Sunday, October 16, 2011

Just Cause 2 [Game][PC]

Amount Completed - Main story line completed and all known locations cleared – 88.5% by the conclusion. I skipped most races and collected about 70% of the faction items.

Story - Just Cause 2 takes place on a small south pacific island nation named Panau. The story follows the adventures of Rico, a sly CIA agent, as he brings chaos throughout the nation. The clear conclusion of the story, from the beginning of the game, is the toppling of the dictator “president” of the nation of Panau. Unfortunately the story is utterly bland with very few twists or surprises. Rico becomes the attack dog for three rebel factions vying for control of the nation. Instead of having the factions cross paths in interesting ways the nation is instead literally just cut up by the three groups. Rico's influence with one group plays no role in his influence on the others. This level of simplicity is both good and bad. You can forget about managing your allegiances, but then you can also forget about anything intriguing between the various factions in the storyline.

The many judgments passed down upon the nation of Panau (and the world as a whole) by Rico are way too heavy handed. While there are hints of morality in the bland story the black and white approach to it is a bit strange. The voice acting does not help at all. The main character, while close to what I would like, never really showed enough emotion to make the story come to life in any way. The sound (and general) design of the cut scenes never integrated any sense of urgency or suspense.

Art - Panau is utterly gorgeous. The lighting revolving around the day/night cycles is definitely brings the game to life. While there are really only 4 types of terrain (jungle, desert, snow, and city) there is plenty of variety in each. The characters are alright looking, and understandably not as high resolution as other games due to the view distance among other things. It is a shame there is no built in screenshot functionality as just running around and looking at things is the game's best advertisement.

Gameplay - Just Cause 2 is an open world game after the first two missions are complete. At that point it truly becomes a huge sandbox of potential chaos. The main component of the game is chaos. You cause chaos by destroying things. Just about anything adds to the overall chaos.

Panau is huge. You can spend hours exploring and driving around without scratching the surface of the game. There are over 360 locations to take over by collecting items and/or destroying enemy infrastructure.

Like many recent open world games the player can go anywhere. The major appeal of Just Cause 2 is that it is very easy to go vertical. The grapple Rico is armed with makes Just Cause 2 an over-the-top action movie. You can grapple and take over helicopters, jets, vehicles and even grapple onto enemies. This is the reason to play the game. The ground combat is an absolute blast. While not the most intelligent, the AI is fine and will make an effort to find cover and run away when overwhelmed.

Driving vehicles (ground specifically) is incredibly difficult and was a major annoyance I hit immediately. My car always seemed to spin out of control. Some of the wider vehicles had improved control and stability but they could still easily go into spin mode at any moment. It is a shame the vehicles are so difficult and there is so much fun surrounding driving off road through the various types of terrain in the game.

The button sequences in-game are acceptable and reasonably quick. These require you to enter a sequence of keys under a given amount of time. They use this for taking over vehicles as well as various other activities to create a sense of urgency in the action the player takes.

The on-screen hints are horrible. An indicator for a target location can literally be in the middle of the screen drawing over other critical information (such as what you are targeting).

The difficulty ramp is way too steep as well. I restarted the game on easy mode after realizing that the normal mode was simply ruining the fun of the game.

Gut - Just Cause 2 delivers in every department with the exception of the story and general vehicle controls. I highly recommend it as the combat and exploration experience is top notch. It would have been worth it at full price. (I bought it during a Steam sale)

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Fallout 3 Game of The Year [Game][PC]

Amount Completed – Main story line in the main game and all DLC. (some side missions were likely missed)

Story – As made obvious from the title, Fallout 3 is about your character's role in a post-apocalyptic world. Many years have passed since the actual event. The main storyline centers around following your father's trail and possibly vision. Along the way there is a massive bevy of side missions to distract and improve your character and/or inventory. You will have the opportunity to make moral decisions through conversation and actions. Mostly this will result in access to more items and/or trigger certain groups of individuals to attack you. (Example: Kill someone who is marked as a “slaver” and all those consider “slavers” will likely attack you on-sight)

The story of the game is more for you to define and less about a clear start-to-finish narrative. This is actually one of my complaints. The story and events that unravel felt underwhelming. The game is not about ridiculous scripted explosions or major twists and turns. If you want that you mostly have to create it yourself. The one exception to my underwhelming complaint is any mission involving a huge ultra-patriotic robot stomping through enemies. This was really the only time I felt like I was part of something bigger than a character randomly rampaging around rummaging through garbage. (unfortunately I think there are only two such missions) -- other squad based sections are often a bit messy as the AI likes to stand in front of your bullets.

Much of the game centers around your moral decisions affecting your overall karma. Karma indicates how kind you are to (and in) the game world. The moral decisions are sometimes difficult with often odd routes around them. I found that the one that stuck in my mind the most was a request from a virtual character (yes a virtual character within a virtual world inside the game itself) requesting I don a creepy clown mask and murder a town full of people. I found my way out via other means completely avoiding the act. The route I chose also may have limited my exposure to some of the more darker elements. I played the game as an ultra good character.

Fallout 3 avoids many things that would have lead to way too much complexity. You will not find vehicles or other technologies that clearly would not just disappear in a post-apocalyptic world.

Art – The art of Fallout 3 fits the theme and works reasonably well. I found it unfortunate that it seemed like absolutely no part of the game actually appeared to be in any kind of restored state. Humans are decorators. Even after the apocalypse people would not tolerate everything looking like crap to the extent that things do in Fallout 3. Even the supposed uppity Tenpenny Tower lacked the flair I would expect from upper-class stereotypes.

Gameplay – I fought a lot of the same 10 creatures and their 1-3 variations. They strangely scaled (or not) as I leveled my character up. At some point some the semi-common creatures became super weak while others became more powerful than any boss character. For example the Ghoul Roamer (I believe) became so powerful that Fawkes and my character, both with high-powered Gatling lasers, had to fire at one for 30+ seconds to destroy it. This happened to be at the end of the Broken Steel DLC where you fight 10+ on your way through the subway tunnels.

I definitely became a bit bored with roaming through the many many subway tunnels. Expanding my inventory was a slow and mostly monotonous activity. While I was working towards what I believed would be massive challenges requiring tons of ammunition and stimpacks... resulting in awesome cut scenes or activities... I was rewarded with mostly bland mission conclusions. I feel the game may prey on people who are hoarders. You will become lost in collecting junk. I definitely did at times. (ie. Scrap metal gathering)

Weapon wise I stuck with the Rock-It Launcher (garbage launcher) and a very well maintained Chinese Assault Rifle. There are a variety of weapons I mostly ignored as they became ineffective at higher levels.

Gut – Fallout 3 is simply alright. The world to explore and number of missions are overwhelming, but the payoff is just outright underwhelming. It is much more about how you feel about making a decision then necessarily the outcome of the decision. The PC version is riddled with bugs. Enjoy the crashes and other oddities! I may play it again as an evil character.

DLC Gut – As many of the DLC packs are a bit of a departure from the main game I feel it is necessary to comment on them separately.

Operation: Anchorage – Fallout 3 as a military squad combat game. The inventory payoff is definitely worth playing through but that's about it. The power armor I received was able to be worn without training and apparently never needed repair. I never ran into any better armor. (not that I sought it out).

The Pitt – Fish out of water. I lost my inventory for a while, scavenged a bunch of steel ingots from a dangerous steel yard... and fought among some ruined buildings. Nothing spectacular other than a glitchy saw weapon that graphically may or may not appear depending on the phase of the moon.

Broken Steel – Squad Combat leads you to fight an aircraft carrier on tank treads. The level 30 cap increase was the best part. The conclusion of the main plot was again about as bland as possible.

Point Lookout – Swamp People. Very strange and intriguing region with lots to explore and uncover. Many of the threads did not lead to interesting conclusions (par for the course). The enemies were incredibly strong and annoying.

Mothership Zeta – Fish out of water. I lost my inventory for a while. I found some alien laser rifle, a pile of ammunition, and blasted aliens in the head for 4 hours slogging through this. The conclusion was unique but mostly just confusing. Fallout 3 does not handle ship to ship space battles very well if you must know...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Duke Nukem Forever [Game][PC]

Amount Completed - Entire Game

Story - Duke Nukem Forever follows Duke Nukem, the hero of the world. He is a man that can do no wrong, but arguably does so much wrong. Duke Nukem 3D presented the Duke character as macho and misogynistic. Forever takes the extra step and adds in sadistic. His view of other people in-need (or not) is generally self-centered or worse. But as shocking entertainment it is somewhat effective. They seem to be transitioning Duke to a bit more of an anti-hero. Unfortunately he is in the transition period and it does not work very well in Forever.

The story in Forever is about as simple as possible. There seemed to be hints of intrigue but it never plays out. The alien menace has arrived and the president says not to attack them. The aliens attack and Duke tries close the portal leaking the aliens. The entire first half of the game is spent in Las Vegas where Duke is considered a god among men. Unfortunately this section of the game is horrible in just about every way compared to the second half. The hero-worship and terrible characters get old really fast.

With the very manly/macho/over-the-top nature I was surprised when Duke was orally resuscitated by another man he did not rush into a homophobic comment or otherwise. He actually said nothing at all. I view this positively considering what would have likely happened 15 years ago.

The badness of the Las Vegas part of the game is overruled by a middle section where Duke tears around in a monster truck. The game continues in a positive way to a dam where all hell breaks loose. But sadly it was the gameplay and experience that were entertaining, not the story.

There are a variety of great jokes in the game, many of which poke fun at (or just pay homage) other games or companies. I definitely laughed a bit when near the end they threw in a great Donkey Kong joke (that no one under the age of 25 will even get).

Art - The human characters in Forever just look weird. The proportions are off and people look stiff.

The first person camera in Duke is unique in that it feels completely different than other 3D shooters. It is claustrophobic and logically makes no sense when they attempt to indicate you are actually seeing things from the eyes of Duke. If so his fists must be glued to his chin and hold guns 3 inches from his face. (yes obviously this is an accepted oddity of all 3D first-person-shooters)

The level art really picks up in the second half of the game after leaving Las Vegas. The game transitions from really bland casinos to a desert and eventually the dam where the art looks much more polished. The dam in particular has some parts that reminded me more of Doom 3 or F.E.A.R. (in a good way).

Many 3D shooters make an effort to make the player feel as though they are firing a gun and hitting a target. For whatever personal reasons, Forever makes me feel like I am asking the game to fire a gun and hit a target. I cannot quite put a perfect description on the criticism. The lack of hit reactions on many enemies in certain circumstances does not help.

Gameplay - Duke Nukem was previously about free-form action and exploration. Forever instead locks the player into rails a bit more than I generally like. The game takes a few too many nods from Postal 2 and not enough from Duke Nukem 3D.

In the beginning of Forever the combat felt a bit too much like Painkiller in that combat was clearly divided up with discrete walls or doors to lock you in until every enemy was defeated. Later in the game there is a bit more freedom and it was less boxed in. The major problem I had with combat was that despite obvious spots to hide and recover, some were simply designed out of my reach. One example was a counter in a casino. Why did the designers put in a counter if I cannot even get behind it. I recall seeing it and wondering how it could be useful if I wanted to get away from the creature gnawing on me.

The moment you leave Las Vegas the game becomes 10x more fun. Driving the monster truck was actually fun and reminded me of driving/boating around in Half-Life 2 (a bit too linear in Forever though). The level design suddenly felt a bit more loose and fun with lots of places to hide and plan your attack from.

Later in the game some of the puzzle-like parts (in the loosest sense) are just points of frustration. They serve no purpose and provide no entertainment beyond a sense of "glad I'm done with that." In particular there is a section underwater that is simply just annoying. Looking back it probably would be easier knowing how to get through it, but it felt like too big a speed bump for such a generally action oriented game. I'm all for slowing the player down, but can designers make dying and repeating a section actually fun?

The boss battles in the game are generally simple and fun. They can be a little frustrating but never beyond an acceptable level. They are really about patience and not just firing and hoping it works out.

Gut - The frustrating, boring, and out-of-place components really interrupt an enjoyable game. My gut says proceed with caution. You'll be offended and might be accidentally entertained. The game you actually want is the Duke Nukem Forever from 2001. (the E3 trailer is included in the game so you can see)

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dragon Age: Origins & Awakening Expansion [Game][PC]

Amount Completed - Original game and expansion. 

Story - Dragon Age is a massive collection of mini-stories with a couple primary veins to follow along with. In the end it is simply about a marauding army of grotesque creatures apparently mindlessly following some guide. Unfortunately the story fails to deliver any sense of anything grand. It is not as though you play as someone on the sidelines, it is just not as over-the-top as role playing games often are. The character stories were more a source of entertainment than some of the major plot developments. A ton of information is embedded in the game in a written form within a codex. If you are completely dedicated I suggest reading them all. I eventually just stopped looking at them to continue to slog through the mostly mediocre story lines. There are some twists and turns to keep you just at the level of "interested enough" to complete the game.

Art - The art of Dragon Age is simply meh. It lacks a lot of detail and attention to making things look remotely realistic. There is no reason for a cloth to reflect light like a metal. 

Gameplay - If you know Knights of the Old Republic or Mass Effect you have a general idea of what the game play is like.You run around in a third person view and can pause time to make tactical decisions throughout combat. You spend a lot of time talking to a variety of characters and build up a supporting cast of characters to help you in combat and otherwise. You also attempt to persuade or dissuade characters in or out of your favor. Decisions made by the main character will influence the support of individuals within your party. 

The game suffers from an inventory bloat that blows Mass Effect 1's inventory way out of the water. I picked up so much garbage throughout the game. I stopped even caring if new gear was better just so I would not have to slog through my inventory.

Gut - For a game called Dragon Age I think I fought about 6 total. Dragon Age was more mindless fun than I expected. The characters are generally entertaining and the non-expansion story was enough to keep my attention. The expansion really fell flat even with some of the unique elements going for it. I wish the main character was voice acted throughout... an advantage Mass Effect definitely has over Dragon Age.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Modern Family [DVD][Television]

Amount Viewed - 40 episodes

Story - Modern Family centers around three branches of a larger family. Each branch consists of parents and a number of children. One set of parents is the stereotypical wife and husband of the same age, another is of an older husband with a much younger wife, and the third is a gay couple with an adopted toddler. Every character on the show is reasonably unique though not completely inaccessible. The writers are able to have characters in opposition in one story and have them working together in another. The main source of stories and conflict definitely center around the parents in each of the families. While the children do often play a major role, the interactions of the parents almost always take center stage.

Each of the families could arguably carry their own show. Luckily for the viewers and writers this is not the case. Instead of three mediocre shows we have something a bit more special. The stories are often layered between families and take advantage of the entertaining aspects of each character. The pacing is quick and filled with comedy. The structure of each episode begins with basic hints as to what conflict each family will work through. While some of the plots are boring or just a bit weird the others within the same episode seem to balance things out. I have yet to see an episode without a plot I could easily relate to.

Modern Family does not shy away from presenting some drama. Characters are shown in the lightest of bad situations, such as the eldest daughter becoming drunk in Hawaii. The result was presented as bad and showed her mother as caring and understanding. Unfortunately the consequences were limited as to avoid affecting the show in significant ways. There are a very small number of elements of the show that indicate an actual time-line with people growing and changing. I believe this is both a blessing and a curse.

Presentation - Modern Family is presented as a semi-documentary with free moving cameras and cuts to characters speaking directly to the camera about a subject. While entertaining, I have to acknowledge that presenting comedy in the form where you can hear the mental voice of a character is a lot easier than without.

Arrested Development (had to be pointed out) - Modern Family is a very grounded Arrested Development. The wackiness of the characters and stories are toned down and limited to the boxes created for the characters. Arrested Development was much more free and had a flowing story episode to episode. Modern Family is more rigid but definitely does more to explore their characters' extreme sides. The resulting drama generally works but honestly can feel a bit weird in a comedy.

Gut - Great! Every episode delivers at least a couple of good laughs. Any flaws are covered with entertaining writing, acting, and reasonably realistic situations.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Braid [Game] [PC]

Amount Completed - Finished (all puzzle pieces collected - through epilogue)

Story - Braid comes off as a standard run and jump side scroller with no story whatsoever beyond get to the end of the level / world / game. Books throughout the game reveal weird components of the story hinting towards something being masked behind a very simple presentation.

Braid apparently has an obfuscated story that does not even come close to presenting itself to me. I am clearly too naive and oblivious to pick up on the depth. In the end I just did not care to dive into the story of the game and the concepts behind it. I was simply not enticed by the story due to the overwhelmingly unique (at times) gameplay. Skimming FAQs about the game further solidified my desire to just let my knowledge of the story remain limited. The game just felt like the wrong vehicle for delivering the apparent story behind the game. I dare say the game now feels pretentious from reading about it.

Art - The style of Braid is certainly vibrant and interesting. I found the graphics effective and clear. The painted style is unique and the game art is simplistic and enjoyable. The game elements are clearly defined by their art and there is little confusion between the back and foregrounds. For a basic 2D game the art and animation is perfectly acceptable if not very good.

Gameplay - Braid at the base is a side scroller with rewind/fast-foward capability. As the player progresses through a number of world other elements are added to tweak the experience. I found that personally the difficulty of the tweaks was out of order. In one world you have a shadow that acts out your actions when you rewind time. Another world offered a ring that you could drop to slow down time within the proximity of the location you left it at. Unfortunately the previous two were after the tweak I found the most difficult. In the world before those you have to play the game where time automatically rolls forward as you move right and backward as you move left. While I struggled through the section I found that the others were more fun and a lot less frustrating/difficult.

At times I would simply make up some random goal and just haphazardly go for it. Often this would work out making me wonder if the designer intended for methodical thinking and planning or just "hoping something works out" style gameplay.

The game also is quite short if you have an idea of how to complete the puzzles... even without it will not take long to complete.

Gut - Fun at times, frustrating at other times. If you are looking for a story, look elsewhere unless you really like to unravel and explore layers of references and otherwise in your side scrollers.

Trigun and Trigun Maximum [Manga] [English Translation]

Amount Read - Complete story (14 volumes)

Story - Trigun is about a young male character named Vash on a desert planet and his adventures involving a number of interesting situations and characters. He is notorious for being involved with destruction and seems to leave a path behind him. More characters are mixed in and the back story unfolds revealing a number of interesting details and plot points. From a minor hero to the savior of the planet, Vash does it all.

Unfortunately the author is more of an artist and less of a story teller. I have read other manga so I felt as though I had a decent idea of how things generally flow in a graphic novel story. Trigun is a major exception in this realm. At some point the art over takes the storytelling to the point where I completely lost track of what was going on. From panel to panel I had no idea how things happened and where things were going. Page by page the time and location would change so dramatically I could have been switching to entirely different stories.

When the climax of the story starts to build it drags for multiple volumes. I pushed through the final volumes in hopes of something interesting occurring. Instead I was fed a number of battles between characters with conclusions I could not honestly even figure out. I swear one character died and I did not even know it. I am not even sure now if they actually died.

Art - The beginning of the series has well done and reasonably clear artwork. As the series reaches the climax the art work became less and less clear. In the end I believe the art was a complete mess. I could not tell what in the world was going on at times.

Gut - Good for 40%... After a while I lost complete track of what was going on. In the end Trigun Maximum was a major letdown. I do not recommend it.

Anime Fan Note - Fans of the anime series should stick with that, even if the conclusion is actually different. You are not missing much beyond a weird replacement for Wolfwood later on that seems strangely like yet another Vash.

Eden of the East [DVD] [Anime]

Amount Viewed - Entire series (11 episodes)

Story - The show is about a young male character learning about his recent memory loss in conjunction with major events occurring within Japan. He begins the story in Washington D.C. with a gun in one hand and a phone with a huge amount of money tied to it in the other. To make things interesting the phone includes a service to allow him to use the money to do just about anything he sees fit. A young woman is thrown into the mix, though never seems to do anything whatsoever other than drag the pace of the show down. The story unfolds slowly and oddly. I could not take the show seriously due to the excessive amount of "johnny" references (as in male genitalia). Almost nothing is ever really explained or wrapped up. As with many anime, the concept of following the rules established within the fictional world is not critical. I was left wondering why within 11 episodes so much time was wasted destroying any respect given to the viewer. Eden of the East had a chance to shine though. Early on a character is shown abusing his power, killing others. Unfortunately the direction of the show did not continue along the somewhat dark path I expected (and wanted from the series). Instead a convoluted mess of college graduates and a social network internet site somehow took hold.

Animation - The animation of the show is well done. This is far from enough to make it enjoyable though. Nothing ever felt cheap so I was pleased with the presentation overall.

Gut - Almost good... but no... Eden of the East was a dud. The hype and reviews I have read elsewhere are either an indication that people are completely devoid of critical thinking or this really is the best anime of the last few years.