Hyperdimension Neptunia Re;Birth3: V Generation - PS Vita Review

The latest Hyperdimension game for the Vita makes the most of the handheld and series

Sylvio - PC Review

There is plenty of tension to be had in this title, despite some curious design choices

Audiosurf 2 - PC Review

A bit less polish than the prior version, but more options provide greater variety

Horizon Shift - PC Review

Bright, colorful and full of variety, Horizon shift is simply a lot of fun

Big Pharma - PC Preview

A fun simulation game with some social commentary to share as well

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dragon Age 2 - Xbox 360 Review

The last couple of days, I've gone over what I consider the first 2 entries to the series, though I suppose Awakening could be seen as Dragon Age 1.5. There was a lot to like about the Origins games, and I will admit I was both excited and a bit concerned when I heard Dragon Age 2 would be coming out so soon after those other ones. The first games were huge, and there was a lot of extra content produced for them. While I looked forward to another romp through Bioware's excellently realized fantasy world, I was concerned that there would be some corners cut in getting a true sequel out there so quickly. Some of my fears were perhaps realized, but overall I'm happy to report that my time playing Dragon Age 2 was enjoyed quite a bit.

This game is one that runs a bit parallel to the first game, at least to start. The events of the first game revolve around something called The Blight. In the first game, you are tasked with stopping it. In Awakening you are a different character, and again faced with a related task. In this one, the events of the Blight shape your character's predicament, but is not your primary objective.

Dragon Age 2 is broken up into 3 segments, each one separated by a passage of time that allows the story to span several years instead of taking place as one successive event right after another. It's an interesting plot mechanic that works pretty well I think overall. There are references made to both Origins and Awakening, and for those of us who played the Origins game, you can import your choices and they do have some effect on Dragon Age 2. If you don't have one, they also give you 3 sort of pre-scripted situations that allow you to decide how earlier events panned out. This is great for adding some variety to the replay of Dragon Age 2, but it is a bit disappointing that more of your decisions from the first game did not play a bigger role in the second. This is the same company responsible for Mass Effects 1 & 2, and in Mass Effect these 'hooks' seemed a much bigger deal in the sequel than they are here in Dragon Age 2.

Graphics - 8:

The graphics look better here than they did in the original. The colors are more vibrant, facial expressions are good (thought not as good as Mass Effect 2's) and there are some pretty detailed environments to tromp through. Characters are still a bit stiffer in their movements during cutscenes than I would like, but they animate pretty well while in battle. The uneven framerates during more intense battles still plague this title, as they did the first game as well. Perhaps the biggest gripe I have about the graphics is not the quality, but the quantity. You spend a lot of your time going through the same areas over and over again. It fits with the story but lacks the scope of the original, and as a result you just don't get as much variety in landscape as I would like in a fantasy world.

Sound & Music - 9:

I think the voice acting in this game is even better than the first, which was pretty solid. Some of the characters like Anders and Varric are particularly entertaining, and giving your character voice in this sequel was a very good design choice. The music is as good if not better than Origins as well, often feeling grander and imbuing a sense of epic scale that the story itself might be lacking in fact. The sound effects are good, but I think the combat sound effects were a bit more repetitive than in Origins. There were times that the characters repeated things over, and over and over... and I thought my wife might be getting a bit annoyed by it. The first Dragon Age had some excellent moments where characters bantered back and forth as you walked around, and the same holds true in Dragon Age 2. In fact I found many of the conversations even more entertaining here than in the original, even if the characters themselves were not always quite as interesting to me.

Gameplay - 8:

The new method of making conversation choices is nice. It's very similar to the circular menu/wheel used in Mass Effect's dialogs, and it does a good job of letting you see how your comments are viewed. There are a lot of options when you converse with people, ranging from kind, to angry to sarcastic - and you can sometimes unlock additional options that might not always have been available depending on who you have in your party at the time or prior actions/choices you may have made in the story. It's good stuff that really lends itself to the branching type of storyline the Dragon Age series is known for.

The menu is a bit easier to get around than in the original, but it feels like some of the customizations for character skills and equipment are more limited. I don't necessarily mind this, the developers had a specific appearance in mind for your party members and instead of changing out their armor you can find upgrades that improve upon it without altering their aesthetics.

One big problem for me this time around was bugs. There were some in Origins as well - in fact one of the glitches used to get unlimited money can be used here as well - so it's a bit disappointing that such a well-known bug wasn't fixed between the original and the sequel. That strikes me as either lazy or out of touch with the players - neither one of which is ideal. Those are optional exploits that a person may or may not want to use, and they don't bug me nearly as much as some of the broken side quests. There is one that when I looked it up (to rescue a woman along the Wounded Coast) - it looks like no one has managed to complete yet. You can see a person I presume you are supposed to interact with, but they simply stand there. There are a few others to that if you approach them out of order, you can get the quests into a state where they can't be completed. Luckily these are side quests, but it's annoying all the same - I spent quite a while on the rescue one before I looked it up, only to realize I couldn't complete it. I imagine some patches will be forthcoming soon to fix these, but having encountered them already, I figured I would mention them.

Another annoying glitch occurred at the end of the game. I won't list any spoilers, but similar to Origins some of your choices affect how things play out in the ending narrative. One of the big choices in-game is whether or not your character is going to pursue a romantic relationship, and there's an opportunity to hop in the sack with a couple of different people (consider this the warning that the game, while not graphic, has themes not real appropriate to younger children) - and in the end of the game when your ending is being told, it messes up. I had been with both Isabela and Merril and in the end picked Merril as my character's love interest. However, the ending narrative showed Isabela's name and actually verbally said both Merril's and Isabela's at the same time in overlapping audio. It was a big jarring and makes me wonder that if/when there is a Dragon Age 3, if we can import our data, if this will have any affect on it or not.

That said, the other big change in how the game handles is the combat. The first game felt a bit tactical in nature - Dragon Age 2 makes it apparent right away that the emphasis is on action in this game. You still build up stats and skills like an rpg, but combat is much faster and more fluid, and both my son and I immediately noticed that and both thought it was much better suited to the game. A risky choice, but one that I thought paid off. You can still pause and assign tasks to your party members if needed, but I only did this a couple of dozen times total in my play through of Dragon Age 2, and I was doing it constantly in Origins.

Intangibles - 9:

I will get my biggest complaint out of the way immediately: there is not enough variety in your locales. The city of Kirkwall is impressively realized and it looks great visually, but you spend at least 80% of your game time in this one city. It may be a bit cliche, but if I'm playing a fantasy swords & sorcery game, I expect some fantastic environments along the way, and that really doesn't happen here. I'm also not usually a big fan of backtracking, but in this game they use the assets over and over again. I probably went into the same mountain in Sundermount at least 5 times over the course of my adventure. I think that this is probably the biggest area where my corner-cutting fears were realized.

Okay, now that the locales and glitches have been properly talked about above, let's talk about what Dragon Age 2 does right - and there's a lot to talk about there. For one, I liked the overall story. I know some people complained that it was not nearly as 'epic' as the first one. True, you're not saving the entire world from The Blight, but the fate of Kirkwall city eventually falls into your hands, and your choices do an amazing job of shaping that fate. As much as I wanted to play the earlier versions of Dragon Age over again, I think I want to replay this one even more. Sure, the lack of fresh scenarios is a bummer, but I'm in it for the storyline and here there are some remarkable changes to storyline that can be had here. Once I beat the game, I did a lot of looking around online at what some of my choices might have done, and I was thrilled to see how several of my choices made such a difference to how things played out. Some of your party members may not make it through the story - in fact most likely you will lose at least 1 or 2 along the way. The potential for this to carry over into later content or Dragon Age 3 is awesome, and something I hope Bioware realizes as well (if not better) than they did with Mass Effect 2.

There are a lot of side quests along the way - and my first game took me about 40 hours to complete everything. Some of those corner-cutting concerns can be understood when you consider how many cinematics and storyline changes Bioware had to account for in giving players so much flexibility in their choices. I've already rolled up two more characters and am looking forward to more play throughs.

For people who enjoy achievements, you can get most of them on a single play, but not all. I got about 2/3 of them on my one play through. Annoyingly, 2 of the achievements can only be had if you have one of the DLC's - which was given to players for free if they had pre-ordered this game by a certain date (that I missed by all of a week), or if you want to pony up some Microsoft points/PSN dollars (I think it's 560 microsoft points). I haven't done this yet, but I probably will later. there's another DLC I did get called the Black Emporium - think of it as a rare black market. It's got some okay gear in it, but it doesn't add anything particularly interesting to the story itself. Also, there are several unlockable items you can get by doing certain things like playing the Dragon Age Legends Facebook game, signing up for the Dragon Age newsletter and so on. Bioware's tie-in with these other media hubs, and other games like Mass Effect and Dead Space are neat, and I'll be curious to see if it's something we see more of in the future.

Overall - 8.5:

The overall game is better than Origins and Awakening, especially on a technical level. I enjoyed the story and how it was presented quite a bit, but that plus some of the lacking party customization options has proven to be a bit of a sore spot for some players. Overall though, if you liked the first Dragon Age game, this one has enough of the same characteristics that it will probably be very appealing to you. I've already logged a good deal of time with it, and like many other Bioware games, it is a title that I've beaten and will hold on to - most of the time if I beat a game, it gets traded in shortly afterward. I am hopeful some of the bugs will be fixed in a patch soon, and I'm really looking forward to what else gets released in DLC - not that I need any extra excuses to play through the game again.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening Xbox 360 Review

Dragon Age: Origins was one of my favorite games when it came out. The game presented a huge, detailed world with plenty of lore and branching story line based on choices your character made. There was a good deal of replay value to it and it was one of the more entertaining titles to come out in a long time. There were several pieces of downloadable content you could purchase for Dragon Age: Origins that helped add a bit more to the game. One of the more interesting offerings however was Dragon Age: Origins - Awakening.

It's more of the same - so if you enjoy an action rpg with weighty decisions and an interesting storyline, you're in luck with this game. What made this game a bit different than most of the other DLC is how it was completely standalone (though some of your actions from the original game could be seen here and there). Is it worth picking up?

Graphics - 7:

Similar in almost every way to Origins, the graphics get the job done in Awakening, but they are hardly going to blow anyone away. It's basically the same engine with a bit less stuttering. There were not quite as many areas to visit, so the landscapes are not quite as varied as in Origins either.

Sound & Music - 8:

Again, comparable to the original. The voice work is generally good, the same basic sound effects were put to use and the music still helps to set the tone for this game.

Gameplay - 8:

They were working with the same engine as Origins when they made this game. As such it controls just like the original. I would give it a slight nod to the fact that I found fewer bugs in Awakenings as opposed to those I found in Origins.


Intangibles - 7:

It probably felt like I was doing an Origins re-review up until this point, huh? Well, that's because the framework was the same, but this is where the primary differences are at. The same basic rules apply - you make choices and they can have a serious impact on how things play out. The storyline is still an epic one - but the overall game is much shorter. There are also nowhere near as many side quests. Like Origins, there's a desire to replay again just to see how some decisions might have played out differently, yet I never felt quite as compelled to play over and over again. There's some tie-in to the first game, but this feels more like Origins - B. It's not really a sequel and it never tries to be, but it's disappointing that for those of us who played Origins, there were not more direct tie-ins to what you do in Awakenings.

Overall - 7.5:

Not quite as good as Origins. There is not as much overall content, and to me the storyline was not quite as engaging either. When it came out, Awakening was at a lower price point. Now it can be had as part of the newly released Origins that contains all of the extra content (I believe) and in that sense it would be a good deal. It was a nice extension to the original game for fans like myself who enjoyed it, but set your expectations just a bit lower than you might have for the original game.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins Xbox 360 Review

When this game was first announced, I was very excited. Bioware has a great rpg pedigree, ranging from Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic back in 2003, Jade Empire back in 2005, Neverwinter Nights, which was my first serious brush with the company back in 2002 and the Baldur's Gate series that got its start back in 1998 and is to this day one of my friend's all-time favorite game series. Given their more recent successes such as Mass Effect, War Hammer and the Dragon Age series, I feel it's safe to say they know their way around the genre.

They began to advertise the game as a 'dark fantasy' with videos that showed plenty of blood and some pretty mature themes. I believe the first Neverwinter Nights game was the first rpg I had played where your choices made a noticeable impact on events and characters around you, as well as potential 'love interests' for your character. I'm sure there were others before, but Neverwinter is the first I can really remember. These elements are carried over and expanded upon in the Dragon Age: Origins game, which gives you a good deal of customization to start. You can choose from multiple races and classes as well as a gender and appearance. Each of these race and class combinations give you an Origins story (hence the subtitle) that you get to play through that sets the stage for the overall storyline that comes along later as the story bottlenecks to a specific plot point and then opens up again quite a bit to allow you a good deal of exploration and freedom.

The game has been out for awhile, and I've played through it twice and started it a few other times. I have a very Dragon Age heavy review theme coming up this weekend though now that I completed part 2 last night, so here is stage one of this weekend's theme.

Graphics - 7:

The graphics don't really hold up great, and honestly that's kind of been a theme for some of Bioware's games in the past. For all their game-depth, some of their graphics engines are a bit underwheling and that is the case here as well. Colors are a bit dreary at time, and getting odd tears when the framerate struggles to keep up with some of the more intense action. Character animations are okay, but not great. The variety of landscapes is nice however, as you venture from one location to another. That said, there is a rather nice style to things, with the blood splatters on characters post-combat, and splash of red on the maps - things like that.

Sounds & Music - 8:

There is a lot of voice acting here, and most of it is pretty solid. There's pretty good variety to the sound effects as well. My favorite part however was the music - something that Bioware usually hits on the head with its games, and this one was no different.

Gameplay - 8:

Characters control fairly well, and the menus are pretty easy to navigate. The ability to map common items and skills to specific keys is handy and a real time saver, and I thought the radial menu was a nice way to handle the menu options on a console game like this. There are some interesting glitches from time to time, but seldom are they a real issue - none ever prevented me from finishing the game in any way. There are plenty of conversations that take place automatically, and lots of loot if gathering it is your sort of thing, though I'm not real fond of the 'gifting' mechanic used to help raise your party members' opinion of you.

The combat is something of an odd blend though, and worth mentioning. It's probably a bit more action-oriented than PC gamers are used to from their rpgs, and a bit more tactical on the console than it 'looks' to be at first glance. I found myself pausing and assigning duties fairly often in fights, and not all classes are created equally. You pretty much need a mage in your group for healing, but I didn't really care for playing one as opposed to the more entertaining (in my opinion) warriors and rogues.

Intangibles - 9:

There are choices you make throughout your adventure that leave you going: What if I had... I cannot oversell how much that helps this game's replay value. Some of the Origins stories are more interesting than others, but they too help add some variety to what is generally the most boring part of a roleplaying game - the early hours as you get your feet wet. It's a unique way of getting you engaged all over again. Add to it that you can wind up with different combinations of party members (I completely missed one on my first play through), and that your choices will often cause them to react accordingly (some will leave your party for good or even fight you if their approval drops too low or you make a choice they really can't abide by). There's a variety of endings handled in much the same way other games like Fallout 3 does where certain choices or characters are commented on at the end, giving it sort of a customized and satisfactory feeling. There is replay value aplenty.

There are also quite a few downloads for this game. These can add to your adventures and are generally well-done, but it's up to you to decide if you think they're worth buying - everyone's mileage may differ a bit (or you can acquire the recently released ultimate edition which includes all of this original content as part of the package).

Overall - 8:

I've played this game a ton. I'll probably play it again. I trade in about 80% of the games I buy, and put them toward new games. Bioware however, tends to make games I hold onto. Mass Effect and Dragon Age are going nowhere. A few technical problems with graphics and bugs can hold this game back with some players I'm sure - but if you enjoy roleplaying games where you actually feel like you are playing a role and your decisions have real weight to them, the experience is a lot of fun and one I have to recommend.

As a footnote, the content may not be real suitable for younger kids. A lot of roleplaying games are pretty kid-friendly, but this isn't one I'd like my youngest play. There's some language and some themes that are a bit more mature than most rpgs out there.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Gaming News and Notes from 3-30-11

Been a bit since I did one of these, so here goes:

Mortal Kombat may be requiring Online Pass? My disliked of this practice is pretty well-documented by this point, and sure - I have it on reserve and will be buying it free. There's some speculation that it won't be for just 1 system, but 1 user per system. I'll let you know...

Resistance 3 will be supporting both the Move and 3D when it comes to the PS3.

I signed up for the PlayStation Rewards program, but it sounds like it may be getting nixed.

The same studio that brought us SOCOM is getting ready to work on Resident Evil: Operating Raccoon City.

It looks like the 360 may be getting a disc format increase of 1GB.

There's been a lot of speculation for some time about what the Wii successor will and won't have, but Nintendo put to rest the likelihood that 3D will be part of the equation.

Super Street Fighter IV coming to the 360? Looks like it. It'll be interesting to see if yet another release of this game will generate sales or not, but given the recent resurgence of fighting game popularity, it could pay big dividends.

Last but not least, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning has been a project that caught my eye awhile back. IGN has had some articles about it, including this one, which also has a trailer. It looks like an action RPg, but the list of people involved is pretty impressive: Ken Ralston (Elder Scrolls III & IV), Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and probably most exciting for me is writer R.A. Salvatore, who has a ton of great books to his credit, but is probably best known for his work in Forgotten Realms for the D&D franchise. This game is a precursor to what will be an MMO follow-up from 38 Studios and I am very excited to see how this comes along.

Monday, March 28, 2011

KotL - Summoner

So, part of what I've been spending some time on over the last week was a demo of RPG Maker XP. I had mentioned this before earlier in the week. Now mind you, most of the code is in place, and graphically I'm using basic RTP graphic assets, but I think the 'attract' or demo mode turned out okay on it.

Basically, the storyline bouncing around in my head is a spin-off of my Kingdoms of the Lost MUD that I run with my wife. The premise is basically people dabbling in a kind of magic they don't know much about. Nothing too deep, but I get on these creative kicks where I want to not just play something, but make something (I do a lot of writing and already have the MUD) - this was just another outlet to help with that particular itch. Hopefully I'll regain some steam on it soon and do something with the gameplay - I have some stuff mapped out and implemented - probably about the first 10 minutes or so of the game. I may go ahead and try to get an hour or so of it out there and playable before too long. Anywho - thanks for taking a look and I'll add some posts here and there as I add things, especially if people show any interest in it. Basically though, it's a throwback the old 16 bit RPG era of gaming - one of my favorite times in gaming history.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Magic: The Gathering Tactics

This is an interesting one - I only discovered this game due to an ad actually on my blog at one time. For those who follow my blog, you no doubt noticed I had a string of reviews involving collectible card game titles. Usually these tie into some sort of an RPG or strategy game - two of my favorite genres. Well, the mixing of a strategy title and my favorite all time collectible card game in real-life seemed like a no-brain winner. What were my thoughts? Well...

So what is the game? Well, the idea of Magic: The Gathering for those who haven't played it is fairly simple. You start the game with 20 hit points, and you build a deck out of cards that fall into a few basic categories: creatures, spells, enchantments and mana. Mana is the fuel for these other 3 types of cards, and mana comes in four basic types: red, blue, white, black and green (fire, water, plains, swamps and forest). There are costs to casting the creature, spell and enchantment cards, and the goal is to take your opponent down to 0 hps. There is a huge variety of ways to do this.

So what is the tactics game? It builds on this premise using larger numbers (200 hps per mage, and creatures who are generally 1 hp and 1 power are now 10 hps and 10 power) - so basically they tacked a 0 onto almost everything. Mana cards are replaced by a mana pool that generates an additional mana point each turn, streamlining the process and deck building a bit. Many of the maps and all of the actual player vs. player battles are built around the premise of knocking the other spell caster to 0 hps. There is a story mode though that gives you alternate goals as well, for better or worse.

Graphics - 6:

This is a grade based on not only aesthetics, but performance as well. Most of the characters move around okay, and some of the particle effects look good on spells or creatures of fiery origins, things like that. It's fun seeing cards like Lord of the Pit brought to life. Now for the reality of things. First off, I have a pretty fast computer and this game can sometimes chug horribly. It won't even run on my kids' computer, which is an older one to be sure, but it technically meets the system requirements and I keep the drivers all up to date, and even then it usually crashes. If I shut down everything else on my computer, it goes more smoothly, but I think of an online game like this as something lightweight, and instead it sort of takes everything over.

Sound and Music - 7:

There's some okay background music, and while the voice actors are nothing amazing, there is a fair amount of voice over between scenarios. There's some cool sound effects too, like when fire spells erupt or when one of my imps cackles after attacking someone. All in all, this is pretty decent.

Gameplay - 5:

Some of this could be linked to the system performance visually, but when things get choppy, I often find myself having to click multiple times to get something to work - like targeting a spell or moving to a square. I also can't count the number of times I've found myself having to zoom in a lot just to click on a particular square, because when you don't you run the risk of clicking the wrong one and wasting a turn - some sort of a confirm/cancel to your movements would have been a life-saver. It ca also sometimes be tough to click on a target in general. What I mean is, if you are trying to click on someone's flying bird, well - it bobs up and down. This effect looks nice, but if it bobs downward as you try to click it, you may wind up clicking on something else behind it. It's odd, like it doesn't fully realize its vertical space.

Additionally, it doesn't let you save mid-battle. Huge oversight in my opinion. I realize this was probably done to keep someone from getting to a point in the map where they can save/quicksave out and come back in - try a few things, and if it goes badly, re-load it. Still, some of these battles can take a very long time, and the inability to save during can be frustrating. Worse, the single-player campaign mode requires you to be online, which means if the servers hiccup or your own ISP drops momentarily, you can be forced out of a match that you just spent 30+ minutes on, with no way to recover it. You just have to do it over again.

Intangibles - 6:

The game itself is free. From that standpoint, it's a good investment if you have some time to kill and want to give it a try. There's a few modes too - campaign, duels against other players, tournaments against other players and an auction house. Tournaments have a small entrance fee (usually 1 coin), and the auction house allows you to build your deck by purchasing cards using coins. How are coins acquired? Well, you get some right off from the campaign mode, and there are daily quests (like what you'd see from 'dailies' in World of Warcraft), and these yield experience and coins. Experience can be used to build your character up down some skill charts, adding another layer of strategy to the proceedings, and the coins can be used for the auction house or tournaments.

The catch to the auction house is that the cards can't be from the campaign mode. This encourages you to either buy packs of cards from the game using real-life money, or resell cards you have previously purchased through the auction house. This is one of the two ways Sony makes their money off of the game - card pack purchases and campaigns. When you play, you have access to chapter 1 of the campaign, which is pretty easy. You win a new card and experience with each map you beat. Problem is, the cards are not necessarily of any use to you - I had a red/black deck, so those white and green cards did me no good really. I would say out of the campaign mode, I won maybe 5 cards in total that made their way into my deck. The rest were purchased from the auction house after doing daily quests. and I did buy the campaign mode's other 4 chapters. I had enjoyed the first chapter quite a bit, and they had a nice sale going over Presidents' Day where you could get the 4 pack of levels half-off, so I bought it.

It was fun, I don't regret the purchase in and of itself, but some of the later chapters were poorly designed. The last stage of chapter five was particularly aggravating - it was clearly built with specific types of decks in mind, and I spent several hours on that one map, because my deck did not have the requisite types of cards to complete its objectives. Sometimes there objective-based maps work well, other times they do not.

It was far from all bad though. I enjoyed the overall tactics of the game, and while there were a few bugs here and there that crept up on the maps, they weren't very common and seldom created a bad gaming experience in and of themselves. Of particular note also is that you can actually build a real deck the way you like. That is something the Xbox Live version of the game has needed, and it gives you so much more power when trying to decide what you want to do with yours cards.

Overall - 6:

There's some decent value here. You don't have to pay a dime to play an okay strategy game, based on a tried-and-true fantasy world. Most of the mechanics are pretty sound, and I have run into very little downtime while playing. But, in a way, you do get what you pay for - there's some serious issues with the interface and performance, and it's definitely designed to try and get you to spend more money. Not exactly unheard of - the industry is of course trying to make money, but the experience still feels like it needs polish to make it worth further monetary investment at this point. I played pretty much daily for about a month, and it was fun, but about 2 weeks ago I just quit playing, and really haven't missed it yet. I'll no doubt poke in at a later date and see what improvements have been made, but right now it's just not drawing me back to the game and that to me is a pretty telling sign.

I made 2 videos of gameplay on the fly - obviously processing video for playback and recording at the same time can stress a machine, but this is much worse than just about any other game I've recorded as you'll see.