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.