snow_light_1Snow and ShivasFF_13_Crew

From the Vault: Final Fantasy XIII

In an earlier incarnation of GeekApproach, I wrote an awful lot about video games.  At the time I was doing work for the games industry and it was a logical extension of the sheer amount of free time I had to actually play said games.  Rather than spend more money (that I don’t have currently) on games, I thought I would go back and replay some titles that I have skipped or didn’t finish for some reason.  Enter Final Fantasy XIII.

The Final Fantasy series is rather legendary in gaming circles.  A cornerstone of the so-called, JRPG (Japanese Role-Playing Game) genre, Final Fantasy (FF) titles have been on every major gaming system since their inception.  Beginning with Nintendo consoles, and moving hand-in-hand with Sony during the PlayStation 2 era, and finally being wooed by Microsoft in the X360 generation to at least make a multi-platform title.  Within the 7th-Gen lifespan that included Microsoft’s Xbox 360, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Nintendo’s Wii, Square-Enix managed to put out at least 3 FF titles that spanned the XIII universe: FF XIII, FF XIII-2, and FF XIII: Lightning Returns.  Around March 2010 the game was released worldwide after a holiday release in Japan the quarter prior.  The reviews were a mixed-bag with reviewers offering contradictory opinions on the games linearity, as well as its much-hyped “Paradigm” battle system. (more…)

Azure based augment for gaming

Azure based augment for gaming

Here is a link to a Kotaku article about Microsoft augmenting a future title using the power of Windows Cloud (or Azure, or whatever they’re calling it these days).  I can only imagine that one of the sweeter deals of being an Xbox One developer is that you’ve got access to some of these services backed by Microsoft.  I know the game Titanfall mentions making some use of this (here). By offloading CPU intensive tasks to the cloud and “streaming” that data back to the client requesting it, you free up the CPU and GPU for more intensive rendering tasks.

That has to be a huge win for Microsoft!  Utilizing such a cornerstone of the Microsoft infrastructure hurts, especially if there’s no equivalent on the Sony side to touch. Unfortunately, I find almost no mention of this on the Net, and navigating the Channel 9 MSDN video site is an exercise in pain.

Filing away to follow-up and dig up more.

LA Noire (X360)

Well, it took me nearly 4 months but I finally finished LA Noire.  In an earlier post I was describing how much I really enjoyed the product, with its engaging storyline and a great game mechanic that involves interviewing characters and determining if they’re lying or telling you the truth as you try and put together the details for the case.  Was I engaged to the very end?  Read on…

Yeah, no.  I wasn’t engaged.  The last third or so of the game turned out to be drastically off-balance.  The MO up until this point had been playing as one cop as he worked his way up (or down) through the ranks of the different desks at the LAPD: Vice, Arson, Homicide, and Traffic.  The later third switches up your main character a bit as you work to solve the “meta-story” and “meta-case”.

L.A. Noire

And spoiler alert here: really?  Insurance fraud?  That’s the big bang? 21 cases with the last few being rather involved kinda left me with an ending that didn’t feel appropriate.

The meta-story is interspersed through the entire game and deals with your character (Phelps) and his time in the war with his unit.  An inappropriately given Medal of Honor also takes center stage here as well, augmented with the pan flute and hard strings of instruments from Asia.  I was so sick of seeing these cutscenes….

So where’d it all go wrong? For starters, the cases in the beginning were easier to figure out who was lying and double-crossing you.  The late cases I was averaging 2/5 questions correct per interview or getting stuck at scenes with no idea of where to go next.  I grew tired of having to drive around the city; I started using fast-travel all the time, and I’m sure Rusty got tired of me saying ” You drive.  I need to review the case notes.”  I didn’t do the extras: Finding all the cars, reading all the newspapers, and those film reels? Forget it.  I’m also a bit peeved that there were no end of game achievements: I rounded out with 31/60 achievements at game end, and a few of those were from DLC.  Speaking of….

The “Nicholson Electroplating” DLC case is integrated with the rest of the game.  You’ll take a break between case 20 and the last one, 21 to do some weird side case the freaking took forever.  I wish they had let met at least choose when I was going to do it rather than foisting the choice upon me.

So, while I did enjoy my time in LA Noire I have to say that it ended up like every other Rockstar game I’ve ever played: I have to force myself to play towards its conclusion and often I feel overwhelmed with the amount of things one can/should do in the game world.  I already had the remainder of the DLC so I’m sure I’ll be back in the world soon, but I can’t say for sure when.  The holiday gaming season is right around the corner and Deus Ex is already leading the pack…

The Rise (and fall) of the Platform

The Rise (and fall) of the Platform

Twitter launched it’s very own photo-sharing and video uploading service today, courtesy of the great minds behind Photobucket (who are still around..apparently?). You can’t help but feel bad for TwitPic or yFrog or any of the number of photo-sharing services that launched with the open API that Twitter provided. All you needed was an API key and some gumption perhaps to create the next cool thing that could operate as an adjunct on the site. Now that any number of these sites have taken off, Twitter has decided to step in and offer their own service. So what do you do if your TwitPic? Die off in oblivion I guess…Twitter Lgo

Last week Google announced some housecleaning for some of it’s API’s: Places, Prediction, Tasks, and Translate. Of these 4, I’ve only used Translate to any real success (or need). However, the outcry of some of the developers in the comments is truly sad. Some of these folks have created entire applications or infrastructure around these API’s that Google freely hosted. There was never a guarantee that these things would stick around forever. I don’t think anyone ever really thought about it–Google offers essentially unlimited space for just about everything, why would they even bother to deprecate and remove code they were giving away for free? Some of these services have been replaced with elements that can be called from within an HTML5-compliant browser so its not a complete loss. But if I were a dev that was using the Translate API through JS or other libraries, I think I’d be a bit pissed off.

So where am I going with this? These platforms that are created by these companies are artificial islands of relevance. By leveraging the (often) free API platform you’re helping raise the awareness level for those tools that you’re using: I had a friend show me how to write simple JS Translate widgets that would real-time translate a page in the DOM without re-requesting the page. I’ve seen rather kick-ass things done with data manipulation done using the Charts API. For me, they increased my awareness of some of the cooler things one could do with Google’s external tools. Maps is a huge one–something I’d like to leverage in a future showcase.

Gaming is one area where I can draw a lot of corollaries. With the rise of the mature PC FPS in the late 90’s, games were becoming little islands of activities. Mod tools were being released by the developers or often being generated by the community and were being used to create substantial in-game works. I one saw an interactive museum someone built in the Half-Life 1 Source engine. Game mods for Unreal Tournament? How about Akimbo Arena, or any of the more create DM maps made available? id Software made it easy to modify Doom and put it back out provided you weren’t modifying the core game engine files. What happened to these platforms? For the most part they were killed off by console gaming. With a “security” barrier barring entry, user-made downloadable content has been a no-show on the Xbox or PlayStation systems. Often publisher’s will pack together a sampling of top-rated mods from the community and push those out under their own container, but this is few and far between.

Most of the mod tech I’ve seen recently is visible, but doesn’t get a lot of exposure unless you’re specifically looking for it. Bethesda highlights folks who are still creating mods for their games such as Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind at least once a week. I’m sure somewhere, there’s a kid making a mod for Quake 3 Arena, but I haven’t been looking for it regularly. For me that platform island is no longer relevant and is gone.

Next week I’ll explore some of the newer platforms out there and what those companies are trying to do to bring you on board. It’s a busy week between Apple’s WWDC, and the opening of E3. We’ll see.

L.A. Noire (Quickly)

L.A. Noire (Quickly)

In a word, it’s stupendous. It’s amazing to think that motion-capture technology has come this far. Watching characters faces light up like this or try and lie to you is rather addictive. The polygons surrounding their faces are a bit low in detail, but it’s not horrendous. I applaud Team Bondi for not trying to make this thing extremely life-like because I’m sure it would’ve been incredibly difficult.

 

Robert Zemeckis continues to try and market no-cap technology to the movie studios. Most of these efforts have fallen flat, or launch with awful results: See The Polar Express, and A Christmas Carol.

Perhaps he should be pitching this tech to game studios. Oh wait, wasn’t he closely tied to Dreamworks who has an interactive division? I wonder what happened there…

Anyway, more info later with a full review. Suffice to say, I think this will capture my attention span for a while.

Bulletstorm Demo (X360)

Recently I had some time to enjoy the latest demo from People Can Fly, titled Bulletstorm. It’s an apt title as gameplay centers roughly on a score-based mechanic of how “creatively” you kill the other guy.  Numerous environmental traps are available for the assist such as impaling spikes, large drop-offs, and the occasional exploding container or barrel.  You’ll also have access to an electrical grapple or “hookshot” (to steal from Zelda parlance) to grab enemies and bring them to you and release them in slo-mo– thereby increasing your fun and the amount of creative ways you can think of to destroy them.  Gameplay looks kinda ripped from the Black playbook, a game that ranked you with points based upon how creative your kills were while you ran through levels.  A more recent comparison would be to Sega’s rather under-rated The Club which had a squad-based approach, but the same type of scoring mechanics.  Apparently folks didn’t like shooting up other folks for creativities sake, or they just didn’t like the full package of either of those games.  Who knows…

Visually the game looks purty.  Utilizing and being published by Epic Games has something to do with it–The latest version of the Unreal Engine is in full “bloom” so to speak with such graphical improvements like “god beams”, and accurate lighting penumbrae.  Audio is good too–punchy shotguns and machine guns felt real and the amount of audio feedback was quite nice for warnings about ends of clips or incoming grenades.  Both of these things I would expect as they are right out of the Gears of War playbook.

However, what is not or maybe sorta not is the raw amount of testosterone this game is meant to convey.  Example: The word “dick-tits”.  I think during the end of the demo in its closing video the main character make some comment about not sitting around like a “dick-tits”.  I actually had no idea what this word meant, and the amount of new vernacular thrown at you during the course of a 10 minute demo was kind of ridiculous.

I’m not sure how effective it is because the last time I saw this much ridiculous masculinity was in Army of Two and I don’t think that did to successfully.  I mean, how many of you had to think of just what the hell Army of Two even was after you read that? Exactly.

To jog your memories, I’ve embeded this handy YouTube video showing some of its finer moments below:

In the end, I had a decent time with it.  It feels like a brighter, less depressing or apocalyptic Gears of War.  Time will tell if it can be set apart, but the month of February sure looks pretty empty for video games in general.  It might just provide the boost they need to get this thing off of shelves.  So what are you waiting for “dick-tits”?

EDIT: 7:42 AM 02_06_11: Here’s some more videos on “creative killins” in Bulletstorm:

Deus Ex: Human Revolution (X360) Preview

This new trailer for Deus Ex: Human Revolution (courtesy of Kotaku) is pretty bad-ass.  I loved the previous Deus Ex games, at least I recall playing them both.  Concluding them is another story…  The trailer below highlights some of the new “digital shininess” that seems to be permeating SciFi/Action/Adventure titles these days post-Mass Effect 2.  I’m not unhappy about it all; on the contrary, I think this is a good thing for games.

I just hope that Square-Enix doesn’t screw it up too much.

Out of Practice!

Just a quick note to say that I just tried to play some Halo 3, local single-player mind you (I know my limits). Wow. What a frustrating mess. Controls aren’t like Call of Duty OR like Gears– I’m throwin shields and stuff out when I want to reload my guns. It sucks!

Not to mention that the game came out in 2007 and in 3 short years it has not held up…I’m disappointed!

Bah… Back to Assassin’s Creed II.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West gets my vote for “best game that no one will play in 2010″.  Its kinda sad to admit that a week and a half after its release but I think their publisher just didn’t put the marketing dollars behind a smart, beautiful and (most importantly) fun game.  I guess that sort of leaves me with the duty of writing about why it was so good.

The game is loosely based off of one of the “Four Great Classical Novels” of Chinese literature, Journey to the West. Judging from the brief synopsis at Wikipedia, I’m honestly not sure how “loose” loosely is aside from taking a few of the characters names and using them in the game.  Speaking of characters, there are only a few but they are very well-rounded.

You’ll play as Monkey, a fairly bad-ass drawin in the “I’m-ripped-like-Marcus-Fenix” style who wields a dual-edged lightsaber-like baton.  While escaping from a huge flying slave ship, Monkey crashes in a post-apocalyptic and (rather dystopian) New York.  He awakes to find himself fitted with some sort of slave control collar that makes his life inexplicably tied to Trip and her request that he take her back to her people some 300 miles distant.  This sets off an odd character dynamic that I’ll get into in a second here.

Enslaved' Characters

Trip, Monkey & Pigsy

The last character, Pigsy makes his appearance in the final third of the game which is sad because its all over far too soon.

Considering that the main character is forced to make this long journey against his will, the interaction with Trip starts out pretty argumentative.  The story and script which were written by Alex Garland (of 28 Days Later, and The Beach fame) are smart and fast-paced.  The character model, voice and game direction are provided by Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.  The combination of smart direction and a great story make for a great trip through New York and the lands beyond.

Combat is fast but a little lame.  All of your battles will be with mech units, turrets, and mini-bosses left from some long ago war.  Often your best path involves using Trip as a decoy, or strategically taking out certain mechs in order to move on.  There are a few environmental kills that can be made, but they almost exclusive to the first third of the game in New York.

X360 Box Art


Monkey’s staff/baton/lightsaber thing can be upgraded by grabbing orange tech orbs scattered about and given off by fallen enemies.  My first playthrough on medium I managed to nab about 85% of the orbs or higher per level and was able to max out a couple of the upgrade tracks in the process.  Mini-bosses provide a fun challenge the first time and while nothing made me throw a controller in frustration, I wish some of them were a bit more difficult.

I should also mention how great the artistic direction is– the world is beautiful.  The team seemed to have taken as much brown out of the palette as possible.  New York is green and lush, overgrown with foliage.  The mountain levels are reddish-gold; the mech factories, sludge levels, and trash levels are brilliant.  You’ll traverse via foot, bike, air, submarine, and mech before the game is over.  The engine uses Unreal technology so for better or worse, everything has that characteristic “individual glow” that reminds you very quickly of Gears of War.

Post-Apocalyptic NY

Lush, overgrown New York


Of the things I didn’t like: plastforming.  A large element is finding out the suitable path to advance, taking out mechs along the way.  It’s a lot like Prince of Persia, but with a magnetic object attachment.  Aiming with the stick and a button you’ll just move from handhold to handhold.  There’s rarely the question of what the next position is and most importantly: you’ll never fall.  Sadly, you’ll never fall off of anything!  Each time you need to leave a platform or an object you’ll have to jump, each and every time.  I found that really annoying, especially when you occasionally get caught on objects that appear to be flat or contiguous but aren’t.

Lastly the game length.  I finished all 14 chapters in about 11 hours. There is some light re-playability with orb collection.  I grabbed about 520/1000 Gamerscore on the first play-through too.  They all seem achievable and since it’s all single-player probably easy to pick up within 2 playthroughs.

I wish I could recommend the game at the $60 price point– It feels like a $40 game and given the lackluster push from Namco Bandai in marketing dollars I think it’ll hit that point very quickly.  Add to the glut of holiday titles in the next 10 weeks and I think you’ll see it in the bargain bin soon enough.  A darn shame considering how much time and solid effort went into this title. Here’s hoping Ninja Theory’s next game, a reboot of Devil May Cry will be enough to keep them going.

BioShock 2 : Minerva’s Den (DLC)

Minerva’s Den is the expected final piece of DLC for BioShock 2, and ironically the first piece of single-player campaign content since the game’s release in March.  For a title with such a rich single-player portion I was amazed that it took them this long to finally create a piece of standalone content, but it’s been worth the wait.

You play as Subject Sigma in pursuit of Reed Wahl within Rapture Central Computing in Minerva’s Den.

Reed Wahl

Reed Wahl, whom you're hunting in Minerva's Den.

The levels are smartly designed filled with the art deco paintings we’ve been used to during the main game.  There are plenty of splicers and in a fitting touch, tons of automated machines to take advantage of and destroy.  The pack starts out slowly with few plasmids at your disposal and the new weapon, the Ion Gun not being terribly useful or fun.  The game quickly picks up and you’ll be using some of your favorite plasmid and weapon combinations to great success. (Except for one…)

A few of the enemies have been improved– the big bumbling  Brute Splicers have made a comeback and this time they have numbers.  You’ll have a few battles that’ll push your ammo count to the limit, but I didn’t need a Vita-Chamber once during my playthrough on Medium.  There are also elemental variants of Houndini Splicers that make their presence known in the last third of the DLC.  A new Big Daddy type known as the Lancer also awaits you.  He seems to be a bit faster and possibly a bit stronger than the last variant but with enough time you’ll wear him down.

Killing a Big Daddy nets you a Littler Sister to harvest or carry which brings back one of the most mind-numbing phases of the original game– playing protector.  There are 6 little sisters to rescue and after 3 and 6 you’ll have to fight a Big Sister for your pleasure.  Again, these battles aren’t particularly hard but sort of annoying.  It sorta made me long for the original BioShock; at least there wasn’t a “protector” section built-in.

Ion Laser

The deplorable Ion Laser in action...

As far as new contacts either by design of Plasmid availability or my own stupidity I ended up hacking a ton of bots and turrets to have at my disposal.  Again, this is fitting considering the content is based around a rather smart computer system dubbed “The Thinker”.  At one point the game even drops a fictional letter from Alan Turing in our midst– geeks will remember Alan Turing as the father of computing with his idea of a Turing machine capable of logic.

In the end I found Minerva’s Den to be totally worth it at $10.  It gave me about 4-5 hours of additional content, was for the most part very fun and enjoyable, and the ending was graceful and smart.  I highly recommend it.