Saturday, January 12, 2008

2007 in Review - Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

The other big FPS that came out in 2007 was Call of Duty 4. It aimed to give Halo a run for its money, and as far as many people are concerned, it did just that. It follows the same formula as Call of Duty 2, in that you play one person from different theaters of war. This time, however, instead of being set in World War II, you're in the not-too-distant future in the Middle East and Russia. Your mission is to stop a radical group from taking control of a Middle Eastern government.

Towards the beginning of the game, you play the part of the Middle Eastern president being overthrown. You are taken captive, driven to an auditorium, and executed. I say you "play the part" because you do actually have control. Granted, all you can do is look around, but it brings you into the story in a way that a simple cutscene could never do, even if that cutscene was rendered in first-person.

Gameplay is pretty traditional Call of Duty fare. You're a member of a squad, and you have some mission to complete, which usually involves just getting from point A to point B. Your squad generally stays with you, waiting for you to lead the charge (which feels just as odd as before — you're not the highest rank on the field, because you're getting your orders from others, but the squad refuses to advance without you). Enemies shoot down at you, and in most cases infinitely respawn until you move forward enough to trigger their "stop spawning" directive. This leads to some very frustrating moments, as you're forced to move forward into fire, and nothing you can do as far as shooting the enemy will lessen their numbers and the fire raining down on you.

The story is fairly intense. The Middle Eastern ultranationalists get a hold of a nuclear weapon and threaten to detonate it. Their supplier is a Russian arms dealer, believed to be killed 15 years ago by the man who is your commanding officer in the British missions. Along the way, you'll piss off the arms dealer, and he'll launch three nuclear missiles at the U.S.A., and you'll have to plow through a missile complex to get to the control room and stop the missiles.

Spoilers appear in the next paragraph.

The game flows pretty smoothly from action to story, so much so that when the story took a negative turn, I was afraid it was because I had made a mistake. One such moment was when the nuke went off in the Middle East. Your team doesn't get away in time. I thought maybe it was a consequence of how much trouble I had on the previous mission, if I had been just a bit faster, would my team still be alive? Almost as if to drive home the point, the other "immersive cutscene" happens here, when you get to crawl out of the wreckage of your chopper and stumble around in the aftermath of a nuclear explosion, before you succumb to your injuries and the radiation and die. It's a very disturbing moment, as without any direction, you're confused and disoriented, and you can't do anything but fight your body as it drops to its knees and your vision blurs, and look around you at the desolation, with the mushroom cloud in the distance. That scene haunted my consciousness for days afterward.

Of course, there are a set of achievements for completing the game on the Veteran difficulty. This is an exercise in self control and discipline, as many times I wanted to throw my controller through something (I was in debate as to whether the TV or the window would be an appropriate target). The infinitely-respawning enemies seem to shoot with uncanny accuracy at amazing distances, even while at a dead run. They also seem to be able to withstand gunshots, grenades, and, often, air strikes in their quest to eliminate the most important Private/Sergeant the British/American armed forces have ever known. While most of the time it's an exercise in patience, there are three levels in particular where you are timed, so waiting for an appropriate time to move isn't an option. It is these levels, where you are forced to push yourself into death time and time again, that cause the most frustration. Google for "Heat", "No Fighting in the War Room", and "Mile High Club" in conjunction with "Call of Duty" and "Veteran", and you'll see what I mean.

Multiplayer is an all-new experience. You can "build" your player from a set of weapons and "perks", saving a few different combinations to pick from for a battle. Initially, your choices are small, but as you progress, you earn experience points and level up, unlocking new weapons and perks. It's a very flexible system that lets you decide how you want to play it, but it does take a lot of thought, experimenting with different weapons, deciding what would be best on what map. Internet discussions abound over which weapons do best with which perks, the benefits and consequences of putting a silencer on certain weapons, and many more things I can't even begin to describe.

I like the concept, however I do find it much more difficult. I don't have tons of time for gaming, and the time I do have, I don't devote a lot of it analyzing weapons and trying to come up with the best combinations. It means it's a lot harder for me to just "pick up and play", and as such, I haven't picked it up and played a ton of multiplayer. As such, I have not unlocked as many weapons and perks, and that puts me at a disadvantage. Yes, on any given day, a level 1 player with the default weapons could take out a level 50 player. However, because that level 50 player is likely to have 3 grenades, two primary weapons, a silencer, a radar jammer, and/or who knows what else, it's still going to be very lopsided in favor of the player with more experience, no matter what his actual skill level is.

One thing that thoroughly annoys me about multiplayer is the rewards for killing streaks. If you get three kills in a row, you can call in a UAV to pinpoint enemy troops. 5 in a row grants you an air strike, and 7 in a row calls in a chopper. I cannot count how many times I've died to air strikes and choppers. I've had many times where a chopper would gun me down, I would respawn, and there that chopper would be again. It is the ultimate in helping those who don't need the help. I honestly don't know how anyone could feel good about having a chopper do all their killing for them anyway, especially when they were doing just fine without. It's cheap and unfair, and I'm not just saying that because I'm usually on the receiving end of the shaft.

The party system leaves a lot to be desired as well. The game seems designed around the concept of "keep playing", trying to flow you from one match into the next. The big problem is, if you want to back out to the lobby with your party, you each have to do that individually, and only if your party leader backs out, too, will you still be in a party. Plus, if you are in a lobby and the party leader has to leave, that's it. Party's over. You have to recreate a room, because there's no way to transfer ownership of the party or have the room persist when the leader leaves. "Why can't it be more like Halo?"

In summary, Call of Duty 4 has a great single player. The multiplayer component is harder to get into, but it has a large variety of maps and game types to keep things interesting.

Friday, January 11, 2008

2007 in Review - Halo 3

Probably the most anticipated game of forever, Halo 3 was released in the end of September. As expected, upon its release, my friends list was one long list of "Playing Halo 3", something I hadn't seen since Gears of War and something I hadn't seen and participated in since Halo 2. It even got my buddy Solstice to pick up an Xbox 360 to Finish the Fight.

Halo has reached that level of success and popularity where it has become fashionable to criticize it. While I agree that it is not perfect, they do get so many things right that it's not uncommon to hear gamers wish for its features in other games. Just as an example, Halo 2's matchmaking system was a revolution in getting people to play together. Their concept of a party has been likened to a "virtual couch", because it is just so easy to get people together to play game after game as long as they like.

The game feels very similar to Halo 2 in many respects. It doesn't seem like quite as big a jump as Halo 2 was from Halo 1. But it is much improved. For one thing, instead of starting with a single useless weapon, you start with the classic assault rifle. Why is this so key? Because for one thing, the assault rifle is capable of taking down a fully armored and shielded Spartan, so you spawn with a fighting chance. For another, because you're not automatically encouraged to dual-wield, grenades are back.

The new gimmick in Halo 3 is equipment. For most of the beta, these new toys didn't seem like much more of a novelty, with limited tactical use. When I realized what it could do, though, was one game of capture the flag. I was running down to the beach with the enemy flag on High Ground. I was about halfway down, and the enemy team had just left the base and were in hot pursuit. Unprotected, I never would've made it to the score point. However, I had a bubble shield. I tossed it down and kept running. The shield was just big enough to give me enough cover to finish my run back to the base and score. And that's when I got it.

Another new innovation was 4-player co-op campaign. It requires a little planning, because you can't just drop-in, drop-out — an entire party must play the level from start to finish. But this was a welcome addition, even if it was used for such a short time, as I and three other Geezers were able to play through the campaign on Legendary and finish it in the first week. It's a shame the replay value on that is so low, because it's something I hope more developers take the time to implement in games.

The campaign story was fairly well-told. Learning more about the Halo universe, learning a little more about the Forerunners, was satisfying. The Master Chief story arc is at an end, it would seem, but at least for me, there are still so many unanswered questions, about the Forerunners and their technology in particular, their past, and the future of humanity and the Covenant. What was controlling the Ark? Installation 04 was destroyed a very short time prior to Halo 3; did it just happen to have a replacement almost ready, under automated construction for thousands of years? Or did it begin building when 04 was destroyed? If the former, that's fairly lucky; if the latter, that's impressive, that this factory can automatically start and construct what it did in so short a time; which makes me wonder how long ago the Forerunners died, and how long everything has been functioning on autopilot.

Multiplayer is just as good as before, and then some. Although clan support is not there, personally I haven't felt the pain, because most of my "clan friends" are on my personal friends list already. As that grows, though, it's going to get more inconvenient. But that's a rant for another day.

There are a few new game types, and a bazillion tweaks and options for creating variations. Rockets at high speed and low gravity, or gravity hammers with low gravity, is a lot of fun. "Rocket Race", where you race around on indestructable Mongooses trying to get from checkpoint to checkpoint while knocking your opponents off course with rocket blasts is good for a lot of laughs. The main issue here is, because there are so many options, they don't suit well for trying to tweak "on the fly". You almost always forget something, so if you haven't planned ahead and taken it into the Forge for testing, it tends to be a lesson in frustration instead of fun. But it's nothing a few open-minded Geezers can't put up with once in a while.

The Forge has enabled some fairly creative game types. Although not a full-fledged map editor and definitely not perfect (often, the results still require a little "honor system" when the map doesn't behave as expected), it does provide a lot of opportunities for fun. I'm a little partial to the Spikeball courts myself, which work out to a game of dodgeball either on a beach or in a pool (depending on whether you use the specially-forged Sandtrap or Zanzibar variant).

Probably the one feature that's spoiled me for other games is the automatic saved films. Every game you play is automatically saved in cache, and can be permanently saved in a fairly small file. From these, you can snip out clips or make screenshots, and you can share them with others fairly easily. Being able to share films is very cool, especially since it's not really a "film", but a copy of the game data. This means any film or film clip, you can pause, rewind, move the camera to a different angle, or detach the camera completely and see what was happening on the other side of the map. And from any of these films, you can pause, position the camera, and snap a screenshot, which can then be downloaded from It's very cool to come into work and set my desktop background to a screenshot from a game I played the night before.

This has, as I've said, spoiled me for other games, though. I was playing Geometry Wars one night (came on the 512MB memory card I picked up for half price as an open-box item — lucky score, that), and at some point during the game's chaos, something hit me. No idea what it was. My first thought? "I need to go look at the film and see what happened."

This game is poised to last. New games are still being created with the Forge and nearly limitless options (even more so with the extremely Forge-friendly Foundry map, which I'll be getting later when it's free; I'm a little too cheap to spend $10 on a new map pack of 3 maps at this point), and the party system is still unmatched (I still don't know why other developers don't just "copy what Bungie does" — party management is still a common complaint in many best-selling titles, even after Halo 2 showed them how it's done). It's also accessible. This is one game that, no matter where I am, I can pick up and play. I don't have to spend time "levelling up" a character, or having to pre-select a character class. Not that those aren't good concepts, but they require thought and planning, and when you're in the mood to just pick up the controller and go, Halo offers that.

It's just my opinion, think what you want of it, but I think Halo is a great game with solid gameplay and fantastic multiplayer. There will always be those that hate anything that appeals to the masses, but I think this game is well deserving of its status.

2007 in Review - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

We got Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix before we saw the movie. My wife and I had both read the books, and my kids are still at the age where "spoiler" means nothing.

This was a very well-put-together game. Although the characters' faces left a little to be desired (sometimes the lighting would do strange things to them), it was very solid. I really felt like I was exploring Hogwarts as one large seamless environment. I could've easily gotten lost, except for the ingenious use of the Marauder's Map. You essentially set a waypoint, and footsteps guide you along the most convenient way to your destination, using any portrait passageways you've discovered as shortcuts when appropriate. Brilliant.

The story was somewhere between the movie and the book. If I had seen the movie first, the extra content (little things, like Hagrid's brother actually speaking, to plot points, like the students sabotaging Hogwarts to undermine Umbridge) would've been a welcome addition, making me feel like I'm doing more than just reliving the movie. (As it was, it made me a little more disappointed in the movie in what they left out. ;) )

The music was right, the voice acting from the movie cast was superb, the effects were great. When I finally did see the movie, I was amazed and impressed at how similar everything appeared; I recognized shots in the movie as places I had been in the game.

As far as gameplay goes, it goes back to the single-person play from the first three in EA's series, but it also borrows a bit on the exploratory nature of the fourth. (I'll spare my thoughts on the others for the sake of brevity.) However, it tends to be much simpler than any of them. The game can be distilled as follows: get a task, set the destination point on the Marauder's Map, follow the footsteps there, climb around a bit and/or use spells to move an object from point A to point B. Lather, rinse, repeat. There's very little danger or skill involved, and the game even holds your hand through a lot of the puzzles.

The only difficulty can be finding things when their locations are not explicitly stated. Finding the talking gargoyles, for instance. You're not told which ones talk or where in the castle they may be, and one is on a small balcony that is really out of the way and unseen, such that you wouldn't stumble upon it in normal wanderings.

There is a difficulty setting, and you do get an achievement for finishing the game on "Hard", but there really isn't much difference between "Hard" and "Easy", except for the non-essential minigames and the wizard duels, which you could probably count on one hand and can almost be done by randomly waggling the right thumbstick until the battle ends.

Casting spells is fun and unique. The game does a fairly decent job, most of the time, interpreting the stick movement to the correct spell for the situation. The only time I was a little frustrated is when I was going for the "cast all spells in a single battle" achievement, and for some reason it was resisting levicorpus, casting one of the other attack spells instead. But eventually I cast the spell I needed, the achievement unlocked, and I could get on with life.

Not a very challenging game, all in all, except when it comes to finding things, because the castle is so darn huge. The mechanics are really simple, and the environment is beautifully rendered and true to the source. It was definitely pretty to watch and walk through, even if the gameplay was too casual even for my taste.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

2007 in Review - Shadowrun

I was fortunate to be able to participate in the beta for Shadowrun. It is definitely an interesting game. Trying to mix RPG elements into a first-person shooter was an ambitious concept, and I think it's one FASA did fairly well. The game is very unique, in that you get magic and tech that you can purchase, which really changes how you can play the game.

Unfortunately, it really didn't get a strong following. A lot of reviewers blasted it for not having any single-player campaign. Not knowing anything about the Shadowrun universe, I would've loved to have some kind of exposure to a story; and I'm sure fans of the fiction would've appreciated a little expanse. But let's face it: campaigns don't give a game legs. I haven't played Halo's campaigns that often (even Halo 3 with it's online co-op). What I did find about this game is that the matches tend to be very long. Each match is a best of six, which means you could be playing up to eleven times on the same game type and the same map to determine a winner. Depending on the skill and style of the players, that could be anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. And if you're like me and die quickly, because you only get one life (a teammate's resurrection spell can extend that a bit), you might spend a lot of that time just watching. The other part of the problem is you play with this character, adding skills and stuff, and then you just throw him away at the end of the match. You don't really get to spend a lot of time with the most expensive toys and magic then before you have to start over.

One nice thing about this game is it has a concept of "karma", where, if your team is winning, it gets harder, and if you're losing, it gets easier. For instance, it may take more or less shots to "clear a body" (destroy a corpse so it can't be resurrected), or your mana may regenerate slightly faster or slower than normal. This tends to balance out the "rich get richer" problem -- the winning team earns more money as a bonus and can therefore buy more magic or tech for the next round, while the losing team usually has to spend their meager earnings just replenishing their weapons. It usually helps games to be fairly close, helping to avoid one team completely trouncing another 6-0 (which can still happen).

The UI is pretty slick, too. The wheel system they use for assigning and "quick-casting" is pretty easy to pick up on, and once you start to memorize where your favorite spells and tech are on the wheel, you can navigate to what you want really quickly.

I almost didn't buy this game, though. After spending so much time beta testing it, I started to tire of the same old game types and the same old maps. Sure, the retail version had a few more maps than the two we got to test, but no more game types. I did eventually buy it, though, as there were a few Geezers and even a couple friends I picked up in the beta who were playing it. I am glad I have it, because for a FPS, it is so different than anything else out there. When I last played it, I really enjoyed it (even though it was with some graphical glitches as my 360 was getting ready for a trip to the McAllen Repair Center).

I do wish there was more for it, though. More maps, but especially more game types would be welcome. Unfortunately, with the closing of FASA Studios, it's unlikely anything will come of it.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

2007 in Review - Crackdown

Failing any other attempt to get into the Halo 3 beta, I was determined not to buy Crackdown just for the privilege. If I was going to buy the game, it was going to be for the game. Fortunately for my Halo itch, Crackdown was well worth the price of admission.

I figure this is probably as close as I'll get to Grand Theft Auto. There are times in this game where I get a little uncomfortable. The characters (bad guys and civilian bystanders) are a little liberal with the swear words, and it can get rather violent as you're beating people up. What makes it fun, though, is the cartoon-like quality to it. The fact that I can run faster than a speeding car, pick up cars and trucks and throw them obscene distances, and jump several stories in a single bound make it just fun.

One thing I found really interesting, on a personal note: the graphics are done in a comic book, cel-shaded style. However, I didn't even notice this for quite some time. It wasn't until I watched videos on YouTube that I realized there was a comic book quality to the game; and then I started to notice in my own game. I don't know if it comes from growing up being used to having to rely more on my imagination than what was actually on screen, or if it has something to do with being more involved with the actions than the looks when I get my hands on the controller; but I've noticed that with several games over the year. Sometimes, if I don't stop and look around a bit, what should be a graphically-impressive game will go completely unnoticed by me. When the Halo 3 beta was launched (to stay close to topic), at first, I felt like I was just playing Halo 2. Mechanically, it very much was. Graphically, it's much improved, and when I see video of the two, I wonder how I could ever say they felt the same. But that's just it. They do feel the same (or similar — I got to appreciate the differences the more I played), even if they don't look the same.

The only issue I have with this game (getting back to Crackdown) is finding things. I don't just mean the agility and hidden orbs, although I have yet to find all of those. But I also don't know where all the stunt rings are. And when I do happen to see one, I'll decide that I need a ramp truck to drive to it, but I can't find one nearby. When I eventually do find one, I've forgotten where the stunt ring was, or where my car was, and then I'm back at square one again. Sometimes, a world can be a little too open. Especially when I don't have many consecutive hours to spend playing a game until I completely memorize its layout.

Multiplayer is something that never really worked out for me. I think part of the problem was that there's only the "campaign", and campaigns in general don't hold a lot of replay value. I saw that in Halo 3 later last year — lots of campaign play in the first couple weeks, and almost nothing after that. Eventually, extra content was released for Crackdown that added some new "versus" modes, including racing and orb collecting, but those just didn't seem to catch on, at least not in my circle of friends.

I still think it's a good single-player game. I played it a couple days in December to do a little orb-hunting and get some progress on the racing achievements, and with more left to finish, I'm sure I'll crack it open a few more times in 2008.

2007 in Review - Star Trek Legacy

I started off the year with Star Trek: Legacy, which would've been how I ended 2006 if not for a shipping error from, followed by some unusually heavy winter weather for our area, followed by another shipping error by UPS. Perhaps the run of bad luck was an omen, because when I got the game, I was less than impressed. Long, drawn-out objectives, cryptic controls, and the world's lamest explosions turned playing this game into a chore.

What really surprised me, though, was the voice acting. The acting in Mad Doc's Star Trek Armada I and II was superb; it really felt like the actors were into the game. With the actors for all five captains doing their traditional roles, I was expecting something epic here as well. When I heard Scott Bakula sounding like he was sitting at a table reading lines for a high school play, I hoped it was just his style that was disappointing me. But when I got through it, none of the five captains ever sounded like they were "into it". They might as well have been narrating for a book-on-tape — a book on differential calculus, for all the excitement they had.

Multiplayer wasn't much better. At the time, I had not figured out how to get UPnP enabled on my router, so "Open NAT" was not available. Legacy refused to even let me attempt to host a game, and even trying to play with a friend who did have Open NAT, trying to connect was a hit-or-miss proposition at best. Eventually, a network patch improved things on that front, as did getting UPnP and Open NAT on my own network, but a complete lack of a party system means you play one game at a time, having to reconstruct the room from scratch every time. Not exactly a recipe for fun.

Simple things would've made this game better. The models are beautifully done; a way to freely examine them would've been nice. (Yes, I want to play with the little ships; is that so wrong?) Better or easier controls would've been nice, too. Apparently you can direct your AI-controlled ships to different behaviors, but for some reason the commands overlap with commands for directing your own ship to do unrelated things. And, there's nothing on-screen to tell you this. I don't want to have to memorize button presses to play the game, not for complicated commands like what I'm trying to do here. Oh, and how about a planet that's the size of a planet, instead of twice the size of a shuttlepod?

I really wanted to like this game, but it probably ended up being my biggest disappointment.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Introducing Gamertag: CyberKnight

I am a gamer. I enjoy playing games, I like to read about games, I like to talk about games. I spend a lot of time in the forums on the gaming website While I do have a blog for personal and general, day-to-day stuff, I figure, why not create one that's centered on what I spend a lot of free time doing? Well, besides various computer-related projects, anyway.

For some perspective, I figured I might as well describe the kind of gamer I am, and for that, I might as well start off with who I am. I am a male, in my mid-thirties, married, with three boys, two of which are in elementary school and the third about a year old now. I am a Christian, and my politics tend to the right of the spectrum. By trade, I am a computer programmer. I've been writing in Microsoft languages since graduating college in the mid '90s, starting with BASIC for DOS; and I currently write web applications in C# and .Net 2.0. I run my own home network that includes my own mail, web, and file server -- the server is running Linux, and the clients are Windows.

I've loved computers and video games for as long as I can remember. I remember playing Pong, how cool it was to hook a device up to a TV to play a game. (I also thought it was strange, because it took batteries -- it seemed weird to me to have something battery-operated connected to something that you plugged in.) I remember when we got the Atari 2600, spending hours playing Combat in all its variations. My biggest problem was finding someone to play with. My parents weren't too interested. I moved around quite a bit growing up, so I found it very difficult to make friends, and those I did weren't as into these newfangled silicon devices as I was.

I played games on the Atari 2600, ColecoVision, Commodore 64 (the machine on which I also taught myself to program), Sega Master System, Nintendo Entertainment System, and Sega Genesis/CD.

During and after college, my gaming platform migrated to the PC. When I got out on my own, I had all but abandoned console gaming. Trying to be a responsible adult, I figured that, if I was going to spend the money, why not do it on a platform that was good for something more than just playing games? I therefore missed the era of PlayStation, GameCube, and Dreamcast, and it was with detached bemusement that I watched the drama unfold with the PS2 launch, the hardware shortages and failures.

It was in 2001 when my father had come to visit, he mentioned that he had bought my brother (5 years younger than I) an "Xbox" and offered to buy me one as well. I had read about this new console and its PC-style hardware, and I was intrigued. Plus, someone had brought one into the office where I worked (although going out of style, this programming shop was in its final throes of being "cool"), and I was very impressed with the graphics and gameplay. I was still unsure about spending money on something that was only going to play games — but if my dad was buying it, it wasn't going to be my money, was it? We went out and got one with a couple games — a basketball game, to satisfy what was left of my college appreciation for the game; and Halo, which I had read was the reason you bought an Xbox.

The shift from PC to console gaming was pretty quick, fueled by the quality of games, the lack of a need to upgrade my aging computer hardware, and the fact that I could play without retreating from my family (since the Xbox is in the family room while the computer is in a bedroom). A year later, I signed up for the Xbox Live beta and was admitted in one of the later waves, which helps to explain why my Gamertag lacks random letters, numbers, or sequence of "x"s.

I suppose I am a bit of an Xbox fanboy. I do think other systems have their merits, but there's still a part of me that feels a little guilty about spending money on something that is strictly a recreational device, so I only want to have one; and if I have one, of course I want to feel like I have the best one.

So that gives you a basic idea of who I am and from where the opinions expressed in this blog come. I hope you enjoy your visit. Please feel free to stay as long as you like, and post a comment if you feel the need.