Friday, June 19, 2009

Fallout 3 review

The RPG that saw me through the late winter months of 2008 and beyond into 2009 was Fallout 3, set in a post apocalyptic world in and around Washington. You begin your epic journey as a lowly vault dweller, but not long into the game you leave the confines of Vault 101 and go looking for your father. It's up to you how you go about finding him though - you could just follow the linear path that the game sets out for you, or you could forgo it altogether and explore the world, picking up the trail later on. What you do when you do finally catch up with your father is also in your own hands, as you can decide to be good, bad or neutral. Not sure if the game is right for you? I'll help you decide.

Format: Xbox 360 (also on PS3, PC)
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
Genre: RPG
Region: PAL
Price: £30-£40

Graphics: 8 out of 10
All in all, the graphics in Fallout 3 are fantastic - but they aren't without their faults. The NPC's you speak to all have a glassy stare on their faces which a bit of naturalistic animation could have fixed. This is also a criticism that has been levelled against Oblivion, so it's somewhat annoying that Bethesda hasn't fixed it. There is also a fair amount of repetition across the various areas of the wasteland - you will continually find identical looking metal boxes, radios, sewer systems and other bits and bobs. I understand why the developers would choose to reuse resources wherever they can in a game of this scale, but I appreciate it when teams make a bit of extra effort to make different areas of their world look unique (Dragon Quest VIII remains a shining example of this in my opinion).

Nevertheless, there's still an awful lot to be admired about the visuals - when you're creeping around, unsure what's around the next corner, it can be extremely atmospheric, and when you are suddenly faced with a Feral Ghoul of a Super Mutant Master it can be shit-your-pants scary. The minor quibbles won't spoil your enjoyment of the game too much, but they are serious enough to lower the score to an 8.

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Most of the time while playing the game I was tuned into Galaxy News Radio, and I absolutely love the range of old timey music that plays on that station. The list of artists include Cole Porter, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday. Great though this music is, there isn't quite a enough of it. By the end of the campaign, I must have heard the same tunes dozens of times. I didn't matter too much, but at the same time I would have appreciated some more. If Bethesda had offered a DLC pack which was nothing but another selection of 20 or so tunes for example, I would have bought it - but that is unlikely to happen.

Apart from the music, there are also a few famous voices amongst the cast. These include Liam Neeson as your father, Malcom McDowell as President John Henry Eden and Ron Perlman, reprising his role as the narrator from the first game in the series. All of them put in solid performances and help give the game more atmosphere. Some of the incidental characters have the same voice (most of the male ghouls sound the same for example) but this is nowhere near as great a concern as it was in Oblivion, where there was seemingly only a half dozen or so actors playing hundreds of people.

Finally, the sound effects. Gun shots and explosions all sound suitably beefy and realistic, monsters sound nicely disgusting and the sound effects of the VATS system, while borrowed from the first game in the series, are unique and very easy to identify.

You can gain several followers during the game including Dogmeat here. He died valiantly defending me from killer robots during my play through.

Game Mechanics: 8 out of 10
My opinion about the game mechanics is much the same as the Graphics - they work well enough but still have a few niggly flaws that prevent them from being great. Firstly, the battle system - you can play Fallout 3 in real time like a first person shooter, but it really doesn't function very well if you do decide to go that route. To get the most out of the game you should use make use of VATS whenever you can, and just use the real time combat as a fall back. Pressing the RB button freezes the action and puts an overlay over the enemy that allows you to target a specific body part and see how likely you are to hit it, and you have a certain amount of ability points to spend on shooting at the enemies. Different weapons will use up different amounts of AP.

The VATS system isn't perfect either, though. The theory is that you can cripple the legs of your enemy to slow them down, but it is almost always better to simply aim for the head and try and get an instant kill instead.

The freeform nature of the quests have also come under a fire a little bit, too. I just recently listened to an episode of the Listen Up podcast where host Garnett Lee was describing how he accidentally managed to skip over several major storyline quests when he decided to do some of the optional quests first. I did exactly the same thing, except I later found out that you can go back and do those quests anyway if you want to (Galaxy News Radio). I see his point but personally it doesn't really bother me that you can direct the path of the main story, because I was planning to play the game a second time as an evil character anyway.

Speaking of which, Fallout 3 is yet another RPG where you can decide
to be good or bad, following in the footsteps of pretty much anything by Bioware, and the Fable games. I do like these games that give you moral choices and two ways to play the game, but it has been done to death at this point. Fallout 3 doesn't really add anything new to the idea but hopefully Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins will do something different. Each time you level up your character, you can also choose a perk, and your choice is also effected by your good/bad alignment, how may points you have assigned to a certain skill and how you rolled your stats at the beginning of the game. They include Strong Back, which allows you to carry extra loot, and everybodys favourite, Bloody Mess, which can cause enemies to explode in a shower of guts.

Innovation and Cleverness: 6 out of 10
Much of Fallout 3 is built upon the foundations of the original Fallout (the world, the dark humour) and Oblivion (the game engine, the overall design and structure), but that's not to say that it doesn't bring anything new to the table. The VATS system is a decent attempt to convert the battles of the original game into a real time, 3D world, and there are some very inventive optional quests for you to take on.

This is Megaton, likely to be the first town that you come across and home to some of the more interesting quests in the game. There's an unexploded nuclear bomb in the middle of town - will you defuse it or detonate it?

Value & Replayability: 9 out of 10
This is really the major strength of Fallout 3. There's an absolutely massive world out there, and completing the story and the optional quests will only show you a fraction of it. You could spend hours trawling through the the ruins of DC, taking down roaming bands of Super Mutants, or wandering the wasteland to see what you can find. Then of course you can do it all again as a character of the opposite alignment, and maybe focus on sneaking and thievery instead of just blowing everything to kingdom come. The choice is yours.

Overall: 9 out of 10
Despite all of the minor flaws, Fallout 3 is still a fantastic game and it was very nearly my favourite game of 2008. You don't really notice the niggly things while playing the game, you're too busy having fun. It's only after you've finished and think back on the experience that you realise that certain things could have been better.

I haven't covered any of the DLC packs in this review because so far I've only played through Operation Anchorage. I have bought and downloaded The Pitt and Broken Steel, and will play them soon, but I will wait until Point Lookout and Mothership Zeta are released and then write a round up of all of them at the same time.

Related posts:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kingdom Hearts II review

I have tried and failed to complete the first Kingdom Hearts game several times for various reasons - the broken camera and poorly implemented battle controls being the main culprits. Yet I still picked up Kingdom Hearts II when I saw it for £5 in Woolworths the Christmas before last. It promptly got added to my backlog of games that I may get around to playing one day, and I thought little of it for well over a year. The box caught my eye a few months ago though and something compelled me to give it a try. This time, the game got its hooked into me and I completed it a few weeks ago. I've had some time to mull the experience over now and so it is time to deliver my verdict. Warning: There may be some small spoilers in this review but I'll try not to go into too much detail.

Format: PS2
Publisher: Square-Enix
Developer: Square-Enix
Genre: Action RPG
Region: PAL
Price: Around £10 these days

Graphics: 8 out of 10
Taking into account that this game is running on what is now last generation hardware, it still looks great for the most part. The worlds that are based on Disney animations (including Atlantica, Beast's Castle and the Pride Lands from The Lion King) look just like the feature films that inspired them, except of course they are now in full 3D. Not only do they look great, they are also incredibly well animated. There is one world that you visit that lets the side down, however. When the game was first announced and I started to read about it, there was one new addition that I couldn't wait to check out - namely Port Royal from Pirates of the Caribbean. To be able fight alongside Jack Sparrow. Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan sounded great - but unfortunately the technical limitations of the PS2 let the side down. The characters just don't look natural, and this is really due to the fact that they are recreations of life actors rather than cell shaded drawings. Unfortunately the graphics are not the only area that Port Royal is disappointing...

Sound and Music: 9 out of 10
Yes, the voice acting for the Port Royal sections is underwhelming as well. Johnny Depp was unavailable or simply too expensive to hire, and the actor they cast to try and imitate him just doesn't convince at all. It's a similar story for Will Turner. Thankfully, the rest of the game has amazing voice acting, with a huge array of familiar voice talent, both from film (James Woods, James Earl Jones, Chris Sarandon), TV (Hayden Panettiere, though few had heard of her when she made the game), other games and anime (Tara Strong, Corey Burton). Most of the actors who played characters in Disney films reprise their roles, and even when somebody else subs in for them, they are usually extremely talented people in their own right (for example Dan Castelleneta, aka Homer Simpson plays the voice of the Genie instead of Robin Williams).

The music is also a brilliant fusion of familiar Disney melodies and new compositions created by composer Yoko Shimomura, although sometimes the tunes can sound a little synthy (surprise, Port Royal again). Utada Hikaru also reprises her role from the first game and delivers an amazing opening tune (check out the video below - and be sure to come back for the rest of the review!).

Game Mechanics: 9 out 10
Kingdom Hearts 2 is an action RPG through and through - full of fast paced battles against hundreds of opponents. Thankfully the major problems of the original game - the camera and the controls, have been fixed this time which immediately makes it far more enjoyable than the first game. You control Sora directly but you also have up to two companions helping you out (Donald and Goofy most of the time, and a guest character that takes the place of one of them during one of the Disney themed worlds.

You fight off the enemy Heartless and Nobodies with the help of your keyblade, a sword that is shaped like a key, and also doubles up as a story device to unlock paths between the various worlds. As well as your basic attacks you can also cast spells, summon various characters to help your out or change into one of three forms. As you level up you get the opportunity to spend AP (action points) on new skills that augment your character, be they new attacks, or just something that makes the enemies drop more money. You have to manage both the equipment and skills of yourself and Donald and Goofy, so there's plenty of opportunity for character development.

The length of time spent in each world without a break is typically far less than the first game as well - you rarely stay anywhere for more than an hour or two. This helps keep the pace of the game flowing and ensures that you won't get bored because there's always something new to see or explore just around the corner. Like in the first game, you travel between these worlds in a Gummi Ship, and Square have listened to criticism again and radically improved these sections. Now they are just like and on rails shooter such as Star Fox or Panzer Dragoon. All in all Kingdom Hearts II feels much more polished than the original, eliminating any little niggles that were present and transforming it into the classic that the original should have been in the first place.

Innovation and Cleverness: 7 out of 10
On the outside, to people who hate Disney or Square-Enix or both (they do exist), Kingdom Hearts II may seem like one big repulsive cash-in, and I was skeptical myself initially, but Square-Enix have skillfully woven a cohesive story around multiple Disney and Square franchises and delivered a game that could appeal to fans and non fans alike. Personally, while I have played the majority of the Final Fantasy series, I haven't watched a Disney animated film in years (with the exception of those produced by Pixar).

Disney stalwarts Donald and Goofy return to help you out once again

Value & Replayability: 8 out of 10
Action RPG's are usually a good deal shorter than their turn based counterparts by their very nature, but Square-Enix have crammed a lot of content into Kingdom Hearts II. The main storyline will take you in the region of 40 hours to complete. Then you have optional battles in the underworld and a whole log book of optional challenges and content to find and beat. If you beat the game in Hard mode then you will automatically get the chance to watch the hidden teaser for Birth by Sleep, otherwise completing all the side quests is the only way to view it (or you could just go and watch it on YouTube if you can't be bothered). Considering that the game can be picked up for a tenner or less anyway, you will more than get your money's worth.

Some of the worlds featured in KHII are repeats of those that were in the original, so the game lose a mark or two for that, although they have been changed significantly.

Overall: 8 out 10
Leave your cynical gamer persona behind and just be prepared to have fun in this fast paced and slickly produced Disney/Square love in. You don't really need to have played through the first game - I had only played part of it and I still managed to piece together what was happening with the storyline. The series shows no sign of dieing anytime soon with two spin off games for the PSP and DS on the way, and the inevitable Kingdom Hearts III. I would like to see the world's from the various Pixar films explored in a future game, I think they would fit perfectly.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Top 10 Highlights of E3 2009

Here are what I consider to be the 10 most exciting announcements that were made during E3 2009 in reverse order. Bear in mind that I am totally bored with the FPS genre and not too keen on most modern action games either, so don't expect to see the likes of Halo, God of War etc represented in this list. Click on the title to view a trailer/video about each one.

10. Metroid: Other M (Wii)
I absolutely loved the Metroid Prime series so anything within the franchise is going to pique my curiosity, however I hate the Ninja Gaiden titles and there's a danger that this game is going to be a similar hardcore action title. Hopefully the combination of Team Ninja and Nintendo will deliver a quality game.

9. Golden Sun (DS)

The two Golden Sun games on the GBA were classic old school RPG's with excellent puzzles and thoroughly charming graphics. A third game is very welcome indeed and somewhat unexpected given the amount of time that has passed since The Lost Age was released.

8. Scribblenauts (DS)
The concept of this game is just brilliant, and if it works as well as it appears to from the footage I've seen it could be a contender for my Game of the Year. Basically, you have to reach a star on each level, and in order to do so you enter words on the touch screen, which are then turned into physical objects or creatures. There are apparently over 50,000 words contained in the in game dictionary, and they include the likes of Cthulu, so if you wish to summon an inter dimensional god, go right ahead!

7. Forza Motorsport 3 (360)
Sony may have been showing off Gran Turismo in PS3 and PSP format once again, but for me that series was eclipsed by Forza Motorsport 2 and I won't be going back. Forza 3 looks to be even better than the last game with noticeably better graphics and even more customisation options, including the ability to record, edit and share videos.

6. Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Wii)

The original Galaxy is one of the finest examples of game design I've ever had to pleasure to experience - continually inventive, always entertaining. So I do of course welcome the idea of a sequel. I do have some concerns though, chiefly that this game apparently started off as a remix of the original, which kind of shows in some of the footage with bosses simply being reused. Then there's the name - couldn't Nintendo have been a bit more imaginative than simply sticking a 2 on the end? Even Super Mario Universe would have been and improvement. They've still got time to change it I guess.

5. New Super Mario Bros (Wii)
Yeah, another Mario game, and this time it's a 2D one. The four player mode looks cool (although I doubt I'll ever play it) and the new power ups look like their going to be implemented better than those in the last game. I have rated this higher than Galaxy 2 simply because it's closer to being released.

4. ModNation Racers (PS3)
Sony are applying their "Build, Play, Share" ethic that has worked so well with Little Big Planet to a new genre - that of the kart racer. The demonstration from the press conference made it look extremely easy to put a track together, the idea of having an infinite amount of new tracks is exciting. Let's just hope the game play ultimately backs up the premise.

3. The Last Guardian (PS3)
This is the third in the Ico & Shadow of the Colossus "series", and it shares the same aesthetics as those two games, except of course it's now in glorious 3D. Instead of having to climb and take down gigantic creatures, it appears that this time you have befriended one and must use them to navigate the game environment. Check out the awesome trailer, which features background music from Miller's Crossing (it works surprisingly well).

2. Project Natal (360)
If this works as well as it appears to in all of the demo videos, that it will truly be amazing. Thanks to a new camera attachment, full motion capture in now possible in your living room, allowing you to use your entire body as a controller. More exciting than that though was the the voice recognition and the way that the cameras can apparently scan items you hold up to it in seconds, like the drawing in the Milo demo. Really exciting stuff!

1. Tales of Monkey Island (Wii, PC)
The original Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favourite games of all time, I have replayed it so many times over the years that I've lost count. So the prospect of all new Monkey Island makes me very happy indeed. Five new monthly episodes from Telltale Games, the people behind the episodic Sam & Max, Strong Bad and Wallace & Gromit games. There's also a Special Edition coming to Xbox Live which is the original game remastered in HD and with rerecorded music and dialogue. It looks like 2009 is going to be the year of the monkey!

I am also really looking forward to Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins, but as I already knew about them I didn't include them in my top 10.