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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Lord of the Rings: War in the North (6.2/10)

To read the official full-length review follow the link here: Lord of the Rings: War in the North.

Being a card carrying Lord of the Rings nerd, I approached the new game Lord of the Rings: War in the North with a certain amount of trepidation. You see, I'm also a Star Wars nerd, and any Star Wars nerd will tell you that you have to be careful with video game adaptations. More often than not, you'll wind up disappointed not only due to sub-par products, but more so because our collective expectations are just too high. We want these interactive experiences to live up to the lofty standards we have set in our own minds. So a Lord of the Rings game set concurrent with the journey of Frodo and the Fellowship telling the store of what transpired in the northern ranges of Middle Earth should be a blast, right? Sadly, it isn’t. While the core gameplay and the general idea are fine, War in the North is beset with numerous interface issues that render it frustrating to the point that it’s almost (note, almost) unplayable.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online.


Score = 6.2 / 10

Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One (7.7/10)

To read the official full-length review follow the link here: Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One.

Having never played any of the Ratchet and Clank series, I really wasn't sure what to expect with the latest installment entitled Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One. All I really knew about the franchise was that the main protagonist has big ears, a robot buddy, and a penchant for over-the-top weaponry. Regarded as an action platformer with a crazy armory, the good people at Insomniac Games took the reins and gave it a co-op focus. And I have to tell you, my time with Ratchet and Clank: All 4 One was a surprisingly enjoyable, if flawed, experience. Despite some technical issues and odd design decisions (namely the overly repetitious parts that elongated the game), if you have friends to play with all the better, as that's definitely the way to go. 

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online!


Score = 7.7 / 10

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception (9.4/10)

I have a sneaking suspicion that this fall may well represent some sort of nexus in the space-time continuum. It seems like every other game that has come out serves as the end of a major trilogy (or at least the third game in a major series). But despite the high profile shooters (Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3) taking most of the spotlight, easily the "finale" I've been most looking forward to is Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception. Stellar graphics, gripping set pieces, challenging puzzles, and the best voice acting in the business are all hallmarks of the series. But does Uncharted's previous pedigree set the bar too high for what could be the last installment in a series that has become iconic in its own right?

I know not everyone will agree with this, but for me the Uncharted franchise has set a new standard in video game storytelling. The phrase "interactive movie" has been used more than once to describe these games, and that holds true for the third installment. I don't necessarily mean the story itself (everyone should know by now that Uncharted is basically a cross between Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider-it's the video game equivalent of a summer popcorn movie), but rather in the way all the pieces come together. The cut scenes and voice acting are still top notch, but it's the way they are woven so seamlessly with the standard cover-based shooting, puzzle, and platforming sections that really bring the whole package together. It's one of those instances where the overall product is greater than the sum of its parts.

This time out Nate and Sully are searching for a city long lost to legend: Ubar, the mythical "Atlantis of the Sands." Naturally, it turns out that the ring Drake wears around his neck, supposedly the very ring of Sir Francis Drake himself, is the key that will lead them there. This is essentially bringing the story full circle, tying together the threads from the previous titles, and dramatically expanding the backstory and relationships of the main players.

There is even a brilliant section early on where you walk in the shoes of a young Nathan Drake when he first meets his mentor. It's ripped almost unabashedly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (something a surprising number of reviewers have commented on), but that doesn't make this peek into their past any less enjoyable as it shows how their connection and partnership was forged. The expected twist towards the end is eye rolling, but still enjoyable... and without giving away any spoilers, there are some awesome "trippy" scenes that are really well done.

However, the setup of the narrative is beginning to feel stale at best and predictable at worst. They all follow the same basic pattern: opening scene, discovery, conflict, Elena shows up, and then the major twist at the end. Pepper in some fun, yet completely unbelievable and unrealistic set pieces, along with some relatively clever puzzles to slow down the gameplay at regular intervals and you could almost set your watch to it.

After two reviews, I find I'm running out of random adjectives to describe the graphical prowess of these games. Needless to say, it is once again superb. From the particle physics of the sand in the desert (even better than the snow in Uncharted 2 if you ask me) to the amazing lighting effects, excellent animations (both in-game and during cut scenes) and phenomenally detailed environments, there are very few titles that can compare to this series. The fact that the game runs smoothly with virtually no pop-in or lag is the icing on this very pretty cake. Uncharted 3 is simply gorgeous; there is really nothing else to say!

I'm also running out of superlatives when it comes to the cast and acting. It seems like we can't walk five paces these days without tripping over a stack of games that have Nolan North as a principle actor, but frankly I'm happy the industry has latched on to someone as talented as him. He is Nathan Drake, and his sense of comic timing is fantastic. I don't think it would work nearly as well if not for the facial animations and cinematography, but even during regular gameplay his random lines made me smile. The rest of the cast returns to their roles and also do an exemplary job. Along with some new characters, including the creepy new villainess Katherine Marlowe (brilliantly voiced by Rosalind Ayres), I honestly can't think of a series that has better voice-work.

In fact, probably the biggest knock against Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is the fact that we've seen it all before. The gunplay hasn't changed much (and neither has the fact that Nate has a bad habit of staying stuck to cover, one of the only complaints I've had about this series). The platforming, while generally excellent, still suffers from occasional moments of "Where am I supposed to jump now?" The puzzles Nate needs to solve using his handy notebook are still prevalent, but not nearly as common as they were in the previous games.

Also, they have added a lot of residual animations to Drake when he moves... like reaching out and putting his hand on the wall to steady himself for example. While this is a nice touch, it feels a little weird as you wonder if it's you, the player, that is actually doing these things. And while most of the time it looks perfectly natural, at others it doesn't look nearly as smooth. I think it's one of those unfortunate instances where you'll only notice it when it's not working.

Actually, there is one issue with Uncharted 3 that really stands out for me: there are some fairly major difficulty spikes that are just downright frustrating. Wave after wave of increasingly difficult foes will be thrown at you... repeatedly. The previous installments also did this, albeit only towards the end. With the third game, it seems like they've upped the ante early on, and then it only gets more intense as you go. This wouldn't be such an issue if not for the fact that dying will sometimes set you surprisingly far back; the checkpoints seem to be broken.

What's worse is that the game also has a bad habit of respawning you knee deep in the sh*t. It gets to the point that you're memorizing where the bad guys will show up, just so you can mow them down in order before they have time to flank you. Getting to what you think must be the end of a section only to killed by the nineteenth hockey-pad wearing, shotgun totting jackass you've encountered (this round) and then being respawned under the watchful eye of multiple snipers and guys with machine guns leads to some pretty choice words being thrown at the TV... along with the occasional controller.

However, none of these issues really detract from what is an awesome game. Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is a fitting conclusion (or is it? bum bum BUM!) to Naughty Dog's brilliant franchise. I don't think Drake's Deception is as good as Among Thieves, but that might be solely down to the fact that the formula might be getting a little stale. The difficulty spikes can make some sections more frustrating than fun, and Drake would have died something like a bazillion times in real life at last count as he pulls off his incomparable feats or dare-devilry. Still, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception is absolutely worth your time (I didn't even mention the multiplayer, which is apparently supposed to be quite fun). There are few games (let alone series) that are as beautiful, engaging, immersive, well paced, and fun as these are. If this is Nate's last hurrah, I'm sorry to see him and his friends go... but I honestly hope Drake and company return for more adventures.


Score = 9.4 / 10

Battlefield 3 (9.4/10)

In the overpopulated world of military shooters, two titles/series (and their respective developers) have risen above the rest and become synonymous with the genre: Call of Duty and Battlefield. Both series have their roots in World War II shooters, both made the transition to the "modern" variations, and both are a blast to play! Oh yeah, and both have their own loyal fans who will defend their preferred game to the virtual death. Silly fanboys....

While I've enjoyed the annual Call of Duty game the last several years, I've struggled with a faint feeling that's it's more of the same with a slightly different coat of paint. I know most people won't agree with me on this, but I think the series has become stagnant. The Battlefield: Bad Company series came onto the scene with it's own shtick: destructible environments. Suddenly camping was no longer the safe option as the building or cover you were hiding behind could simply be destroyed given enough time and firepower. However, with the latest installment of the series, Battlefield 3 is attempting to not only halt the Call of Duty leviathan, but also improve gaming and shooters in general. Boasting a brand new graphics engine called Frostbite 2 and some truly amazing dynamic lighting and particle physics effects, it looks phenomenal. This is not just "this year's version." EA and DICE are trying to truly take these sorts of games to the next level. And for that, I thank them... because they succeed.

Battlefield 3 tells the story of Sergeant Blackburn as he attempts to foil a terrorist plot. Problem is, he's currently being held by the CIA for "what he had done." The narrative then unfolds in a flashback, flashforward style as you go back to the beginning and find out how Sgt. Blackburn got into this pickle. After the PLR (the bad guys) stage a coup in Iran, Blackburn and his squad stumble across a nuclear weapon... in a box built to hold three of them. The question is, where are the other two? Oh yeah, and the nukes are Russian. What do they have to do with this? The search takes you takes you to battlefields all over the world and even the air above it.

You won't just control the good sergeant either: multiple characters join the fight, telling the tale from different perspectives.  It's a great tool, keeping you wondering what's going on, what will happen next, and most importantly, what you'll get to do. This decidedly bucks the trend of sub par story telling in the shooter genre. Rather than simply providing an excuse to shoot things, Battlefield 3's story is engaging enough to provide a motive. Also, the campaign is one of the more meaty offerings we've had in a while, lasting a solid 7 to 8 hours. Sure, it's a little cliched as these stories often are, and the leap of faith you're expected to take towards the end is far fetched, but overall it's easily the best "story" to a game like this since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.

Battlefield 3 is beautiful... simply beautiful. I think my first impression involved texting my friends and calling it "sexy." The new Frostbite 2 engine creates some of the most impressively realistic graphics I've seen in a game. The lighting in particular is awesome. Throw a grenade and the way the light filters through the dust will change depending on your point of view. The attention to detail is amazing. At one point a sniper shot through a window... there was a bullet hole in both the window and the drapes. Then there are the destructible environments the series is known for. Be it chipping away at a concrete barrier with a machine gun or simply blowing the crap out of it with a tank, the resulting damage looks amazingly real. And this is all without putting any emphasis on the cutscenes that drive the story mode. While not active in any way, these dialogue scenes look great in their own right.

While I could go on and on about the graphics, I will add just one more thing. As impressive as it looks on consoles, if you have a good gaming PC, that's the way to go. I have a good friend with a beastly rig and let me tell you, it's like night and day. Plus, multiplayer has more people in one match on PC. I sincerely hope that the Frostbite 2 engine becomes available for other developers to utilize-this is the future here people.

The sound work it excellent too, but we've come to expect that from DICE. The music is somber in all the right places, dramatic in the others. The voice acting is surprisingly good, but as is always the problem with military shooters, it can be hard to hear orders mid-firefight with all that is going on when you're firing a 50 cal. from the back of a Humvee. 

I don't need to tell you that the game play is your standard first person shooter. We've been there, and Battlefield 3 performs as you'd expect. The gunplay is tight and responsive, although I did have to adjust the aiming sensitivity. And while the firefights are just as intense and harrowing as you'd expect, what really sets Battlefield 3 apart is the vehicle sections. My favorites were the mission where you control a tank in a massive battle, and then the one where you fly a fighter. The fighter section is essentially on rails (as opposed to the multiplayer where you actually fly the jets), but that's okay, I'm happy to be along for the ride and enjoy the scenery. These moments break up the pacing nicely, and are truly breathtaking to look at.

To be honest, there really isn't a whole lot to find fault with Battlefield 3. I guess if I had to get really picky I'd tell you the checkpoints might be a bit too far apart and you'll sometimes restart with enemies already shooting you, but that's more or less par for the course. The ally AI, while decent, is by no means particularly helpful... they're just kind of there. The game is also surprisingly difficult, with not only some rather random difficulty spikes in the course of the main game, but also a large disparity between the difficulty levels. I played through the campaign on easy and normal, and normal was a damn sight more difficult than I expected. 

From a technical standpoint, whenever you have such high end graphics there are bound to be some glitches, and Battlefield 3 is no exception. Minor warping (when either you or the NPC's are moved or slide super fast, like it's trying to catch up), while not common, is easily the most noticeable issue. For such a complex system, I didn't encounter too many texture issues or framerate drops. To be honest, it runs surprisingly well.

Now, for those of you who are regular readers, you know I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer. However, for Battlefield 3 I decided to take it somewhat seriously. And I have to tell you, it's fantastic. The maps are massive.  One time after getting caught in a cross fire in a rather daring (if I do say so myself) attempt to run to cover, I respawned and literally had no idea where I was. I had been fighting on a hilltop and woke up under an overpass. Following the mini-map I figured out I was a looooong way from the battle. After mentally calculating how long it would take to jog back into the fray (and feeling mildly disgruntled), I suddenly noticed a tank sitting next to me. "Right on!" thought I, climbing in and driving back to the conflict in style.

This is just one example of how Battlefield 3 multiplayer actually feels like a battlefield. Tanks, choppers, and planes can all be piloted and driven by anyone at any time (as long as they are available). Sure, the controls can take a lot of getting used to (especially the helicopter, my only kill with that bad boy was accidentally crashing into someone... poor sod), but they add a whole new dimension that keeps things fresh. When everything comes together at the end of the round (all the players are fighting over the last objective, planes are flying over head dropping ordinance, helicopters are rattling their machine guns, pulverizing buildings, and tanks are finishing the job), it's actually kind of scary. I hope and pray I'm never in combat, but I wonder when things get really bad, if it isn't at least a little like this. While I know it's cliche to say it, it really does make me respect those who do this for real all the more.

The rewards from ruling the battlefield involve a pretty straightforward XP and upgrade system. There are four different classes specializing in different aspects of warfare, and as you use each one you gain XP and can then unlock different accessories and weapons to use the next time you choose that class. It's a nice, well put together system, plus it adds a feeling of accomplishment as you rank up.

Outside of your standard matches, there is a tacked on co-op mode that allows you and a friend to basically replay smallish sections of the campaign with waves of enemies attacking. To be frank, these distractions are far too short and not really all that fun, nor do they have the inherent intensity that comes with the standard multiplayer.

All told, Battlefield 3 is probably the best shooter I've played since Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. From a technical standpoint it's the best, most advanced, and prettiest shooter I've ever played. I really hope other developers are allowed to use the Frostbite 2 engine, it's phenomenal. The campaign is a high octane roller coaster that is surprisingly well told. It's engaging, providing not just an excuse to shoot people, but rather a compelling reason. With the stigma of being CoD's main competition, DICE and EA have gone all out. The result is something special: they've gifted us something new in gaming's most overcrowded genre. That, in and of itself, says something. If you are at all a fan of military shooters, Battlefield 3 shouldn't be missed.


Score = 9.4 / 10