The Saboteur: First Impressions

The Saboteur is a game that is very similar to the Grand Theft Auto, Mercenaries, Saints Row, and Crackdown franchises. So far, I’d say the main thing that differentiates it from its competitors is that it takes many of the best elements from these games and combines them all in one place.

There are disguises similar to [Prototype], wall climbing like in Assassin’s Creed, plenty of driving missions like Saints Row and GTA, cover-based gun fights like GTA IV, and destructible environments like Mercenaries.

Overall, my first impression of the game is that it’s very fun but also quite frustrating. The reasons that the game is fun are more obvious (“sandbox” game play; use of color and the lack thereof; and the freedom to beat missions in any which way you can manage them), so I’ll focus on the frustrations — along with providing my “fix” to keep it constructive.

  • There’s an early mission where you have to win an auto race. The first time I tried it, I was getting used to the driving mechanic and controls and ended up falling horribly behind. I may have been half-a-lap or more behind. At the time, I didn’t know you could jump to your last checkpoint. Instead, I spent another few minutes racing to the finish line so that I could fail and try again. When I was suitably far enough behind, the game should have popped up a “Don’t forget: if you’d like to re-try, press [start] and then [y].”
  • From another early mission, I was tasked with using stealth to release a guy named Crochet from a prison. The moment you release Crochet, whether you’re spotted or not, an alarm goes off and everyone is shooting at you from every direction. But you can’t run away just yet because you’re told to open three more cells. What works better? Tell the player that killing everyone on the way in, racing to open the doors, and then getting out of there is the best approach. Or get rid of the other cells.
  • Related to the prior comment, after you open a cell you stash your weapon. At first I thought I was losing my gun each time I opened the door — and I was racing to find a new weapon to replace it while under a steady barrage of fire from the Nazis. Since this is the first time you lose your weapon in this way, the game should have popped up a note to let you know that you’ve stashed your weapon — or, more simply, re-equipped it for you automatically after the door was opened.
  • Whenever you die or fail at a mission, you lose all of your grenades and explosives and any guns you may have just purchased. Bleh. So if you do fail at a mission, instead of quickly re-trying, you first have to track down new gear. I prefer a less penalty-driven approach where you keep everything you had at that last check-point, or at least start out with a pistol and a dozen bullets.
  • The combat is generally fun. Lots of good run-n-gun goodness. But I really miss the inclusion of the ability to lock-on to a target — or, as with Mass Effect, to require only that your aim is “close enough” to your opponent. Unfortunately, like Saints Row, I frequently over-steer my aim when I’m in combat, first firing over a soldier’s left shoulder, then his right, and then his left again as I try to actually hit him.
  • When you perform a feat of terrorism the area around your activity, on the mini-map, turns yellow. It’s now a suspicious zone and if you stay in it when guards are around you’re going to be in trouble. When you do get in trouble a large red circle forms around your character’s position on the mini-map. Every German is now hostile toward you and will attack you until you are out of range. You can try to escape the zone but if any Nazi spots you along the way the circle re-centers on you. It’d be more than nice if, instead of these psychic guards, the system featured a circle that does not re-center on you unless you perform a new suspicious activity.
  • In the first black market mission you’re sent to re-claim a bottle of wine. The moment the mission started the guards immediately went to red alert. The game informs you that the nearby gestapo can see through your disguise, but by then it’s too late. The game should have started me in a safer location so that I could have more easily removed my disguise.

Bottom Line: Like any complicated game there’s a learning curve. Once you get past the curve, a lot of these criticisms disappear. And while Pandemic definitely could have done a better job of easing the transition on some of these points, I don’t want to criticize them too harshly because they have a lot of very helpful tutorial pages as you play.

Bully: First Impression

I recently picked up a copy of Bully: Scholarship Edition for the Xbox 360 (patched to version 1.03). For those who haven’t played this (older) game, here’s the overview:

You’re a kid dropped off at a boarding school. The school is tough and you’re the new guy. It’s your job to survive the bullies and attend classes and not get kicked out of yet another school (your character has a troubled history).

Classes are mini-games. For example, in English class you’re given a bunch of letters and told to form as many words as you can within a fixed amount of time. In music class, you’re basically playing a rhythm game. When you pass a class, you’re rewarded by unlocking a clothing item or coming up with a formula to make your own stink bombs or itching powder. Meanwhile, there are story-based missions: breaking into the school to steal a diary or finding an alcoholic teacher’s stashes to protect him from himself. These advance the story, affect relationships with central characters, and usually earn you a little bit of money for buying clothes or going to the movies or the carnival. And there are the factions: such as the nerds and the bullies. Every action or mission has the potential to impact your standing with the other groups.

My first impression? Love it. Tons of fun. I love going to classes and going through the mini-games. And the quests themselves are fun and create the game’s story experience.

I do have a few complaints, and that is the emphasis for this post.

Early on, it seems like everyone wants to fight you. I would get a quest to walk five feet and barely be able to accomplish it because I kept getting attacked and then the prefects would come after me. It was getting frustrating. Fortunately, I befriended the nerds and they started jumping in during fights. Then, after completing a few more missions, the fights calmed dramatically.

The second criticism is that I was enjoying the classes and hit level three in most of them. Then, I apparently triggered the boss fight against one of the school’s football heroes that closed out the chapter and fired up the second chapter. Now, it’s all new classes. The completist in me would have preferred to ace the first semester’s courses before moving on to the next semester. Alas. Maybe I’ll get to go back to the older classes in a future semester or as I cycle through them more in chapter two.

My final [first impression] criticism is a minor one. The controls can’t be re-mapped and the commands are slightly off from what I’d expect. I’m used to squeezing the right trigger, for example, to power vehicles, while using the left trigger to brake. Here, it’s the [X] button (brake) and the [A] button (accelerate) and that sometimes trips me up. All it means is that I sometimes have to think about which buttons do what before I can do something, but then I’m fine.

Fable 2: See the Future: First Impressions, Part One

Back in February, I played through Fable 2’s first batch of DLC and I thought it was “pretty forgetable. And that will leave me thinking twice about the next DLC – if there is anymore on the horizon.”

Well, there was more on the horizon, but when it was released I didn’t think twice. I picked up See the Future the day it came out. And the first impression?

So far, I love it. Sad to say, but I think the reason I was so down on Knothole Island was because of the question of cost versus content – as in, it was short and expensive, for DLC. It feels like Lionhead went the other route this time, releasing a pretty lengthy, substantial download for a very fair price.

The first thing that happens when you install the DLC is that a trader by the name of Murgo shows up in the docks of the Bowerstone Market. He sells you a cursed snowglobe. Use the globe, and you get sucked into it – and a decent length adventure.

The Cursed Snowglobe Mission

On the inside, you find yourself in a black-n-white world. The culprits? Brightly-colored (yet shadowy) figures who are sucking the color from the world.

The creatures are blue, yellow, or red. And though I picked up that my skill-focused hero was yellow, my gun was yellow, and my blade was blue – I didn’t quite catch on to the fact that the three prime skills were coming into play with the world’s coloring. In other words, blue shadows can only be defeated with melee weaponry, red shadows with magic, and yellow shadows with ranged weaponry. As an additional clue, the blue shadows use melee weapons themselves, the yellow shadows fire guns, and the red shadows use magic (which is quite awesome since no other monsters use time control magic; it makes them quite fearsome).

And I have to laugh at myself for not picking up on it much more quickly. In QA at BioWare, if the designers had pulled something like this I would have criticized them for accusing the gamers of being imbeciles. They would have responded that you can never be clear enough, and they would have been right. Yes, I will admit that I spent at least 20 seconds shooting at the blue shadows before realizing that I had to match blue-with-blue and use the melee weapon. Duh! 🙂

The rest of the globe world consists of pressing forward, fighting through the waves of monsters before defeating the final encounter and restoring color to the world.

The Cursed Skull Mission

Back at the market, Murgo now offers to sell you a cursed skull. Using the skull transports you to an errie land of the dead. When you arrive, an actual, giant skull tells you that it’s trapped and only a hero can rescue it. It begs you to travel through the area to find wisps, and bring them back to him.

The wisps themselves are trapped in various locations that are sealed by magic statues. The statues, like statues in Fable 2’s main adventure, require you to do a specific pose – matching the appearance of the statue. However, the extra twist here is that you have to wear a specific costume, too. For example, you might have to dress as a Hobbe and then do the point-and-laugh emote.

The brunt of this quest entails getting three costumes and proceeding through the magically-locked doors to the wisps, then leading them back to the skull – while fighting monsters all along the way. Like the snowglobe, the map is well designed and looks great (much like Knothole Island, actually; both DLCs ramp up the pretty factor). And also like the snowglobe, the mood and setting were particularly well done.

When I commented on wanting some new game mechanic or twist, in Knothole Island, this is exactly what I meant. In other words, while Knothole Island was fun and looked great, it felt like more of the same. See the Future, with the multi-colored shadows and costumes impacting the quests, felt like something new.

More Still to Come!

I’ve spent a bit of time playing today between the two aforementioned adventures, but I haven’t seen all the content. I think I spent too much time collecting all the hidden dye and statues in order to get achievements (I’m up to 50 achievements now). :p

There are, apparently, three major facets to this piece of DLC – the first two the snowglobe and skull, with the third piece the Colliseum. I will make sure to write up a second review as soon as I get to it.

A Fable 2 Retrospective?

First, I have to admit that See the Future has completely renewed my interest in Fable 2.

After beating Fable 2, I started up a second game but started playing other games and forgot about Fable. In anticipation of playing the new DLC, I fired my second playthrough up again to strengthen my character a little. Then, after I got the DLC, I was too caught up in the main quest to check out the new content. Finally, after first meeting up with the Hero of Skill and acing every round of the Crucible (all perfects, 762 seconds total I think), I decided to check out the new DLC. Which, in turn, has gotten me more into simply playing Fable 2 – as opposed to a desire to burn through the new content and quit.

Yes, after this surge of playing I’m reminded of many of the things that seem like they should be flaws: the easy combat, the gobs of money and nothing to spend it on but expensive houses which only generate more money, the shallow interaction with people, the limited character development and ease of experience-point gains, and so on – but somehow it doesn’t matter. It’s just too much “casual” fun.

It really is a game that has a great level of depth to it, but that you can pick up and play for short stints or long ones.

I especially love that all of the missions can be finished in something like 30 minutes. Since you cannot save during a mission, the shorter duration never leaves you feeling like you’re trapped in a lengthy quest and needing to set aside blocks of time to play. Similarly, the fact that you earn money even when you’re not playing is a brilliant design decision as it encourages you to get back to the game – if only to see how much money you’ve earned (again, even though there’s nothing to buy, but that doesn’t even matter) and buy a few more houses with your new stash of wealth.

Fable 1 did a lot of things right, but there are some huge improvements in terms of the gameplay between 1 and 2. It’s impressive.

Saints Row – First Impression

I’d been wanting to play the second Saints Row for a while now – since I’d heard it compared very favorably to one of my favorite titles, GTA: San Andreas. But then I spotted the first Saints Row (SR1) “for cheap” and decided to pick it up instead. The comparison to San Andreas probably tells you all you need to know about the game, but if not – GTA (and SR1, from what I can tell) is a game where you drive around a realistic city performing various activities – such as driving from Point A-to-Point B, high-speed chases, high-speed escapes, and other variations on stuff you can do while driving. It sounds simple, but it’s an awesome genre of fun gaming. And that brings us back to SR2 – the game I wanted to play because people said it was like a sequel to San Andreas. How would SR1 differ?

Upon starting the game, my first thought was “I have to make my own character? I don’t want to do that!” I always get a little annoyed when I’m presented with a thousand ways to customize my player. I want to play the game and giving me that many choices is effectively a road block. I’m being facetious, by the way – though I did sigh heavily when I realized I’d be tinkering with the look of my character for a while before actually playing. And I was only allotting myself about 45 minutes to play.

Despite wanting to just pick a default and start playing, I ended up taking about 10 minutes to customize an Asian avatar with short, green hair, a long mustache, and devil-spiked eye brows. He has a very slightly muscled build.

And then I dove in. Here are my first five thoughts:

My first thought was in regard to character movement: responsive! Unlike a lot of games that deliver realistic animations – Saints Row delivers accurate motion. In other words, I press forward and then immediately press back – in GTA, my character will transition from a run to a slow-down, then play a turn animation, then transition from stop-to-walk-to-jog-to-run. In SR1, you go from running one direction to immediately running in the other direction with only a quick turn animation between. Arcade-like. Fun. I dig it. I hopped into a car and found it’s much the same – almost exactly, if not exactly, like comparing the driving physics from San Andreas to GTA IV. Again, I dig it.

Second thought was that combat was sloppy. I don’t have a mouse to ensure pin-point precision. I have an analog stick. When I aim my shots, I often jump the targeting reticule past my opponent, then swing it back past him again as I try to aim. Then the opponent moves and I have to start over. That’s why games like GTA employ an auto-target mechanism. Unfortunately, SR1 does not have that. It also does not have cover mode. A thought creeps through my head that combay may become frustrating. We’ll see.

Third thought was that I couldn’t get used to the controls. While driving, it’s (and we’re talking Xbox 360 here) [X] to reverse and break, [A] to accelerate, and [LT] to pull the emergency break. What? Seriously? Why not go with the industry standard? [RT] to accelerate, [LT] to break/reverse, and something like [X] or [B] to pull the emergency break.

(Note: didn’t find out you could grab this exact set-up by selecting a control profile from the options until my next play session; remember, I was only playing for 30 minutes and I wanted to run around a little without worrying about things.)

Fourth thought? Running around punching people in the back of the head is fun. How awful is that? But seriously, rag doll physics make everything better.

Fifth and final thought for this opening post? I dig the graphics. In a lot of ways, it is like San Andreas – but with the power of the Xbox 360 (versus the original Xbox or PS2) behind it, everything is brighter and sharper and cleaner and the frame rate is smoother. A lot of people will say it does not at all compare to GTA IV, but anyone who knows me knows that I’d rather see a dev team focus on the game play and not worry so much about the graphics; keep them clean and don’t worry so much about hyper-realistic fidelity. In that sense, SR1 takes the engine in the direction I’d have rather seen of GTA.

Bloodlines – Continued

(today’s post: 750 words)

There are many ways to sub-categorize RPGs, but for the sake of this post I’m going to refer to the commonly-used “linear” and “non-linear” genres.

By linear (since these words are *not* intuitive) I mean games that are story-focused with little emphasis on activities outside the story or deviating from expected solutions. To better aid your understanding here, I’ll use BioWare’s titles as my example. Non-linear titles, sometimes, by some people, referred to as “sandbox” (again, consistency in regard to definition is uncommon), have a story but it can be largely ignored in favor of “running around and having fun”. Bethesda is a great example of that type of game, in my mind. Both have flaws and strengths and, as an equal fan of both (ha! Diplomacy for the win!), I’d love to see each borrow from the other.

I say this to lead into a couple observations on VtMB (Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines), the game I am currently playing – and which we’ll call a linear RPG.

In the game’s opening, you leave your apartment and walk down an alley toward the main street. Before you get there a cutscene steals control from you in order to show you a bloody mess-of-a-man stumbling into his apartment.

I like this and I don’t like it. I like it because it sets up a mystery. Why is he bloody? Who is the man? What’s the importance? It raises curiosity. It sucks you into the story. On the other hand, I dislike it because its passive entertainment. Non-interactive, like a movie. There’s a desire to skip the cutscene and get back to actually *playing* the game.

But it’s a greater failing in a game like Bloodlines because it doesn’t need to be there.

  1. There isn’t a lot to look at when you arrive on the main street. The chance that you’ll spot the guy is pretty high, especially since he’s moving awkwardly and making grunting noises.
  2. There is blood leading to the apartment complex from a poorly-parked car in a nearby lot. If you miss the guy entering his apartment, you’d have to be blind to not notice the mis-parked car and blood.
  3. In your apartment, where the game starts, you have a laptop. In your e-mail account, you receive a note saying to meet [the bloody guy] in his apartment – so you knew you had to go there eventually, anyway.
  4. The game doesn’t advance until you enter the building and speak to the bloody man.

The only way I think I’d “approve” of the cutscene is if it were based on your character’s Perception skill. At least then, you could tell yourself that the cutscene was a reward for how you created your character.

But the truth is that the game wants to tell its story and it wants to tell it in its way. And that’s sort of the main separation between “pure” linear and non-linear titles.

Another separation is that time often stops in linear games – waiting for you to “trigger” the next jump in time. Back to our apartment scene…

  • You catch up to the bloody guy in his living room. He’s sprawled out on the now blood-soaked couch. He’s hurting. You can offer to call an ambulance but he refuses. Just get him some morphine, he says. That’s all he wants.

So what do you do? You go back to your apartment and check your e-mail again, then wander around the hospital for a while – giving up when you can’t get to/find the morphine. You wander down to the beach and onto the pier to catch the crime scene. Then you head to a club to dance for a while before getting a mission to chase off some Asian guy. You complete the mission and check your e-mail again – only to remember the morphine. But at the hospital you find a couple other items of interest and that distracts you some more.

When you finally get back to the bloody mess, it’s as if 5 minutes have passed – even though your actions would have taken hours, if not days. In other words, the game was kind enough to wait for you. Just try to do that in a game like Oblivion. The guy would be long dead and buried. But again, that’s the difference. In a non-linear game, retrieving morphine is just a side mission. If you miss that the guy went into his apartment, no big deal. If you don’t get him the pills in time, no big deal. He dies. You move on to another mission.

I’m loving Bloodlines as much as I loved Fallout 3 (non-linear). But I think it’d be cool to see RPGs try to hit that middle-ground.

Bloodlines – First Impressions

(today’s post: 483 words)

I’ve started up a new game, “Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines” (generally referred to as VtMB).

I’ve put about four or five hours into VtMB, including the tutorial, and I’m really enjoying the game. After all of the hours in Fallout 3 and the Witcher (back-to-back!), it’s nice to play a game where I can walk around on normal looking streets, check my e-mail, dance it up to modern music at a goth bar, visit a diner, or listen to talk radio – without worrying about super mutants, ghouls, or cockatrices.

Anyone who’s played the game is probably wondering what character class I chose.

From what I understand, the game can be played in a lot of different ways but the primary factor in determining the available choices is your clan. When you start the game, you have a choice to manually create a character or, what I did, answer a questionnaire. My answers tagged me as a “Toreador”. Toreador are the most human-like of the vampires, and Wikipedia says that “Their attraction to beauty is so strong that they have to force themselves not to stop at the sight of an aesthetically appealing work.” One of my primary powers is charisma, meaning that I can charm the pants off of just about anyone – which has turned out to be a good way to keep me full on blood.

I haven’t done a lot so far. I’ve been trying to help some surfers track down this girl Lily. I got some morphine and explosives for this guy Mercurio. And I’ve been spying on cops at a pretty cool murder scene that I first read about in the newspaper (and later caught on TV).

Troika (and the unofficial patch?) did a lot well with this one. There’s a lot of actual color in the game – something I always appreciate. And it’s not affected by limited view distance. Graphics (with a widescreen-stretch hack!) are more than good enough to impress me and get the point across without killing my processor. The starting area is small but packed with stuff to do. Combat is fun, albeit rare. I got into a fight at a beach house that was pretty exciting and seemed packed with ways to resolve the encounter. Load times are quick and infrequent. And the story/setting is doing a good job of hooking me.

Side note, the inspiration to give this one is a go was the news that the unofficial patch hit version 6.0. And the story there is that the original developer, Troika (now out of business), was rushed in their creation of the game. The final version was buggy and incomplete. The fans have been polishing this gem ever since. Version 6 included not only a ton of fixes but a lot of content the developers intended to implement. The game is now supposedly pretty close to original intentions. In a way, I’m glad I waited. 🙂

First Impressions – Ultima VI

(today’s post: 458 words)

Yes, you read that right. “First impressions” from a game released in 1990.

I beat Ultima 3 and 5 – and almost beat Ultima 4 a couple times; that stupid dungeon of The Codex was too long and I couldn’t play long enough to finish. And while I was excited to play Ultima 6, I think I decided to forgo the shoddy Commodore 64 port in favor of one day playing it on PC. 19 years later, thanks to DOSBox and DOSBox and DOSBox front-end Boxer, here I am. :p

Thoughts?

It’s retro. Very retro. When you play a game this old, you see how much game development has evolved.

For example, in Neverwinter Nights 2, if you click on a locked door but have the key, the door pops open and there’s a small bit of floaty text which reads something like “You used the key.” In Ultima 6? Click your character to see his inventory. Press the down arrow to scroll through the list of items until you find your keys. Click the “U” [use] button. Click the key. Click the door. Find out you need the other key in your inventory and try again.

Another example? I’m following along with the plot until I reach the small village Cove. I’m supposed to be investigating a mysterious, subterranean race – and there’s a guy there who was involved in a recent battle with them. He tells me what he knows and directs me to someone else for more help. But he doesn’t tell me where this other guy is. And I instantly think of games like Oblivion and the Witcher that helpfully point out the route to your target exactly. OK, you’re saying that’s not realistic. Well, neither is not being able to ask someone where the guy they told me to talk to is.

And then there’s the lack of a journal. Yes, I’ve been babied by recent RPGs. They hold my hand and I appreciate it. Playing Ultima 6 reminds me of the pages of notes (and maps!) I had on various games in old notebooks. Looks like I’m going to have to take up that old habit.

Playing Ultima 6 reminds me that this was a series of leisurely games. Combat was easy. Discovery and exploration was the challenge. If you were constantly told what to do, you’d beat it quickly and miss 80% of the game’s content. Instead, they say “look for Jim, somewhere” and then you bump into dozens of other items of interest along the way to eventually finding Jim. And there is some merit to it. The game could definitely stand some modern-era polish, but overall it’s not bad. I’m more focused on finishing the Witcher (well into Chapter 4 at the moment) but I’m thinking Ultima 6 is going to demand some attention, too.

The Witcher (Enhanced Edition) – First Impressions

(today’s post: 961 words)

I’m nearing the end of the second chapter (of five?) of the Witcher (by CD Projekt) so I think now is a good time to dump down some thoughts on the game (no real spoilers, but you may want to ignore this post if you’re looking to play it… just in case).

Overall, I love it. Lots of fun. Very addicting. I think its best elements are an interesting story, fun combat, a ton of quests (there’s always something to do), and interesting characters. I’m also enjoying the much-touted “moral ambiguity” in the game.

Here’re some additional bulleted thoughts to elaborate:

  • It’s very scaled back from the typical RPG (role-playing game). At least so far, it’s more of an I-need-to-recover-some-lost-memories and less of a my-village-burned-down-so-I-need-to-save-the-world. Lots of the game so far has been an investigation – complete with an autopsy scene. It’s a welcome change. Saving the world is fun, but too few RPGs are focused on self discovery.
  • Another welcome change, there’s no “grinding” for better equipment. You can upgrade your gear, but generally speaking what you have is about as good as it gets. Through the second chapter, I’ve found one new sword that was better than something I already had, and I’ve been unable to afford the one better suit of armor I’ve found.
  • You won’t be spending money on items, either. If you invest in the skills, you’ll spend a lot of time picking flowers and digging out organs from felled beasts. You’ll then use those items to create the potions and oils which provide small-but-very-helpful benefits (i.e. faster natural healing rather than the typical instant heal). Making your own stuff is more interesting than just buying magic potions from the vendor at the magic store – which somehow stays in business even though you’re the only customer. And the smaller benefits fit the low magic world and add to the risk/thrill.
  • But you will use all of your money, and then some, getting through various plots (everyone wants a bribe or donation) and buying books (more on this at the next bullet point). At this point in any other RPG, I’d have broken the economy by now; I’d be a billionaire dropping 1000s of gold on peasants. Not in the Witcher, where I may as well be one of the peasants (which is good… you want to have some struggle and challenge). I finally bought the last available book for chapter two – which cost me about one month’s salary. Spare some change?
  • Books! When you come up against monster, you have no clue what it is or how to fight it. You can figure it out by trial-and-error or you can talk to someone/buy a book on the topic. This gives you information about strengths and weaknesses, likely locations, useful parts, and so on. I’ve rarely seen a book matter, let alone every book, as much as they do in the Witcher. I love it. Again, it immerses me more into the world.
  • You play a “witcher”, which is kinda/sorta like a cop (only in this world, your job is to protect humans by destroying monsters). Everyone hates the witchers (people find them alien and creepy and violent, etc.) but everyone needs them. I think that’s the perfect way to handle the role of the adventurer in an RPG.
  • Speaking of, there are tons of quests. You’re literally inundated. I love it. Many of the quests are mundane (a gravedigger needs grease to make his coffins), but those are fluff and filler for while you’re doing the more important stuff.
  • The world is alive. People move about throughout the day. People have jobs. People have their own interests. There’re no polar opposites of good and evil; it’s just real people getting by. And a lot of the time, you’re just the rude nuisance from their point of view.
  • Combat is fun. In most RPGs, combat is more strategic. You tell your avatar which opponent to attack, and with which weapon. Then you watch and make changes here and there to adjust. In the Witcher, it’s more action-oriented. You click on an opponent and your character plays an animation. At the conclusion of the animation you have a brief moment to click the enemy again. Time it right and you turn your attack into a double-move combo (mess up, and you start over). You can do this again to get three- and four-round combinations. I think it goes as high as five, but you need to unlock some skills to achieve that many attacks. Not necessarily better or worse than anything else out there, but it is fun.
  • You also have different sets of skills based on tougher foes, faster foes, or groups of foes – with foes defined as either monsters or humans. Six sets of skills provides for lots of areas to focus. And they block you from getting too good at anything too quickly by separating skills into tiers, so there’s always something on the horizon.
  • You can also fire off spells. There aren’t a lot of spells (I think there are five – but you have to discover them first, and they progress like your other skills) and they’re not world-affecting (again, it’s a low magic world – which makes magic feel much more impressive) – but they can make a big difference. I cast one spell at an assassin and it knocked him to the ground. Before he could get up, my character flipped his sword around and swung it through the head of the fallen foe. Quick-and-easy kill.

At this point, I don’t have a lot of complaints. The Witcher is definitely one of the best RPGs I’ve played in a good long while. It’s not without some flaws – but I’ll get to them in another post.

Fallout 3: First Impressions

(today’s post: 1,416 words)

Fallout 3 arrived in my hands today and I spent a few hours with it.

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The short version? It’s a lot like Oblivion, which is a good thing since I spent about 110 or 120 hours playing it and the expansion. Combat is similar. Exploration is similar. Graphics and animations are similar. Questing is similar. There’s a more polished story path, but you can also wander off in random directions to take on more generic content. One difference between the two games is that dialogue and characters are better; people are more unique and memorable, and you have a few more choices and more interactive conversations.

But generally speaking, my first impression is that I’m playing a slightly improved Oblivion with a new story and new areas to explore. And I’m very happy with that.

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OK. You’re done. Really. But if you want the (really) long (stream-of-consciousness) version, and don’t mind spoilers, feel free to read on:

  • I was expecting it, but I really appreciate that I can sync my Xbox Live account with the new Windows Live account. I love Live achievements and I’m glad I don’t have to miss out on them by playing the Windows version of a game.
  • I was recently reminded that in role-playing games, kids never have a mother and a father. True to form, in Fallout 3 your mother dies giving birth and you’re raised by your father – who disappears just as the game starts.
  • I liked the tutorial. Too many games either don’t do them at all or have some immersion-killing sequence where people are telling you to “press X to activate the +1 bonus on your utility device.” Fallout lets you play from childhood and the instructions make sense within the story, “Crawl over to Daddy” or “Try on your pip-boy” (kind of like a mini personal computer – used to manage all sorts of things) and the like.
  • Maybe this is unfair because Bethesda has never been about “choice and consequence” in games, but tutorials can be great stages for setting up relationships and story. Fallout 3 rushed their tutorial and didn’t provide much opportunity for role-playing. It’s as if they see it only as a vehicle to instruct the player and want to get the player through it as quickly as possible.
  • On the other, other hand, I like that you create your character by playing through the tutorial. I didn’t realize that my answer to such classroom questions as what I would do if, thanks to radiation exposure, a third arm grew out of my stomach would actually impact the type of character I made. Fun!
  • I had a bit of trouble getting used to the controller layout, but that’s typical of many games. I also had a bit of trouble figuring out how to do basic things, like putting away my gun, before realizing there is a controller map in the settings menu.
  • Like the Elder Scrolls series, the player is inundated with items. Walk into a kitchen and you’re likely to find a coffee maker, silverware, cups, and so on. You get used checking the weight vs. value ratio and ignoring the cheap, heavy garbage. Fallout 3 is no different. Unfortunately, there’s a third factor I missed in the ratio; I made it to Megaton before I realized that all those “caps” (money) and “bobby pins” (lock picks) I passed along the way would have been very helpful. Oops!
  • Occasionally, I tuned the game to “high” or “ultra high” at 800×600 to get a sense of the graphics, but generally I set everything to “medium” so that I could play at 1680×1050 resolution with a smooth frame rate (I’m getting around 40-60 per second) on my nVidia 7800 GT. The game is very pretty at low settings, just like Oblivion. But it’s not at all colorful.

And now we move into the discussion of combat.

  • Combat was a bit frustrating at first but I’m getting the hang of it. The frustration came from playing with the 360 controller and using the V.A.T.S. (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) system, instead of “WASD” 1st-person style.
  • AP (Action Points), which come into effect only when using V.A.T.S., was the primary problem. When a guy is running at me and smacking me with a club, it’s hard to get why I can’t fight back. “Low AP” makes sense but this guy has been beating on me for three seconds since I last did anything. Do I sit here and take it? Run in circles? Will moving take away AP? I eventually realized that shooting slower was the best solution, but that, yes, you can move and recover AP.
  • Also, V.A.T.S. is a little clunky. You press the right-shoulder. The game pauses and the camera zooms in on your opponent. There’s another pause as the opponent is scanned, and then you’re presented with “chance to hit” percentages. Aim at the head, for example, and you have a 67% to hit. The torso, on the other hand, is 83% likely. So you pick your part and then accept. A short cinematic is played of you attacking, the opponent attacking, and the damage results. Then the game zooms back out. Whew.
  • Since a combat can last more than five rounds, you have to repeat this process that many times – which really drags out those “epic” battles with cockroaches. : On the other hand, I hit a giant ant a dozen times without using V.A.T.S. and barely damaged it so I feel compelled to use V.A.T.S. until my character improves.
  • Damage is grossly out of proportion with the visual effects. I shoot at someone’s head point blank and get a critical hit. Blood is everywhere. I’m told that the guy’s head is out of commission. But he’s still attacking me and it’s another 4 or 5 shots before he’s dead. Meh. One of the mods I used in Oblivion let me do massive damage if I successfully sneak attacked someone. In other words, one shot to the head and that guy was dead; I can’t wait until mods like that are up for Fallout 3.
  • Speaking of blood everywhere, if you hit a guy in the head and that’s the shot that kills him, he’s decapitated. Every time. Ants? Same thing. This is how Fable 2 works but that game is more fantasy and less realism than Fallout 3 so it really stands out as odd behavior.

My favorite aspects of Oblivion were the story and exploration; that’s why I favored quick, lethal combat. Without that in Fallout 3, I’m reminded just how combat-heavy the game is.

After escaping from the Vault I was positively overwhelmed by the immersive excitement of exploring a post-apocalyptic Washington, DC. This game really sets the mood. I found a school and ventured in, feeling on edge. A woman inside spotted me and I ran back. Exciting! But then I was forced into a fire fight with her. And then another with another guy. And another. And another. And then some dogs. And then some ants. And then some more guys. It feels off. It takes away from the mood, the exploration and story. I went out of my way in the tutorial to avoid killing people. I didn’t want to be a serial killer. But a few hours into the game I’m already jaded about killing people.

But right after this, moving back along the main story path and getting away from the random time-waster “dungeons” I have another cool moment.

On my way to Megaton I spotted a mole creature. It charged at me and I pulled out my gun as a blast streaked past me (from behind) and nailed the beast. Dead. I spun around and saw three guys decked out in heavy armor. Now that the mole thing was dead they were ignoring me so I figured they were some kind of police force helping out.

I ran over to check them out just as they started firing on some scary-looking thing around a bend. One of the guys was killed but the other two put it down. That moment pulled me right back into the game.

Shortly after, I ran inside Megaton – the first town you’re supposed to visit while looking for your dad. What an impressive layout! I love how you walk up little catwalks that lead to rooftops which lead to more catwalks. It feels so organic. And, again, made me want to explore everything and keep playing – which I did, eventually bumping into a ghoul, a prostitute, and a guy in a suit. Interesting characters each.

LittleBIGPlanet

(today’s post: 350 words)

Shortly after the release of Fable and Black & White 2, Lionhead artist Mark Healey left the company to co-found a new company – transitioning his Kung Fu puppet game along the way to what is now known as LBP (LittleBIGPlanet). I’d been excited to play this game (and the original Kung Fu title) but it wasn’t until Lisa and Jared bought a PS3 and LBP that I realized I’d get the chance.

Why was I excited? Curiosity! I thought LBP was a game that needed four people (online, in person, or a combination thereof) to play and the game revolved around getting through platformer levels as a group that had to rely upon one another; I really wanted to see how that could work since all I could think of were the technical obstacles.

Anyone who knows the game knows my assumptions were wrong. LBP is technically a single-player platformer that can be played with up-to-four simultaneously. Players have no need to interact with one another except during the occasional two-player bonus areas that aren’t essential to completing the game (though there is the occasional racing level where you can compete directly).

Don’t get me wrong. This is a great game. It’s as well done as Super Mario Galaxy. It’s quirky and colorful (the textures are amazing), never boring, and well-balanced (difficult at times but never beyond what you’re capable of). And when you discover, at 3am, that you can hit your friends with a frying pan, it’s pretty much the most hysterical thing ever.

Sackboy

(LBP’s customizable Sackboy character…)

But everything that LBP does so well makes me wish there were some teamwork dynamics – like one sackboy helping another reach a higher point, and then that sackboy reaching down to help pull the other sackboy up. Or maybe one sackboy reaches out and grabs hold of a sackboy who tried to make a long jump and came up just short.

As I said at the start, a game like that only makes me think of technical hurdles. But now I really want to see someone make that effort. Hopefully LBP 2 takes that step.