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PC PS2 PS3 Xbox 360

From the trenches

Gratuitous Space Battles

I’ve been playing quite a bit lately, but nothing in the lot has really ignited me enough to write about it. It does feel like a shame to not at least note down what these games are, if only for the fact that they’re worth playing.

007 Blood Stone

Bizarre’s possibly last game is a great Bond experience. It falls short of being a great game, if you take out the Bond trappings – actors, writers, plot, and the best action sequences from the past two movies. But those trappings are there and you know you love them if you’re playing this game in the first place. I enjoyed my two nights with this game a lot, even though it is rather skinny and even though the driving sequences never shed their trial and error design. A rental, then.

Need For Speed Hot Pursuit

Despite making driving games for a living, I never could get into driving online. It’s such a merciless affair. If you’re not at the top of your game, you’re driving alone and feeling miserable, and if you’re at the top of your game, you’re feeling miserable because the others are not playing along. It’s so easy to spoil the experience for others. Criterion makes Hot Pursuit a close-knit team sport – cops versus racers, contact very much encouraged, a scenario you get immediately. It just works. This is very much the current-gen Burnout I was left wanting in Paradise.

I canceled my Xbox Live Gold account late last year ago due to simply not playing anything online. This is the first game that makes me regret that. Luckily I can always get it for the PS3.

Dawn Of War II

I don’t like real-time strategy. That strikes me as odd when I think about my love for Ground Control, Company Of Heroes, Homeworld and Total War. It’s the old school I can’t stand – Starcraft, Warcraft, Command & Conquer and, yes, Dawn Of War. I’m such a Warhammer geek that I really tried to love the original Dawn Of War, but I couldn’t get past its genre tropes.

Dawn Of War II blows those tropes off their hinges with its carefree marriage of action RPG loot and leveling with RTS mechanics. Its streamlining of the futuristic war machine into just four squads at a time works well, allowing you to concentrate on just one screen’s worth of information at a time, effectively micro-managing your squads. The RPG elements make you intimately familiar with those squads. The plot I couldn’t care about, but my commanders I love.

The Last Stand co-op mode is the only RTS multiplayer mode I’ve played more than once.

Gratuitous Space Battles

I keep coming back to this game whenever I want to play something for under half an hour. You build your space fleet, give it commands and then just watch what happens. It is a thoughtful process as you encounter new scenarios and try to figure out which changes to your so far successful design would see you through.

The new campaign mode adds a lot of challenge and complexity, which I’m not sure I actually like yet. The human authored fleets you’re fighting against seem to be decidedly above my level so far.

Final Fantasy XII

I will finish this jewel of a game. It keeps getting better, the story captivating in its maturity, the mechanics flawless and still deepening, the world breathtaking. If you haven’t played it, it’s worth getting a PS2 for. The visuals absolutely stand up to the best today has to offer despite being last-gen.

Bayonetta

I’m not sure what I think about Bayonetta. I want to love it, but it’s a bit much and I didn’t finish it. Maybe I’m just getting old, my fingers unable to take the beating for more than one level at a time.

Categories
PC PS2 roleplaying tabletop games

What I’ve been playing this summer (part I)

Frozen Synapse screenshot
Frozen Synapse
Sins Of A Solar Empire screenshot
Sins Of A Solar Empire

Dark Heresy (tabletop)

Who knows, maybe I should see some people during the summer, too. The campaign has started off strong and I’m beginning to get a good ol’ RPG buzz. Who knew playing space fascists could be so much fun?

Space Hulk (tabletop)

It’s still a great game.

Descent (tabletop)

It satisfies my dungeon delving urges. Oh and since first covering the game, I’ve come to realize that it’s not so difficult when you play by the rules. Our adventurers have been getting way too few magical treasures. You’re supposed to award everyone in the party with the magical loot when you open treasure chests, not just the guy opening the chest, illogical as that may be.

Frozen Synapse (PC)

I’ve been playing this independent PC strategy game for quite a bit. It’s the only multiplayer strategy game I like. It’s still in alpha and if they manage a proper release sometime, I’m sure to spend lots of time with it. Even if they don’t, I’ve already been entertained enough.

You are commanding a small team of guys with guns, about to assault a small area held by another, like-minded team. The goals vary from elimination to sector control and hostage rescue.

It’s built as simultaneous, turn-based tactics. You make a plan and hit execute. When your opponent has submitted his turn, the results are played back in real-time. It is compulsive stuff – usually you have half a dozen games going at the same time, and the results keep chiming into your in-game inbox as you’re planning the previous game. You can easily play several complete games in one sitting, if your opponent is online. The matches are usually just a handful of turns.

It could use more work on the user interface and benefit from some wrapper. I’m all for abstract vector graphics guys shooting at each other, but it feels so much like the planning stage of the early Rainbow Six titles (which I loved) that I can’t help but think how much better it would be with a real-world backdrop.

Sins Of A Solar Empire (PC)

What a great name for a game! This is a space strategy title from some years back. It’s by the Homeworld guys and that shows – it’s just gorgeous to look at. I generally loathe these kinds of big strategy games, especially in real-time, because I like to be able to concentrate on what I’m doing, but Sins gets it just right. Even though it’s real-time, the pace is glacial, especially in the beginning. Space fleets just don’t get around all that fast.

If you’re interested in user interface design at any level, you need to play this game. Most of why it’s so accessible is because of the UI keeping you up to date with everything that’s going on in the galaxy, giving you just the amount of information you need and enabling you to give critical commands to the other side of the known space without moving your view from wherever you are. It’s stellar stuff, really.

Sins is the only real-time strategy I know of where I don’t feel like I could do with another pair of eyes and hands.

Final Fantasy XII (PS2)

I’ve continued my conquering of Final Fantasy XII. People who think that games of past generation look too crap on your new fancy HDTVs should plug this in – it’s still divine! What a great game. Too bad about the lackluster characters (especially the lead guy), but the game system is absolutely the best package seen to date from the JRPG field.

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PS2 Xbox 360

Armored Core For Answer

Armored Core For Answer (co-op mode)
Armored Core For Answer (co-op mode)

It is a well-known fact (at least by my wife) that I dig giant robots. Armored Core has always been a series tailored for me, but as it should happen, I’ve only played the PlayStation (one) original before this latest version, released a year ago. I always meant to get the PS2 versions, but I never happened upon them. For Answer (yes, that is the game’s name) feels like a smoother, but essentially identical game. I don’t know if this is a bad thing.

For Answer is definitely not for everyone. I don’t mean that in an elitist stance. It’s just that it’s pretty hard to approach. The controls, while tuned more for humans from the original’s convoluted scheme, are needlessly hard to master. The robots themselves look mouth-watering kind of cool, but the environments and I’m sad to say, effects (smoke and explosions), are really… bad. Like previous console generation standards, and not too convincing even at that level. The 2004 PS2 Transformers does a better job with the visuals, all told. The world setting and the plot are gibberish. I don’t mind, really, but I can see it could be off-putting to some.

Armored Core is a mecha mercenary simulator. You’re given a basic frame and some components to work with and then off you go, trying to make more money out of a mission than you need for ammunition and repairs. Quite often you want to re-do missions to make more money. Between missions, you spend a lot of time changing parts and planning new load-outs depending on your success in the previous mission. The building is rather involved – you need to consider the number of hard points where you can install components, energy consumption, weight and balance, in addition to how good the various components are in what they do. There are a lot of options.

The missions are varied enough to keep you interested, but not very much fun on their own. Rather, you’re always thinking about your machine’s performance and how you should modify it. The combat always feels like a test-run for your new build, as rarely you’re happy with what you have.

So if tinkering with you own giant robot and taking it out for a spin appeals to you, this is your game. If you’re more interested in accessible mecha mayhem, I’m sure there are better games out there.

Categories
culture PS2

Metal Wolf Chaos

This video is so full of great lines, I couldn’t decide which one to go with. Believe your justice.

Should’ve been released outside of Japan, really.

Categories
PC PS2 PS3 tabletop games XBLA Xbox 360

Gaming for fun, not deadline

Helghast heavy trooper from Killzone 2
Helghast heavy trooper from Killzone 2

I’ve been trying to concentrate on just a few games at a time, now that I don’t have to push reviews out the door any more. It’s been great. In a year and a half, I had almost forgotten what it feels like to really get into a game. My gaming goals had shrunk down to counting my Achievements, with no real perspective on what I was experiencing. I often went through two to four games per week. The worst feeling was when I got to play something very cool and interesting, and just could not throttle back and take it in properly.

It’s great to be able to game without analyzing. Sure I’m always taking a step back, simply because I chat about games all day at work and need to be able to discern what we should learn from, but since I don’t have to write about them and grade them anymore, it does allow me to just enjoy myself, with no thought on whether this is two-star or three-star enjoyment. I still blog about games that make me think of something I think is worthwhile. Of course, that also makes writing about the games that much more enjoyable.

So what have I been playing for the past month?

Xbox 360

Over the Christmas holidays I completed Gears Of War. It was disappointing, really. The graphics are indeed hot even to this day, but man, the level design and combat got really old by the end. It’s telling that I can’t recall how it all ended as by the time the game was done, I was too worn out to care, I just wanted it to be over with. Against this background, the fact that it failed to award me the Achievements for completing Act three and the whole game is a bit much. I’m planning to play through the sequel in co-op at the office, everyone’s saying it’s actually much better and not just because it’s very pretty. (I have played Horde already, it’s ace.)

More recently I finished up Penny Arcade Adventures Episode One. Good game, I will check out the sequel. Next I’m probably off to finishing Rez or checking out the new Tomb Raider.

I haven’t got much time on the Xbox as my wife’s been heavily into the Xbox Live Arcade board games, most recently Ticket To Ride. It’s a good version of the original.

One game we played together is Interpol. It’s a pixelhunt which tests your memory by asking you to point out given items from detail-ridden still images. It is strangely compulsive – we played it for a whole Saturday. My wife is currentlyin the top ten in the worldwide all-time leaderboard. I am so proud! The one negative I can think of is that the stupid story is worthless and manages to be on the way a bit, even though it’s mercifully skippable.

I have agreed to play through Kane & Lynch in co-op with a friend, as well. It’s something I’m looking forward to quite a bit, actually.

PS2

This weekend I’ve been sweating my way through Resident Evil 4 on the PS2, which I never completed. Naturally the arrival of the Resident Evil 5 demo prompted this comeback. After the initial shock of looking at a standard definition, last-gen 3D world (what bothers me the most? The blurry HUD), it’s still a great game. Surely no one does bosses better than Capcom – usually I’ve been within an inch of death and on my last clip of ammunition on my weakest gun when I prevail. I’m escorting the girl currently, and even that is fun gameplay, not an annoyance.

As an isolated moment of brilliance, the collectible bottle caps with the game’s character figurines on them, complete with their thin plastic toy voices (“Leon! Help me!”), were entirely unexpected. I hope to complete it shortly, then it’s on to maybe Okami. Or Final Fantasy XII. Or Transformers. Or…

PS3

On the PS3, I’ve been playing Fallout 3. I had to start over due to switching to a new PS3 and the game’s saves being corrupted in the process. Unexpectedly, it’s been better on the second way through. I haven’t had to repeat anything and even the actual scenes I’ve revisited, I have solved differently.

I hit level 13 last week and began to feel a bit bored, what with my character easily able to take down anything up to super mutant behemoths without fear of much anything. Then I upped the difficulty level and it’s like I was in my first steps again. Wholly welcome, now it’s thrilling and dangerous again and I’m getting more experience points for my trouble! Of course it would be preferable if I didn’t have to play with the difficulty settings to make it enjoyable, but I’m not really complaining. I am pretty sure I’ll complete the game.

Then it’s on to maybe Dead Space or Far Cry 2. Of course Killzone 2 is right on the horizon, as well, and Play has it on for an agreeable pre-order price. I’m looking forward to it mostly due to the fantastic art direction and the fact that apparently Guerrilla has shattered everyone’s expectations.

PC

Dawn Of War’s single player campaign on the PC as the Space Marines was a great ride, upping the intensity and options just right, all the way to the final encounter with a Chaos Daemon. I went straight into the Winter Assault expansion, eager for some grunt management with the more numerous, but weak Imperial Guard troopers. It started off strong, but I’m now halfway through and beginning to have doubts. Swapping with the Eldar back and forth and all the ferrying of troops via tunnels and warpgates (in the Eldar’s case, ferrying their buildings, as well), and throwing these huges armies of the Guard and the Orks at each other… it just gets to be a bit much, with the fighting taking a backseat to playing a glorified taxi driver. I guess I’m looking for more structure and planning, whereas it’s starting to feel like grunt rushes. At least the scenarios are interesting and hey, who doesn’t love a Baneblade? Also, I’m currently defending a fallen Titan and trying to wake it up! The stuff of legends, surely. My next PC project is perhaps Dawn Of War II, even though the multiplayer beta didn’t excite me all that much.

Customer experience, done right

How come I’ve been spending this much time on the PC, you ask? I got Dawn Of War off of Steam, and Steam on the whole has been very, very good to me. It is precisely the experience I want as a customer. Along with Steam and the excellent Good Old Games, I can’t see myself picking up boxed PC games anymore. Both stores feature ridiculous weekend deals which you basically need to check out.

If you haven’t been to Good Old Games, do yourself a favor and go see them. They have an expanding library of the better PC games of yesteryear, updated to run on modern computers, with no DRM, for a low, low price.

Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do. I did like being able to log onto Games For Windows Live with my (Xbox) Live Gold account, but I did not particularly like the way it automatically logged out my Xbox 360 account at the same time. If you want me to play on your terms and your playground, you’ve got to stop shutting the door in my face.

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PS2

The Red Star

The Red Star screenshot

I first became interested in The Red Star back when it was due on the original Xbox. Then it wasn’t released – though it was finished! – and it was finally put out for the PS2 in 2007. I forgot about it but came across it on a “fifty PS2 games you should get” list some weeks ago. It cost all of 5€ at Play.

What a refreshing game. The presentation is rather low-key, but the rich source material, with its alternate universe take on the USSR of the 80s, makes up for it. The gameplay is simple, but compensates with depth. Basically you pick a character and start going through one-way scrolling levels, beating up enemies in melee and mixing it up with gunplay. It’s very Streets Of Rage, but it really works. The enemies require different tactics to overcome. A couple of times per level, you meet a mechanized boss which requires bullet hell tactics to overcome.

It’s hard, but not excessively so. (I was killed in the tutorial stage!) You can also play with a friend in co-op. Recommended, if you’re into scrolling beat em ups and/or shmups.

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PS2 PS3 Xbox 360

First impressions

Grim Grimoire

With my game reviewing stint at a magazine drawing to a close next month, I’m looking at games in a different light. Instead of “is this something my readers would be interested in?” or “is this something I want to tell them about because it’s much better or worse or more worthy of their attention than they might think?”, I’m now thinking “what would I like to play?”

I have a huge pile of games I’ve played too little of over the past eighteen months or so and quite a few ones I haven’t even opened yet. I’m now going through some of those off the top of my head to see which ones I really want to get into – and why.

Mirror’s Edge (PS3)

Oh how I wanted to love this game. Unfortunately the combat and the often unclear level design conspire against it. It’s still an exhilarating, genuinely new experience when it works. I look forward to completing it, despite my misgivings about the game design.

Far Cry 2 (PS3)

Something about the Africa in this game just beckons me. Traveling across the map can be a pain and the missions really aren’t varied enough, but the beautiful vistas can carry the game for some time. I also really like the feeling of combat here. It’s great how all your guns are rusting, sand-gritted beasts prone to jamming in the worst possible moment. I hope they don’t get any better as the game progresses as the unreliable weapons add a lot to the overall feel.

Gears Of War & Gears Of War 2 (Xbox 360)

For some reason I never got into Gears Of War when it was frist released. I only picked it up a month ago and have been enjoying my time with it. Looking forward to finishing it and playing the sequel in co-op. Horde has been a lot of fun at the office.

Dead Space (PS3)

Dead Space is more well-crafted than it really should be. It’s got an over-abundance of quality, coupled to the steaming remains of every working horror movie and survival horror game cliche you could think of. The resulting over-familiarity bothers somewhat, but the sheer quality of work in evidence makes me a fan. I hope to complete it.

Lips (Xbox 360)

Based on a couple of nights with it, Lips is a considerable improvement over SingStar, simply due to removing difficulty levels, not punishing you for vibrato and for being wireless. The motion sensitive mics add a lot to the experience as you’re striking poses while singing. Of course the song selection is not all that as of yet, as the game is brand new.

Fable II (Xbox 360)

I have a feeling I might be done with some of the diverting stuff by now (being a landlord, a wife and an entrepreneur), so I guess I might just as well try being a hero for a change. I am somewhat intrigued to see where the story goes, actually.

Fallout 3 (PS3)

I am twenty-plus hours into this and really, really like it. Hitting enemies with a baseball bat in slow motion does not get old. I have a way of playing by the skin of my teeth, always out of ammo, always out of functioning weapons and armor, always on the verge of being critically wounded, always suffering from radiation poisoning… but then again, that’s what I want from Fallout. Great stuff.

Grim Grimoire (PS2)

Hey, gotta have some loving for the PS2, as well. Might get into real-time strategy cartoon witchery game when my wife’s playing on the HDTV. The last-gen games look better on an SDTV, anyway. Hey, did I have an uncompleted Resident Evil 4 lying around here somewhere? (Oh yeah, and Shadow Of The Colossus.)

Metal Gear Solid 4 (PS3)

I am on the last map, where I ended up after a week of obsessive playing and then frogetting about the game for a few months. I have an estimated around fifteen minutes of playtime left plus the allegedly couple of hours of cinematics until I wrap up. It’s been such a great game that I’m seriously considering going at it again.

Little Big Planet (PS3)

We’re some three quarters done with the main game with my wife. I want to complete this game, sample some of the user-generated stuff and make a level of my own. That is “a level”, nothing more, nothing less.

Categories
PS2

Final Fantasy XII: Here I go

Seeing how enthusiastic I am, going into Final Fantasy XII, I have a feeling I might want to keep track of how the game shapes up. It could well be that this is the first and only entry in the planned series, but you never know.

The opening twenty minutes or so of plot exposition via animation was surprisingly thrilling stuff. I thought I had long since become too cynical to appreciate lengthy CGI or JRPG plotting, but the introductory movie was so well directed that I ended up very interested in the fates of the people depicted. Also, having never played any of these new-fangled post-VIII Final Fantasies, it was a thrill just to see stuff like Chocobos rendered in a realistic fashion. Oh and speaking of fashion: the game’s production is overall breathtakingly designed, putting just about every Hollywood fantasy to shame (yes, Star Wars prequels, I’m looking at you). The focus is not on realism by any means, but it just looks good. You know, beautiful.

Getting to control Reks, the young soldier in the game’s opening scene, I was disoriented first by the doubly inverted camera controls (which can’t be realigned!) and then the combat system, which I frankly have not grasped at all yet, some four fights in. Things seem chaotic and I feel like I’m not fully in control of my character, despite the chance to pause the combat at any time. I guess it’s the combination of real-time movement, paused commands and automatic attacking that somehow just hasn’t gelled yet in my head. Maybe it’s my experience with Knights Of The Old Republic that’s skewing things; Final Fantasy XII’s battle system is a lot like KOTOR’s, only without automatic movement to target.

I quit playing at the first save crystal, impressed so far by the quality of craftsmanship. The menus are a joy to navigate despite looking very nice. Even the English voice acting seems professional. The loading times grate a bit though.

Categories
culture Games PS2

Journeys past and revisited, yet ahead (Zelda, Final Fantasy XII)

We bought Final Fantasy XII for the PS2 just now and I’m so psyched to get into it. The manual makes it sound very complicated indeed, yet I’m confident I’ll get the hang of it, after innumerable hours of effort put into it. Too bad I will need to share Playstation time with my wife, who’s a lot into RPGs.

It’s been some time I last played a Final Fantasy. I’ve gone through VII and VIII twice, although I have yet to actually complete either… stuck in the grind before the last area, if I recall correctly. I’ve also played V and VI on a SNES emulator a lot, although having failed to complete those, either. XII is interesting to me because it’s earned the highest accolades from both of my trusted reviewers (Eurogamer: 10/10, Edge: 9/10), including Edge magazine’s game of the year 2006, and also because it’s largely the child of Yasumi Matsuno, the creator of Vagrant Story and its world Ivalice, which serves as FF XII’s setting, too, along with the revered Final Fantasy Tactics.

At the same time, another gamer has embarked on a journey to revisit the Zelda series he so loves and while at it, continue the journey by playing the later Zelda games he’s never got into. Fascinating stuff, if thoroughly nostalgia-tinted.

But with FF XII, I’m kind of torn. I’d like to go home and boot the Playstation right now, but on the other hand, I want to set aside a whole day and really get into it. Hey, is that a summer vacation around the corner?