ll also have to be good at running while shooting, because that’s what you’ll be doing — a lot. Most of the time you’ll be shooting the horde of zombies behind you, so you have to run backwards and shoot, while trying not to get hit by zombies running at you from the front. Once you eliminate all the zombies that spawn throughout the level, you basically win that level.

During Campaign mode, there are a few interesting challenges given as you play. While the ultimate objective is to kill all the zombies that spawn throughout the level, depending on the level (usually you can guess the challenge by the name of level after you played through it or if they explain it in-game, but sometimes they don’t), there will be different challenges along the way for particular levels. A few examples would be: the more you kill zombies the slower you run, rate of fire is down, every zombie you kill hurts you, and different kinds of challenges that will make the particular level

harder for you. Once you complete a level, you’re allowed to go on to a new level, which may or may not have a new challenge for you. Once in a while you’ll come across a level that doesn’t have any challenge to it other than killing all the zombies that spawn.

While Deadhunt can get pretty addicting, there are only two maps to play on, and they’re big, wide, open areas for the most part. One map is a green area with a Stonehenge-like structure in the middle of the map, and dead bushes and trees to get in the way of you’re backwards running. The other is a dark valley area in the middle of mountain with a big altar on one of the sides of the map. While these maps are good, they become very worn out, because these are the only maps you will see in the entire game. If there were more than two arenas in the game to play on, Deadhunt would have been a lot more interesting to play.

Deadhunt requires a good computer to be played on without crashing/slowing down, especially because of the graphics and sheer amount of zombies at one time they put into the game. The graphics, considering the game’s price of roughly $20, are actually fairly good. You can change the settings for how detailed they are in the options, so you can avoid some problems by doing so. While the graphics aren’t the absolute best ever seen (the gun animations are sweet, though), they will need a considerable amount of computing power, and a good video card. Not that it’s a problem, but when you’re up close to a zombie and you shoot them with your gun, instead of making a “bullet hole,” a big dark spot appears at the place where they got shot, making it somewhat obvious that you shot them in that spot, but also unrealistic (as much as the game is to start out with, it shouldn’t be a surprise). The music in the game is also pretty good, but I can recall only about one song for the menu, and one for each of the different maps. You won’t be paying too much attention to the music because you’ll be blasting away at the zombies with your guns almost nonstop. Speaking of sound effects, they couldn’t have been much better. Each gun sounds exactly as it should, and even have a little bit of an echo (to make it more believable that you’re firing away in a large open area).

Deadhunt is well-worth the investment of $20. If you’ve never been good at FPS games, Deadhunt will help you with your reflexes as well as aiming. Deadhunt is an addicting, arcade-like game, and if you just want to kill hordes and hordes of un-dead creatures, this is the game for you.

 

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade (PSP) Review

Developer/Publisher: Sony Online Entertainment || Overall: 8.2/10

Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is one in the batch of launch games for Sony’s new handheld. If the PSP were a piece of bread, Untold Legends is like the butter spread on top of it. Being a purely hack and slash RPG developed by Sony Online Entertainment, you can tell right off the game is like their other series Champions of Norrath and Everquest, but still has some imperfections. However, the formula of being assigned a quest and going to a dungeon to defeat a bunch of monsters transitions almost perfectly for handheld gaming, as many of the quests can be completed fairly quickly. Since handheld gaming usually consists of short bursts of playing (unlike console/PC gaming), this formula works out very well. Untold Legends serves up an enjoyable experience for many new PSP owners.

When you first insert the game, there is a little bit of loading before you see a Prologue scroll on the screen, telling a little bit of the background of the city of Aven and the character that you will play as. The story in Untold Legends is fairly simple, as it is obvious that the game was not to be played for the story. However, while the story isn’t that great, it does spark a little interest in where they do lead you with it as you play through the game, dungeon after dungeon, thus making the game more enjoyable. Most of the quests that you get through the game boil down to a few categories with different variations, such as get-that-item, kill-that-guy, or save-that-person. While it isn’t all that creative, the particular situations are unique enough (and the story interesting enough) for you to complete the quest and see what happens afterwards.

When you actually start the game, you’re given the choice to play as one of four different races: Knight, Berserker, Druid, and Alchemists. When you first create your character, you’re given some customization (such as hair type, that kind of thing) as to how your character looks like, but it’s not really anything special. Each have different abilities that can be used during the game, and are fairly unique in terms of how you will play the game, and most of all, battling. The shining star of all the parts of Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is definitely the battle system. The game’s battle system is surprisingly very fun, as there are many different enemies to kill, with hundreds of weapons, armor and accessories to gather and improve your character with and use during your hacking and slashing. The many types of items you can gather makes a big difference when you play the game, because, depending on the type of character you chose in the beginning of the game, as some items you pick up can only be used by a particular race, and also dictate particular battle abilities. You’re also only able to hold a certain amount of “weight” of items, as each of the items have their own unique weight, and you can only hold as much as the weight allows you, so you’re going to want to go in with a light pack when you enter a new dungeon.

Taking your journey through caves, tombs, underground tunnels and the like will be a challenge, as there are many different types of enemies to stop you along the way. You won’t have too much of a tough time as long as you have good enough equipment, but what you should be prepared for is the boss you will ultimately encounter at the end of each level. I recall only a few boss battles that were “out of the ordinary” in terms of what you actually do. For most of the bosses, all you have to do is smack them enough times with your main weapon to kill them. It isn’t too often you see a boss that you have to do something unique (or semi-unique) to defeat them. An example of one boss that doesn’t require you just hitting your “X” button as fast as you can is when you go against a giant spider that climbs up and attacks you for a few seconds, then climbs back down. There is a little bit of strategy involved in it (with timing, mostly) to make the boss a little bit more challenging, but for the most part you won’t run into too many of those. One thing you can be thankful for is that when you defeat a boss deep inside a dungeon, you can easily return to the city of Aven by selecting the command from the Start menu. If they hadn’t added this to the game, it would have made quests twice as long, as you’d have to backtrack through the whole dungeon you had just gone through, but fortunately don’t have to. When you return to Aven, you basically have to talk to the people who sent you on the quest to get some rewards for completing it, and then continue in looking for another quest to go on. If you’re ever not sure about what to do for a particular quest, a helpful quest journal is in the status screen that helps you remember or direct you where to go.

Another great part about the game is the amazing visuals and sound, albeit because of the PSP’s own abilities. Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade displays more or less smoothed out PlayStation-quality graphics, and amazing stereo surround sound (with the headphones). Adding onto the visual aspect of the game, the 16:9 LCD screen of the PSP makes the game look better than it actually is. Considering this kind of visual experience is coming from a handheld, it makes it all the more better and really one of the forerunners in graphical abilities for the platform. There isn’t much to complain about the graphics, as they are beautiful and very detailed, but an annoyance that I’ve found through playing the game comes when you zoom into the character. The annoyance is not because the game doesn’t look good – it’s because when you are zoomed in, you are at a weird angle, and not able to actually see any enemies coming at you. Though it is nice they have the option for you to zoom into your character and feel as if you’re right in the action as you slay monsters one after the other, being at the weird angle puts you at too much of a disability in playing the game to really warrant its use. As for the sound, the game has good sound effects and a nice soundtrack. While the soundtrack pretty much sounds the same, and there isn’t much change in the mood as you go from area to area, it’s still a good accompaniment to the journey you’re on. Unfortunately, the sound is not actually implemented in the game all that well. I’ve noticed through playing that once a song ends, it will take a while for it to actually go back and loop the song, leaving you in silence and listening to the sound effects. This problem is more overtly seen (or heard, rather) when you’re walking through the forests outside of the city of Aven (and where most of the dungeons of the beginning part of the game are). Another nice aspect of the sound is that it’s in surround. When you come closer to an enemy, you can hear its noisemaking in the general direction of where it is, as well as listening to environmental factors in the general direction they come from as well. Yet again, the surround sound does not get pulled off seamlessly. While in dungeons, you will hear a lot of environmental sounds, which sound fine at first, as you can hear it in both ears, and it slowly fading in one ear faster than another as you get away from it, but too often does the sound cut off abruptly, making it fairly annoying, as most dungeons are full of these environmental sound effects. And if you were wondering, there are no voice-overs for characters as they talk.

If there was one thing that I’d pick out to be the biggest displeasure of the game, it would be the loading times. There’s quite a bit of loading as you jump from dungeon to dungeon and back to the city, about twenty or thirty seconds worth as you travel to a new area. As you’re traveling through the world, you will run into a loading screen a little more often than one would like, but it is sort of tolerable, considering that Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is an earlier title and they haven’t yet perfected the art of loading on the PSP yet. There is also a little bit of character concept art that you can look at while there is loading. I usually take that time to give my fingers a rest from using the buttons and analog stick. You also confront some loading time when you go to your menu screen to look at the items you have. The control scheme of the game is fairly straightforward, and is quite easy to learn. You’ll basically be hacking and slashing within a few minutes. Movement in the game is dedicated to using the PSP’s analog stick. While the stick isn’t as great as the PlayStation 2’s analog stick, it does take some getting used to before you won’t give the fact a second thought. Personally, I think it is really cool that they included an analog stick on the PSP for controlling movement, and gets the job done very well.

While the game has its advantages and disadvantages, for a launch game, it is a very well executed one. While you’re able to play by yourself, there is a way to “hook up” with your friends through a Wireless LAN connection (known as Ad Hoc) to allow interaction in the game with up to four other friends (who have a PSP and a copy of the game) to play with each other in the same world. If there’s one thing to say about Untold Legends as a whole, it’s an extremely good time waster. If you’ve got an hour or two to burn once in a while, this game is really for you, as you will be sucked into the game play and not even notice how fast time goes by. For a launch game, I am very impressed with the outcome, and as a part of a grip of other launch games debuted for the PSP, Untold Legends: Brotherhood of the Blade is a definite candidate for your first game as a PSP owner.

 

Hearts of Iron II (PC) Review

Developer/Publisher: Paradox Interactive || Overall: 8.2/10

Hearts of Iron II, like all World War II games, aim to be realistic and mirror some aspect of the time period. While Battlefield 1942 places you physically on the battlefield and Axis and Allies focuses you on particular battles, Hearts of Iron II aims to represent the war as a whole, on a worldwide-scale grander than either of the aforementioned games could accomplish. Hearts of Iron II places you in the dictator’s seat, looking down at the whole world as more than 2,700 land and sea provinces ready for you to conquer with imperialistic greed, or to stop those who aim to do so.

When you first start the game there are three modes to chose from, Tutorial, Single Player, and Multiplayer. Simple enough. That is, until you actually start to play. If you hadn’t played the first Hearts of Iron, and not really knowing what to expect when playing the game, like I had been, you will be overwhelmed within your first thirty seconds of play. There is so much information given to you right off the bat, that when they just toss you into the scenario, you won’t be able to keep up with what’s happening in the game at all. The sheer magnitude of what hits you is daunting. Until you actually build up enough courage to brave the overwhelming feeling that Hearts of Iron II gives you right off the bat, will you find a very fun and very realistic representation of World War II that you don’t see pulled off too often.

The main view looks like one of the tactical maps that you see in a war documentary, showing an army’s movements in general, without the specifics. Depending on which country you chose to play as, you will basically declare war on countries and take them over. What happened in history has no real bearing on what you can do in the game, such as actually being able to successfully invade the Soviet Union with German troops or take over the United States with the Japanese armed forces. However, when you’re on your imperialistic rampage, you have to constantly look out for all of your borders, as you may not have enough troops to occupy each province you annex into your country. Because of this, you have to deal with constant annoyance of having occupied territories taken over by your enemies and having to retake them over. The process repeats itself over and over, and you can’t get ahead too easily when it comes down to it. To make things somewhat harder, time progresses in an accelerated real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up according to your preferences), so not only do ten things happen at the same time, but you have to decide what to do with a relatively quick fashion, definitely keeping you on your toes. However, if the game gets too far ahead of you, you’re able to pause the game and deal with what had just happened. With a ton of provinces to take over, you’ll definitely be busy trying to advance your troops, conduct trade agreements, protect your borders, fend off pesky airplanes, produce more units, advance your technology, keep an eye on your supplies to make sure you don’t run out, tell your provinces what to build, and keep up with the ever-changing situations that arise, that you’ll constantly be checking on certain things while forgetting about others. It really takes a lot of initial practice to understand how the game works basically, before you can really understand how to play the game efficiently. For those who have a hard time getting into the game, the developers graciously put in a Tutorial mode. For those who try to jump into the game and see how it works, but just come out of the experience confused and on the brink of depression, the Tutorial is definitely for you. The Tutorial is broken up into smaller chunks, and if you want to concentrate on warfare (which IS the main aspect of a war game, after all), you can, and come back to find out about the other parts of the game later. Using the Tutorial to learn the basic mechanics of the game will definitely help you understand.

Being purely a strategy game, you do not really see your units actually fighting with your enemies. There are animations for your armies to show that they’re currently in a battle, but for the most part you just have to know that you are attacking. An annoyance that happens with the game when you’re controlling your units is that not all your units are actually displayed on the screen at all times. When units like airplanes or naval craft are in their respective ports, you have to click on the port itself to even be able to take control of them, instead of just dragging your mouse over it like you would with other units. This becomes annoying because it becomes hard to actually know how many units you have on the map. The map also has different views to it as well, allowing you to see different characteristics such as terrain, wealth, political boundaries and much more. I tend to use political boundaries the most, because it’s the most direct as to who owns what and what you have to take over.

Being able to take the head of nearly any country in the world and rule it how you see fit during this time allows for some very interesting information you otherwise probably wouldn’t have known about. I personally never thought about what Afghanistan, India or some other pretty much insignificant country was doing during this time. The only countries you really even hear about fighting in World War II were Germany, Italy, France, UK, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the USA, though they were the major players. This gives the chance for you to read up on the very in-depth information about the world and the different countries. Each country has their own technologies to develop, and loads of information down to the finest detail. Very historically accurate events do occur during the game, but can be changed drastically by how you control the game.

When it comes to the artistic points of the game, the game delivers a satisfying experience. There’s an excellent musical score that goes well with the game and what is happening (a world war), so it seems fit that there’s orchestrated music playing that feels, for the most part, empowering. The graphics, however, are not that great. The provinces throughout the world are nothing special, as they’re usual just solid colors, and don’t actually show any “real” terrain on it. Everything is color-coded, thus making it fairly simple to look at. There are also many black and white pictures from history of authentic tanks, people, technologies, and the like, which adds some more educational value to the game, seeing as you may not have known what a particular model of a tank looked like back then. When it comes to how units look on the map however, it gets very bland as the unit animations are nothing special, to say the least. You don’t see any action, per say, except you see the units looping their animation over and over to just show that they’re under attack or attacking something. It can get fairly boring, but like I had said before, you’re preoccupied with so many different things, like planning ANOTHER attack on a different front that you will kind of not even care that you don’t see any explosions.

Another part about the game is that things may not happen for a while, because in actual history, things took days or even weeks to happen. This is reflected by the gaps of nothing happening during your play time that can occur if you’re not constantly attacking someone, or waiting for a certain unit to be built, in which it’ll take a month or so for it to actually be built. Regardless of the accelerated time, a month is a long time to wait, so you definitely have to plan ahead whether or not you’re going to need a bunch of infantry troops all of a sudden, or if you’re going to need a particular technology researched in enough time to help you out. On a side note, from what I’ve seen, you’re not able to commit genocides or stick a whole race in a concentration camp (like the Germans did to the Jewish and the Americans did to the Japanese). I guess you just kind of have to assume its happening, as the main aspect of the game really relies on military and political difficulties.

Being a PC game, the game’s recommended requirements say that you should ideally have 512+ mb of RAM, a Pentium III, and an 8 MB video card or better. So if the only computer you have is the old hand-me-down you got from your great-aunt whom just passed away, you’re probably going to have to invest in a little better of a computer to play Hearts of Iron II. With the sheer vastness, complexity, and consistent evolution of certain events that occur during the game, it makes sense. The minimum requirements are less demanding, but in all honesty, you probably won’t have as good of a gaming experience when it comes to Hearts of Iron II, or many of the more demanding games being released.

Boasting the capability for 32 people to link up in multiplayer, one can only imagine the crazy games that can unfold. Hearts of Iron II itself reminds me of the User-made World War II scenario maps for StarCraft multiplayer games. If you’ve ever played the World War II map for StarCraft, the basic fundamentals of this game can be seen. However, those multiplayer maps could never accomplish the complexity (or even display historically accurate units) that Hearts of Iron II has done. During multiplayer, when you deal with another country diplomatically you’re going to have to take into account you’re playing with a human, and the chances that they know what they’re doing better than you know what you’re doing is probably going to be higher, unless you become a seasoned veteran through many many sleepless nights.

If you’re looking for the most historically accurate representation of World War II, Hearts of Iron II is your game. Hearts of Iron II is a history lesson in itself, and you can really learn a lot of the abstract, mostly unimportant facts you don’t come across too often without really looking for it. World War II history buffs and the like will absolutely love the game for the sheer amount of historical value included in the game. Being able to go through World War II from day one to the last day of the war is an arduous task that only a fanatic would probably want to undertake.

 

Ys: The Ark of Napishtim (PS2) Review

Developer/Publisher: Konami || Overall: 7.6/10

The scene opens up with a tavern. A man with a patch over his eye and a pony tail walks into the noisy building from the cold night with a shorter companion by his side. The companion, shrouded in a cloak and with her face hidden simply follows the man. Across the way from the entrance of the tavern, a red-haired adventurer, named Adol, is sitting down with a friend of his. The man with the patch over his eye goes over to Adol, and asks him to accompany him on an exploration around the world. Just then, two soldiers come in, looking for the “red-haired Adol” wanting to arrest him! I don’t want to give away the crappiness of the introduction of the story to Ys: Ark of the Napishtim, so I’ll fast forward to my summary of the opening part of the story; the beginning of the story of Ys: Ark of the Napishtim is trash.

It’s not often that I exclaim obscenities when trying to understand what is trying to be conveyed, but it seems like the beginning of the story was tossed together as an afterthought. The beginning movie is pretty much the only movie the game has for the most part, and it’s badly voice acted. Though there were some very nice graphics exhibited, I counted about three instances of fan service, in which the underwear of the annoying-peppy-blonde-girl character that has some sort of crush (I’m guessing) on Adol is shown. They really know how to pack that kind of thing in. Had I rented the game, the beginning movie alone would make me seriously contemplate whether or not I should return it sooner than I had intended. However, what really saves this game from getting a horrible score is the game-play, and the story later on in the game actually helps it, as well (but after being in the gutter from the beginning, there’s nowhere to go but up, and the bad taste of a poorly set up story always lingers).

I would have to say what the main point of the game would be that it tries to pull off an “old-school” approach to gaming. Ys: The Ark of Napishtim seeks to accomplish this by having relatively simple controls, as well as old-style (but not completely crappy-looking) graphics, a silent main character, and the story itself just being set in a fantasy world (more specifically, the world of Ys, where all the games in the series has taken place). However, because of this “old-school” approach encased in the game, there are many enhancements over the games from back in the day. In Ys: The Ark of Napishtim, every single word displayed as dialogue from a character has a voice-over and rightly so. Every character, even the unimportant characters in a town you find in a back alley will have a voiced dialogue. The voice acting isn’t half bad, and everyone talks except for Adol himself. You’re just supposed to assume what he says by the one-sided conversations people have with him. However, there are a few instances (I think about ten times) where it says Adol “explains to (character) everything that has happened so far.” So, you’ll just have to assume that Adol tells them every single little part of the journey you had just been on, down to how many slime creatures you killed on the way over to see them. The only downfall with the voice acting is that there are a couple of very annoying characters (such as Professor Raba who talks in an over-exaggeratingly old-man’s voice), and that you can tell that there were only a few voice actors doing the voices for all the different characters.

At various times throughout the story you will meet characters (like Professor Raba) whom have met Adol in the past or have known him through his “legend” or whatever it is. I don’t even know what it is, because it made no sense to me when they talked about “when we were at the Tower of Whatshisface” or “you may not recognize me now since I’ve grown into a beautiful woman” and many other instances of back-story that are never actually explained. It was only until I researched the game a little bit online that I found out that this is the sixth game in the series. So it makes some sense as to why it came up repeatedly about people, places and events that seem to be completely random after knowing this fact. Even though it isn’t very important to the story of THIS game, it would have been nice to actually understand what they were talking about.

Story faults aside, the actual game that is inside Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is interesting to say the least. The main feature of the battle system is that there are three different elemental swords (wind, fire, and electricity). It’s up to you to use the swords to your liking, constantly “upgrading” them by collecting enough stones called “Emelas” (or Emel) so that you can use each sword’s special ability more often, or acquire the unique skill attached to the sword. Even though having three elemental swords implies (to me, at least) that there would be enemies that are immune to one sword but not another (forcing you to use the right sword to kill them), you will find this to not be the case for the most part. For how much the game relies on these three swords, it comes out to being which sword you fancy using the most. There are times where you can notice an increase in damage from one sword over another for a particular enemy, but all-in-all the swords were not used to create much of a type of strategy for playing the game. If it weren’t for the story actually requiring there be three swords, it would have been better to just have one sword with a bunch of different abilities. Other kinds of items in the backend system add to the game-play as well.

Unlike most RPGs, there aren’t hundreds of things to collect, rather just a few accessories, pieces of armor, items, event tools, and other such things that are somewhat rare. It gets to the point that it almost influences you to really look for as many items as you can and buy all the items you can. There are a lot of unique accessories to collect throughout the game that will make a big impact on the game itself, such as an accessory that will increase your HP by 50% or another that will increase your attack and defense a little bit. There are also EXP, Emel, and money enhancers so that you can milk out the highest amount of things from every enemy you beat. While you only start out with one accessory holder, you can find more throughout the dungeons, up to a total of five slots for accessories.

Like I said earlier, the whole game itself is very simple and the learning curve isn’t that long at all, and you’ll be able to master the fighting aspect of the game in no time, since the only button you really press is “Square.” Sometimes you press the “Circle” button to use a magic attack associated with the sword you’re using, but this is basically all that you do to fight. The “Square” button is also used to talk to townspeople and investigate treasure chests.

Although the game is pretty easy to learn and get into (playing-wise), there are a couple of annoyances here and there. A minor annoyance is that when you’re in the field or a dungeon, there is no on-screen map to help you find where you are in reference to the place you actually are at currently. So if you’re in a dark cave that is pretty much a maze, you might end up going in a circle or not remember how to get back to a particular part of the dungeon you had been to before but died in. However, the most annoying thing about the game is the bosses.

In all my years of playing video games, I have never seen such cheap, stupid bosses that literally make me throw my hands into the air and say “how do I beat this stupid freakin’ boss?” I understand that boss battles are an important part of any game, but these bosses are, for the most part, so out of place and so over the top in terms of what they can do to kill you that it’s practically amazing that I even beat some of them. Just to tell you what kinds of bosses you have to deal with, you fight a wall. You fight a wall with big, long, skinny, rock arms and a face that can launch flowers that blow up and shoot a large energy beam from its mouth, while swinging around the arms and slamming them on the ground so that rocks can fall from the sky to fall on top of you. If that’s not crazy enough for you, how about a big frog that can roll up into a bowling ball, crap out slime that makes you slide around, as well as use its tongue as a spiked-ball mace? Oh wait, I forgot to tell you that the frog has STEALTH CAMOUFLAGE – it can seemingly disappear! Even if you have the greatest skills in the world at playing this game, you will not beat any boss if you’re not at the right level. A general rule about boss battles is if you haven’t beat a boss after fifteen tries, level up at least five or ten levels, and you’ll see that the boss is all of a sudden a lot easier than they had been before. However, regardless of whether you’re even at the right level, it may take a couple of deaths to get a hang of what the boss actually does. You really can’t expect the things they pull out of the air when it comes to the boss’s abilities. Just when you think you figure out a boss, it surprises you with a new ability it hadn’t used the first time you faced it.

Regardless of all that has been said about the game, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim is a game that really grows on you. One may be displeased by the out-of-the-ordinary old-style graphics incorporated in the game or even the weird set-up for an underwhelming story full of references to past games in the series, but for those who suck it up and go on to actually try and complete the game, you’ll find the game to actually be fun, and actually get caught up in the story a bit. Being a title that is priced less than a “premium” title definitely may influence some people to pick up the game, especially if they are fans of the series (whom haven’t had a Ys game brought to North America since the Super Nintendo days). Even though the game doesn’t take very long to finish, you may end up spending around 20-25 hours on the game as a whole. For those that actually venture far enough as to beat the game, there are a few extras included in the game, which affect game play, audio, visuals, and other things that can be activated by entering the cheat code before playing a new game. In the end, however, Ys: The Ark of Napishtim may only appeal to fans of the series.