Monday, May 30

Neon Wasteland: Returning to New Vegas

Thanks to the lovely people at Bitmob, I was afforded the latest expansion to Fallout: New Vegas on the condition that I write about my experience with the downloadable prize. While I can never pass up a free game (or an expansion as it were), I was somewhat hesitant to re-engage with Obsidian's buggy follow-up to what is one of the better role-playing games available on this generation of console hardware in Fallout 3.

You can read all of my initial impressions of New Vegas by clicking here, but to summarize for those bereft of spare time: the game featured underwhelming visuals and voice-acting, broken quest design as well as one of the most purposeless narratives in recent memory. There were also more than enough bugs to diffuse any attempt at an extended play session. It had been just over six months since I last played this mess; but with two new expansions and some major patches, I had hoped that this middling release would have been whipped into shape.

I'm afraid this was not the case.

The New Vegas Strip was just as ugly as I had remembered it to be. The inhabitants didn't fare much better either, with their marionette-like bodies brought clumsily to life with the press of a button. They would spout uninspired observations about the establishments they resided within, and rarely uttered more than a single phrase. The washed out brown and grey corridors of the various casinos, clubs and other establishments were also just as exhausting as they were when I had first wondered through them last year.

I wasn't here for the old though, I thought to myself. I'm here to experience the newest chapter in this(so far) disappointing adventure. But then I thought about it a little harder.

It was entirely likely that the characters and by extension, enemies that I would encounter in these recently-gifted environments would be of a higher level than those peppered across the standard questline; and they would therefore be able to brutalize my inexperienced character on a whim. Before I could play through the new, I would have to suffer the old; and suffer I did.

First I played through the painfully easy, yet undeniably broken quest "Bye Bye Love." On first attempt, I arranged to meet Joana and her fellow ladies of the night in the Gamorra club lobby. Upon some last minute preparations, we embarked upon our deadly journey. Being the gentleman that I am, I waited for the ladies to leave first and the proceeded to venture out on the Strip. Joana wasn't there, neither were her friends. I was then promptly advised that I had failed the quest because I allowed the ladies to venture off alone. A different approach was required: I ran out of the club as soon as I advised that we were right to go. Again I was met with failure. Upon five successive and unsuccessful attempts, I decided to load a save game I had created about ten minutes earlier, just as I had initiated the quest. Joana and her companions met me outside and we quickly proceeded to complete the quest.

War - and Fallout: New Vegas it seems - never changes. Just as broken as ever.

New Vegas is home to many different bug varieties 

All frustration aside, I'm now proceeding towards the end game. If all things go according to plan, I should be playing Honest Hearts by next week.

Saturday, May 28

Cinematic Prose, Gaming Woes

There’s nothing worse than having your expectations taken to great heights, only to have them come crashing down.

You may recall my post last week where I was looking forward to playing the newly released Brink. From all the pre-release material I found, it promised to be an interesting take on the modern FPS by incorporating parkour and delivering an outstanding multiplayer offering.

This combined with the brilliant and action packed trailer I posted last week, I was sold and ready to give it a good crack. And then I read the post release reviews…

My regular gaming consults, Metacritic and Good Game, both gave it average, mid range scores. Within Metacritic, whilst Escapist and Machinima rated it 80, IGN and Game Spot gave it a mere 60.

The complaints all seem to be the same – borrowed ideas talked up to be something new, clunky controls and more of a good idea that’s not quite ready to be a completed game.

Although a Metascore of 68 probably isn’t all that bad, it’s frustrating based on the level of hype and that fantastic video. I, like many others, base much of my anticipation on videos and trailers. As a marketer I should realize that’s what developers do to capture your attention, but when it’s really good, I can’t help but ignore my better instincts.

The same thing happened when I saw the Fallout 3 trailer – cinematic, captivating and highly entertaining. Although it ended up being highly acclaimed, I was relatively new to the franchise and ultimately bored the whole time I played it. I tried – I really tried – to like it but the style of the game just wasn’t for me. The best thing about Fallout 3, in my opinion, was trading it in at EB for a wifi adaptor.

On a positive note, thankfully some games actually do live up to the hype created by beautiful trailers. The cinematic small film for Gears of War (so cinematic that I actually saw it at the cinema) really changed my view of the Xbox 360, it’s capabilities and exclusive titles.

Trailers for Modern Warfare 2, Black Ops, Spinter Cell Conviction and PGR 4 also successfully captured my attention and managed to keep me entertained with solid gameplay.        

With the recently released Modern Warfare 3 trailer exploding over YouTube, will it prove to live up to the hype in November, or just be another great trailer for a game in a strong series?

Do you have any favourite trailers? Have you ever been a little too excited based on pre-release material only to be let down?

Wednesday, May 25

In case you haven't played it: Crysis 2 Review (PS3)

I only first played the original Crysis a few months ago. Released in 2007 with system specifications that still challenge modern hardware configurations, I desperately wanted to try it, but knew that it could potentially kill my previous, humble laptop. Even with a new machine - with what I thought were solid components - I couldn't run the game at anywhere near its highest settings.  Developers Crytek have put themselves in the business of creating technically-stunning first person shooters that set the benchmark for performance on current PC hardware. They even reduced my previous desktop unit to a stuttering, steaming pile of metallic excrement with their first effort, Far Cry the better part of a decade ago. With the announcement that Crysis 2 would be released on consoles and PC, I was finally confident that I could experience a Crytek game without any fear of a system collapsing. Needless to say, I've been waiting since 2004 to experience a game of this pedigree.

The Good
NY state of mind - Crysis 2 is unmatched in scale. Would you like to visit Central Park? How about when it's suspended hundreds of metres in the air? Yeah, me too. There are plenty of other prominent landmarks portrayed in various stages of devastation which simply must be seen. All of this grandeur is rendered with few apparent wrinkles. There were issues with texture loading at the beginning of some levels, but otherwise, the visuals in this game are of the highest calibre. Some of the set peices are just plain jaw-dropping. Just when I thought I had seen the most amazing sequence of destruction, I was treated to an even larger structure reaching a spectacular end. Be prepared to see the world's most recognisable city torn apart by the Ceph.

Commando - The narrative tying the game's high quality firefights together won't win any Pulitzer or Man Booker prizes. As a matter of fact, without seeing the first instalment through to its conclusion, it didn't mean much to me at all. But it didn't matter. The action was so intense, creative and just plain enjoyable. Every situation offers multiple approaches that provide genuinely different experiences. At the beginning of the game I went all out with the armour abilities, acting like a one man army. Towards the end of the game I played the superhero version of Metal Gear Solid; sneaking through some heavily occupied facilities killing less than a handful of CELL operatives. What I'm getting at is, an intriguing videogame narrative is worth less than nothing if the gameplay behind it is broken and/or repetitive. Much like one of my favourite movies, Commando (starring Arnold Schwarzneger), the story serves no purpose other than to signpost the next, progressively more-violent gun battle or fist fight. I didn't care so much that Arnie's daughter had been kidnapped, I just wanted him to lie to Sully (you'll know what it means when you see it, if you haven't already).

The absence of humanity - Battling CELL operatives makes for some exciting play, but in Crysis 2 it is nothing short of essential when you are set against the Ceph. While they may not come in a great variety, they are all deadly. Everything about them - from their movement, to their design - is truly awesome to behold.

The perfect song - A few months ago I read about Battlefield developer, DICE trying to make their game like the "perfect song, not a guitar solo," (Stead (Editor), 2011, p50). I would equate something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 to a constant solo. There is no lull, just a non-stop affront to the senses. Crysis 2 allows players to breathe after fighting a Pinger, or surviving a lengthy vehicle sequence. There are some solos there, and they are as memorable as Van Halen's "Eruption." Yet these moments do not define the campaign and they are almost perfectly placed throughout.

Old Blue Eyes - The score in Crysis 2 is about the best I've heard featured in a first person shooter. Save for one odd, aural inconsistency during the last firefight, the music perfectly matches the grandeur of the action unfolding on screen. The main theme has some sinister undertones which hint at the (predictable) betrayals that you suffer throughout the game, while the other pieces steel your hands for war. The multiplayer theme is perhaps the most inspiring piece of music that I've heard put to a loading screen. Sounds effects are also of high quality, with a few persistent blemishes. Specifically the suit makes some pretty heavy and annoying sounds while moving. Sometimes I managed to freak myself out, hearing enemies that weren't really there. Otherwise, all of the guns, aliens and their technology sound pitch perfect.

New Game Plus - Action games - first person shooters included - typically gift players with new, exciting abilities as the game progresses, only to take them away when the player opts for another play through. Crysis 2 thankfully bucks that trend, allowing players to use any suit abilities that you've unlocked from the outset of a subsequent shot at the campaign . I found that I had enough Nano Catalyst to unlock each of the suit abilities after I first completed the game and it was great not to start from scratch when I turned up the level of difficulty. That being said, I'm still finding the single player campaign to be a substantial challenge on Veteran difficulty, even with every module at my command. I should also note that the game is proving to be genuinely replayable, and I'm hoping to complete the game at least once more in the near future.

 Insert pun containing the words power and fingertips

Good company - Whenever you fight alongside the US Marines, you can be assured that you are in able company. In one particular level, I was under heavy fire and recharging my suit so that I could activate Armor mode and dispatch a nearby stalker (less common Ceph variant that is extremely durable). The nearby Marines focussed their fire on the enemy to make the kill before I could emerge from cover. This is such a pleasant contradiction to the current standard of AI-controlled companions in single player FPS campaigns.

Alternative Rock - Crysis 2's frenetic multiplayer action is an enjoyable change from the current trend towards modern war shooters. While on paper it may appear similar to the competition, with customisable equipment loadouts and maps peppered with choke points; the nanosuit modules do enough to mix-up this popular formula. They seem to be balanced pretty well too. A headshot is not going to be negated by armor and while cloak does camouflage you somewhat, a keen eye will always spot the bright brown or blue outlines of a user. Good fun, but as below there are some aspects that will hinder its success long-term.

The Bad
Game over, man! Game Over! -  For all the aural brilliance to be observed in Crysis 2, the voice acting is a bit of a mixed bag. Hargreave is a fantastically-voiced support character, but you still end up subjected to the usual military terminology by gruff marines at various points throughout the adventure. The character of Gould is perhaps the most regrettable. A mix of Gary Oldman (looks wise) and Tommy "Cheech and Chong," Chong, pretty much every line of dialogue he spouts ends with the word, man. All silliness aside: the action may be very much in the vein of those hi-octane action movies of decade past, but the dialogue never reaches the same level of frivolity.

Slow start - The first hour of the single player campaign tends to drag a bit, especially on a second play through. This can be attributed to cloak and armour abilities being locked until you reach certain points in the first - well, technically it's the second - level. Apart from the lull in the action, the story doesn't offer much to engage you either; lots of characters referring to past events or characters that you haven't come across (let alone heard of, if you haven't played the original instalment). Things take a sharp turn for the better once you first encounter the Ceph though.

Anti-climax - I was expecting some massive, hulking alien beast to block my passage to the final objective. This never happened, and while the final encoutner was tough, it didn't compare to the difficulty of some of my previous dealings with the alien enemy. It may sound like a quibble, but after all that I had overcome, it was pretty disappointing.

C'mon! Kill me! - The enemy AI - for the Ceph, in particular - tends to malfunction on occasion. Sometimes I'd be standing in front of a group of grunts (the most common Ceph variant) who would just jump around and away from me; even if I was uncloaked. I was also surprised to find that enemies wouldn't try to flank me in some environments where it would have been fairly simple to do so. For example, in the sequence in Gould's lab which pits players against a helicopter: I could retreat to the lobby to recharge my shields without any trouble, even though there were two access points to this relatively long, though narrow space with as many as ten soldiers on the other side of the wall.

 Bet you that he didn't even see me

Noisy crowd - Crysis 2's multiplayer action abandons the "perfect song," formula heard in the single player campaign. The fighting is fast-paced, and the aural assault can be exhausting. Every time that you're killed you're subjected to a loud, pinging sound. There is also the constant screaming of your comrades announcing, "Man Down! Man Down!" The sound design for Crysis 2's multiplayer component is all about shock and awe.

The Ugly
Steep curve - It's pretty hard to adjust to Crysis 2's brand of multiplayer action. Sure it may appear to be regular to the average Call of Duty instalment, with players waging war while employing customizable equipment loadouts. Once the bullets start flying though, you'll find that - even with Armor mode on - you'll be far more prone to dying than you would be in the average round of Team Deathmatch in CoD. You'll die, and die often trying to formulate and employ a solid strategy in the typically-heated matches. Worse still, the game can be subject to frustrating levels of lag, particularly since the Playstation Network was restored and it now being more difficult to find any match, let alone a full one. Some matches you're dispatched with multiple one-hit kills, even when the killcam reveals that you've been hit with nought but body shots from a sub-machine gun.

Limited arsenal - Compared to genre stalwarts like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Battlefield: Bad Company 2, Crysis 2 affords players an extremely limited arsenal with which to wage war online. Worse still, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to make said arsenal available to players. While you could argue that the ability to cloak and increase your potential to absorb damage are strong enough weapons in their own right, there is a distinct lack of options as far as equipment is concerned. Especially for newcomers.

The Verdict
8.0/10 - I throroughly enjoyed Crysis 2.  Featuring a lengthy and enjoyable single player campaign that is paced brilliantly, peppered with some grand set pieces and accompanied by an impeccable score, it is an essential experience that comes highly recommended. The plot may be somewhat forgettable, but the frenetic action and solid pacing more than makes up for the muddled narrative. The multiplayer offering is not without its faults, but shines as a valid alternative to the standard CoD fare. Easily the most fleshed-out console shooter of the year so far.

1. Stead, C (Editor) (2011). Battlefield 3. Gameinformer, Issue 15, p50.

Monday, May 23

Hot under the collar (or how Witcher 2 slayed my "gaming" laptop)

More than any other, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a PC-exclusive release that needs to find its way onto a console. Why? Because the PC as a platform has too many variables. Take me for example: my laptop is apparently - at least according to the launcher's auto-detect option - capable of rendering the game with medium settings at the highest possible resolution. At first I couldn't believe it: Triss Merigold's flawless, female form writhing naked next to Geralt of Rivia. No stuttering, no wrinkles. Visuals of the highest calibre appearing on screen. My machine wasn't even making that much noise.

The protagonist conversed with his captivating, scarlet-haired companion. Each face animated with a painstaking level of attention to detail. I could hardly believe my eyes. I had to go and ruin it by leaving the tent where the opening love-in was staged.

The frame rate slowed to a crawl. What I can only imagine to be the processor started screaming in a high-pitched tenor. My coffee table - where the laptop resides - was hot to the touch. I wasn't mad; I was just disappointed.

 NSFW at its very best

How to remedy this situation? At first I picked the most extreme solution. I lowered the resolution and changed the settings to the lowest possible configuration. It wasn't immediately noticeable, but I couldn't play the game like this. Geralt was washed out. So were the pursuing figures in the nightmare of the Wild Hunt. It mattered not, until I saw Triss again. She was pale, plain. She looked unhealthy. This would not stand, so I immediately closed the game. For the first chapter I thought I had found a work-around. Using medium settings and a reasonably-high resolution, Triss was returned to an immaculate state.   

So now that I finally got to play the game, I engaged in a series of well-directed conversations. I witnessed a siege which almost challenged my improvised hardware solution. Thankfully, the game still looked a cut above most console releases and I was happy to delude myself with thoughts of more acquisitions for the substantially-cheaper PC platform. Even the epic battle against the Kayran was able to be portrayed with an acceptable frame rate and no shortage of effects.

As the story progressed though, my faith in the makeshift configuration waned. Firstly there were issues with a sex scene in an Elven bath and then, the unforgivable end to the first chapter; the stuttering mess that was the battle to the barge with character models disappearing or stammering about in an unnatural fashion. Still I persisted, until the battle at Aedirn. So much heat and noise; none of which was created by the game itself. Sacrifices had to be made.

Sacrifices it would seem, are hard to suffer. Saskia's blank, textureless face. Geralt was once again blank and colourless. Someone needs to optimize this for a console; I don't care which one, it just has to happen. I need to know that what I'm seeing on screen is the best that it can be. I need to know that I don't need to spend upwards of a thousand dollars for the game to be as beautiful as it should be.

 How could you ruin a love so beautiful? Try setting the configuration to low.

Has anyone else picked up Witcher 2? Would any console gamers like to see it ported?

Friday, May 20

A Missed Opportunity

This week I’m sad.

Not sad in the way that I’ve just colour coded my underwear drawer or bought, watched and enjoyed however many seasons of Glee there are (I have done none of these things, I swear), but sad in the way that I’ve just wasted an opportunity.

The opportunity of which is I speak is the very same one from last week’s post. After receiving a free Gears of War 3 beta code, I was slightly more than excited to get onboard with destroying the Locust hoard and getting my Lancer wet.

Unfortunately I was away most of the time the beta was active and in my possession so when it came time to actually play it prior to its Monday cut off, I was too tired and overworked to play it.

Not only did I miss out on getting online for the first time, I also missed out on tasting a game I’ve been lusting over for months.

Disappointment aside, the news of a bunch of new releases made me happy. Until Gearbox change their mind (again), Duke Nukem Forever is only three weeks away and Rockstar’s LA Noire is now available. I don’t think I’ll be into LA Noire at all but the premise and overall game play really intrigues me and I’ll be interested to see how it performs.

I’ve never been one for detective games or interrogation, with the exception of the brutal methods seen in Call of Duty. I think Rockstar have really put a lot of thought into it, creating a gaming world that is quite unique. A far cry from the usual GTA releases, LA Noire might be the serious, grown-up game that no one expected from the masters of criminal behaviour.

More news and details on Modern Warfare 3 were released this week (if not I finally pulled my finger out and found the pulse), which has also excited me. Weapon imagery, key characters, timelines and more were apparently revealed through Kotaku (I found out via YouTube) and it’s put many gamers into a frenzy. Although it’s not due out until November 8 and it will be one of those titles that breaks sales records (again), I’m pretty keen to see where the story goes. Let’s face it, the campaign ending to MW2 was poor at best, with a sequel required to make up for it.

A new Lego instalment has arrived in the form of Pirates of the Caribbean, which at first glance seems to be a good fit for the Lego brand. I’ve downloaded the demo and will be getting into it soon. I’m fairly sure it will be the usual build stuff, break stuff with a pirate/beach feel but it’s a Lego game so no one in their right mind will take it seriously.

Finally, Brink was released earlier this week which will hopefully prove to be a winner. If not, the trailer definitely is.

What are you playing this weekend? What upcoming releases have caught your eye?

Wednesday, May 18

Creator Complex

I'm in the midst of grappling with some disease of alien design and in times of ill health, I often turn to the gaming equivalent of comfort food. For me, that usually includes sandbox action games and in this case, I've turned to inFamous to prime myself for the upcoming sequel. If you had to ask why I opt for the - at times - paralyzing freedom of games from this genre, I'd day say that it has a lot to do with being able to wander amongst the living; something that can't be done in the throes of fever.

For that reason alone, inFamous probably wasn't the best choice because Empire City is a desperate, almost lifeless place for the majority of the game. Most of the urban expanse is rendered with an extremely dull palette until the player restores power to the city, section by section. Even then, you're only treated to the bright neon light emitted from signs and billboards until you liberate these sections from gang control. It's an effect that I found quite endearing, but also exhausting. Any great amount of time spent with the game leads to a monochromatic melancholy.

Imagine my surprise then when I chose to boot up the recently-revived beta for the upcoming sequel.

So much has changed. The camera is focused more tightly on series hero, Cole. There is an abundance of colour, and the streets are heavily populated with tourists and raucous party-goers. The play mechanics have also changed noticeably. For melee combat, the camera zooms in even closer - and this can lead to frustration, particularly with structures overhead -  and the new weapon allows for some devastating combos that can be modified by filling up an on-screen bar.Also, you are now unable to fire off a limitless amount of lightning bolts: if you have no stored energy, you can't use any powers. The change in focus for combat allows me to believe that this will be more of a beat-em' up than a shooter, and this concerns me somewhat. This is primarily because your enemies come in melee-focused and ranged varieties (some even packing long range sniper rifles), and it proved easy to be overwhelmed when confronted by a combination of the two.

The beta focuses on User-Generated Content (UGC), with players able to, and encouraged to trial the new mission creation system. All of the missions I trialled were centred around combat (either assassinating a single target or killing waves of foes) and from what I can gather, this is because it is far too difficult to create anything more elaborate. I say that because I tried to make a "Narrative," mission where Cole is forced to confront the consequences of his reckless actions from the first game.

Now theoretically, these guys should start dancing: NOW!

I tried to create a situation where the hero would be confronted by a vengeful cop seeking revenge for the death of his brother in Empire City. The mission should have gone as follows: when Cole approaches the policeman, a group of hired thugs would appear to subdue him so that revenge could be attained. After various switches, objectives, splitters and modifiers were laid, I could still not hide the group of deadly (believe me, they were freaking ruthless) assassins I had employed to help my villain. Upon starting the mission, Cole would run to Zeke for a briefing and then be peppered with minigun fire. Funnier still, I took to the rooftops to avoid fire, spoke to the cop who then proceeded to shoot me, and then ran to the objective point at the end of alley where I had set this muddled confrontation, and had unwittingly completed the mission.

I couldn't follow the jargon that Sucker Punch has employed to explain the function of each "Core Logic." When I had thought that I had placed events that would be triggered by certain conditions, all I had done was create a violent soup that would be forced down a player's throat upon talking to your portly companion.

I should advise that I was never able to make sense of Little Big Planet's content creation tools either. Whether it's laziness or a lack of cognitive processing power, I'm not sure. Still, I can't help the sheer sense of amazement I feel upon encountering some of the more functional and enjoyable creations that the game's community comes up with. My personal favourite was a Mirror's Edge themed level which captured the series aesthetic perfectly.

Have a little Faith in the community (Get it? Mirror's Edge pun!)

Has anyone tried creating levels in the inFamous 2 beta? Are you finding the tools to be intuitive, or are you encountering problems like myself?

Monday, May 16

The Skin-Deep Doctrine

Saint's Row was an essential title for those trying to avoid the post-launch blues with the Xbox 360. Filling the sandbox action void on Microsoft's new console would ensure some haphazard consumers would purchase the game regardless of acclaim; however it managed to be a good enough game in its own right to earn a place in many gamers' collections and as well as make a sequel inevitable. There were even some elements in this Grand Theft Auto Too that Rockstar had not thought - or not been able - to implement previously. These were in the form of the relatively minor free-aim shooting while driving, to the time-consuming and surprisingly-addictive multiplayer component that offered both co-op and competitive play.

Upon hearing that said inevitable sequel would be making its way to all major "next-gen," platforms, I was relieved to read that I could enjoy GTA's foul-mouthed cousin on my Playstation 3 (this was after my first 360 had succumb to the Red Ring of Death, and I had vowed never to purchase Microsoft's second console again; never only turned out to be five months). I even went as far as to pre-order Saint's Row 2; confident that Volition's second effort would be just as puerile and hilarious as the first.

Oh how wrong I was.

Sure the vulgarity and violence were there, but the fun was not. After Grand Theft Auto IV's triumphant arrival, Saint's Row 2 felt unpolished, rough. It was ugly. I could still free-aim while driving, but I didn't care. There was no Niko, no Little Jacob, and most importantly, no Liberty City. For those of you residing in Brisbane: Stillwater was Lutwyche compared to Liberty City, which was as lively and memorable as Melbourne. Within hours I was walking back to my local retailer to demand my money back.

Years later, my brother pleaded that I re-engage with the title; insisting that it would play better than I remembered. Sorry Rubes, you were wrong. Years later, Stillwater is just as ugly and lifeless as I remembered it to be. No longer Lutwyche, now as dark and as desperate as Zillmere. Even more blemishes became apparent after having played so many more visually-magnificent games since 2008.

The following is a rant about my feelings toward the Australian Government's baffling games classification system, and is not really related to the original intent of this article. Still, if you'd like to read about some questionable decision-making then please, read on!

Some of the themes encountered were abhorrent as well. To the point where you seriously have to question the criteria for games classification in Australia if a game like this gets released, and another like Mortal Kombat is refused classification. Sure MK is far more violent, but allow for me to share with you an early mission from Saint's Row 2.

The player character's gang needs a new base of operations, so you are then tasked with cleaning out a dilapidated church which is home to a rival group and a portion of Stillwater's homeless. After dispatching the resident members of the Sons of Samedi, you are then asked to destroy the makeshift shanty town the homeless had set up inside the structure. You're even asked to throw these people at their homes to destroy them quickly. It gets worse. Finally, you need to kill the remaining hobos to claim this turf as your own.

Moments before this gang-banger's innocence is lost forever

After this ritual slaughter, you're treated to a cut scene depicting your user-made hero and his old friend stacking the bodies of the freshly slain. One even has the gall to complain that the clean-up duties should be delegated to some fresh recruits. After killing thirty-something innocent, disadvantaged people I was overcome with an overwhelming sense of apathy. After my willingness to murder Stillwater's most downtrodden inhabitants, would it matter if I ran down a couple hundred pedestrians whilst commuting between mission objectives? Apparently not. With no sense of consequence or moral compass, nothing I did mattered; whether that included spraying raw sewage across the city or accidentally shooting a few civilians while engaged in a firefight with rival gangs. This I would argue, is behaviour that is in direct contravention of Australia's classification code; as the violence I rendered in game would offend against the "standards of morality, decency and propriety generally accepted by reasonable adults," (ComLaw, 2005:

The OFLC sure have made some crappy decisions

Now let's compare this to Mortal Kombat which pits up to four "kombatants," against each other in a fight to the death. Players can defend themselves against their opponents with a variety of devastating and ultra-violent moves. Pretty much anything that I've seen in the demo (which you can download by creating a US Playstation Network account, once the bastard is live again) is violent beyond the confines of reality and - while not suitable for minors - was nowhere near as traumatic and dehumanizing as my experience with Saint's Row 2. Maybe the Office of Film and Literature Classification needs to look a little deeper than the viscera shown on screen. In MK you partake in ridiculously violent fisticuffs for the purpose of self-preservation. Saint's Row 2 tasks players with killing those that have already hit the bottom, and are unable to help themselves back to health and prosperity. I know which game that I would prefer to have in the hands of Australia's gaming community.

"Honestly sir, he was coming at me with a weapon!" 

End rant. I dare say it was a result of playing Saint's Row 2 for longer than I should have. On the bright side, the game's soundtrack does feature tracks from both Mastodon and the Dillinger Escape Plan, so it's not all bad. Let's return to the topic I had originally intended to address.

Appalled at what I had seen and heard across an hour of broken play, I decided to trial the developer's impending effort, Red Faction: Armageddon. While at first the familiar palette of red and brown was unappealing, my opinion quickly changed upon first using the game's most striking ability: players can now repair all of the destruction they cause.

No longer would a fallen staircase impede my ascension towards an objective. Further to that, any reckless rocket fire could now be forgiven with the touch of a button.

I didn't get to see its application in firefights - say where you could repair a surface that previously provided cover - but the potential is strong to say the least. My only fear is that the experience will be reduced to dispatching hordes of multicoloured demons as seen for the majority of the demo. I sincerely hope that the final release offers more than tense, though uninspired encounters with Mars' dangerous faunae. 

Did anyone else find the early stages of Saint's Row 2 as objectionable as I did? What about your thoughts on the Red Faction: Armageddon demo?

1. Comlaw (2005). National Classification Code, Visited 15/05/11.

Saturday, May 14

The Silver Standard

It may (but possibly not) come to you as a surprise to hear that I’ve never actually played games online. Despite having a 360 for years and a broadband connection, I’ve never combined the two properly.

I feel like I’ve missed an opportunity to experience something awesome, like going pants-less on a water slide (in theory this would be rad but you would most likely end up with a rash on my bum). Week in, week out, all I hear from Dutch and most of my other gaming friends is how blah blah was playing some game and then blah blah blah awesome finish.

It’s not that I don’t want to join Xbox Live – I regularly enjoy demo’s etc with the standard silver account – I simply can’t justify forking out the money for it. Sure I could pay a measly $40 to Play Asia for a Gold subscription but I just wouldn’t use it.

With ever increasing work loads along with a wife and a two-year-old to thoroughly enjoy, I’m pushing to get quality (a.k.a. any) game time as it is and quite frankly if I’m going to play something I don’t really want to play against some douche in another country who is going to swiftly annihilate me and then give my lifeless corpse a solid teabagging for added humiliation. I get enough of that when playing games with friends in my own living room.

But that was the old me; the me without the juiciest, time critical carrot dangling in front of my nose.

Thanks to a free Gears of War 3 beta code that runs out on Monday, I’m going to temporarily sign up with a free one month trial (that’s how little time I have to play games online – I won’t even sign up with a free pass) and play the game I’ve been drooling over. I know Dutch has examined the beta in detail so I won’t hammer on about it but I’m really excited about trying out something new.

As an added bonus, I should be able to play a bit of Duke Nukem Forever online too for a bit of a different experience.

Anyway, I’m really looking forward to my new gaming experience, even if it is one that millions of people have done, and do, on a regular basis. Have you experienced something new lately? How was your first dabble into online gaming?

Wednesday, May 11

In case you haven't played it: Gears of War 3 Beta Review (X360)

Just to be clear from the outset: I will not be assigning a score for a beta version of any game. The purpose of this post is more to evaluate what worked and what needs attention from the developers before the final release.

The Gears of War 3 beta allowed players to trial three match types, four maps and several new weapons and mechanics that should be part of the retail version of the game. For those unaware, I am a pretty huge fan of the Gears of War franchise. The first instalment had a short campaign, but also featured a fiendishly addictive multiplayer portion which pitted two teams of four players against each other in three initially available modes. I spent a substantial amount of time playing the original Gears online, and from the beta it at least appears that Epic have tried to restore the frenetic pace and brutality found in the original product. Gears of War 2 had a substantially longer - and for my money, better - campaign which like the first, could be played by two players co-operatively. The multiplayer portion, whilst still unrelentingly violent, featured a distinct change in pace and suffered from sluggish matchmaking at launch. I didn't spend anywhere near as much time playing the sequel competitively, however the new Horde mode - which allowed for up to four players to take on as many as fifty increasingly-difficult waves of the Locust Horde - did consume a fair chunk of my time. The multiplayer suite in Gears 2 has been patched and added to substantially since I first engaged with it, but I am still yet to return to see if it is anywhere near as entertaining as its predecessor (FYI - I picked it up on the cheap, and plan to update my impressions).

Now that I've spent a substantial amount of time playing the beta trial of the third instalment, let us explore what there is to look forward to (as well as what to dread) in September.

The Good
Glory Days - After the first few matches played, I noticed that the swift, visceral brand of Gears multiplayer was back after a somewhat-lengthy hiatus. The intricate, almost-expansive maps from the sequel had been eschewed in favor of tight, easily rote-learnable arenas. They still have nooks and crannies to be explored, but when it's down to two players at the conclusion of a round of TDM, one can only hide for so long.

New tricks - The mantle kick above all else is a game changer. No longer will tense, randomly-ended exchanges behind slim bits of cover cheapen a fight. Now that you can jump kick your turtling opponent to stun - and if downed, kill - close encounters are all the more heated and intense. The new executions also allow for players to make their respective beefs personal with at times, offensively brutal animations to end an enemy's life (or kill streak). The requirement to hold buttons to pick up collectable weapons is also appreciated as it not only cuts down on frustration, but also adds an element of risk to acquiring some of the more dangerous kit on offer.

New tools - The digger launcher is a true joy to behold. Launching a projectile that burrows under cover to dispatch your cowardly enemies doesn't ruin the balance of play either. Players can very easily evade the impact area, however the explosion will be lethal to anyone stubborn enough to stay put. The retro lancer also provides ample enjoyment, with some truly violent ends available to both those who charge, and those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. Some have complained that its fire is too powerful, but the woeful level of accuracy at anything other than short range is enough - in my opinion - to derail that argument. Tweaks have also been made to the Gorgon pistol(now Gorgon SMG) and the hammerburst rifle. The Gorgon is essential to anyone planning on using a meat shield, while the hammerburst introduces a series' first, iron sights. The usefulness and lethality of incendiary grenades is not immediately obvious, but once you master its devilish, direct application, you'll look for them in every round. Finally, no discussion of new weapons in Gears 3 would be complete without discussing the much-maligned sawed-off shotgun. The haters can say what they will, but I can't kill anyone with it (even when someone downs an opponent for me). Bottom line is: it's inaccurate but fatal in the right hands. Sure it is ridiculously powerful, but reloads are sluggish and you only have 5 rounds per spawn; sounds balanced enough for me.

Carrots - The staggered release of modes has been a great success in my opinion. Starting with Team Deathmatch, players learn the fragility of their online existence and come to terms with some series' fundamentals. King of the Hill allowed for players to fight more recklessly; yet with points accruing quickly on each side, the action never falls below frantic. Capture the Leader has been the real discovery of the beta for me though. It's almost always over before it starts, but with shifting spawn points and solid capture mechanics, it never fails to engage.

Smooth - Matchmaking has been improved substantially since the initial release of Gears 2. Finding an unranked match rarely takes more than thirty seconds and on most occasions I was thrown into matches with a near-full player count. The connection quality in-game is unrivaled, with response times low and deaths rarely feeling cheap.

Robots in disguise - The addition of bots to player matches is a masterstroke, with instances of rage-quitting rarely creating a foregone conclusion. In some instances, particularly in TDM matches, I'd almost prefer an AI companion to a human player. They're aggressive, accurate, and always willing to make a save. They are unfortunately, less than garbage in objective-based matches though. These robots want only to kill!

The Bad
Too convenient - As above, the four maps offered up for the beta are reasonably small. Small enough that it seems a little cheap when spawn points are changed mid round. I understand that this may have been done to combat spawn camping, but it becomes especially troublesome, particularly in CTL matches when enemies spawn right next to their captive leader. The spawn point doesn't seem to change for any pre-determined reason either, as there have been occasions where taking the leader to your team's original spawn point has been a safe option. It's a small gripe, but sometimes the movement of these points can drastically change the flow of a match.

Head in the game - As per Monday's post, I afforded myself some time away from the beta trial to play some recent releases. Less than a week away from Gears 3 has me rustier than a box of old nails. Nothing less than total dedication is required for anything resembling success. Sounds silly I know, as there is a readjustment period when you take time away from any game; but with Gears that period is far more dire. Matches without kills. Rounds without downs. Playing without hope.

Forums - Whether you follow Cliffy B on Twitter or just happen to peruse the beta forums, the conclusion is almost unanimous: a high percentage of testers want the damage dealt by the sawed-off shotgun to be reduced, or for players to no longer be able to equip the weapon at the outset of a match. I personally don't have a problem with it as it as I believe that you are just as likely to be killed by an active-reloaded gnasher at point blank range. If anything, I'm relieved when an opponent misses with this particular boomstick as they'll have to wait a fair amount of time before they can attack me again. I can't even use the freaking thing properly. What happened to sportsmanship people?

The Ugly
Father Goose - Make no mistake, Gears of War 3  is ridiculously violent. More so than its predecessor and any game that I've played this year. This has me worried, as I believe it may fall victim to Australia's ridiculous videogames rating system. This is not a criticism of the game itself, more an expression of my fear that I will once again be precluded from playing a quality game due to some simple-minded, bureaucratic nonsense.

Withdrawal - I've only got until next Monday afternoon to absorb as much of this product as I can before the September release. Epic even had the gall to name the period between the conclusion of the beta and retail release, "Withdrawal," (that cruel joke has since been removed).

Off the record - I could not find a single ranked match to join for the past three weeks. On some evenings I could see a patient handful attempting to find a match, but ultimately, we all had to settle for player matches.

The Verdict
Gears of War 3 is at the very least for me, the most anticipated release of 2011. While I am intrigued as to how the saga of Marcus Fenix ends, I am now equally as hungry to jump online and bring the fight to (or with) the Locust Horde. While there were some hitches that I observed while playing this game for the last month, the Gears brand of war is just as brutal and compelling as it always has been. If the multiplayer suite offers an incremental improvement on what I've played so far, it would still be a better product than most shooters released this past year.