On The Walking Dead: 400 Days…

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Telltale is a studio of many colors; despite spanning a breadth of genres and video game fictions over the past few years, they have never failed to emulate and capture the essence that drives that particular narrative forward. Over the course of five intense episodes, The Walking Dead is perhaps their finest and most polished video game series to date, leading little question as to whether or not there would be sequel. While not the official beginning of season 2, The Walking Dead: 400 Days is a stellar bridging point between seasons that continues the harsh–and most often graphic–tales of survival in a post-apocalyptic country.

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Those looking for resolution regarding season 1’s open-ending might be disappointed to find themselves introduced to new characters, but such feelings quickly fade when you pick up any one of the five stories. Occurring at various times in the 400 days since the outbreak, we are given a small vignette of each person’s struggle to survive in a world where showing humanity means weakness. 

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It is impressive to see how Telltale deviates from their proven formula in the previous season and go in new narrative directions, yet still succeed at making us care about these new faces so quickly. Jesse, a convict en route to jail when the outbreak hits, is perhaps the least original story of the bunch, but it is no less adrenaline pumping when walkers storm the bus and Jesse must take grave measures to save himself. The choice system is still the cornerstone of TWD and every character invariably faces an impossible choice that seeks to challenge everything they are as humans and survivors. Shel desperately wants to protect her sister from the evils brought by their new life, but when is it more important to be a good survivor, instead of a caring human? Underlining the point that no choice is right or wrong, Telltale continues to highlight great storytelling by emphasizing consequence with every choice you make, and it succeeds at crafting emotionally jarring stories in relatively no time at all. 

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Each arc is condensed and abrupt, with the entire episode lasting no more than 90 minutes. While that may seem like an insufficient amount of time to create a bond to so many new faces, Telltale finds a proper balance between the formula that worked before and experimenting with new things. Graphically, 400 Days is identical to the animated/cel-shaded look of Season 1 and the voice-acting very spot on. 

 

The ending is a culmination of the choices you made leading to that point, leading to a potentially interesting start of Season 2. With such a strong emphasis on player choice, coupled with how Telltale will take your previous game into account, future Walking Dead episodes may become quite varied and nuanced journeys for each and every player, which I gather has been Telltale’s point all along.

See you in the next level,

Gray

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On Assassin’s Creed 3…

There is merit to the notion that some stories are timeless: a wayward teen fulfilling a greater destiny, fathers and sons reconciling, age-long struggles between bitter enemies founded upon opposing ideals. They are tales we’ve heard before, yet time and again they persist through the years and reinvent themselves in untold fashions. In the Assassin’s Creed legacy, these themes are all utilized to craft a story thousands of years in play. What once started as a science-fiction experiment taking place in ancient history, Ubisoft has come a long way to evolve the AC titles into encyclopedic chapters telling a much grander story beyond itself. What began with Altair, Ezio improved, and with Assassin’s Creed 3 Connor aimed to perfect. Packed with the most robust amount of side quests, exploration and secrets among all titles, yet faltering on providing a strong final chapter to finish the history-jumping trilogy, Assassin’s Creed 3 is an ambitious evolution of the saga that nearly perfects gameplay and emotional impact. but fails to give Connor’s story a proper context (or finale) in Desmond’s present-day struggle.

When it was revealed that AC 3 would take place during the American Revolution, many were worried that such a drastic change location would prove too vast to accomplish the breath-taking visuals and trademark free-running the franchise has been known for. It will only take but a few minutes meandering the streets of Boston or vaulting through the forests in the wilderness, however, to recognize that the spirit of the franchise is alive and well. While previous entries emphasized towering cathedrals and florid architecture, AC 3 emphasizes the beauty of nature itself and the evolution of people coming from small beginnings to create something greater than themselves. All four seasons are put to effect both in showing the passage of time and freshening up the usual grey overtones in the cities. From the first hour of playing, AC 3 feels very different from its predecessors, but in a good way.

With so much effort put into making Ezio Auditore a person of believable conviction and emotions, it almost seems unfair to compare him to AC 3’s protagonist Connor. Going from boy, to teenager and into adulthood, Ubisoft does an excellent job of weaving Connor’s slow maturity with his eagerness to be an assassin. Spanning several decades, Connor grows slowly, but with direction and reality. The evolution is made stronger by the presence of Achilles, Connor’s mentor and father figure. Arguably one of  greatest supporting characters in any AC story, Achilles fills a role that, until now, was largely empty or stretched across several minor characters. Reserved yet demanding of respect, Achilles is both an antithesis and a future inevitability for Connor as he travels down the path of the assassin. What starts as a tale of vengeance evolves into a larger struggle against the mysterious Templars, and it takes nearly the entire story for Connor to understand his role in what is happening around him.

 

The internal struggle is bested only by the external, however, as AC 3 provides the best scripted missions and events of the entire franchise. Utilizing key moments and battles of the American Revolution, Connor bears witness to some eye-opening skirmishes and events. As the AC franchise has evolved, the missions have drifted toward more rigidity, focusing on short bursts of intense actions that have only one solution. It is a necessary sacrifice in order to maintain a higher level of action. Thankfully, the colossal amount of side missions are a welcome distraction from the main story. Hunting, treasure seeking and liberating forts and citizens are all simple systems that do well to entertain and keep you busy, but it is the naval battles that are a true delight to play. Whether it’s a fleet of scout ships or a daunting galleon, each trip out to sea guarantees an eloquent dance of circling ships and hurtling cannon balls. The controls mirror the feel of trying to turn a giant ship in raging waters, adding more realism to the already voracious waters.

 

Completing most side missions give rewards tying into AC 3’s unfortunately-complicated trading system. In an attempt to replicate the city-building aspect from Ezio’s games, Connor can rebuild Achilles’ manor and attract more people to settle nearby, opening up more options for crafting and trading. The system is meant as a guaranteed stream of revenue for Connor to purchase new supplies and recipes, but what little tutorial provided fails at properly describing how to go about this entire process. Moreover, finding money to purchase upgrades is never a real problem, as Connor will come across dozens of treasure chests brimming with supplies and plenty of money.

One of AC 3’s biggest missteps, and some might argue it has been since the very first game, is the inclusion of Desmond’s story. Fans of the AC saga will no doubt be interested to see how the science-fiction elements of the story play out, and many will not be happy with what they find. The complete lack of a climax or any resolution in the present-day story is made even more befuddling by how polished and diverse Desmond’s missions are, especially considering how few there are. Desmond’s experience outside of the animus are a welcome change of pace for the player as we finally get to see how Desmond’s skills can be utilized in the modern world. By placing such focus on Connor’s story, Desmond still remains in the periphery of the game and the overall importance of his inclusion in the AC 3 feels diminished–a missed opportunity for the AC series to go in a bold direction.

As a game, Assassin’s Creed 3 offers more than any of its predecessors and delivers with polish and streamlined mechanics. The combat has never been easier, and free-running through forests becomes second-nature very quickly. With so much to offer, AC 3 is a very enjoyable game that provides more than enough avenues to explore outside of the main story. As the finale to a bold trilogy spanning the past, present and future, however, it seems to stumble across the finish line rather than following through. It is never a simple task to complete such deep stories in a way where everyone is left satisfied, but the missed opportunities and frequent glitches and bugs cannot go unstated. However annoying such things are, Assassin’s Creed 3 largely delivers the revolution we were looking for–both in 1776 and in 2012.

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

Computer America: Gamer Tuesday!

Another second Tuesday of the month means another edition of Gamer Tuesday on the Computer America Radio Show! This month Craig, Ben and I talk about major cable TV providers providing cloud-gaming services, Microsoft updating their policies regarding using their games to make original content (example: Red vs Blue), and we revel in the glory that was Borderlands 2. Below is the link to the first hour, followed by the link for the second hour.

And hey, while you’re at it, you can now find Computer America on iTunes and subscribe to their podcasts! Enjoy the show!

 

 

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Star Wars: The Old Republic…

****Editor’s Note: Because of their nature, MMO games are very difficult to review entirely. As such, I have tried to encompass as many details as possible, but I freely admit there are many aspects I have overlooked. Also, this review is MUCH longer than my usual boundaries, so don’t feel compelled to finish, nor feel bad if you choose to skim. With that, enjoy.

In my younger years, my first grapple with the MMO genre was with a devious game called Everquest. As a denizen of the world of Norrath, my Half-Elf Paladin was one of hundreds of thousands of people taking their first steps in what many of us didn’t recognize to be a bold new genre of video game. I was thirteen at the inception of my first character, but it wouldn’t occur to me until my third year of playing that I dawned upon some of the MMO genre’s greater machinations for the entire industry. For years my father, brother and I toiled away at the keyboard; kiting, pulling and dying countless times over simply to have the satisfaction of filling just one tiny portion of our experience bar. While championed for its higher difficulty and lack of forgiveness to even the most innocent player, Everquest was a trial-by-fire for most gamers, and its flaws became difficult to ignore.

Not too much time later, Everquest was succeeded by the still-undisputed king of MMO gaming, World of Warcraft. Where Everquest sought to achieve a world of roleplaying intensity and personal dedication, the minds at Blizzard took a more scientific approach to success. By creating content that appeals directly to one of four distinct types of gamers–explorers, achievers, socializers and killers–it was all but impossible for a gamer to not find something to enjoy while strolling through Azeroth. Coupled with an easier learning curve and a specific focus on reward rather than punishment, World of Warcraft quickly escalated the MMO genre to new levels of untapped potential. Since its launch in 2004, WoW has been the icon of MMO superiority and few others of its kind have even scratched at the success Blizzard has reaped.

But if there is one lesson I have learned from my ongoing romances with being a nerd, it is that perfection and evolution will be lifelong enemies. As I once transferred my online passions from Everquest to WoW, I have repeated from World of Warcraft to Bioware’s long anticipated MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic. The passage of time will always open the door to greater degrees of criticism, especially for games like MMO’s that are never truly complete. Unlike most games that incubate in development for years before a final product is released, MMOs seem to perpetually exist in a purgatory between polished content and bold concepts that beg to be included, yet are without proper direction and professional testing. With that in mind, a reviewer is tasked with playing (and evaluating) and game that, in essence, will never be finished. In this regard, games like The Old Republic stand unique. Other accredited sites such as Game Informer, IGN, or Kotaku always do their best to encompass as much they can with what little time they are given, and in that sense I attempted to do the same.

The philosophy of Old Republic is quite similar to its predecessors in that a player must choose a side, a race, and a class to properly define their role in society. Fortunately for Bioware, the Star Wars franchise tends to have more iconic roles that even casual fans are familiar with. To parallel the roles played in the Star Wars movies, players can choose between being Jedi, Sith, Han Solo-esque smugglers, Bounty Hunters, Republic troopers or Imperial Agents. Character creation is fairly straight forward in terms of physical customization and class decision, but given the great detail to weapons and armor most physical traits will largely go unnoticed as they are buried underneath more intricate layers of cloth and metal. To be completely honest, I paid little attention to my race and whatever facial scars I gave him as past experience dictated most attention would be paid to how “badass” I looked when standing in any given public place.

From there, players are quickly introduced into the universe Bioware has painstakingly produced to create what I believe is the closest experience to the Star Wars universe since the original trilogy. For years Bioware has been expertly crafting entire encyclopedias’ worth of lore and historical impact for every game they develop, and Old Republic is no different. As the authors of the acclaimed Knights of the Old Republic games, it stands to reason they alone could create a world that not only adhered to the mechanical rules of an MMO, but could also tell several distinct stories that compelled the player across an entire galaxy to complete. From the first introductory cinematic to the climactic final battle, every single class carries a story arc that travels with them from level one to fifty. For most game developers it would be enough to stop there; eight separate story lines that must keep each player traveling from planet to planet is difficult enough, but those at Bioware have long known the best details lie in the smallest places.

For years, the term “grinding” has become an unfortunate process for MMO games: acquire quests, kill monsters, gain experience, reach the next level, and repeat. No matter the person, place or setting, this was long considered the ‘norm’. I admit to knowing this concept while playing WoW as it was a somewhat satisfying quality I had grown accustomed to since Everquest. While I freely admit the Old Republic is victim to the same process, the attention paid to context makes almost all the difference in the world. Like World of Warcraft, the majority of your time is spent completing ‘missions’ to gain money and equipment, but Bioware pushed the boundaries further by giving every single story, mission and group instance its own unique story and context.  Whenever I am slaughtering Jedi or infiltrating a Republic base, the conversations with the AI characters and background intelligence I gather all but dissipate that feeling of grinding. In a sense, the experience I was rewarded was more of a byproduct to furthering the story thread itself, as I was more committed to helping the Empire solidify their presence on a certain planet and help weaken the Republic. It may seem as a finite quality to have, but around level thirty you will appreciate how much you are still invested in the story rather than getting closer and closer to the level cap.

Furthermore, the voice acting given to every single AI character you interact with is no easy or unnoticed accomplishment. If the plot is a vehicle you’re interested in buying, the voice acting is the salesman that hands it you. No matter the mission, the voice acting remains varied and professional across the entire game and will remain one of Bioware’s shining accolades. The sheer amount of different accents, dialects and languages you encounter across the entire game will be more than enough to make you appreciate how much effort went into pushing the boundaries of storytelling in an MMO atmosphere.

Although the combat formula is relatively unchanged from World of Warcraft, it is certainly no less familiar. Players will have several unique abilities meant to attack the enemy or heal themselves, combined with specialty skills that contribute to group efforts. As players progress, they are given the opportunity to choose a sub-class that gives them a unique set of abilities specific to their role in the game. If you are a more defensive player, Bounty Hunters can become Mercenaries that have special healing abilities for themselves or others. For those that are more inclined for damage dealing, Jedi knights and Sith warriors can customize their abilities to affect several enemies at once and help put out as much as damage as possible. Moreover, personal morals come into play in almost every mission as dialogue trees give specific points to the light or dark side of their character. If a player is a man of mercy, letting P.O.W’s survive will promise light-side points, but deciding to kill the lot and cover up the evidence will lead to dark-side points. Advancements in either side lead to unique rewards that can only be worn by people of pure benevolence or evil, thereby furthering a player’s desire to polarize their character to one side or another.

player-versus-player combat has become a significant portion of modern day MMO games, and it is with some regret that I found the Old Republic’s offering a bit lacking. Standard group arenas provide the most natural form of combat between sides, but the newer aspects are where Bioware’s game lacks the most polish. In the higher levels, players are granted access to an entire planet dedicated to PvP combat, yet in most cases players of both sides will find themselves cooperating with the enemy simply to achieve mission objectives for experience and better equipment. While the idea of an entire PvP planet is potentially impressive, the execution leaves something to be desired. If future patches implement specific bonuses to abilities, increased experience gain or access to unique story missions, the ideal conditions will prevail and players will slay each other as originally intended. Fortunately, other aspects prove to be innovative perspectives on cooperation in regards to an arena called “Huttball”. In this arena, players attempt to fight each other while they move a large ball into the enemy’s territory. It may seem simple enough, but even the smallest degree of organized teamwork and the operation becomes an intense tug-of-war between offense and defense that keeps the PvP scene fresh. Additional modes and concepts like these are sure to reinvigorate the currently flawed PvP system and give Star Wars the lightsaber/force choking tour de force it deserves.

It is an obvious truth that all genres of gaming are subject to natural evolution. As Everquest provided a rudimentary structure to a 3D online gaming environment, World of Warcraft built upon it by providing a more inviting and casual process that reduced the punishment and punctuated the rewards for advancement that all types of players could enjoy. From there, the Old Republic continues the evolution by infusing that same process with an engaging plot that maintains intrigue and suspense from beginning to end. Though not without flaws, The Old Republic deserves its worthy praise for its polish, balance and execution of combat and narrative development that are without rival in the MMO genre. In the months and years to come, there is no question that the minds at Bioware have created a product that may finally rival its competition in a way not seen before. My only hope in the coming future is that no matter how successful the Old Republic may be, it will not make the same mistakes its predecessors have since learned to avoid.

See you in the next level,

Gray

On Rage…

(****NOTE: This was posted on the SA Current’s weblog under the category People’s Gamer, on October 10th, 2011. I am re-posting it here to keep my work together and all in one place. Hope you enjoy!)

If you’re one of the many FPS fans out there and you don’t know who id Software is, then I highly suggest opening up Wikipedia and giving yourself a quick history lesson. Won’t take long…

… You back? Good. So, id Software set the standard for FPS back in the early ’90s with some huge hits like Wolfenstein and Doom. Their last foray, however, was way back in 2004 with Doom 3, just before Valve changed the game withHalf-Life 2. In the years since, there’s been a lot of progress made by other studios and id was still quiet on what they had planned. When Rage was first shown at E3 in 2009, much of the older gaming community started salivating at the thought of the ol’ FPS champs coming back to the genre they made famous and showing the rest of the industry how it’s done. What kinds of innovation did they have in store for us? New control scheme? Dynamic story-telling and plot development? Revamped AI or new combat mechanics? None of these, actually. As it turns out, Rage is a very polished, very tight, very status-quo shooter that entertains without innovating.

Now I don’t want to convey the wrong feeling here — I thoroughly enjoyedRage. There is no doubt in my mind that id still knows how to make one solid FPS game. Unfortunately, Rage feels more like a shooter that’s playing catch-up with the new changes and never quite meets the expectations considering the programming pedigree id Software is known for. Perhaps this is a mistake on my part for setting my own expectations too high, or I am being too critical of a title that only means to entertain; nevertheless, I left Rage wanting just a little more.

Rage puts you in the boots of yet another silent protagonist emerging from a vault used to protect mankind from an asteroid that struck the planet in 2029. Life, however, didn’t stop on the surface but the primary inhabitants now are bandits, dismembered mutants, and other nasty horrors roaming the desert. You’re quickly thrown into the fray as many of the characters you come across conveniently use you as their new errand boy or contract killer. The story is one of the lackluster elements of Rage since it never feels important or compelling enough to drive the player forward. If anything, the promise of new weapons, equipment, and general loot is definitely more palpable than where the plot leads to. Over the 12 or 13 hours it takes to complete, it is only in the last few hours that the story stumbles upon its more intriguing parts.

Rage isn’t without it’s high points though. The visuals are nothing short of perfection; despite miles and miles of desert, canyons and valleys, tiny variations and nuances keep any environment from looking recycled. Incredible amounts of detail have been put into each character, weapon and vehicle that really serve to make some moments pop out. Even more impressive is how the entire game runs at a solid 60 frames per second. At no point during any skirmish or fire fight did the intensity ever slow down even for a moment, and that is no easy task to accomplish over such a large world environment.

Speaking on environment, the desert is filled with just about every ill-tempered baddie you’d expect to find in an irradiated wasteland. Rage‘s center point in combat is the variety of enemies you’ll encounter, each of them adding one more level of depth to your strategy. Much like your arsenal, which is comprised of long- and short-range weapons, each new enemy will seek to end you in some new format. Most mutants will sprint toward you in a hale of screams and thrashing, and some of the stronger units will hold back and rain carnage down from a distance. The designers at id went to great lengths to crank up the satisfaction of blasting a mutant and watching them crumble in some new way. In some cases, a well-placed shot will leave a mangled torso still attached to a set of legs still trying to crawl their way to you. Much like the slow-motion camera in the V.A.T.S. system from Fallout 3, the animations never get old to watch.

One underused facet of Rage is a vehicle used to traverse some of the game’s longer treks through the wasteland. Though the vehicle is mounted with rocket launchers and can obliterate bandits trying to run you down, there isn’t much else to use it for. There are points at which you can challenge others to racing matches, but they don’t serve the main story and don’t provide enough incentive to validate doing them. In short, the more entertaining parts of using a vehicle are, at best, just a distraction from both the plot and the more rewarding side quests.

Rage is not a bad game by any stretch of imagination. Quite the opposite, Rageis both expertly designed and incredibly entertaining when it wants to be. People looking for a shooter that forgoes the standard Call of Duty format will find this game absolutely thrilling and a refreshing change of pace. It’s only disappointment is that it could have been more — more compelling, more adventurous, more difficult than what we get. While it’s sometimes tremendously difficult to live up to the expectations of the masses, I feel that id Software has the talent and the experience to live up to its name, and Ragecould have been their return to the throne. But, perhaps for reasons personal to the studio, Rage is built more on what they know, and that’s not a bad thing either.

See you in the next level,

Gray