Monday, October 25, 2010

Review: Fable III by Microsoft/ Lionhead

Name: Fable III
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Lionhead
Release Date: October 25, 2010
Type: RPG
Version: Limited Collector's Edition

In Fable III, the latest installment of the critically acclaimed Xbox 360 exclusive franchise, fans new and returning will now embark on an epic adventure, where the race for the crown is only the beginning of your spectacular journey. Five decades have passed since the events of Fable II, and Albion has matured into an industrial revolution, but the fate of the kingdom is at peril.From

My copy arrived a few days early due to the oddities of shipping and weekend deliveries so I had the weekend to devote to the game. My wife kissed me and said she's see me in a few days.

My history with the game is that I got Fable the day it hit the streets and then spent the next 24 hours or so glued to the TV/ Xbox. I loved Fable. It was almost perfect to me. Later I got Fable II at the midnight release. I didn't warm to it immediately. It was fairly different from the Fable I knew. Albion had changed and the way the game worked changed too. I didn't care for it at first but after a few restarts I warmed up and I fell in love with Albion again.

Now it's time for the third installment and Peter Molyneux has promised some sweeping changes...and I recall my feelings about that the last time around. I pre-ordered the Limited Collector's Edition as it looked to be worth the price difference.

Upon opening the package the game case looks like a book, with a secret compartment. Nicely done. Faux leather enclosure with magnetic snaps. Inside, apart from the game itself is a deck of playing cards with the face cards tarted up with nice artwork from the game as well as a metal medallion with the guild seal on it. Very nice! Also included are some DLC items which are of fair usage. Not great, not bad. I did use the sword, though the "lodge" I visited once and never used again (was unable to put "family" there.). The clothes were ok.

I completed the main storyline and most of the side quests in about 30 hours. Most of the achievements left are for multi-player or making it through the game without getting knocked out (only knocked out twice so far) or collecting all the gnomes/ keys, weapons etc. A good full-length game with a lot of replay value!

Some of the controls are the same, so that is helpful. Gone is the need to pull the right trigger to absorb all the orbs/ XP. I occasionally pulled the right trigger for that express purpose all the way until the end out of habit. It's a nice feature. Now you don't have to worry so much about not getting all your XP. On the flipside is that you also no longer have Strength, Skill and Will divided up. You get XP in the form of "Guild Seals" which is kind of the unified "coin of the realm" for experience now. A single pool of XP. With that pool you spend points to open sections along a metaphysical "road to rule". On this road you have unlocks for everything: spells, skills, expression packs, et cetera. Gone are the days of using renown to unlock expressions (or books) all willy nilly. It's not a bad system at all. I like it because it really simplifies things. The only negative things is that it limits your options quite a bit as you only unlock the road the rule in stages, not all at once. This means you are very limited in how you play your character. No longer can you be the crude and rude bastard early on or the roguish thief (early on)...the unlocks for thievery/ stealing and being rude aren't until later in the game. (Not really a problem for me as I tend to play a goody goody at first anyhow).

As far as expressions go, you only ever have an A or B choice. Good or Bad. Nice or Rude and you have no say so over which comes up when you have several available. When you interact, it chooses a Nice or Rude pair for you and rotates through them. There is a neat sparkly effect around the good choice and flames around the evil choice. Good is ALWAYS the "A" choice for example. It's clear that someone at Lionhead loves the idea of unified mechanics.

You have your pet dog (which we always call "Dig Spot") who helps with being personable, finding buried treasure and helping dispatch downed enemies. You have no control over his expressions either. He just has a "Charisma" score that helps you be more personable. He growls a lot at everything and tends to get separated from you a LOT (collision), so his helpfulness is pretty limited. Much more limited than in Fable II. With the Collector's Edition you have the ability to have him as a Border Collie or a Bulldog (just a changed skin).

Many things are the same: silver keys are scattered all over the world (though the number of boxes they open seem fewer) and there are now a hand full of gold keys which open a few special doors. The Gargoyles are gone, replaced by Gnomes. Well...not entirely gone. They use a couple of the gargoyles as props, but they aren't the Scottish raving bastards they were in Fable II. This time you have Raving Gnomes (English). The Gnomes seem a bit easier to locate as they gain you Guild Seals and consequently tie directly to XP and completion of the main quest line (versus a secondary quest with secondary payoff). Adversaries have become much simpler: a couple types of bad guy and a boss type for each, outlaws/ mercenaries (humans), Hobbes, Balverines, Hollow Men, etc. I understand the desire to simplify things, but visually it means fewer skins/ characters/ antagonist types and a limited look. Instead of fighting waves of a wide variety of critters, you have few racial types, and a few subtypes (skins) and that is it. It makes the combat a bit boring. On the flipside of this, there are some pretty heinous waves of baddies where you get bum-rushed by a horde and are completely surrounded very quickly.

Adding the the swarm effect is that there are no status bars on the Heads UP Display (HUD). You can't see how beaten up the bad guys are and your own health is shown in the same way many other games are showing it, a red halo effect on the screen when you're taking damage. This adds to the stress of the fights which helps distract you from the limited palate of adversaries.

You have only 6 or so spells available, though these can all be combined with each other for fun effects. For the first half of the game I used Fireball + Force Push so I could do damage and keep from getting swarmed. Later I switched to Fireball + Shock for damage dealing bad-assery. You advance in melee, ranged and spell skills by type (melee, ranged, spell) rather than per spell, which is awfully nice. When you amp up your spell ability, ALL your spells go up in power. Same with ranged skills, and melee, it is shared between all weapons.

Summon Creature, Slow Time, and Health Potion are it as far as potions go. There are no Resurrection Phials. You get knocked out, you come back with a bit of a blast to knock everyone back and a scar.

Digging and Diving for treasure...the same.

There's no access to a list of your inventory. No rotary wheels or dig-down menus. Instead, everything is handled through a Matrix-like "Construct" called The Sanctuary. Takes a bit of getting used to, it's a bit slow at first, but like the menus, you get used to it. I think a lot of folks will prefer this to dig-down menus.

Flourishes are more varied and looks awesome. A flourish that results in a kill, gives a kind of "finishing move" or "Fatality" where the character does some pretty nifty stuff like kicking a Hobbe in the face, then jumping on it's chest and driving the sword through it's head. Yeah, brutal, and AWESOME! (Same as Dragon Age when a Critical Hit results in a kill).

There seems to be a bit of collision issues going on occasionally, but I think this is due to tightening up of models and improving the visuals of the game. It's a trade off.

Again they have created a beautiful glimpse of Albion. Great detail has gone in to this and it shows. From the models to scenics to posters, it all looks great. The water alone is breathtaking.

Audio (Voice):
They went all out on voice actors this time. I won't spoil it, you can dig that up yourself. It's cool to hear the voice of Theresa and recognize it as well as hear the butler or Walter and recognize who the voice actor is. That said, I don't know if it necessarily helps the game or not. As long as the voice acting is believable I don't care who plays the part. I worry that money spent on voice talent could have been better spent on coding/ testing.

Audio (Music):
This is something Fable has always scored a critical hit on and this is no exception. Fantastic musical score. Even some nice reused bits to fit a retro theme.

Plot/ Story:
Again, another good one. This is a beautifully crafted direct sequel to Fable II. The Next Generation...literally. It is clear that a new installment is planned: there are some nicely clear holes in the plot. Stuff that you would think should be addressed...totally not. Bastards you want to put in a cage...several. Ohhh, we're not done with Albion by any stretch of the imagination. Nicely played Lionhead!

One thing they did which was excellent was with any achievement that requires you to do something X number of times, it gives a little pop-up that shows how many you have done so far. "Flower Child" Collected 18 of 30 Unique Flowers in Aurora. That is awfully nice.

While it is certainly different from Fable II (and very different from Fable) in how the system/ mechanics work out, it's entirely all Albion. The flavor remains the same and I do love it. I do feel that in many cases options, "breadth" has been seriously constrained. It several points it feels railroaded. (Note: It almost always IS a railroad, but usually effort is shown to give the illusion of freedom of choice.) On a few quests you have to go with a compatriot and really, you are just taking the guided tour of the game with little room for deviation (though it unlocks areas that you can go back through later. On one hand it rewards (as Fable always has) wandering off the beaten path by placement of lots of goodies away from the "sparkly path". On the other, often you are limited in being able to go any other way. Missions are neatly divided in to specific types: Fetch missions, Deliver missions, Escort missions, etc. and it's not transparent at all. It seems that immersion was the plan for part of the game (the HUD, simpler XP, etc.) that immersion is lost when you have to do really gamey stuff to progress (shake hands with everyone, dance with everyone to gain friends and get relationship quests of the above types.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed the hell out of it. I also realize that the game is evolving and I tend to be a bit slow to accept that evolution. Like Fable II it'll take me a bit to warm up to this a bit more.

Coming from the perspective of a fan of the series and seeing the changes and comparing to previous editions I would grade this with 3 stars. I think for folks who have nothing to compare it to (haven't played Fable or Fable II) they will enjoy it more and would likely give it a 4 of 5.

I'll split the difference and give it a 3.5 of 5.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Review: Medal of Honor by Electronic Arts (Single Player Campaign)

Name: Medal of Honor
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Danger Close
Release Date: October 12, 2010
Type: First Person Shooter

Operating directly under the National Command Authority, a relatively unknown entity of handpicked warriors are called on when the mission must not fail. They are the Tier 1 Operators.
Over 2 million Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines wear the uniform. Of those, approximately 50 thousand fall under the direct control of the Special Operations Command. The Tier 1 Operator functions on a plane of existence above and beyond even the most highly trained Special Operations Forces. Their exact numbers, while classified, hover in the low hundreds. They are living, breathing, precision instruments of war. They are experts in the application of violence. The new Medal of Honor is inspired by and has been developed with Tier 1 Operators from this elite community. Players will step into the boots of these warriors and apply their unique skill sets to a new enemy in the most unforgiving and hostile battlefield conditions of present day Afghanistan.
There is a new enemy. There is a new war. There is a new warrior. He is Tier 1.

First off, it's short. 5-6 hours from start to finish. Not good in my book. That said, the quality of the story is pretty darn good. There are some challenging and interesting moments in gameplay and plot. The game touches upon some sensitive issues like friendly fire and treatment of combatants, rules of engagement, etc. Some of which I agreed with, some not. From a political standpoint it is very much an all HOOAH, pro-war, hawkish game focusing on the roles of the elite forces of the US. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers with USAF CAS guys, and Special Forces: the creme of the Special Ops community. Attention is given to identification of combatants, and in some cases it is deftly handled, at least initially. I think if it were to be more accurate, there would be more non-combatants mixed in, running, hiding, making the combats more difficult because you have to shoot the ones shooting at you instead of just killing everything in the area once combatants are identified as hostile. That's neither here nor there. One of the main themes of the game is "suits at Langley" and "Generals" making decisions from afar with little input from the guys on the ground, and the problems it causes. Fair enough.

As far as the gameplay goes it is pretty darn good. The characters are interesting. The plot is solid. There are moments where you know you're really screwed and there's no way of knowing whether you'll survive or not. That character may be doomed to die. Maybe those guys running away will have an impact later. There are some railroaded moments you cannot avoid. That's normal really, but usually they are pretty transparent. In one case a guy lights a signal. I replayed that scene a dozen times and filled him full of holes and no matter what, he always gets that damn signal off. Bummer. I did enjoy some of the hair raising moments where you really had no idea where the chapter was going or the scene would end. Heads up people...characters do die.

The game runs pretty smooth but I hit a couple snags. In one case a main NPC got stuck on an object (collision issue) and I couldn't dislodge him, and by doing so, I couldn't progress as the character is needed to get through a gateway (a door needs to be opened and he opens it). I restarted the level and it was fine. happens. The game is new and glitches will happen. There is also a scene where the NPCs often get in your way and obscure your line of fire causing friendly fire if you're not careful. This happens in a very small area and there's really little room to move, so it's a bit frustrating. The enemy AI is pretty good. The scenery is top shelf. The characters models are good if a bit limited (a few times you have identical guys shooting at you.) I had no issues of collision for the main character. No problems there.

Controller setup is almost identical to Call of Duty so the learning curve is nil.

Mapping: where some games have you running back and forth on the same map this one does a nice job of making any repetition seamless.  A fine mix of stealthy missions, marking targets, creeping. as well as running and shooting missions. It all blends nicely.

There is a variety of interesting scenes and toys to play with. You get to be an Apache gunner, door gunner on a Chinook, AC-130 gunner in addition to the usual SEAL, SF guy, Ranger, Sniper/ Rifleman, CQB guy. You get to drive around four-wheelers which is fun.

The UI is pretty basic and unobtrusive, giving a far better immersive feel than Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (more or less the current standard). Overall the feel was much more...real than the gamey Modern Warfare 2 which I greatly appreciated.

Overall, my experience was a good one and I enjoyed the game. I'm looking forward to some multi-player this evening.
I expect any gameplay weirdness (a few collision issues, etc) will be sorted in an update shortly. This is easily Electronic Arts rival to Activision's Call of Duty series. My hope is that it remains the more realistic version of a modern warfare game where Call of Duty continues the trend of becoming more arcade-like.
EA's Medal of Honor creates a far more realistic and immersive play than Activision's Call of Duty series.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Review:The Fall of Reach by Eric Nylund

Del Rey Books
Published: October 2001
ISBN: 9780345451323

*Note: This was originally published in 2001, but as Halo: Reach is now out, this is a good time to cover this!

As the bloody Human-Covenant War rages on Halo, the fate of humankind may rest with one warrior, the lone SPARTAN survivor of another legendary battle . . . the desperate, take-no-prisoners struggle that led humanity to Halo--the fall of the planet Reach. Now, brought to life for the first time, here is the full story of that glorious, doomed conflict.
While the brutal Covenant juggernaut sweeps inexorably through space, intent on wiping out humankind, only one stronghold remains--the planet Reach. Practically on Earth's doorstep, it is the last military fortress to defy the onslaught. But the personnel here have another, higher priority: to prevent the Covenant from discovering the location of Earth.
Outnumbered and outgunned, the soldiers seem to have little chance against the Covenant, but Reach holds a closely guarded secret. It is the training ground for the very first "super soldiers." Code-named SPARTANs, these highly advanced warriors, specially bioengineered and technologically augmented, are the best in the universe--quiet, professional, and deadly.
Now, as the ferocious Covenant attack begins, a handful of SPARTANs stand ready to wage ultimate war. They will kill, they will be destroyed, but they will never surrender. And at least one of them--the SPARTAN known as Master Chief--will live to fight another day on a mysterious and ancient, artificial world called Halo. . . .

I've never read any of the tie in novels for HALO until this one. With the release of Halo: Reach I asked a buddy and was recommended this novel. I picked it up and I was very impressed by the quality of the story, the detail of the narrative and the overall skill of the writer.

I'm a former infantryman and I have to admit, Eric Nylund tells a very good story. The action scenes, including naval combat were stellar.

My initial fears about the Halo series were that if the story included Master Chief, John 117 then he'd be a Mary Sue. He's perfect. We know he survives the video we know how the story goes already. He's the ultra badass: seven foot, 400 pounds of killy death. So how do you challenge him? How do you hurt him?

This is where a novel trumps a video game almost every time. We get an internal monologue we don't hear in the game. Nice! Also, if he can't really hurt, kill, maim John does the author make the character sympathetic? Without spoiling anything, Mr. Nylund does a fine job of making that happen.

The plot is good. It's great to dig in to the backstory of the SPARTAN II program. I would have liked to have a bit more characterization for some of the secondary characters, but I realize there is only so much a writer can do with limited word count and the target demographic is more interested (largely) in seeing Master Chief kick ass.

There is plenty of action to satisfy the folks interested in seeing SPARTANs in action, and enough characterization and plot to satisfy those looking for a bit more depth. I really enjoyed Mr. Nylund's no-frills, direct style of writing. maybe it was just how he wrote the characters, but it seemed very lean writing. Tight. Like a lot of the excess frilly description was left out and all that was left was the meat. I like that. Don't get me wrong, it's very descriptive. There are some authors that kind of go overboard in painting the canvas of a story and it ends up being very pretty, but the story, the drive is kind of lost. This is a very lean and direct story with just the right balance of description to set the scene and action/ dialogue to keep the story moving forward at a quick pace. You almost get the feel of trying to keep up with SPARTANs on a run. Very nicely done Mr. Nylund!

One final note: I really enjoyed that the characters seemed to be very human. The plans were made, then broken and everyone needed to adapt in order to survive. People die. This novel is pretty much a blood bath. The whole thing reeks of the UNSC and humanity as a whole getting the crap beat out of them. Winning seems impossible and survival is the only hope. It gives the reader a bit of tension which makes the story really pop. Even with Mary Sue characters like John 117 and Cortana, Keys and Halsey they all take a beating in one way or another and only by the barest margin survive the fall of Reach.

For Fans of the Halo series this is a must read novel, especially now that Halo:Reach is out. Even if you're not that in to Halo, it's a damn fine action novel with good characterization and solid plot. I'm on the look out for more Eric Nylund novels!

4 out of 5 Stars.