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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…)

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…

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.

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.

Fall Games Lineup

CNN has a post up this morning about this Fall’s upcoming “must-play” lineup.  I’ll spare you some of the pain there and tell you the five they’re mentioning:

  • Halo: Reach
  • Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock
  • Fallout: New Vegas
  • Civilization V
  • Medal of Honor

I”m experiencing a bit of indifference because for the first time in a long while, I don’t really want to play any of the games coming out in the very expensive, normally quite crowded holiday season.  It’s actually kind of strange because I’ve been into video games for quite a while.  I know that I’m experiencing some changes in my personal life with my attempt at heading back to school to finish up a BA degree soon but still… What is this?

Games represent a lot to me– aside from enjoying a (sometimes) interactive storyline, I enjoy playing them both for their rewards and their experience.  My friends also play video games and so it’s common topic of conversation: “What are you playing this week?”  “Did you try out (insert title here)?”.  Often we talk about shared experiences of beating a tough boss or finding some cool new thing that we’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately I find myself to be getting burnt out by the “sameness” of some of these titles.

Let’s take a look at that list again: 3 out of 5 of those titles have a colon in their title somewhere suggesting that instead of providing a number indicating the sequel’s position they decided to not tell you just which one this is in the series.  All of the titles are sequels– this is Halo 5, Guitar Hero 5 or 6, Fallout 4, Civ 5, and Medal of Honor 5 or 6.  Of these titles I’d say I’ve played all of their predecessors at least once, and some of them I really enjoyed.  All of the titles seem to have had an inception somewhere around 2001 it seems as well aside from Fallout (which received a reboot a few years back), and Civ (which seems to go long stretches in between game variants anyway).

2001 was the start of the Xbox-PS2-GameCube race that apparently has moved the industry to where it is today: 3 large companies competing over the same market, and pumping out the same titles over and over.  When did I suddenly start not liking the same stuff?

Some of it has to do with playing smart original titles that don’t necessarily fit any of the existing categories and surprising myself.  A lot of these titles belong in the scene I’ve dubbed “Indie-cade“, sort a mash of Indie Arcade.  These titles are often created and produced from one or two brains instead of a team of 30-100 people.  One title that I recently finished, Limbo was done with 5 people including art, dev, music and production.  That’s crazy and really cool at the same time.  They’ve now sold over 300,000 copies on XBLA, which I hope means it paid for itself and are continuing their awesome sales run. Limbo itself has a very simple concept: get the main character through this side-scroller with one action button, and survive. There are booby traps, environmental puzzles, and occasionally an enemy or too that wants to kick your butt.  The game took me about 6 hours of playtime and was well worth the $15 I think.

Limbo Screenshot

I told you it was B&W...

The art style is fantastic– very minimalist, black and white with some occasional twists thrown in.  If I could hear the soundtrack over my “helicopter-taking-off-Gen1-X360-fan-noise”, I’d tell you it was creepy and effective.  This title was unlike anything I’d played before and unlike the major-AAA titles coming out this Fall.

I picked up a MacBook Pro back in April, one of those snazzy i7, 17″ beasties that I love.  Soon after, Valve released a MacOS Steam client and I started to play some more Indie-cade games on the Mac.  Again, these titles don’t scream AAA but I found them to be more fun than sitting on my X360 playing shovelware.  Torchlight is one of the standout dual-platform games I’ve found and enjoyed playing in-between tasks.

I’m wondering what I’ll by occupying my time with in the coming months– I’ve started a little game with myself to try some of the older titles I own but never really played a lot of.  Maybe I’ll find some gems there, but certainly not coming out of a major publisher.  Perhaps that’s ok.

Alan Wake Impressions

Apologies for the long delay here between updates. I’ve started a new gig (to be written a in a future post) and have been kind of fumbling around a bit trying to get my rhythm. I also seem to be trying to do an inordinate amount of “household” things as Spring is here and my apartment is a mess. What better way to waste some of that critical time than by playing a game? 🙂

Alan Wake LE Boxart

The Limited Edition case...

I’ve been limiting myself to a one-game-per-month kind of digestion cycle. Partially this is a money thing– at $60 a pop I’m trying to save a bit of cash for other personal projects. This month I chose Alan Wake and it’s Limited Edition Variant too. Ooh. Gaze at it’s mighty splendor here:
The LE contains the game, a printed book, a bonus .XEX with themes, trailers and an unlockable dev commentary mode. There’s also a nifty soundtrack that I didn’t find relevant until I started playing the game. Hello context!

You play as (duh) Alan Wake an author who takes a brief vacation with his wife Alice to a fictional place called Bright Falls, WA. Alan is suffering from writers block and hasn’t written a page in a few years. His wife find a specialist in the city who could potentially help Alan, but then weird shit starts happening. Alice is kidnapped and Alan keeps waking up in the dark having to fight some mean nasties with the only tools at his disposal: photons. I’m not kidding: the primary weapons are flashlights, road flares, and other lights. Guns play a big part too, but the light-dark thing is the key game component here. The game is episodic in nature and plays out a bit like a TV show which really works for it.

Alan shooting a flare gun

See? Photons.

Other folks have drawn comparisons to The X-Files or Twin Peaks— personally it feels quirky like those with a healty dose of The Outer Limits thrown in. In fact the in-game meta-media (my term for the media assets you’ll actively engage in the game: radio, TV, posters, other messaging) has a TV show called Night Falls. I’ve actually watched a couple of episodes in game. It’s nifty. 🙂

Here’s what else you need to know: It’s third-person, smooth, fluid and fun. The story is not exactly a surprise but its still very tense. Audio design is excellent and I really benefited from experiencing it in 5.1. Visual design is somewhat striking but I’m not sure if I enjoy it because I’m from the Pacific Northwest and they seemed to get a fair amount correct. The flora and fauna are very accurate, and the small details are what I like to experience in a game. Something about walking through the forest and noting, really noting that the ferns are the same as the species in your backyard is kind of cool. The woods manages to feel like a tangled place without a path and a led path at the same time. Great cuing. The engine itself specializes in the day/night cycle and things really do look beautiful. Draw distance is quite nice, and I’ve only seen the engine shortcut while drawing fog (super-scaled down res and masive pixelation).

Alan Wake engine showing day/light shift

Engine rendering of times of day.

As you might’ve surmised there are a great deal of real-time lights and you can generate gobo effects with Alan’s flashlight and shadows from other objects in path.

Where I’m yanked out rather quickly are the cutscenes. Wooden character animations, and that awful chuck-tooth mouth open close maneuver that reminds me of marionettes. The voice acting is ok, but we’re down here in zombie character land and it shows. It’s a shame really because its about the only negative thing I can find so far.

I’m currently about 40% through the game and my decision is pretty well made up. Alan Wake is worth your time. For a game that’s been in development for 5 years it shows some attentiveness to vision.

Mass Effect 2 Impressions (X360)

I hate posting reviews of an item that I have yet to finish. I think its rather horrible of me to act like I’ve played something through to the end, report it as “good”, and then maybe suggest you spend your hard-earned cash on the same item. Therefore, I’ll call this an “impression” because I have yet to finish the game. (And that’s a good thing; I really want to savor this.)Mass Effect 2 CE (X36) Box Art

I’ll spare you the boring details of ME2 that you’ll find elsewhere on the web. The critical thing is that the game is good, better than ME1 but in a different way. The converation trees are deeper, the consequences greater, the characters more refined, and the technical and artistic design of the game quite beautiful. More importantly: the universe is far deeper.

Let me give you an example: Without sharing too much of the story, you spend most of your time (as well as I can ascertain anyway) on a new station called Omega. Its sort of a rogue installation far away from the Citadel and its usual cleanliness. Back-alley deals go down here; people get shot all the time, and you can get in touch with your seedier side if you so wish. The nightclub areas are a step up, oozing feeling and I find myself thinking “This would be an awesome club if it actually existed!”. And that’s what I mean, all over this game I find myself really wishing this universe, this storyline actually existed. I haven’t felt that way since watching Star Wars as a kid.

One of the better things about ME2 is how it seems to integrate into the trilogy arc as a whole. Just like the first game there is an entire galaxy to explore, but it assumes you’ve played the first one. The whole “right side” of the galaxy map is the area you explored in the first game and wouldn’t need to see again. The Citadel, once an area of great exploration with stores, clubs, C-Sec, etc. to explore is like a small afterthought– you’ve been here before, now go explore these new stations and planets. Even the exploration of planets has changed– where once you used the hulking, lumbering Mako vehicle to actually land on planets and explore them, you now scan from space from the comfort of the new Normandy SR2. It is the inclusion of the light, mini-games within the Mass Effect universe that I think is so cool.

I am a bit disappointed to see that I now have to pick up ammo clips to replace my own, and that there’s a decreased amount of things to pick up. However, I can’t argue with the simple inventory system and the fact that I don’t have to have 47 versions of the same armor stacking up my precious inventory spaces. I’m mixed about the increased reliance on shooting abilities– I really liked that ME1 was an RPG first, and a shooter second. This one seems to have flipped that around, but apparently the Internet disagrees with me: Glowing reviews suggest that it was the right way to go.

ME2 Screenshot

ME2 Screenshot

I’m about 12 hours into what is being touted as a 30-hour game and I’m loving every second of it. I’m taking my time with all of the side-quests but I want to get done before next week’s release of BioShock 2. It appears there is a larger plan for DLC– there was Day One content released, but I get the feeling we’ll be seeing some of this stuff for the next year or so.

Well done BioWare! You guys rock as always. Maybe you’ll hire me one of these days…

Mass Effect 2 Videos: