Thursday, September 30, 2010

Nintendo 3DS release date announced

It's official - the 3DS, Nintendo's upcoming handheld, will be released in Japan in February 2011, while Europe and the U.S. will see a release in March 2011. The Japanese release is currently priced at 25,000 Yen (approx. $299 USD), though there is no news yet on the European or U.S. price tags. Big releases being highlighted for the system include Kid Icarus: Uprising, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Resident Evil: Revelations, Paper Mario, Star Fox 64 3D, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The system will also support a virtual console akin to that of the Wii, allowing gamers to download Gameboy and GBA titles.

A short video highlighting many of the 3DS titles to be released for the system (courtesy of GameSpot):

Monday, September 27, 2010

Xbox 360 review: Halo: Reach

Roughly three years after the conclusion of Master Chief's story in Halo 3, Bungie has released Halo: Reach, the final Halo title to be developed by the company. For those not familiar with the game, Halo: Reach is a prequel to the original Halo. Players are given control of Noble Six, a SPARTAN-III and the last surviving member of his team, as he is transferred to Noble Team to fight the Covenant in the final days before the planet Reach was glassed.

*[NOTE: In the images below, my Noble Six is wearing recon armor. The armor will differ depending on how you customize your Noble Six character.]

The campaign plays out much like a greatest hits with each mission feeling unique to Halo: Reach, but carrying a sense of familiarity. ‘Tip of the Spear’ is reminiscent of Halo 3’s ‘Tsavo Highway’ and ‘The Ark’, and the latter portion of ‘Long Night of Solace’ akin to the original Halo’s ‘The Truth and Reconciliation’. Even Halo 3: ODST gets a bit of a nod in the mission ‘Exodus’. Players are granted more freedom in how they go about completing certain missions, but at the same time the game requires them to be more strategic than in previous titles. The normal and easy difficulties provide a similar challenge as in Halo 3, though the Heroic and Legendary difficulties will truly challenge players without being unfair or downright aggravating.

The members of Noble Team each have a distinct personality, and the only one left the least fleshed out is Noble Six. This is likely because Bungie wanted to let players customize their experience and leave Noble Six’s personality up to interpretation. Still, he/she shows more emotion than Master Chief did in pretty much any of the other Halo games and it’s nice to see that Bungie mixed things up a bit. As for the rest of Noble team, Carter - the team’s leader – come across as simply following orders at first, but it becomes apparent later on in the story that he does care for the safety of his team members despite the fact that isn’t always the best at expressing this. Kat is perhaps the most valuable member of the team as specializes in hacking and data retrieval, and is more than capable of holding her own against covenant forces. Emile is cynical and seems to have the most difficult time getting along with others, though his skills in close-quarters combat prove invaluable. Jun is a bit of a chatterbox but one of the most entertaining characters in Halo: Reach, as he tends to keep a positive light on things while remaining focused on his mission. He is the team’s designated Sniper and can provide the team cover from a Falcon transport circling the area or from the ground. Jorge is built like a tank and is the only SPARTAN-II among the group, having seen years of service. He is well-versed in different languages and is by far the compassionate member of Noble Team.

Dr. Catherine Halsey, a pivotal character in the Halo novels, plays a significant role in the events that unfold throughout Halo: Reach. A number of guest appearances occur as well, tying the story into the core Halo storyline. There are a few things left unanswered to players, such as how the Covenant were able to discover Reach and land on the planet undetected. The novel The Fall of Reach could clear things like this up for players, but at the same time they shouldn’t have to look this sort of thing up to understand what’s going on in the game. That said, it’s relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. The story is genuinely gripping and emotional at many points, making it the best campaign in a Halo game, as well as one of the best in any FPS title.

The game’s graphics are stunning and it seems that Bungie went a slightly different route with the art style in Reach than they did in Halo 3. Halo 3’s characters were portrayed in a style that was semi-realistic but had a hint of cel-shading. In Halo: Reach, everything looks realistic, from the character models to the UNSC ships to the planets on Reach’s horizon. Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salavatori have released yet another fantastic soundtrack to accompany the gameplay, with variations on a number of familiar Halo themes.

Aside from the campaign mode, players are given quite a few reasons to stick with the game for some time to come, most notably the multiplayer, which the Halo franchise has largely been popularized by. New to Reach’s multiplayer is the inclusion of loadouts, which vary depending on gametype. These grant players use of two weapons upon spawning (one weapon in rare cases) as well as equipment (which are no longer scattered around the maps as they were in Halo 3). Players are still able to swap out weapons with those on any given map in-game, and can switch up their loadout prior to respawning. The new assassinations are entertaining but players might want to think about their surroundings before sneaking up and stabbing an enemy, as the animated assassination leaves them exposed for a brief few seconds. While there is little to complain about in terms of the variety of weapons at players’ disposal, I find it likely that Bungie will release an update in the near future to adjust the headshot accuracies, which (at present) seem to be based more on luck than skill once a player’s shields have been brought down.

The number of maps included on the disk is a bit of a disappointment, especially considering that nearly half of the maps are straightforward remakes from Halo 2. The ability to veto gametypes in the matchmaking pregame lobby returns, though this time around players are given the option to vote from three gametypes or choose ‘none of the above’ (upon the latter choice, the game will select three new gametypes that players must then choose from). The exp. System from Halo 3 - wherein players would earn single exp. Points per game won - has been exchanged for a progression system in which players earn more points based on performance, completing challenges, and earning commendations, but will still earn points simply for participating in a match. These points can then be exchanged to unlock armor permutations and Firefight voices.

Returning from Halo 3: ODST is Firefight mode, in which waves of enemies are sent at players. Players can tackle Firefight in three ways. Traditional Firefight is accessible through the main menu and allows players to take on the Covenant by themselves, allowing them to customize loadouts, difficulty level, the number of enemy waves players will be facing, and the enemy/player attributes. Firefight matchmaking puts four players in a game and requires them to take out the Covenant forces before a certain time limit runs out (generally ten minutes). Gametypes include traditional Firefight, Sniperfight, Rocketfight, and Generator Defense (in which players prevent Covenant forces from destroying a number of generators). Finally, Score Attack pits one player against waves of Covenant forces (much like non-matchmaking Firefight) and ranks the endgame score on a community leaderboard.

Forge mode is back from Halo 3 and has seen a major overhaul in user-friendly aspects. No longer is flipping pieces about a hassle, thanks to the inclusion of degree turns. Players can fine-tune the specific location of Forge pieces by zooming in, and can even set the object to ‘fixed’ or ‘phased’, leaving the object hanging in midair or allowing it to phase into another object respectively. Buildings can be changed in color for designation to the different teams. The majority of Forging will take place in Forge World, an enormous area built by Bungie with certain areas set up as the beginning environment of a map, but ultimately the final outcome is limited only by players’ imaginations.

Halo: Reach is the culmination of many of the best elements of previous titles in the series. Some could say the game returns to the roots of Halo, but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate as there are plenty of inclusions from Halo 2, Halo 3, and even Halo 3: ODST that make the gameplay so fluid. With past Halo titles, I felt that they were somewhat overrated and hyped too much. But Reach is the complete package, providing tons of playability, superb graphical and musical achievements, and one of the best FPS campaigns around. In short, Halo: Reach is a title that belongs in the library of any Xbox 360 owner.

My rating: 9.25 (out of 10)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Bioshock Infinite gameplay

Some early gameplay of Irrational Game's upcoming Bioshock Infinite has been released and I must say, it looks impressive. I'm surprised at how bright and sunny a city like Columbia can feel so eerie. A few new plasmid abilities are highlighted, as well as the ability to combine these with Elizabeth's powers. For ten minutes worth of footage, this clip sure covers a lot of ground.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Portal 2 Co-op update

Another brief update, with the new trailer for Portal 2 co-op attached. It seems that Valve is going to make the cooperatvie gameplay narrative-driven, though where all this plays into the overarching story of Portal remains to be seen. I'll keep things updated with new posts and information as I receive it, but for now just enjoy the trailer.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

DLC review: Bioshock 2 - Minerva's Den

The third and final bit of Bioshock 2 DLC has arrived and, as with the previous two releases, 2K has created a great experience full of everything that makes Bioshock 2 the unique game that it is. That said, Minerva’s Den didn’t feel as fleshed out of DLC as the Rapture Metro Pack or the Protector Trials and is, in my opinion, the weakest of the three.

Minerva’s Den opens up with an Alpha-series Big Daddy named Subject Sigma being denied entrance to Minerva’s Den, home of Rapture Central Computing, via a tunnel exploding. But as Sigma is a Big Daddy, moving about the ocean is quite simple and so he finds another entrance into the home of Rapture Central Computing, with the help and guidance of Brigid Tenenbaum and Charles Milton Porter. Porter, along with his colleague Reed Wahl, worked on The Thinker, a supercomputer that runs many of Rapture’s everyday needs. However, over time Wahl took control of The Thinker and subsequently all of Minerva’s Den, while Porter was banished from his own creation. Now Sigma must get control of The Thinker back out of Wahl’s grasp.

The single-player story that is Minerva’s Den plays out like a two to three-hour version of either Bioshock or Bioshock 2. The overall objective is ever-present, but players will have to traverse different sections of Minerva’s Den and complete various objectives before reaching Wahl and The Thinker. Along the way, players will find a handful of audio diaries, most of them pertaining exclusively to Porter and Wahl’s collaborative work, as well as the major weapons and plasmids found throughout the main game of Bioshock 2. While collecting each weapon doesn’t detract the narrative, it is a bit of an annoyance as players are only granted use of the drill and telekinesis plasmid at the start of Minerva’s Den and are then expected to take out some relatively challenging enemies (such as Spider and Brute Splicers) with this combination. Once players have tracked down more weapons and plasmids, however, the big challenge will be balancing weapon use and conserving ammo, as this isn’t nearly as plentiful in Minerva’s Den as in the rest of Rapture.

Two new additions to the Bioshock arsenal make their debut in Minerva’s Den. The Laser is a weapon carried by the newest Big Daddy model known as the Lancer. Once players have taken a Lancer down, they can loot his Laser for ammo cells, and can then fire the weapon with three ammo types – a standard laser beam, a thermal beam, and a charged ion blast. A new plasmid, Gravity Well, creates a small gravitational center which pulls objects and enemies towards itself for a brief time period. While it’s nice to see that 2K is as creative as ever, the Laser basically combines three ammo types from other weapons and attributes them to one convenient location that is ultimately a less powerful weapon. As entertaining as Gravity Well is to use on a handful of Splicers, it doesn’t prove particularly useful against the large numbers of enemies players face in gather sections, and is a plasmid better reserved for its primary inclusion – unlocking certain areas.

The design of Minerva’s Den is much darker and moody than many other areas of Rapture and often carries a feel much more akin to that of the original Bioshock than Bioshock 2. There are a number of areas that players can choose to travel to if they wish to explore more of Minerva’s Den, but these are not required by the main narrative. Some of these simply allow players to stock up on munitions and health packs, but others further explore the history of Minerva’s Den. Unfortunately, a few of the questions brought up by exploring these areas are never answered by the narrative’s conclusion.

Minerva’s Den is a nice addition to the overarching tale of Rapture, but is still very much self-contained. While players may find a few audio diaries by Andrew Ryan, the only character that makes an appearance both outside and inside Minerva’s Den is Tenenbaum, and the story of Sigma, Porter, and Wahl doesn’t extend past this DLC or play into the main events of Bioshock 2 in any way. While the story of Minerva’s Den doesn’t explain much of anything until (quite literally) the last fifteen minutes of the gameplay, the payoff is quite good and delivers a solid plot twist that keeps with Bioshock tradition. In the end, Minerva’s Den is easily the weakest of the three pieces of Bioshock 2 DLC, but is still a great addition to any fan’s collection.

My rating: 8 (out of 10)*

*(rating applies solely to downloadable content, not its inclusion with the content on the original game disc or other downloadable content)
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