Thursday, September 29, 2011

Second Time's A Charm: Re-Discovering Mass Effect 2

Have you ever played a game that everyone has been raving about, only to find that it doesn't live up to your expectations and you end up shelving the game? That's been the story with many A-list titles that have come out over the past few years. For every over-hyped game like LA Noire and Dead Space 2 that I love, there are games like Red Dead Redemption and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that I don't. This has nothing to do with disliking mainstream or successful titles, since there are many that I have played and thoroughly enjoyed. It's more a matter of some games not clicking with me due to the frame of mind I was in at the time, what else I was playing that divided my attention or simply because I didn't enjoy them. Hey, everyone is entitled to their opinion and there is no such thing as a game that -everyone- loves. Up until this past weekend, the Mass Effect series has been the epitome of games that everyone raves about but I simply do not get. I played the first game and very quickly got bored of the slow-moving plot and clunky combat controls, and after hearing great things about part 2, I gave it a try and felt much the same way about it. Both games were shelved and subsequently forgotten amidst the numerous other games I was playing.

Fast forward to this past weekend. I was feeling under the weather and decided to randomly go back to a game that I haven't played in a long time. After staring blankly at my shelves for a while, I decided to pick Mass Effect 2 even though I haven't played it in well over a year, and even then I didn't get more than an hour into it. Good sense told me that starting with the first game would be a better idea, but remembering how much I disliked the combat controls pushed me towards the sequel. After fumbling with the learning curve for about an hour, I got more into it and I eventually hit that "eureka!" moment where I found myself thoroughly enjoying the game in ways I never did before. Every gamer knows this feeling and it's one of the main reasons why we are so passionate about this hobby. Given that I was sick and had absolutely no responsibilities to anyone that weekend, I ended up investing over 30 hours into not only the campaign but the side-quests as well. Recruiting new and interesting characters into your party, doing side-missions to gain experience and the loyalty of your crew, and mining planets for minerals became my addiction and I could spend hours just getting immersed into the Mass Effect universe.

The reasons why Mass Effect 2 reeled me in are down to simple elements that every game should have; good story-telling and great gameplay. You can't spend this length of time in the game without getting attached to your characters, and the story is progressed largely through dialogue that you select. Playing it nice with people earns their loyalty and "paragon" points, while those wishing to play it nasty can have a different experience and gain "renegade" points. How you conduct yourself and the decisions you make ultimately shape how the game plays out and it's impossible not to feel emotionally invested. The gameplay, and in particular the combat, is where Mass Effect 2 really shines. Fashioned as a third-person, cover-based shooter, the combat has been refined to make it more fast-paced and more accessible to fans of games like Gears of War and Dead Space. The controls feel natural and intuitive, and the guns feel meaty and powerful. Given that Mass Effect 2 is an RPG at heart, there are layers of complexity when it comes to developing skills, weapons and ship upgrades, however the game is more streamlined and accessible than it's contemporaries. Those wishing to micro-manage their game will not take well to this approach, but more casual RPG fans will welcome the simplicity. In short, Mass Effect 2 hit all the right notes for me and it's a classic example of how revisiting games that you -thought- you didn't like can yield unexpected rewards.

Now that I have played through and beaten Mass Effect 2, including the DLC, I feel compelled to go back and pay the first game, however I am aware that I may be spoiled by the improvements made in the sequel. In addition to that, I am also feeling inspired to re-visit some games that I previously dismissed. These games include Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Fallout 3. The latter game I revisited recently and experienced the same problems that I originally had; clunky combat system, poor controls, ammo shortages, frequent deaths and occasional freezing and crashing. I last game save also was at a point where I was down to my last two bars of health, only five bullets remaining and a bunch of enemies just outside the door. Not a good situation to find yourself in, so I am going to start a brand new game and grind away to ensure I am properly levelled. If there's anything I learned from Mass Effect 2, it's that patience can sometimes be rewarding, so I hope to continue this trend of finding new appreciation in games I had long since written-off.

Mass Effect 2 is available in Xbox 360, PC, and an enhanced version has since been released on the Playstation 3.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Review: Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon (Xbox 360, Playstation 3)

Some games challenge you with punishing difficulty, others wrack your brain with complex puzzles, and others have only one simple requirement - check your brain at the door and have fun. Earth Defence Force: Insect Armageddon falls into that third category and it delivers exactly what it promises; a third-person action game with tons of high powered weapons, destructible environments and all the giant bugs your could possibly kill. It's very hit and miss as a game, but chances are that those purchasing it will know exactly what to expect and will love every minute of the experience. It's not a great game, but it generally does more right than wrong.

Given that the game is an arcade-action experience, the story is as thin and transparent as cling-film. You play as one of four soldier classes in the elite Earth Defence Force unit, a band of gun-toting misfits that takes the alien invasion and resulting apocalypse in stride. The aliens have landed, unleashing waves of giant insects and arachnids and your only objective is to learn which end of the gun the bullets come out of and then kill them all. There are four soldier classes in the unit; "Battle" which is big and strong but slow as molasses; "Jet" which is fast-moving and able to fly but relatively weak in combat; "Tactical" which provides support by laying down turrets and "Tropper" which serves as the class with a balance of skills. Most of the games I have played were either as Tactical and Trooper and they suit my gameplay preferences, though others will definitely find their preferred class after a few rounds. That's EDF:IA in a nutshell - pick your class, decide if you're going to play solo or in co-op and let it rip. The enemies you fight are comprised of giant insects, alien ships and giant, screen-filling bosses. The insects come in waves and the difficulty increases with each level, so some tactical prowess coupled with smart choices in your weapons will serve you well.

EDF:IA plays like most third-person shooters and almost identical to the previous game in the series, though the controls feel more refined and less glitchy. The "run and gun" controls are smooth and fluid, helping you move quickly and maneuver to avoid the incoming swarms of insects. The flight controls as "Jet" and handling some of the weapons will take some getting used to, however repeated plays will ensure a rather short learning curve. The open level design also gives you a lot of freedom to decide how you want to go about tacking your objectives, which include planting explosives, destroying buildings and rescuing your human and NPC teammates from the brink of death. The destructible environments also allow for some creativity in how you tackle the waves of enemies, since destroying a bridge and having it crush a cluster of giant ants is infinitely more satisfying than just shooting them one-by-one. The weapons you start with are fairly standard and underpowered, however you unlock a variety of new weapons and weapon modifications as you progress in the game, adding a great sense of reward and incentive to play more.

The game allows you to play solo through the campaign with AI-controlled allies, however the real meat of the experience comes when playing cooperatively with up to two friends over PSN or Xbox Live. Given that the levels and enemies don't vary much outside of the ramping difficulty, EDF:IA will begin to feel very repetitive very quickly, so having a couple of friends along for the ride helps keep the tedium at bay. Blowing up waves of insects as a group is wickedly fun, however the experience will feel dry and rather dull if you're playing on your own and this is one area of the game that feels rather unbalanced. In addition to the campaign, you can play a survival mode of sorts, in which you fight off waves of enemies and last as long as you can. For a budget-price title, it packs a lot of gameplay and plenty of reasons to come back if you're playing co-op. A single play-through of all levels will last up to six hours, with little incentive to replay unless you're into achievement hunting.

Being a budget-price title, the fact that EDF:IA suffers in the audio and visual department should come as no surprise. The open environments and enemy designs are impressive, but a host of framerate issues, glitches and poor hit detection of larger enemies will grate on your nerves. Disappearing health and ammo drops, enemies getting stuck in walls,and one particular moment where my character got trapped in thin air also added to the annoyances. However, these issues are ultimately forgivable to anyone who is a fan of these types of games. It may look like a late-generation Playstation 2 game, but the fun and absurdity of the game does compensate in some ways. Fans of bigger budget or story-driven games will likely find plenty of nitpicks and even the most hardened EDF fan will grow tired of it, but those looking for some mindless fun will be well serviced.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Impressions: Sony Playstation 3D TV Bundle (Demo)

During the last weekend in August, my good friend Lori and I had the pleasure of attending the FanExpo in Toronto, a big convention thart celebrates sci-fi, horror, comics, anime and gaming. Vendors sell their items, people come either as themselves or in cosplay, and you get to meet various celebrities from the genres we love. It's basically our answer to Comic-Con. One pivotal part of the expo is the gaming booths that are set up and I saw impressive showings from Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and Ubisoft. Of particular note was the Sony booth in which they were allowing people to play the Uncharted 3 multiplayer and they were demoing the much-hyped Sony Playstation 3D TV Bundle, which I got to experience and my impressions will be the focus of this article.

For those unaware, the Sony Playstation 3D Bundle is a low-cost 24-inch 3D television that comes packaged with one pair of 3D glasses, an HDMI cable and a pre-installed game, originally slated to be Resistance 3 but has since been changed to Motorstorm: Apocalypse. The cost of this entire bundle is $500 and it represents a great value for those jilted by the high cost of other 3D television sets on the market. My friend and I were able to demo this TV while the representative from Sony explained some of the features and perks that it offers. Below are just some of my impressions based on my time spent with the unit.

The TV itself is 24-inch 1080p flat panel LED television set that will seem rather small to those used to playing their games on big screen LCD television sets, so this presents some obvious drawbacks from the beginning. If you are planning on using this set in a small room, as a back-up television or as a computer monitor, then the size should be a non-issue. However, if you are considering this as your main television for movie watching and game playing, it will definitely feel like a downgrade if you are used to a bigger screen. Having said that, the price of the unit and the extras that are included are made to represent value over being technically superior, so sacrifices in size needed to be made. The picture is crystal clear and the 240 hz refresh rate ensures smooth picture quality when gaming without the annoying "ghosting" that you get with some other televisions. I was very impressed with the quality and clarity of the picture and the vibrant colors, so those who are concerned that the lower price means sacrificing quality need not worry. At it's core, this is a quality television that will satisfy those looking to dip their toe into 3D, and it provides a solid 1080p HD experience to please everyone else.

Speaking of the 3D, one of the main innovations being touted is the full-screen local multiplayer option. This means that you can both be playing a game in the same room, on the same television, and both be able to see your respective games in full-screen as opposed to the split-screen that is currently the standard. This is achieved by overlapping the two game screens and letting the 3D glasses separate them, so two pairs of glasses are required in order for this effect to work. You also need to ensure that both players are wearing the correct pair of glasses so that they are seeing the correct game screen, so this feature will take some getting used to. Attempting to play without the glasses will reveal a blurry image with two overlapping game screens, so people purchasing this bundle and planning on using this feature will need to purchase a second pair of glasses. It's a small inconvenience but it's ultimately forgivable. To sample the 3D gaming, we played some Wipeout HD and effect in terms of depth of feel was impressive, definitely adding an element of immersion to the gaming experience. The glasses are relatively light but they still feel bulky, and because they are slightly tinted, the colors are not as crisp and vibrant when using them. This is an issue common to 3D TVs and it remains so with this unit as well.

The biggest barrier-to-entry for 3D televisions thus far has been the price and it's fair to assume that the aim of this new bundle from Sony is to widen that market. Personally, I am still not won over by 3D movies and gaming and have resisted buying into the technology, however this might bring me around and help me see the benefits. The TV is small and obviously not intended for hardcore gamers who want the home theater experience, however it's perfect for those looking for an affordable HD television that offers 3D as an option, and even better for those who have small living spaces and want to still enjoy HD and 3D movies and gaming. At only $500, it's a given that it will sell very well and I might consider getting it when the time comes. Overall, it was an impressive demo and I think those looking to buy this set at launch will be pleased.

As of this writing, the projected release date for the Sony Playstation 3D TV bundle is November 26, 2011. This is subject to change.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Blur (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

One particular genre of video games that has always held a special place in my heart is racing games. Every since first playing Enduro on the Atari 2600, I have played countless racing games on countless consoles, ranging from simulators like Gran Turismo and Forza to the more arcade-style racers like Ridge Racer and Need for Speed. Sadly, the market for these games has become saturated with a seemingly endless parade of racing games that look, feel and play almost exactly the same. Consequently, a few great games get lost in the shuffle and Blur is one such title. Highly regarded by critics and racing game aficionados but overlooked by pretty much everyone else, Blur is a fast-paced, frantic and highly addictive arcade racer that offers both a lengthy and satisfying campaign and a quality (and still very active) online multiplayer component.

Most modern racing games involve either a convoluted story that thinly binds the races together or simply opt for racing action with some objectives to keep you playing. Blur falls into the latter category, with several themed levels, each with six events and a "one-on-one" race with opponents that serve as bosses of sorts. The objective is to win races and gain "fans", which function as experience points that allow you to level up and unlock better vehicles. The events in Blur are broken up into three distinct categories; "Checkpoint" which requires you to hit a certain number of checkpoints before the timer runs out, "Destruction" which involves wrecking as many opponent vehicles as possible, and "Race" where you face off against up to 20 other AI racers. The races take place in various locations around the world, however there are only 15 different tracks and you will often see the same tracks repeated.

What makes Blur a frantic and sometime chaotic racer is the addition of "power-ups" which are similar to what you would find in a Mario Kart game. Each power-up is used for either
damaging and slowing down your opponents or defending and repairing your own vehicle. The power-ups are as follows: a "Nitro Boost" that gives you a burst of speed, "Barge" which allows you force-push opponents away from you, "Shock" that creates pools of lightning on the track, a "Bolt" attack that functions as a three-shot projective and a "Shunt" that hones in one and blasts your opponents. Also included are two defensive power-ups, a "Shield" that protects you for a short period of time and a "Repair" that allows you to fix damage to your vehicle. The challenge in Blur is knowing which power-up to use and at which time. Both your NPC opponents and online rivals have the ability to use power-ups on you, so a good defense is important to ensure you don't get slowed down or wreck your car.

As you play through Blur, your "Fan Level" will increase and better vehicles and power-up modifications will become available. To help you level up faster and provide reasons to replay races, each level has a set of "Fan Demands" that require you to perform certain tasks like winning a race without crashing, using two specific power-ups together, etc. Satisfying these demands will increase your Fan Level faster and allow you to progress, and some of these actions are required before you can tackle the "one-on-one" races at the end of the level. Some are fairly easy to pull off while others do feel like a grind as you play through the same race multiple times. However, this is something endemic to most racing games and it doesn't reach the levels of tedium that I often find in simulators like Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport.

The most important aspect of any racing game are the controls and this is something that Blur delivers in spades. All of the vehicles handle extremely well and the controls are incredibly tight, save for the occasionally stiff drifting mechanic. As with most racers, you are given a variety of vehicle classes such as sports cars, street vehicles and SUVs, each one appropriate to certain tracks and locations. Your AI opponents do a good job of trying to run you off the road and you very often find yourself the target of a Shunt, but Blur thankfully lacks the rubber-banding problem that a lot of racers seem to have. Being in first place makes you a big target, but the game never feels unfair and you always have a fighting chance to take back the lead. This also holds true in the online multiplayer, which is still well populated even a year after release. Online players rank up in the same fashion as the single player and the modifications can be better customized to suit your playing style; people who are hell-bent on wrecking everyone have plenty of mods available, while more defensive drivers can mod their vehicles to have better shields and recover from crashes faster. The single player campaign can be lengthy and the multiplayer will keep you coming back for sure.

Graphically, Blur follows the formula of Need for Speed and Burnout in that it has the right amount of realism combined with solid arcadey visuals. Racers that move incredibly fast tend to suffer with their framerate, however this was never a problem I noticed in Blur. The occasional glitch and car getting stuck in a wall did occur, but not often enough to make it an issue. The only area that Blur does suffer is in the audio department and especially in the music. Similar to Forza 3, the background music is faint and nondescript, adding little more than white noise to the races. More presence with the music and a better licensed soundtrack would been a great improvement.

Blur is one of those racing games that not many people I know have played, mainly because it suffers from the "just another racing game" stigma that the genre has garnered in recent years. This is unfortunate because it is one of the best racing games to come along recent years, well paired with Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, another fantastic racer that shares many similarities with Blur. Fans of technical simulators and those who want to customize every detail of their vehicles might not warm to Blur as much as fans of fast-paced and frantic arcade races, so how much you enjoy this game will depend on your taste. However, as much fun as it must be to build your car from the ground up in a simulator, the ability to shunt an opponent off a cliff is way more fun in my books.