Saturday, October 31, 2009

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Hey look, another review that was waiting for me to finish. Since I finally finished the game, I suppose I'll finish the review now.

I'd wager just about everyone knows the story of Star Wars, at least as told in the movies. Episodes I - III tell of a young boy, literally born from the force of good, who is born in poverty and struggles to fight for what's right and good as he grows up; and of a man of evil, who transforms a republic into an empire with himself as the head, brings about war and dominance, and corrupts and twists the young man to become his servant. Episodes IV - VI focus on that formerly good young man's son, who dedicates his life fighting the evil of the emperor and his father, in the end redeeming his father from evil.

There's a time between Episodes III and IV that we don't know a lot about. The way the movies are set, we don't need to know much about them, as we see at the end of Episode III the seeds of the story that will be picked up right where it left off in Episode IV 28 years earlier. (That's right, kids — Episode IV came out first. Oh, and let's just be clear: Greedo never fired a shot.) But it's probably safe to assume Vader didn't sit on his hands for 17 years waiting for his kids to grow up and kill his boss.

The Force Unleashed inserts a story into this time frame. Darth Vader, while on his Jedi genocide mission for his emperor, finds that one of his victims has a son who is strong in the Force. After killing the Jedi, Vader takes the little boy and raises him to be his own apprentice, secretly. His goal is to use this apprentice to overthrow the emperor (it's a Sith thing, it's what they do), and to prepare him for this task, he trains him to be a powerful combatant. Which means, basically, you get to kick butt with the Force.

One of the main selling points in The Force Unleashed is its blending of technologies to create a realistic environment. The Digital Molecular Matter engine is in play so that wood splinters, glass shatters, and metal warps; and the Euphoria engine is working so when you pick up an Imperial trooper and fling him through the air, he will panic and attempt to grab on to anything he can to stop from flying around. The result is a fairly realistic feel to the environment. You know, considering it's in a galaxy far, far away and you're causing Imperial troops to fly through glass and wood with the controlling power of the universe.

The premise of the gameplay is solid. I mean, who wouldn't want to be an awesome, Force-wielding mercenary? Sure, you've seen Yoda use the Force to pick an X-Wing up out of a swamp, but this trailer shows the potential scale LucasArts was going for, where the apprentice is seen pulling an Imperial Star Destroyer out of the sky.

The problem is, they seemed to spend the rest of the game making sure you couldn't just waltz through and kick butt with the Force. Enemies have shields that resist the Force, others have weapons that effectively ignore Force shields and lightsaber blocks, and what should be the most common of enemies wield sticks and staffs that hold their own against a lightsaber. In other words, they nerfed the Force.

Additionally, your character is extra-nerfed, as well. Every hit will knock him off-balance or down enough to leave him vulnerable to a number of other attacks while he sobers up — on the harder difficulty settings, this often means one or two hits (and the combo of follow-up attacks received before you can even block, let alone fight back) are enough to do you in. Enemies will, of course, have little difficulty breaking out of any multi-hit combo you try to inflict on them in return, with their Force-resistant sticks and armor.

Not to mention this poor, tormented soul whines like a farm boy pining for a set of power converters — but I'm starting to accept that as standard fare for a Star Wars story.

The boss fights are an exercise in frustration and patience. Usually, there's a certain move or trick that tends to work better than anything else, but usually it's just a matter of evading or racing one unblockable attack after another until you eventually wear the boss down to a quick-time event to finish him off. Those finishing events do add a nice touch of cinematic flair, plus a little bit of cool-down after an intense fight, but they do leave me wondering, "Why couldn't I have pulled all those kick-butt moves on him during the last 10 minutes of combat?"

The story itself isn't bad. It actually does a pretty decent job of fitting right in with the movies, including what I consider the "default" ending. (You have two choices at the end, resulting in a "light side" and "dark side" ending, and the way the camera is positioned at the time you make the choice, it pretty much has you aimed straight down one path and almost completely hides the other.) For as cheesy as it is in some respects, it's not at all out of character for Star Wars — love it or leave it.

The game play, though, leaves a lot to be desired. It's fairly frustrating, even when you're playing at the easy levels (you don't die so much, but you still spend an unreasonable amount of time getting knocked down and waiting to stand back up). It's hard to shake the feeling that you're fighting with both midichlorians tied behind your back.

Still, I slogged through it, because there were achievements to be had. And it's not like I'm any stranger to frustration.

I did pick up the Jedi Temple mission pack when it went on "sale" as a "Deal of the Week". It was extremely short. I played through the mission in a half hour on the hardest difficulty, and because (maddeningly) the difficulty completion achievements don't stack, I played through three more times on each of the lesser difficulties. By the end of two hours, I had played through it four times and completed all achievements. I haven't had any interest in the $10 Tatooine mission DLC.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Defense Grid: The Awakening

My first introduction to tower defense as a genre was when the game Crystal Defenders came to Xbox Live. In "tower defense", enemy units attempt to travel from point A to point B, and you must stop them by placing defense units, commonly "towers", along their path. It is very strategic, in that you must decide where and what kind of towers you place to maximize the damage done to the enemy.

I was intrigued by the concept, although that particular game didn't excite me enough to sell me on the game. But when Defense Grid came about, that changed.

In Defense Grid, you have a power plant with two dozen "cores", and enemies come into the field and try to grab a core and escape. In some scenes, the enemies follow a fixed path, and you place your towers along the edges of the path. In others, there are multiple paths connecting large, open spaces, and you place your towers in those spaces to shape the enemies' path.

You have a small arsenal of towers to choose from. There are towers that can only attack at a limited range, towers that can lob volleys at long range (but are useless at short), a tower that can counteract stealth and increase resource retrieval, and one that can emit a pulse and slow down the travel speed of all nearby enemies. Once purchased, a tower can be upgraded up to two times, increasing stats like attack speed, range, and power.

Towers cost resources to produce, which are earned both by destroying enemies and as "interest" on existing unspent resources (so the longer you wait to build towers, the more resources you could have).

The game is extremely simple to play. You can easily finish every level in the campaign with very little effort. However, to get the silver and then the gold medal scores on each level, it takes quite a bit of strategy. It is, to coin a phrase, easy to play, but a challenge to master.

Something I didn't find out until after I had already purchased it, is that the Xbox Live version is actually a port of an existing game for the PC. However, the Xbox Live version includes a few more levels. And, oddly enough, it is priced at only 800 points, or $10 — whereas the retail price of the original PC version was actually around $15. So, wonder of wonders, the Xbox Marketplace's normal price was actually quite a deal compared to the PC version of the game.

I found the gameplay offered at the price to be well worth it. It's certainly been a challenge to complete, just from an achievement perspective; trying to maximize scores and gold-medal all the maps and play variants keep it personally interesting.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Halo 3: ODST

Bungie's latest release in the Halo franchise was first announced as an "expansion" or a "mini-game", one that wouldn't be a full-priced release. As a consequence, many reviews and comments have judged the release of Halo 3: ODST based on its value as a $60 game. It's probably a fair enough judgment for any game, but ODST probably wouldn't see its value picked apart in just about every review and forum if they hadn't announced that it wouldn't cost $60.

They also billed this game as an "expansion", which seems a little unfair to the game itself (and doesn't help the judgment of its price point as a stand-alone game). The inclusion of the multiplayer component of Halo 3 in the box (with three new maps, not yet released on the Xbox Marketplace), plus the fact that it is called Halo 3: ODST and not just Halo ODST, just seem to add to ODST's identity crisis. Is it a game of its own, or just an extension of Halo 3?

The game takes place in the city of New Mombasa, Africa, which is under attack by Covenant forces, the attack that kicked off Halo 2. (The time frame overlaps probably as much as Halo 2 as it does Halo 3 — making me wonder even more about the "3" in this game's title.) You start out as the rookie of a squad of Orbital Drop Shock Troopers — on the butt-kicking scale, they rank way above a normal Army or Navy soldier, but below a Spartan. The squad is preparing to drop into a lone Covenant ship hovering over the city, when an ONI agent joins the team and changes their orders to drop into the city itself on an unrevealed mission.

This game is quite different than the Master Chief story that comprises Halo 1, 2, and 3. Master Chief is all about eliminating the enemy, plowing through Covenant invaders like a combine through wheat. However, Master Chief has the benefit of being a genetically-enhanced soldier with a metric tonne of powered armor.

An ODST, by contrast, is neither biologically modified nor encased in armor. He is much more — for lack of a better word — "human". Granted, he's no slouch. He's the best of the best, as far as human marines go, at the peak of physical conditioning and trained in a wide variety of human and alien weaponry and technology. He can even run at a normal speed while carrying a machine gun turret. However, without the protective armor, an ODST is much more vulnerable to damage. He doesn't have regenerative health, or a motion tracker, or shields, or the ability to dual-wield. In many ways, it's a lot like Halo 1.

There is a simulated sort of "shield-and-health" system like Halo 1. In ODST, the "shield" is "stamina", and it's not measured with an electronic bar but by a reddening of your vision. When your stamina is depleted, damage is taken to your health (which does have a measurable bar). Staying out of the line of fire will recharge your stamina (and clear your eyesight). It's much less resilient than an actual "shield", but it serves the same basic purpose.

Back to the story. As your squad drops into New Mombasa, the Covenant ship jumps into slipspace. (This is the point, in Halo 2, where Master Chief, Miranda Keyes, and Sergeant Johnson follow in the In Amber Clad and wind up on Delta Halo.) The resulting shockwave from the slipspace jump creates an EMP that knocks out the electrical systems in the ODSTs' drop pods, and they crash in various places around the city. You, playing as the unnamed and unvoiced "Rookie", wake six hours later in nighttime downtown New Mombasa, alone.

The gameplay is split here. The nighttime New Mombasa city streets, as the Rookie, have you attempting to find your squadmates. Although the game purports to offer stealth here, even playing on easy, I found that I was unable to avoid encounters with Covenant forces. The battles tend to be much smaller-scale, with patrols of just a few grunts and a brute typical. You're guided to the story elements in turn by a checkpoint system controlled by the city's Superintendent computer (or, presumably, if you wander around on your own, you could discover them in any order). These nighttime interludes can last as little as 10 minutes if you focus on the next checkpoint and go straight there.

Once you find a relic (a damaged helmet, a discarded sniper rifle, an empty can of biofoam), the game shifts into a "flashback" mode, where you switch to the point-of-view of one of the ODSTs that was there, and the events that led up to leaving that item where you found it. These modes are closer to "typical" Halo: more action-oriented, faster-paced, fighting with squads of AI-controlled marines against larger and more diverse squads of Covenant forces. It is through these "flashbacks" that the story comes together.

On the way, you can find audio clips that tell a side-story of a certain girl whose father worked on the Superintendent program, and what happened to her when the Covenant appeared over New Mombasa. It's completely optional (aside from achievements), but it is a good-quality story with about 40 minutes of audio that is highly reminiscent of the "I Love Bees" audio program that preceded Halo 2.

Eventually, the squad is reunited, and, without spoiling the story, the game ends with the squad making a stand against several waves of Covenant forces as they wait for evac. It gives a fitting climax to the battle, while appropriately setting up the Firefight mode.

Firefight is the Halo version of what Gears of War has popularized as "Horde Mode", where you and up to three friends battle cooperatively against wave after wave of incoming enemy forces. Having not played Gears, I can't offer any first-hand comparisons, but I have heard that ODST generally moves a lot faster in that even the early waves give you a significant number of enemies. It increases the challenge by not only adding more and stronger enemies, but by cycling through different combinations of skulls. These are the same skulls that are available in the ODST and Halo 3 campaigns (the ones in Halo 3 had to be found to be "unlocked" for use; in ODST, they're available from the start) that alter gameplay by making the enemies more damage-resistant, making weapons drop with less ammo, and so on.

In some ways, Firefight is a good mode for picking up and playing with friends. It's set up like the campaign, where you pick your squad from your friends (no matchmaking) and you fight against the AI, but it doesn't lock you into a scripted story and make you and your friends choose a subset of an involved story arc to play through.

On the other hand, Firefight's strength is also its weakness in that it reveals just how simple the gameplay is in Halo; and both how much the story is a powerful part of the game, and how shallow the game feels without it. With wave after wave of the same enemies on the same level, a Firefight match can get almost tiring after a typical hour and a half that a good squad can pull off (on the short end), where it's almost a relief when the lives run out and the game ends.

If I had to compare ODST to Halo 3 (which, considering the way it was marketed, I sort of have to), I would have to agree with those that have said that ODST is "less" of a game than Halo 3. The campaign is shorter, and it only has a single, rigid multiplayer mode in Firefight. (ODST does come with Halo 3's multiplayer as a separate disc, but I don't think it's fair to consider that a part of ODST — the Xbox doesn't anyway, as it identifies the game as Halo 3. Besides, if you already own Halo 3, and especially if you've acquired all of the map packs up to this point, the only value added is the remainder of the Mythic map pack that is only available on the disc packed-in with ODST.) However, to judge it on its own, or to even compare it to the multitude of other games that have been released at a $60 price point, I think the game delivers a fair amount of value. The narrative is classic Bungie storytelling, although in a very different format than before. The gameplay feels a lot like Halo 1, which you may love or hate (but you will definitely love the return of the pistol). It's the same, excellent blending of gameplay, story, and music that has made Halo the success that it is. And if the $60 price point still feels too high, about half the retailers out there are already offering the game with deals or discounts out of the gate.

Monday, October 5, 2009

I Can Haz Recon

I'm working on my write-up of Halo 3: ODST, but there's a certain side-benefit to the game. It includes its own set of "Vidmaster" achievements and the promise that, if you complete all the Vidmaster achievements in ODST and Halo 3, you can actually unlock the coveted Recon armor type for use in Halo 3 multiplayer.

What's so special about Recon? Well, to be honest, not a whole lot. Let's face it: it's just another armor type. It gives you no special advantage in the game, there are no special properties to it, you don't run faster or jump higher or take any more damage. And yet, this armor, previously available only by the grace of the employees at Bungie if you happened to "somehow" get their attention, was so sought-after that people were willing to surrender their accounts to random people just for the unlikely possibility that this purely cosmetic model skin would be unlocked for their use.

Some say the fact that anyone can now unlock it on their own diminishes the "value" of Recon. There is a point to this — this was a prize that, according to Bungie, was reserved for those who did make some noticeable, positive contribution to the Halo community. Although, the game has been out for two years, I think (and, so it would seem, Bungie agrees) the point has long since been made, and opening it up to the rest of the world isn't so bad.

And it's not like the armor is easy to get by any means. Let's take a quick look at what is involved:

  • 7 on 7 Halo 3 — Get 7 experience points in any playlist on the 7th of the month. When this achievement was first released, this involved finding a playlist where you had less than 7XP, waiting for the 7th of any month, and getting the appropriate number of wins. This achievement coincided with a new per-playlist XP system, so ideally it wasn't an issue. However, to accommodate those who exceeded 7XP on all playlists really quickly, Bungie occasionally makes a new playlist around the 7th of the month, where everyone has 0XP. Needless to say, I didn't have that problem; I had plenty of playlists under 7XP when the first 7th rolled around.
  • Annual Halo 3 — Finish the last level of Halo 3 with four players, on Legendary, with the Iron skull, with everyone in Ghosts. The thing that makes this one difficult is, because of the Iron skull, if one person dies, the whole team reverts to the last checkpoint. However, making the final run on the exploding Halo in a Ghost, I think, is more fun than in the default Warthog. After doing this once for myself, I've been in a party to help others get this achievement twice since. It's called "Annual" because it only counted on or after 25 September 2008, one year after the original launch date of Halo 3.
  • Brainpan Halo 3 — Find all the hidden skulls on all Mythic maps. In Forge mode, you can find a skull on each of the maps in the Mythic map pack. I'm not a fan of "find all the hidden…" achievements, so I automatically go to the internet for things like this. Finding the hidden skulls on each of the six maps (three were only available with ODST's release) was trivial.
  • Classic ODST — Finish any level solo, on Legendary, without firing a shot or grenade. Although this wasn't super-easy, there was one level in particular where it was possible to blast through — although a slight glitch where the game seems to consider honking the horn of the Warthog "firing a shot" meant I had to do this more than once.
  • Déjà Vu ODST — Finish the last level with 4 players, on Legendary, Iron skull on, without a Warthog or Scorpion. This is extremely similar to Annual (hence the name), except I would argue much harder. Bungie did make it easier than it could've been in this set-up by giving you a pair of Mongooses and rocket launchers for everyone with 999 (!) rockets apiece, but it was still slow-going with many restarts and, at times, checkpoints that just refused to pop.
  • Endure ODST — On Firefight, with 4 players, on Heroic, survive to the start of the 5th set. This was, by far, the hardest of the challenges to complete. In Firefight, you have a limited number of lives, and although you can earn a few more, if you run out, the game is over. A "set" in Firefight consists of three "rounds", and each round is five "waves", so in order to get this achievement, you have to survive four complete sets, or 60 waves of enemies. The game makes each round & set progressively harder by cycling the number of skulls activated. By the time you get to the last wave, all the skulls (except Iron) are turned on, so that enemies are tougher, shots do less damage, you can't recover stamina unless you melee, they throw grenades like there's no tomorrow, they dodge your grenades, and what weapons you manage to find have less ammo in them. And if you fail, you can't just restart at the last checkpoint and continue — the whole effort is wasted. I had three failed attempts of note (a fourth, we didn't even make it past the second round), all of which we got to the 4th set (one all the way to the very last wave), and each lasting over two hours.
  • Lightswitch Halo 3 — Achieve the rank of Lieutenant in any playlist. This is one that undoubtedly unlocks over time if you play enough, although I managed to get it in a weekend of Double-XP Grifball.

Finally, after a very late night on Saturday and with the help of three other friends, I completed the Endure challenge, unlocking the last of my Vidmaster achievements. I now, officially, legitimately, haz Recon.

Of course, I still suck. :D