Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gears of War 3

As a Gears fan since the release of the original, I looked forward to the final installment of the trilogy with a generous helping of hope and a touch of trepidation. The first game offered a multi-player experience that had no comparison, nor an equal, and a great story as well.. The single-player campaign played like a steroid-injected, sailor-cursing buddy film with plenty of nasty baddies to dismember in some interesting ways (looking at you chainsaw bayonet). I was among the hundreds of thousands of players who continued to play it right up until the midnight launch of the sequel. Gears of War 2 was sadly a bit of a letdown, at least on the multi-player side. The campaign continued the story of the COG battling the Locust Horde, and offered some excellent moments of gaming awesome. While the environments at times felt slightly enclosed and linear, overall the single-player offering was a fitting, and perhaps improved continuation of the original. The multi-player portion of the game, however was disappointing for a large contingent of fans. Although the introduction of Horde mode offered a new group co-op experience that has inspired many imitators since its release, the core online versus experience felt off somehow. I took part in the summer beta test for GOW 3, and I was left hopeful that this was going to be a return to glory for my favorite fragfest, and I am happy to say that I think Epic has succeeded.

Lets address the campaign first. The story picks up two years after the events of Gears of War 2, and things aren’t going well for the humans of Sera. The COG is in disarray after the disappearance of Chairman Prescott, and Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad have taken refuge aboard the Raven’s Nest, a rather massive carrier. After a brief introduction, the action takes off as the carrier is assaulted by the new threat, the Lambent. These mutated monsters are the main attackers you face throughout the story, though the Locust are still involved at several points, including the final confrontation. One major difference to keep in mind with the Lambent is their tendency to explode upon death, and at the higher difficulty settings it only takes a couple of these “glowie” explosions to kill the player, so be cautious about charging in with a shotgun. The series is known for epic battles against large bosses, and the trend continues here with some pretty epic boss fights, particularly the first that pits you against the Leviathan on the decks of the Raven’s Nest. As you battle the massive creature and the waves of Lambent landing on the decks, you receive your first introduction to one of the new toys in the game, the Silverback. The exoskeleton gives you some pretty hefty protection and offers a pair of chainguns as weaponry, as well as the option to dig in and launch rockets against your enemies at the cost of mobility. This is the first of the new heavy weapons you will likely find. There is also the aptly-named One-shot, which lives up to its moniker against all but the toughest of enemies, again with limited mobility. Along with new weaponry, the story campaign also feels a little different than the previous games. Gears 1 featured a lot of wise-cracking dialogue, and as previously stated, had a buddy-film style dynamic between the main characters. Even though Lieutenant Kim died at the hands of General RAAM, and of course a Carmine brother fell in action, it was more about action than drama. The story in Gears 2 was a little bit deeper, with the loss of Tai Kaliso and Dominic Santiago’s wife Maria, as well as the climactic sinking of the COG holdout city of Jacinto. The story in the third installment is much darker. There is a tangible feeling of loss and despair, with a tinge of hope from the information that Marcus’s father, Adam Fenix is alive and may have a way to eradicate the Lambent threat entirely. There are fewer jokes this time around, and even the flamboyant, boisterous Augustus Cole is slightly more subdued. There are several-scenes, that while perhaps not tear-jerking, are certainly somber. Delta Squad faces its greatest adversity, and in that adversity the best story of the trilogy is found. A fitting end to a great series of stories, I also love the campaign of Gears of War 3 for the fact that it is just that, an end. There is no hint at the chance of another struggle, there is no major plot point left hanging, it is truly an end to the story of Marcus and friends. With other major trilogies setting themselves up to continue (Yes, Halo 4, I am talking about you), this kind of definitive completion of a story arc is rare these days, and I find to be refreshing. At the time of this writing, Epic has discussed the first of the campaign DLC, due for release on December 13th, and it is not a continuation of the story, but a prequel which does not involve Delta Squad at all, and for fans of General RAAM, there is the opportunity to play as the Locust commander as well. It is yet unknown if there will be other campaign DLC as well.

Now, I know that the majority of those who get Gears of War 3 will do so for the multi-player portion of the game. As I said before, there was a sizable contingent of fans who found the online component of Gears of War 2 to be a disappointment, however I can safely say that in this installment, Epic has found redemption. We all have a tendency to measure sequels against originals, and often our nostalgic feelings make it difficult to live up to the lofty ideal we hold for our favorite properties. Yes, there are still differences in the multi-player here, and yes, some of them not everyone will like, but overall the package is pretty awesome.

For the Co-operative bunch, the campaign can now be played with four human players, which is great fun, and a first for the series. Horde mode has now been revamped, and is called Horde 2.0. While the original Horde mode was a straightforward kill baddies, spawn a new wave of baddies to kill, rinse and repeat for fifty levels, Horde 2.0 has added some cool mechanics to increase the strategy. Kills in Horde earn you cash, which can then be spent to purchase fortifications, weapons and ammunition. It adds a tower-defense aspect that provides more of a strategic feeling than it’s predecessor, and also allows for a deeper layer of teamwork as everyone works to build up and maintain the base structures to survive the higher waves. There is a new Beast mode as well, which sort of works opposite of Horde, and instead of killing waves of locust and building up a base with the money earned, you choose various locust from the game, who have different abilities, and assault human strongholds in the attempt to wipe them out. The same fortifications from the Horde mode are used against you, and while the Stranded that make up the majority of the human team are relatively ease to eliminate, the main COG characters act as “heroes” and require an up-close and personal execution to take them down. This all has to be done within a time limit, requiring teamwork to bypass or destroy the fortifications and reach the main characters within the time-frame. This mode is much shorter at only 12 waves, but offers an interesting chance to play as those damn wretches we’ve been cursing for years.

On the competitive side of the multi-player, there are 6 modes in which to dismember your friends and those random folks across the world. Warzone, Execution, and Wingman return and are basically unchanged from Gears 2, the exception being that Wingman is now only four teams of two players as opposed to five. King of the Hill is back, and is plays essentially like Annex from Gears 2, as you are not required to stand in the ring to continue scoring points after you capture it. Capture the Leader is basically a return of Guardian, where each team has a leader they must defend while attempting to capture and hold the opposing teams leader. The new kid on the bock in the game modes department is Team Deathmatch, a straight up battle where each team has 15 re-spawns to use, and the first team to run out and lose all their lives is the loser. I have always loved the Execution game mode, and it was really all I played in the original Gears of War, but this time around I really found myself drawn to the fast-paced action of the Team Deathmatch. All of your favorite weapons return, and the Gnasher is much more like the shotgun from the original than the second game. The Hammerburst also receives an iron sight for long range accuracy and a slight zoom. Additional starting weapons are available, with the Retro-Lancer, an AK-47 style assault rifle with a standard bayonet that allows for a brutal charging execution, and the sawed-off shotgun, a double-barreled street-sweeper that does massive damage across it’s spray pattern over short distances countered by a long and vulnerable reload time. Now, for the purists out there, the Sawed-Off is considered to be a sign of a lack of skill, however it has been nerfed a little in the first title update which reduced the spread and range at which it completely melts opponents. The initial batch of maps that shipped with the game were a good mix of long range and close quarters maps, including another revival of Gridlock, which has appeared in both of the previous games. With a large number of medals, titles, weapon and character skins, and acheivements to be earned, there is a lot for completionists to get through if they want to unlock everything. Continuing the tradition of ridiculousness is the Seriously 3.0 acheivement. In the original game, Seriously required 10,000 ranked multiplayer kills, and due to an issue with scoring, many players actually had to get many more kills to receive the acheivment, sometimes as many as 15,000 or more. In Gears 2, the Seriously 2.0 achievement required racking up 100,000 kills across all modes, which could be accomplished relatively quickly by blitzing the brumak ride in the single-player campaign. Seriously 3.0 however, has no quick fix, as it requires the player to reach level 100 in Multiplayer, and earn every Onyx Medal in the game, over 60 total.Needless to say, there is plenty of content for determined Gears of War fans to get through.

A note for parents; THIS IS A MATURE TITLE. For starters, the series has always been known for its dismemberment and brutal deaths, and that hasn’t changed. There is an option to disable the gore, however if your children are old enough for you to consider getting the game in the first place, they probably know how to change the setting. Secondly, as with any online title on XBox Live, you have to take into account the millions of other gamers on the service, most of whom are extremely vocal, and the odds of your children hearing every potential curse, racial slur, or sexual comment within the first 5 hours of online play are quite high. I personally feel that if someone is going to be playing this online, they should be a minimum of 16 years old, but we all have individual children who differ from one another and this is a case of a parental judgement call.

Well, its time for the scores!

The Unreal 3 engine shows off the extra muscle that Epic games has managed to find lurking somewhere, and looks phenomenal. Occasional  issues with texture loading crop up, as they have in previous titles, but its really a minor complaint, and is based around the engine itself. Overall, the areas of Sera you explore look amazing, as do the character models, particularly in the boss battles

AUDIO - 9.7
The voice acting continues to shine, and the general sound design continues to be excellent. I particularly like the sound of the new Retro Lancer.

The single-player campaign is excellent, and plays very smoothly. The online modes are a great time, and offer an experience much closer to Gears 1 than the sequel in the way they play.

With so many things to be unlocked, both solo and with friends (and enemies), and with the knowledge that more DLC is on the way throughout the year to add to the initial purchase, I expect that Gears of War 3 will be in and out of XBoxes all over the world for the next year at least.

Gears of War 3 succeeds at offering a great package no matter what type of gameplay you are looking for, and with Epic Games’ dedication to adjusting and perfecting the title while adding new experiences through DLC, there will be plenty more to keep you entertained at least until next Holiday Season. I recommend the title for fans and newcomers alike, bearing in mind the recommendation regarding children. This is a definite AAA title and one of the best of the year.

Star Wars: TOR Final Beta Update

Well, I have to admit, I feel slightly sheepish. I posted the intial beta impressions article because I thought BioWare was done with the beta process, yet lo and behold I found an email in my inbox this past Thursday notifying me that an additional Beta Weekend event was happening this past weekend. I used the opportunity to try another class out, and also to check out the PVP Warzones for the first time.

The PVP Warzones for SW:TOR are very similar to the Battlegrounds if you are familiar with WOW, and are instanced areas specifically for competitive combat. So far I belive there are at least four different Warzones planned for launch, however I only ended up playing two of them over the weekend, which may be the only two that were active. Civil War takes place on a battlefield that lays out between two dropships that act as a player spawn for each side, with three large cannons laid out across the midfield line that the teams fight for control of. While this is essentially a conquest game mode, the visuals of the massive cannons blasting away at the dropships is pretty cool, and the destruction of the losing team’s dropship at the end of the match makes for a pretty cool ending scene. The other Warzone I played was Huttball. This is essentially single-flag Capture the Flag, with the teams pitted against each-other in a violent, no-holds barred match held for the pleasure of the Hutts. One difference from your standard CTF is the ability to pass the huttball to other members of your team, and in this simple difference another layer of teamwork emerges. Obviously this game type plays better if you are working with a coordinated team as opposed to a team of random players who don’t work together. The Warzones, much like WOW can be entered from anywhere in the game via a PVP queue accesible directly from the HUD. In the beta, all players from 10-50 were grouped into the same Warzone, with a stat-balancing occurring to level the playing field somewhat. It is unclear if this will remain the same in the release version, as this setup still favors the higher level players as they have access to additional abilities that can make a substantial difference in combat. Overall, the PVP Warzones were a ton of fun to play, and while yes, they are similar to WOW, but the polish of the game and the balance between the classes are better than any MMO i have played at launch, and this was a beta!

I used the opportunity of the final test to try out the Jedi Consular class. Initially the class starts as a ranged DPS class, focusing more on force powers than melee (i.e. Mage), but when the opportunites for Advanced classes open up, you can choose between Sage, which can be spec’d for Mage or Healer style, or a hybrid of the two, or the Shadow, which offers a sort of Rogue or Tank style, again with hybrid options as well. I enjoyed the class, although the Jedi starting area of Tython did seem to require more foot travel than the Sith Academy on Korriban, but it was still relatively painless to finish the starting area rather quickly. I personally chose a roguish Shadow setup, and it was a lot of fun both in PVE and PVP. It should be said that the general impression among all the servers that I played on seemed to be that pretty much every class is enjoyable to play, and the balance is pretty even, so it pretty much breaks down to the individual’s choice of playstyle as to the type of character that is best.
I will reiterate, if you enjoy MMO’s, or you are a fan of Star Wars and are at all curious about the game, it is certainly worth the price of admission to check out. Graphically the game is beautiful, and seems to run well even on lower-end systems, and the story lines in the game are excellent, and worth paying attention too. It’s a nice change to get more from the mission-giver than a quick text box that everyone clicks through anyway. The game launches on Dec. 20th, so get to your local retailer or get on and preorder your copy now!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

STAR WARS: The Old Republic Beta Impressions

I have sort of an on-again off-again relationship with MMORPGs. I have played WOW multiple times over the years, mostly relating to the release of new expansions, and I also beta-tested and bought Rift. I continue to play Eve Online (watch here for impressions of the new Crucible “expansion” later) but other than WOW, I have never played an MMO to the level cap. My curiosity was piqued by SW:TOR mainly due to the fact that BioWare would be developing the game. For those of you who are not familiar with the name, BioWare is responsible for some, if not most, of the best RPG’s of the last two console generations, and additionally, they have previously handled the Star Wars license with their Knights of the Old Republic tiles, which were amazing. Needless to say, when I got the opportunity to join in the beta-testing, I was thrilled, and what follows are some of the impressions I got from the beta. It should be noted that I am not going to be giving SW:TOR an official score as this is a pre-release product and I personally wouldn’t find that fair.

First and foremost, the game is an excellent representation of the license. Keep in mind that it takes place around a thousand years before Luke and Vader and everyone tore it up on the screen, at a time when the conflict between the Sith Empire and the Republic is at a boiling point. This allows for the large numbers of Jedi and Sith in the game, as both were much more common at that time in the universe. When you start the game, you choose your server, and what side you want to be on, Sith Empire or Galactic Republic, and then begins the class selection and character customization process. The class names are different for each side, but the four choices are mirrored from one side to the other and are as follows: Jedi Knight/Sith Warrior, Jedi Consular/Sith Inquisitor, Republic Trooper/Bounty Hunter, and Smuggler/Imperial Agent. In the first portion of the beta, I went against my usual tendency to play a “Good Guy” and started a Sith Warrior. The class is primarily Melee based, and uses the force mostly for damage mitigation and range control. My game began on Korriban, the Sith homeworld, at the Academy. While running around performing tasks for some of the Academy instructors, I found that the cutscenes in which mission information is provided were excellent, and the voice acting in the majority of the scenes was very well done. I actually ended up paying attention to the story lines, which are pretty cool, particularly on the Imperial Agent. Starting out with a single vibrosword, my character was eventually presented with her own lightsaber, and eventually, as i chose the Marauder advanced class, a second lightsaber as well. In the beta the lightsaber you receive initially levels with you, and its stats improve as you progress. You can apply different upgrades to the weapon to increase the damage or your base stats according to how you play. Overall, my time with the Sith Warrior class was a great time, and as I continually chose the Dark Side options when available, I truly felt like an evil Sith crushing all resistance.

My next class was the Republic Smuggler, and I was curious to see whether playing a class without the use of the force would make me long for a lightsaber at my side and lightning at my fingertips. I can honestly say that I didn’t once get teary-eyed over my lack of Force abilities. The blaster abilities, use of cover, and gadgets like grenades made the class thouroughly enjoyable, and offered multiple options for approaching each combat situation. I played the smuggler toward the center of the moral scale, with the idea that he was all about the money, with an occasional twinge of sympathy for someone’s plight. One of the testaments to the quality of the story lines is the fact that I even had this thought process in the first place. The full audio dialogue an cutscenes for the mission conversations, along with selectable responses, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age go a long way to make the story more intersting than your standard WOW text box that everyone just ignores.

After having played a couple of different characters in multiple builds of the Beta Test, I can definitely say that if you are a fan of Star Wars, BioWare, or MMO’s you should at least check the game out, it offers the social fun of WOW with the production values you’re used to from BioWare, and wraps it up in an awesome Star Wars package. The release is Dec. 20th, and if you haven’t already pre-ordered it, get on over to Origin and do so now!.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Welcome To My Lair

I have a confession to make, I am an addict. My addiction has been well managed for the most part, and I have, to date, been able to live a mostly normal lifestyle. I have never been completely homeless and destitute, nor have I ever had to trade sexual favors for a fix (although this holiday season has come close). I created this blog to share my experiences with other addicts since these days, video games have become much more social. That’s right, I am a gaming addict. Feel free to take a minute to let that statement soak in, and likely, if you are reading this, you are an addict too, even if you haven’t realized it yet. Just remember, the first step is admitting you have an addiction. Anyway, since I am not looking to be “cured,” the main purpose of this site is to share my experiences and thoughts on games, provide reviews and information, as well as news and previews of upcoming titles. Since I am sadly not wealthy enough to purchase everything that comes out, I may not review your favorite titles, but I will more than gladly post well written reviews by like-minded gamers for all to read. I hope that you find the future musings informative, helpful, and most of all entertaining, and maybe even send a few of your friends by to check out the site. Thanks for spending some time with me, and lets get it on!