Saturday, December 31, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #69

Cotton Candy, Jobs, and Modern Warfare

Well it’s that time again, I’ve procrastinated long enough, so let’s get on with the show… In this episode Jeeps gives us a look into his wacky ice cream flavors, we talk about the Steve Jobs biography, and discuss midnight releases including the release of MW3.


Saturday, December 17, 2011

Cleaning the Xbox 360

My nephew BAW101KillerR is staying with us while he goes to film school nearby (which is really only fair, since my wife stayed with his family when she was going to grad school before we met). He made a comment that he thought my Xbox sounded exceptionally loud when it was on, and not just when the DVD drive was running.

Not long ago, the case fan on my top-of-the-line (in 2001) desktop computer died, and in the course of trying to fix it, I opened it up, took it apart, and vacuumed out ten years' worth of dust. The fan still needs to be replaced, but at least it's now more effective in its weakened state without all that dust gumming up the works. I decided it might be prudent to give the 360 the same treatment. My 360 is just over 3 years old, which puts it out of warranty for even the red ring of death, so I had nothing to use by opening it up.

Click the picture to see the full Flickr set of the Xbox in various stages of disassembly

Taking it apart wasn't too difficult, as there are detailed instructions all over the internet that describe the process, and I had long since acquired the correct screwdriver bits in my many years of opening the original Xbox and laptop PCs. The picture to the right shows where most of the dust was found. This is the side of the Xbox opposite the hard drive — the right side if you set your Xbox horizontally, or the bottom if it's standing vertically. There was a bit coating everything inside, and some on the fans, but on the whole, not too much (especially compared to the 10-year-old computer). I vacuumed out the vent holes and used up the last of my can of compressed air blowing out the cooling fins. It didn't do much to help my issue with the DVD drive refusing to open unless there's a disc already in the tray (in fact, I've found I have to give the eject button a little extra pressure before it even acknowledges it), but in the process, I did discover the manual eject hole for the DVD drive, so I can now open it easily if it does get stuck again. Regardless, the console does now run much, much more quietly.

I suspect this could be more of a concern to those who have their consoles up on end. The area under and around my 360 (as well as the top) gets a fair amount of dust settling on it, and since most of the air intake seems to happen on that end that would be facing down, that would have the 360 sucking up dust off the ground. Although perhaps it would be worth a study to see if more dust gets sucked in facing the ground vs. facing sideways sucking it straight out of the air.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #68

Northern Warfare

Furgus and CyberKnight are joined by special guest Sven XC to talk about Modern Warfare and Forza, along with the typical random assortment of Geezerly topics.


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #67

McJeepers in a Cat Suit

Our long lost cast member McJeepers joins MidnightGhost and CyberKnight for a chat about the upcoming deluge of AAA titles, Jeepers' favorite Facebook MMO, and anything else Ghost can find on the internet for us to talk about.


Sunday, November 20, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #66

Choke the Timmy

CyberKnight, MidnightGhost, and FireMedic discuss bad betas, good trailers, and the pros and cons of real-life game rage. Recorded 2011-10-08


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #65

Wait for the Credits

We’re back and further off the rails than ever before during my time with the cast. This week Furgus is disappointed by the credits at the end of the Gears of War 3 campaign, we meet Klyde99and find out that I stink as an interviewer, learn that Furgus is an Enchantress, and that we could have titled the cast “Mouth full of Crackers” among other things. Oh, and we actually work in some gaming talk as well….

So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for 100 minutes or so of Community Cast goodness. Also, make sure you stick around after the end of the cast for some special treats mixed into the the music I choose to round things out.


Monday, September 26, 2011

In case you forgot, Games on Demand sucks

A few months ago, Microsoft was getting ready to release a new Xbox disc format. Supposedly, the new format provides some more room on a game disc for developers. But, as they typically do before a new feature release, they wanted to get some volunteers to test it in the field before releasing it to everyone at large. So, they took sign-ups for a preview program. I like getting new features early, sometimes just so I can get my update before the servers are hammered with everyone else trying to get theirs on release day; so I signed up.

I was surprised that the disc they sent me to test was no less than Halo Reach. Although I already had a retail copy since its launch, my disc had developed a small crack on the inside hub, so I was happy to be able to use this alternative disc and not risk using a damaged disc in my Xbox.

It worked well enough up until last week, when 343 Industries released an update to Reach. I was surprised when I tried joining another player and saw a message telling me that they had an updated version of Reach. I received no notice to update, nor did the game kick me offline for having a non-updated version of the game. I soon discovered that, while the "format preview" copy of Reach was similar enough to allow achievements and online multiplayer, it was different enough that it did not get the same update distributed to everyone else.

I went back to my retail disc, updated the game, and started hoping again that the disc wouldn't shatter in the drive.

The next day, I was surprised to get an email from Microsoft. They apologized that my "format preview" disc would not get the update, and to make amends, they sent me a copy of the downloadable version of the game.

Not only did they give away a AAA title for a feature preview test, they apparently considered it important enough to continue supporting long after the preview program was over.

Although this was an unexpected pleasantry, it did call something to my attention.

Here is a portion of the Xbox Live Marketplace page for Halo Reach. You can see the price is listed at $59.99, the retail price of the game at launch. This copy of the game does not include a disc or case (obviously), or a manual (but you can download it online). It also does not permit you to resell, trade, loan, or borrow the game. Nor does it let you play it on any console in your own home except the one you first download it to, unless you sign in to Xbox Live on that other console; i.e., you can't give the disc to a roommate or other family member for play on another console unless it is connected to the internet and you sign on there.

Here are a couple product pages for the physical copies of the game, from and Wal-Mart. The game is being sold for $35.95 and $39.96, respectively, with the ability to get free shipping. It comes with a disc, which can be installed to the hard drive or USB on your Xbox console, but the disc is required to play the game. The game can be resold, rented, traded, borrowed, or loaned, and it works on any Xbox in existence, anywhere, online or not, playable by anyone.

To add insult to injury, Amazon also has the Limited Edition of the game for $54.99, which includes an exclusive DLC code for the Elite playable character, some in-universe collectibles, and Dr. Halsey's journal (notes about the creation of the Spartan program), in an ONI "black box" case — for $5 less than the digital download version.

It just underscores what I've said many times before. Digital downloads offer a less valuable product, at a price that doesn't change with the free market.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #64

Hurry up, Halo is calling…

The Community Cast is back and while it’s a slightly abbreviated edition this week we still cover actual gaming topics a little more than usual. This week you’ll hear us talk about a number of items including the fact that Jeeps may have a Leia costume as well as discussions about Borderlands 2, the upcoming re-release of Halo CE, and Call of Duty’s XP event in LA.


Saturday, September 3, 2011

My lack of skill, in picture form

I came across this picture, and I think it perfectly sums up my enjoyment of video games.

The picture comes from the original demotivational poster site, Click the picture to be taken to their product site. This is an unsolicited post.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #63

It’s been long time

Well, it has been a long time, since June I believe for some of us but we’re back to bore like never before. This week the cast includes Cyber, Medic, and yours truly MnG along with Jeeps blowing in from the south. This time around we cover a range of topics including DRM lunacy, some anniversaries of note, Activision reporting big earnings, and how the SCOTUS became a friend to all gamers this summer.


Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Why 'always on' is an 'instant off'

The news has come out that Blizzard's upcoming Diablo 3 will require a persistent internet connection, even for single-player play. Their excuse is that this is necessary because of all the integrated online features in the game (including an auction house, where players can buy and sell in-game items for real dollars). We've seen before where companies use this requirement as an anti-piracy measure as well. In any case, the result is the same: I will not be buying it.

I have seen comments how this is no longer a big deal. Just about everyone has a constant internet connection anymore, and if anyone knows how to run servers so they're always available, it has to be Blizzard.

But that's not good enough.

Just recently, I had issues where my internet connection was going up and down quite a bit. Granted, this isn't normal behavior, and a service call from Comcast fixed this, but it does present the possibility that I could get kicked off of my game because of a bad internet connection. Indeed, as we were recording the Geezer Gamers Community Cast this weekend, my internet connection hiccuped and our Skype session was disconnected, twice. Even a fully-functional broadband connection isn't 100% stable.

And that's the wired connection. Chances are, I'd have to play this game on my laptop, as I doubt my 10-year-old desktop has the horsepower for it. And my laptop connects via wireless. That only compounds the instability issues.

Of course, there are other problems where bandwidth caps are concerned. True, game data uses very compact data packets by design, but requiring constant communication with a server on the internet will drive up data usage. Plus, if you go over your cap with Comcast, you'll find your internet service completely cut off, which shoots a hole in the "everyone has a constant internet connection" argument.

Even if you have absolutely no internet issues at home, requiring a constant connection means, simply, you can't take it with you. I used to bring my laptop with Diablo 2 on vacations to the in-laws, where persistent internet is less of a sure thing than in my own home. The need for a constant internet connection means I could not do the same with Diablo 3, thus this requirement reduces the game's value for me.

There are two possibilities here. Either I am just an "edge case", one of the truly dwindling number of people who doesn't have a 100% stable internet connection everywhere they game, and no one cares about me, so my lost sale is meaningless; or I'm right, and the people denying that it is a problem are either the "good edge cases" or are in for a rude awakening when they find their legally purchased game is constantly forbidding their play.

So, for now, it's a no-sale, and that way it will remain until after hackers figure out a way to remove the "always connected" requirement and restore value to the game.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #62

Mad as Geezers

The cast of Mad as Hell Gamers Radio (who, through the magic of Skype, sound as if they’re broadcasting from an underground cavern) visit with CyberKnight to discuss all things E3.


This one was recorded and edited by me. ;)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #61

The band is back together

Hot off of the presses from last night we’re back this week with the full band including Cyberknight, Furgus, Firemedic41, McJeepers, MidnightGhost, four fried chickens, a Coke, and some dry white toast. This time around we give you a little bit of an extended edition where we throw out some predictions in time for E3, talk some LoU, Call of Duty Elite, plus a lot more gaming talk, and Furgus takes an opportunity to get some things off his chest.

Just in case anyone wonders after listening, the “technical difficulties” we encounter part of the way through was Skype deciding to stop our call for about 20 seconds.

—Midnight Ghost

Portal 2

The original Portal was just a side project done by a couple developers and thrown in with Valve's Orange Box collection. Despite its rather low-key release, the innovative game play, quirky humor, and stellar voice acting made it a huge hit. The game was released as a stand-alone on Xbox Live as Portal: Still Alive with additional puzzles, and fans still wanted more. Valve originally announced the coming of a sequel in an innovative way, by releasing a title update to the PC version of Portal that embedded codes in the sound files of in-game radios and altered the game's ending so the protagonist's escape ended with her being dragged back by an unseen hand.

Portal 2 was released as a stand-alone game, developed by an entire team with all new puzzles, new elements, and the introduction of a two-player co-op mode. All these new elements come together and make the sequel a HUGE SUCCESS.

Note: while I will try to avoid details of the story and end-game, some of the items discussed here may be considered spoilers. I avoided media and reviews of the game before I played, and I enjoyed the reveals as I hit them in-game. Decide for yourself if you want to read on.

The single-player story mode re-introduces the original game's player character, Chell, who is being held in a hotel room-like chamber in suspended animation, periodically awakened for "exercise" and "culture" sessions (walking around the room once and staring at a picture on the wall for a few seconds). The final time, she is awakened by Wheatley — a personality core brilliantly voice-acted by British comedian Stephen Merchant — who tells Chell of a catastrophic failure in Aperture Science and offers to drive Chell's room to safety. As the facility crumbles around you, Wheatley drives your room on railed tracks to the beginning of the real game — the same "relaxation chamber" where you started the original Portal. As you leave the chamber, you go through several familiar puzzle rooms (now crumbling and overgrown with vegetation), re-acquiring the portal gun and re-learning the basic mechanics. Eventually, Wheatley unwittingly leads you to re-awakening GLaDOS, and the more advanced testing begins.

You go through GLaDOS's puzzles until Wheatley finds you an escape route, which eventually leads you far below ground to the long-buried chambers of Aperture Science's early days, guided by recorded messages from Aperture's first CEO, Cave Johnson. There, you learn of the long-forgotten experimental substances — a red-orange propulsion gel that increases your running speed, a blue repulsion gel that lets you bounce to new heights, and a white conversion gel that lets you apply portals to surfaces that normally wouldn't accept them.

The story and voice acting is phenomenal. I often found myself standing still and waiting to see all the dialog that GLaDOS, Wheatley, and Johnson had to say. The puzzles are interesting, although I found them to be a touch on the easy side. The puzzle elements were always right where you needed them, so while it sometimes was a trick figuring out how to put them together, it was rare to be so completely stuck where I didn't know what to do. I never once felt hampered by the controls or camera angles, though, which is a rare joy for a puzzle/platformer. I managed to finish the whole campaign inside of a week (although it was helped by a full sick day off of work, where lying on the couch playing Portal was the only thing I could really do). The biggest down-side, however, is, because it's a puzzle game, once you figure the puzzles out, there's little reason to repeat the experience. In a second playthrough, with nothing new to figure out, you just go through the motions.

In co-op, you and a partner play as two robots created by GLaDOS to solve special cooperative tests (the "Cooperative Testing Initiative"). Each robot is given a portal gun that shoots two distinctly-colored portals (red and yellow for one, light blue and deep purple for the other). The portals are linked only to each other (e.g., you can't go through a purple portal and come out a yellow one), so even with up to four portals in play at any given time, it's a lot more manageable than it sounds. Communication is vitally important in solving puzzles, and it is made much easier with quick tools for "pointing" to locations (so you don't spend 10 minutes trying to explain "which wall on the left" you're trying to point out), starting countdown timers (which are not subject to the slight lag of voice chat), and viewing your partner's point-of-view.

Again, the puzzles were pretty straight-forward. Knowing what to do was never an issue, even if the how took a bit of time figuring it out.

The real Achilles' heel of multiplayer stems from the biggest problem in single player, that it's just not as fun the second time around. In multiplayer, it's rare that you'll find someone who's at the exact same point as you (except when it was first released, and no one had played it yet). Which means you end up with one of two situations: one player is just leading the other through the motions, or they're trying to stay silent while letting the other player figure it out. It's a less-than-ideal situation. Figuring out a new puzzle together is the most fun, but it happens so infrequently, and those moments are only going to get more rare as the game is played more.

DLC has been announced for the game, which should increase its usable life, but only temporarily. Also, while Valve has a history of releasing DLC cheaply or free for their PC games, there is a very real possibility it will be free for other platforms and be forced for cost on the Xbox 360, like what happened for Left 4 Dead content last fall. Perhaps having the content on the PlayStation 3 at Valve's pricing will pressure Microsoft to ease up on their cost mandates, but we will see.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #60

Only on a Geezer Cast

We’re back this week with episode 60 of the Geezer Gamers Community Cast. This week Cyber, me, and the ice cream man himself McJeepers touch on a wide range of topics including Skype, Jeeps’ love of Brink, the PSN Network still being down (as of the date this was recorded away), Lord of Ultima (come on, the Geezer Alliance needs more Geezers), and we hear how Cyber’s son really feels about the podcast.

—Midnight Ghost

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

On the front page

I'm featured on the front page of Geezer Gamers! Well, it's not much, just my answers to a little questionnaire. I guess I'm getting my fifteen minutes of fame a few seconds at a time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #59

It’s all about Jeeps

Coming at you live via tape delay we give you the next installment of the Geezer Gamers Community Cast. This week we touch on a wide range of topics which, oddly enough, actually include gaming related talk. This week we also welcome back long lost cast member FireMedic41 thanks to Skype mobile, as he provided taxi service to his daughter. Also back is JanesAddicted along with the regulars including Cyberknight, McJeepers, and MidnightGhost with a fond “how do” to Furgus who couldn’t make it this week.

—Midnight Ghost

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #58

I wanna shoot something

If we hadn’t recently used “The podcast about nothing” as a title it would have definitely applied to this cast. This week you get to listen to me, Furgus, and Cyber talk about…well…nothing. We touch on several non-gaming topics with just a sprinkle of gaming talk. I almost just released an unedited directors cut of the cast because we did some gaming talk “off-air” but I decided to polish things a little.

—Midnight Ghost

Monday, April 4, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #57

Blame Flu for the puppies

After taking longer than normal to get the cast ready for public consumption, we’re back with an extended addition where we beat several topics into the ground a little more than usual…… Also, on top of the normal useless banter we get to know our special guest JanesAddicted who is the newest member of the Geezer Gamers moderator team.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Trash-talk the almighty EA and forfeit your games

It's been a while since I've had a good rant about DRM, but sure enough, EA has come through with yet another reason why DRM is all about taking control away from consumers. A user on the Dragon Age forums had the gall to compare EA to the devil -- specifically, he was asking if gamers had sold their soul to the EA devil. Maybe more than a little inflammatory, depending on your point of view. A forum moderator decided it was ban-worthy, though, and banned the user from the forums. However, the moderator banned not only the forum posting privileges, but all access to EA's servers. This resulted in his copy of Dragon Age 2 to be unable to authenticate with EA's servers, preventing him from playing his legally-purchased, single-player game.

EA has since admitted this was an "error", apologized, and has made the necessary corrections to restore his access. However, it doesn't change the fact that we now know EA can disable your game, intentionally or not.

It's not bad enough that game companies want to lock down all access to a purchased copy of a game to one and only one person, even to the exclusion of other people in the same household. No, now they have the ability to block you from playing your game at all, merely for criticizing the company. (If the report is accurate, the criticism in question was really quite tame for the internet.)

Perhaps EA can be said to be following well-estabilshed precedent. — upon finding out copies of certain books were submitted to their Kindle store by people who didn't own the rights to sell them in the first place — remotely deleted all purchased copies from users' Kindles. In a software patent suit (which is its own kind of evil), TiVo complained that the DVRs Echostar sold to customers infringed on their patents, and a judge ordered Echostar not only to stop selling the devices, but to disable the devices already in the homes of customers. A similar case forced AOL to remove an MP3 player from their software (and push that removal down to customers via an "update") when sued by Playmedia. [source] Sony, when it learned of the (rather remote) possibility of someone using the "Other OS" feature on the PlayStation 3 console to hack the system and gain complete control of the hardware, released an "update" that removed this feature from all existing consoles.

In light of these examples, maybe EA's "accident" wasn't so bad. After all, the gamer still had their copy of the game, and there are likely hacks either in progress or already released that would let you get around the "phone home to play" requirement and let you play this purely single-player game when a connection to the mother ship is not available (either by banning, bad network connection, or EA's decision to turn off support for the game on their servers' side). However, to the honest, paying, and perhaps not incredibly tech-savvy (or at least not enough to know where to find — let alone how to make — a "don't call home" patch) customer, the result is the same. You don't buy a product you can use anymore; you buy the promise that you should be able to play the game for some "reasonable time" — a promise that can be broken at any time with no recourse.

And if that doesn't bother you, I have some promises I'd like to sell you….

Monday, March 7, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #56

We have a sound bite for that

It’s time for the next installment of the Geezer Gamers Community Cast. This week Cyberknight makes his best effort to never have to host again, Jeeps runs out of things to say but refuses to let me add in some sound bites for him, and some where in between we discuss everything from gaming news to the space shuttle.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Star Wars: The Battle for Hoth

Star Wars: The Battle for Hoth is a tower defense-style game originally released for the iPhone and ported to the Windows Phone 7 platform. It's a fun game in concept, but technical issues and an inconsistent difficulty curve make it more frustrating than fun in practice.

The game is based on the battle that starts the second Star Wars movie (not the fifth, the second), and is fairly standard for a tower defense game. You place your rebel forces around a mostly-open level to destroy Imperial units as they attempt to make their way off the right side of the screen to attack the unseen rebel base. Enemies range from Imperial probe droids to the mighty AT-AT. By digging trenches and strategically placing units, you channel the Imperials around the level to expose them to as much rebel fire as possible. However, the Imperial units have their own arms, and they will take shots at your units to weaken and destroy your defenses.

My personal bane of tower defense games are the units that are both fast and heavily armored. The units that fulfill this role in SW: Hoth are the armored AT-STs. Many a level went by perfectly up until a final wave of a mere pair of AT-STs walk past a screen full of units and reach the end intact. It's more than a little disheartening to see your best defense come to naught. These units are introduced after only a couple levels, meaning you have to plan for them on nearly every level. And planning for them can be difficult when you have to spend a good percentage of your "command points" re-building units that are destroyed by attacking Imperials.

The game has serious control issues. It seems to be unable to tell the difference between a tap and a swipe — or, at least, it takes everything as a swipe. It's as if, unless you manage to tap a single pixel, the game assumes the multiple points you touch are actually part of a movement, not a tap. Nowhere was this more apparent than on the level select screen, where only the lightest pinpoint touch would select a level instead of scrolling the level list by a pixel or two. (A title update eventually fixed the level select screen, but gameplay controls weren't improved.)

On the flip side, when you do perform a swipe, the game sometimes registers a tap. This happens frequently when panning the board or pinching to zoom out — at the end of the swipe or pinch, if one of your fingers happens to rest over one of your units, you will likely find that unit selected, centered, and zoomed in upon. Imagine the frustration when, every time you pinch to zoom out, the game immediately zooms back in on a unit you didn't want to select.

Generally, it has all the fun (and sometime-frustration) of a standard tower defense game. The sounds and cutscenes directly from the movie add to the flavor. The difficulty of some of the enemy units (and their ability to destroy your units, sometimes in a single shot) give it a harsh challenge. But having to fight the controls makes it a very difficult game to deal with.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #55

The Podcast About Nothing

This week Firemedic was away and the inmates ran the asylum….right off the tracks. What started as the “I can’t drive 55″ episode turned out to the be show about nothing…. There is inane banter aplenty and Furgus learns that podcasting is better when your mic isn’t on top of you head.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #54

Please check your receipts

It's a new year and the community cast crew are back and better than ever…. Well… we're back anyway. In the first episode of 2011 we learn you should be careful which paper you use to print your coupons, that Roombas suck, and we could talk about nothing for hours if Medic would let us.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Geezer Gamers Community Cast #53

The Lost Episode

Community Cast 53 is the last installment of 2010, which due to old age and senility took two months for us to release… In this episode the usual cast of characters, except for a missing Ghost, bring you another hour plus of inane banter with some gaming and community talk sprinkled in the mix.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fable 3

Fable 3 is Lionhead's newest installment of the Fable universe. While it is a step up in graphics and story, the game play leaves a lot to be desired.

The story of Fable 3 is one of your standard good vs. evil fares. A force of darkness is coming to take over the kingdom, and your king brother is running the kingdom into the ground with a merciless hand. Your goal is to take over the ruling of the kingdom, and then run it as you see fit to prepare for the epic battle.

Unfortunately, the game is far from perfect. While certain elements were employed to allegedly increase the immersion of the player, they only end up getting in the way of what could've been an enjoyable experience.

Here is a small sampling of the bugs and annoyances I've encountered personally while playing Fable 3:

  • Relationships are a chore. To manage your relationships, you have to interact with a person a couple times (each interaction is fairly long, silly, and somewhat disturbing — a little amusing the first couple times, aggravating and boring by the 150th). Then you do some kind of quest that is invariably: a) travel to another town, b) find/deliver some item, and c) return for your "reward". And the villager may not stay happy too long anyway, unless you keep repeating the process. (Except kids. I haven't seen a kid do anything but get more unhappy. Their quests are invariably "give me a toy", but I have not yet seen it actually improve their mood, and I have actually seen them get less happy with a positive expression.)

  • No real map. The map tables are extremely high-level, showing very little town detail. It is impossible to navigate using that map, requiring you to memorize the layout and paths of every town in order to truly get where you want to go (difficult unless you happen to be able to set a quest target in that town, so the gold trail can guide you; very difficult if your real-life sense of direction is crippled as it is). The map also only identifies the major towns. If you want to, say, return to the Ossuary in Mourningwood, unless you remember exactly where it was for the one quest you did there, you have almost no chance of finding it again.

    Speaking of Mourningwood, it gets tiresome every time you travel there to have to go through a long path full of hobbes. (It's arguably easier to fast-travel to Bowerstone Industrial and backtrack on foot, but I end up walking in circles before I find the path back, since I don't have that town memorized.)

  • Sanctuary issues. When Jasper would talk to me, quite often he'd tell me there were "new" items in the shop. Actually, he just meant there were items I haven't bought yet — and no amount of pushing would make me spend money on a dog costume for my hero.

    Of course, that all stopped when Jasper decided to stop talking to me altogether. Lionhead eventually released a patch, but that only got Jasper talking for a few minutes. Then he not only stopped again, but I lost my inability to interact with him (fairly useless anyway), and the D-pad quick links to the Sanctuary rooms stopped functioning (or even displaying on-screen), making the Sanctuary slightly more of a chore to be forced to use for weapon switching.

  • Disappearing wife. Eventually, you can marry your childhood sweetheart; but after the final battle for the kingdom (which I got through saving the entire kingdom), she disappeared. I had her in a house in Bowerstone Market, but there was no sign of her. The map showed she was still there (with the heart indicator on Bowerstone Market); and when I highlighted our house, it says she is there with a gift for me. I eventually selected the house and was able to choose "Move family", which I did — moved them right to the castle. There is still no sign of her, though.

  • Disappearing civilian. I have a relationship quest where I'm supposed to return an item to a person in a particular town. That person no longer exists in the town. I don't know where he went (I left, got the item, and came back almost immediately). I can select the quest, but when I get to the town, no gold trail appears.

  • Network issues. I joined someone's multiplayer game at one point. I'm guessing we had some network issues involved, since we were in an Xbox Live party and I could only hear about half of what he was saying. One attempt ended with characters on my screen stuck in place — my hero was frozen, but other characters were walking in place. His screen was apparently stuck on a "Loading" screen I never saw. The second attempt ended with both of us going to loading screens, and then me staring at a solid black screen (with the occasional cricket chirping noise, indicating the scene I couldn't see was at night) and his loading screen showing cog wheels almost frozen (moving slightly every 20 seconds or so). I had to exit to the dashboard to break out.

It's rather disappointing that my strongest impressions of the game are the problems I've had. I really enjoyed Fable and Fable 2, but Fable 3 has been really hard to fully enjoy with the constant little bugs and awkward design.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Halo Reach

Reportedly the final installment of the Halo franchise from Bungie, Halo Reach was released last fall to record-breaking numbers (that would be broken themselves by the next Call of Duty installment, released soon after). So, how is it?

The campaign was worthwhile, but surprisingly, not too interesting. The story follows a team of Spartan 3s (with a single Spartan 2 member) stationed on Reach, the military center of the human race. The team are called to investigate a possible incident involving the insurgent factions that were harassing the colonies in the years preceding Halo 1, find that the Covenant are attacking, and attempt to fight off their impending doom. (If you've so much as heard of the title of the first Halo novel, The Fall of Reach, you know this is going to be futile.) Having read the books, I was interested to see how this story fit in the Halo universe as a whole.

The novels showed the Spartans as professional military teams that depended on each other and worked like a cohesive unit. The Spartan 3s were a little less so, since they were not raised by the military from childhood, but there was still a sense of a bond shared by Spartan team members. Halo Reach's Noble Team, however, didn't seem to share this same bond. As a Noble Team Spartan, I expected to have this same bond with the other members. However, the AI-controlled characters seemed indifferent and aloof, not just to me as a new member, but even to each other. I never got the sense that any of the other Spartans cared for each other, no matter what happened. When characters started dying, it just didn't seem like it mattered to anyone. After the excellent storytelling of Halo ODST and the characters' varied and interesting personalities, I was rather disappointed.

The overall plot was decent, although I had a hard time fitting it into the universe as I knew it. I'll leave the fanatics to analyze the plot, but there were things that just felt "wrong". Could Spartan 3s actually be on Reach? Maybe. But Dr. Halsey, creater of the Spartan 2 program, actually seeing one? That didn't seem to fit with her character in the books, who was unsure of their existence until she ended up on Onyx. Her dismissal of the only Spartan 2 on Noble Team (Jorge), too, seemed out of character with the Halsey in the books, who cared for her Spartans like a mother. And the final mission, bringing Cortana to the Pillar of Autumn, didn't sound right. Wasn't the Autumn already in orbit as part of the fight, with Cortana on-board? I might have the exact sequence of events a little off, but the lack of clarity was distracting.

Campaigns are nice, but what really gives a game longevity is multiplayer, and that's something Bungie does extremely well. Although Xbox Live had been out for a year before Halo 2, it was that game that took the service from a novelty to a necessity. Even eight years later, we're talking about how other games' multiplayer lobbies fail to live up to that standard. Bungie's next two Halo games only improved on this, and Halo Reach is no exception. Right on the game's main menu, you see a list of all people on your friends list who are currently playing, what friends they're playing with, and their current status (in lobby, playing a match, etc.). You can select one of the friends and see more details: who they're playing with (not just your friends), what game type they're playing, and the current score and time remaining. If their party is set to "friends" or "open", you can enter a "join queue", which will add you to their party as soon as their current game ends.

The game play is fairly similar to Halo 3, although dynamics are changed with the introduction of armor abilities. These are roughly similar to the equipment of Halo 3, but instead of finding one and using it once, it's something you spawn with and can use any time (with a recharge time between uses). You can choose your armor ability as part of your spawning loadout (which often includes different sets of weapons). These armor abilities can radically change the way the game is played. Jet packs turn the game vertical, armor lock can turn a run-and-gun fight into a tense standoff, and active camo encourages care and stealth — and that is only a sample of the abilities.

Game types are similar to the standard Halo fare, although some games that had to be created with custom rule sets (like "Rocket Race") are now implemented as standard game types, with even more options (e.g., force players to be in vehicles). ODST's firefight game mode has been expanded, with support for matchmaking, a single-player mode, and more, allowing players to customize even the types of enemies that appear in each wave. Forge has been improved almost to the point of a full level editor. A new Forge World map has been included, which has a variety of terrains and locations. Where "forgers" had to use insane tricks to place adjacent objects seamlessly or to suspend objects in the air, Reach's Forge allows players to push objects through each other or suspend them as supported, selectable options. As a demonstration of the powerful feature set, Reach was shipped with on-disc maps that were completely built in Forge World.

Reach includes a new leveling system that was popularized by Call of Duty. The game features commendations, which are awards that are earned by performing certain feats in certain game types (e.g., killing so many Covenant forces with a sniper rifle while playing Campaign missions). The leveling system is based on "credits", which are earned by playing games, earning commendations, or completing daily and weekly challenges (objectives determined by Bungie that, if you complete within that day or week, earn you a credit bonus). The total number of credits earned in your career determines your rank — thus, it is possible to only play Campaign and still "level up". (This rank is separate from your skill level, which is now completely hidden from the player and thus harder to exploit.) Credits can also be spent in the armory, allowing you to customize your Spartan with a wide variety of helmets, armor pieces, effects, and even voices used in multiplayer. (Spending credits does not decrease your "total earned" number, used to determine rank.)

Bungie has definitely improved on Halo in their last project. Although the campaign lacked the epic feel of Halo 3 or the emotional appeal of ODST, the multiplayer is a worthy successor for Halo 3.