Thursday, January 29, 2009

Castlevania Dawn of Sorrow (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: Konami
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: October 4th, 2005

The "Sorrow" games of the Castlevnia series have been, in my experience, relatively popular. I've known several friends to have enjoyed the game - my ex-girlfriend particularly enjoyed them and was the person who gave me the itch to play them - and it's gotten good reviews in general. I had mostly ignored the portable Castlevania's until around this game, the last I'd played was Symphony; when I went away from this game I was pleased in general. But when it came time to review, keeping the entire franchise in mind, Aria's direct sequel isn't really all that remarkable.

Just about any Castlevania that uses the Metroideque gameplay and isn't 3D is eventually going to draw comparison to Symphony of the Night, the 1997 Playstation classic. It's completely unavoidable; Symphony was truly a part of the period where the series was at it's highest, being a direct sequel to the greatest game of the classic formula, Chi No Rondo. When compared, no game since has managed to reach those lofty heights again and with good reason; the number of items, areas to explore, paths to take and just things to discover in general was at an asinine level.

With that in mind, Dawn of Sorrow is a good effort and takes the higher tier of all the games that have followed Symphony. Is it the best since? That's debateable, one could argue that Aria, it's direct predecessor, was at a bit higher level.

We'll start with the story. In general, the story is rather simple as expected. Actually, it's even simpler than Portrait of Ruins; or at least it came off that way to me. The characters themselves, if you were to isolate this game, are relatively dry; even Arikado, the civilian identity of Symphony frontrunner Alucard and the son of Dracula, really doesn't have a whole lot interesting to say or do other than "we can't risk you becoming the dark lord, leave this to us. They don't even actually say his real name in game; the only place it's mentioned is in the specific entry dedicated to Alucard that is given after the scene alluding to Arikado's true identity. Motives of the villains are simple as well; gain more power and become the new Dark Lord.

Even the dialogue isn't all that great. There isn't really a whole lot of wit to the dialogue, something the series has actually somewhat lacked in general since Symphony first game the series games with much of a story beyond destroying Dracula. It's dry and mostly there to service and move the plot forward with a little villain evilness for good measure; all they were really missing was a good bwa-ha-ha, to be honest.

But this isn't something to be held against the game too much; in fairness, it's predecessors in the portable realm were really no better in this regard.

The graphics are a bit of a mixed bag. The good outweighs the bad, but there are odd design choices. The staple enemies often seen since Symphony are generally here in full force, but there isn't a lot of originality this go around. If you've played a previous title, you're going to run into a lot of old friends. For once, we do find ourselves outside of Dracula's castle, but the place we traverse, with the exception of the section called "The Lost Village", is a castle anyways. There are some different locals here and there, but little is different enough to distinguish it from Drac's castle, of which we've traversed dozens of times in one form or another. This one even has a Clocktower, for goodness sakes.

Also, other touches are relatively questionable. The character portraits and overall look has ditched the usual beautiful artwork that the games have held since Symphony for an extremely generic style you could likely see in any random saturday morning anime. It's a choice that leaves you scratching your head, especially when you consider that this is a game immediatly following a game that still used the old portrait style. In another realm, the game does use some 3D for the backgrounds, which was welcome to see considering it helps convey movement with the background moving with you; but it lacks polish. They definitely look like the 3D models they are, which often looks kinda weird against 2D sprites and such.

All of this may sound negative, but the overall look of the game in action looks as good as any other Castlevania; being servicable in every respect, so it's not all bad at all.

Music is probably a bit better this go around. I particularly enjoyed some of the themes we got in this game, along with remixes of some classic themes from previous games. It thankfully wasn't all remixes of classic Castlevania themes, thankfully, with some new music that I felt stands well amongst the general quality this series has always provided. The soundtrack is a bit more memorable this go around.

Controls are, for the most part, as good as any other "Metroidvania" Castlevania title; on a handheld anyways. There are more buttons on the DS than the Game Boy Advance, which was the platform it's predecessor was put out on, but they're not used for anything particularly interesting. The X button can switch your equipment sets and the A button does a slightly more powerful standard attack with a little visual effect. Gameplay is spiced up by the Soul system, wheras you can use different abilities depending on the souls you equip, but this is a carryover from Aria and thus not really a plus unless you've never played that title.

The new perks that come from the DS's features are hit and miss. The dual screens are used well enough. The bottom screen is used for the action, while the top screen can shift between two functions using the select button; a general castle map and a stats screen. The map is exactly what you'd expect and is rather useful to have always there with you instead of needing to obsessively pause the game to check where you are. The stat's screen allows you to see your own stat's, along with affects that may happen from an enemy attack or item as they happen, and an entry on the enemy you're facing, including weaknesses, strengths, item drops and the number of souls you have collected of that monsters.

The touch screen controls, however, are far less intuitive. In essence, they're a product of the time when this game was released; when the DS was a relatively new system and developers felt they had to use the different features to justify their inclusion, often to less than stellar effect. For every game like Kirby Canvas Curse, which made the touch screen a fun and vital part of the experience, there were three or four other games that basically threw in hackneyed touch screen capability that was generally sparse and unnecesary in an attempt to utilize everything and justify it. Dawn unfortunately falls under the second.

There are two main things that will require your stylus. One soul allows you the ability to tap special blocks which you can shatter through the touch screen. The number of area's you will need to use this on could probably be counted on one hand. The other is the outright frustrating Magic Seal system, where to actually defeat a boss, you must first draw out some weird pattern; if you mess up or don't draw it in time, the boss regains something like half it's health which you must deplete again before you get another crack at the pattern. You can probably see how this might be frustrating; especially when the time limits become more restrictive and the patterns more intricate. Now picture it in battle, where you have to use the buttons to beat the boss, then rush to get your stylus ready to draw that pattern lest you have to continue the fight; needless to say it's not for the uncoordinated. It's unnecesary and more frustrating than interesting; making me wish it had either been left out entirely or given a bit more thought so it was a bit more intuitive. I had only one or two problems with it in the end, but I've been playing videp games since damn near coming out of the womb; anyone less attuned to video games will probably have trouble with it as the systems somewhat unforgiving.

The extra stuff is generally alright. You have Julius Mode, unlocked after you get one of two of the three different endings. This mode is more or less a precusor to the team system slightly expanded upon in the next title to come, Portrait of Ruin. You can recruit a couple characters and switch between them with the X button. The only thing really missing are the team up attacks and the ability to equip the characters with things; an experience which truly makes you realize just how little Portrait of Ruin actually innovated. The requisite Sound Test is here as well, which should come to no surprise to anyone.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

Overall, this entry to the Castlevania is just fine, if not quite as strong as it could have been. It's nice to hang with Soma and company if you play a lot of Castlevania's and it's a good entry if you're new to the series as well, considering the library entry's will catch you up to speed on the very basics. Would I reccomend it above any other entries in the series? Not really. Is it a good portable Castlevania? Yes. Time, and me getting my hands on a copy, will tell if Order of Ecclesia has managed to be a better game than it's DS Castlevania brethren.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Sonic Rush (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: Dimps, Sonic Team
Genre: Action, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: November 15th, 2005

Sonic's been a strange beast to watch this past decade. He's gone from prominence as a premier icon of video games to a mid carder at best and a relic of a bygone era in games at worst. All on the strength, or lack thereof, of many of his games this decade, with the exception of the first two Sonic Adventures. A lot had been riding on this title around it's release, considering many were clamoring for a Sonic experience that was decent at the very least.

Personally, I don't think we got it. This game really does highlight some of the just plain bad choices that have been thrust upon this former icon over the years in a striking bold, even if it's not quite as bad as Sonic Advance 2's particular atrocities. It's not a good showing for the speedy blue hedgehog.

The story is rather simplistic, which is probably the one thing this game did I was glad for. Generally, trying to shove a plot in Sonic games hasn't quite worked out over the years, making me wish for the day's when it was as simple as fighting Eggman through stages to a final battle with no dialogue present. The days when any character interactions were done within the stages and you'd get all you needed to know right there.

Still, there is some semblance of a story here. It generally revolves around a cat named Blaze from another dimension, complete with her own alternate universe Eggman and emeralds, trying to stop her Eggman, who has invaded Sonic's world. This wouldn't be so terrible if the dialogue wasn't so laughably bad; it's honestly even worse than some of the most glaring offenders in the series of late, with generally bad lines and cheesy writing. Then there's Sonic, who, upon defeating a boss, watches as the Eggman flies away and snaps his fingers in an "oh darn" sort of way. Umm, hello? Maybe you should try chasing him?

The sound is generally just okay. There are some voice clips here and there, thankfully only for four or five characters. I say thankfully because the voices are just plain gratingly bad. It was enough to make you wish you could reach through the screen and strangle Tails after about the eighteenth time he spoke during a boss fight, saying the same damn thing. Music was a bit better, but overall I thought it was rather forgettable. Which is a shame, as usually Sonic games, at the least, have had some memorable music.

The graphics fared a bit better. The surroundings are suitably bright and pleasing to the eye, if nothing really special. The game literally goes right to the most basic tropes of the series levels with little real deviance from them, which makes them a bit more forgettable. It's almost as though the designers aren't even trying anymore in regards to differentiating them. In the old days, you had your opening green level, but they looked different. Sonic had a grasslands vibe, Sonic 2's was a bit more tropical, Sonic 3 had something of a tropical jungle, Sonic and Knuckles had a thick forest. These days they seem to just slap a jungle theme and be done with it. If there was one level that stood out, however, it was the carnival-esque level.

The gameplay, however, is where this game completely falls apart. Much of the Sonic series problems since Sonic Adventure 2 lie largely in level design, or bad level design, as it were. Sonic Rush is as bad as any of them. The level designs themselves are quite frankly boring. Most of it is a bunch of loops and dashing from place to place. There is none of the complexity of the Genesis era Sonic games or even any of the interesting gimmicks. It's a lot of "hold right to win" gameplay, which is about the biggest possible snoozefest of gameplay you could ever have. There are maybe one or two paths in each stage, sure, which is something I fully welcome the return of; but none of the paths are in the least bit interesting or unique. The paths are basically the same bland levels, just with more options to get through the level, which misses the point of them entirely.

Even just the facets of level design here are poor. Enemy and hazard placement in this game is just a cruel joke; you'll be cruising along in the blandly designed levels when suddenly "BAM MUTHAFUCKA", there's a bunch of enemies right in your path. No time to react, no time to dodge, just unfairly placed in the worst possible spots. In the old days, they were placed in good positions that were far from unfair; if you got hit, it was your fault and not the games. Not so from Adventure 2 on. This goes for the hazards too.

This is not to mention the horrid amount of endless pits in every damn level, which is the worst addition to the franchise I could possibly think of. They come out of absolutely nowhere with no damn warning and are everywhere in the levels of this game. You'll cruise along and hit a ramp, go flying, then hit a wall. You'll start to fall, only to see a platform pass to your left. You miss it, because you couldn't freaking see it, only to be greeted not by solid ground below, but by a pit. There goes one of your lives. Modern Sonic games love punishing you for things that aren't your fault. Probably why the character has gone from video game hero to a joke as far as peoples opinions here in America go.

Bosses and enemies are, as usual lately, uninspired. Like most modern Sonic games, this portable entry has a habit of recycling enemy and boss designs because Sega is too cheap to put money into producing more than the handful they do. You'll literally fight the same boss on a later level with nothing more than a vague change of scenery, which is positively boring. Enemies are reused through levels with little more than a palette swap.

Then there's Blaze, the new second playable character in this game. Anyone that was hoping for an experience similar to the days of old where you had Sonic and another character like Knuckles or Tails, each with their own play experience, is going to be sorely disappointed. Playing as either character literally gives you the exact same game, just with a different level order. Blaze doesn't even have the courtesy to play differently, giving you the exact same play experience and moves that Sonic does. What's the point in having another playable character if they're not different from the first in any way except visually?

This game is bad. I mean, really, really bad. It doesn't even have the decency to use the touch screen in any interesting way; not that being able to even see more around you helps much when you're going so fast through poor level design that it doesn't help you. As a game experience, this game fails to be fun in any fashion, to the point where I literally had to force myself to finish it after having put it down several times. I'm going to play its sequel only because a friend says it's better, but if that one fails to be of any sort of fun I'm going to write off the era of Sonic games between Sonic Adventure 2 and SatSR (Sonic and the Secret Rings) completely without feeling an ounce of regret.
Avoid this one if you can for the sake of your blood pressure.

My Opinion: Burn It

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Kirby Squeak Squad (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: HAL Laboratory
Genre: Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: December 4th, 2006

With Kirby games, you tend to know what you're gonna get going in. Which is probably why they tend to be so popular. You can walk into any installment you want and find a fun, if light and fluffy, gaming experience. No mad gaming skills required, just the ability to have a good time and the lack of an aversion to bright colors, especially pink.

With every game, there tends to be a bit of innovation snuck in there as well though, mostly for variety. The previous installment, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, did this with it's Metroid-esque interconnected world and the ability to call on four other Kirby's to help you. Kirby Squeak Squad isn't any different, though as with almost every Kirby game it has forgone the additions in the previous game; we're back to one Kirby and back to the more traditional stage based level structure. Which is fine considering the series never keeps the changes.

Before we get to that, we'll start with the story. Yes, the story. Kirby games never have much of a plot aside from the most threadbare you could possibly find, more as an excuse to get in there and eat things. This games plot is probably even more threadbare than usual. It literally boils down to "MMM STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE OMNOMNOM OMFGWTF THOSE RATS STOLE MY CAKE MUST KILL RATS MUST RESCUE CAKE". No, really; that's it. But like with every game, do we really need any more? Not really.

So, the additions for this particular game are certainly different, as usual. Much of the game will revolve around collecting treasure, which you need to grab before the members of the Squeak Squad, who stole the Strawberry Shortcake that set the game into motion. This treasure is kept in your stomach. You can hold up to five bubble coated powers, items or treasure in your stomach at a time. The trick is to know what to keep and when to use something, considering each stage has up to three treasures to find and they each take up a spot in your gut.

The other "innovation" of sorts, and I put quotations because we've seen a variation of this before, is something I would have liked to have seen more of. You can combine two items in your stomach to create a new item. For instance, if you do this with three small Kirby powerups, it turns into a 1-up. After you get a powerup scroll for your sword power, you can combine a fireball ability item with a sword ability item to create the Fire Sword ability. This really, really had the potential to add a great deal to the overall gameplay with different ways to get new powers, but the problem is that it is unfortunately not used much. You're really not going to have too many times where combining things will be beneficial; doing it with most items just gives you a bubble of the returning Hi-Jump powerup. That this gimmick was so underused kind of stuck with me, considering I'm never a fan of good ideas going unfulfilled.

The only returning "gimmick" from the last one, Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, is the collection of treasure; one of the few that's returned for another game and in it's third game so far (after The Great Cave Offensive in Kirby Super Star Deluxe/Ultra and Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, respectively). Theres a good deal to collect in this game, with up to a hundred and twenty different treasures to find and collect scattered about the many stages. The prizes to be found can range anywhere from spray paint to recolor Kirby to meddalions for unlocking a new mode once the game is completed to pieces of graphics you can view from the collection to pieces of a map that will lead to someplace new. It does add replay to the game after the main quest, for certain; especially for anyone like me who has a habit of trying to collect everything possible.

Gameplay is otherwise as simple as usual. You float, skip, jump and eat enemies through a bunch of colorful stages of Dream Land. Most of your basic powerups return this go around, with one or two actually returning after a good deal of time being unused; and some treasures will actually upgrade these powers, which is a welcome addition. Unfortunately, you're still not going to find as much to do with these powers as before. While Kirby Super Star Deluxe gave you a lot of things you could do with each particular powerup, to much amusement and enjoyment, no game since has ever given you as many move options. But an old time fan will be used to that by now and anyone who played Kirby Super Star Ultra to experience Deluxe for the first time probably understands by now that each Kirby game has it's own quirks.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

This is a fine game, for certain, but I felt like there were areas that really needed to be expanded upon to make this entry truly unique. Kirby and the Amazing Mirror had a good deal of replay value thanks to the level of exploring you did and the recent upgrade of Kirby Super star Deluxe, Kirby Super Star Ultra, has several different games packed in each with their own unique gimmick. Given that, it's hard to really reccomend this game considering there are other easily available Kirby games to buy with more to do. Still, if you're a Kirby fan and you have money to burn, there's no reason not to pick it up. Reccomended.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Castlevania Portrait of Ruin (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: Konami
Genre: Action/Adventure, Platformer
ESRB Rating: Teen
Release Date: December 5th, 2006

Seems like every year or two a new portable Castlevania comes out, doesn't it? That really isn't all that far from the truth. Honestly, being a long time fan of the franchise, I really haven't been of the opinion that any of the portable Castlevania's lived up to the epic Playstation classic; Symphony of the Night. Hell, most of them can't top Chi No Rondo - or Rondo of Blood, as the english translation goes. That includes the Sorrow games. Though admittedly, that's a tall order to fill anyways.

That said, each of them have been enjoyable, if a lot of the same. With Portrait of Ruin, this isn't really a change from that. This is still the basic formula first popularized in Symphony of the Night, or the mix of Castlevania settings with Metroid playstyle. Still a relatively overused plot with someone else taking over Dracula's castle and all that; to the Sorrow games credit, they did at least deviate from this a bit. But there are a few wrinkles here and there.

One of the more welcome changes is the portrait worlds gimmick added that this game generally focuses around. Each painting will take you to a world inside of it, with varying locals of sorts; from an egyptian landscape to a small town to a decrepit, warped circus. It gives some more variety to the locals in addition to your usual foyer/gallery/underground/clocktower standby castle locals. Which certainly helps, considering the fact that despite it warping each incarnation, it's hard to escape the fact that we've gone through the castle god knows how many times by now.

The biggest change to the whole thing, aside from the continuation of the cheap saturday morning anime style designs that started cropping up with Dawn of Sorrow, is that a team system has been implemented. It's really the biggest real change to the overall gameplay, which is tried and true Castlevania through and through. I'd love to tell you that this is implemented brilliantly and a perfect addition to things, but unfortunately if I were to say that I'd be a liar. Though I must admit right now that I would take this, as much as it needs work, over Dawns at times frustrating glyph business.

The sad truth of the team gameplay is that you're probably going to stick with Johnathan Morris for most of the game unless you're forced to do otherwise. The other member that you may switch to at any time, a witch named Charolette, is relatively useless in comparison. She has poor range with almost everything, including most of her spells, not to mention some grating charge times for her spells, assuming you want to do more damage than a mosquito bite. The most useful aspect of this team system are the team attacks, which you can execute for some MP, how much being determined by the strength of the attack. Other than that, it really does not live up to the fun you would have expected.

While the new team system may have been disappointing, the story held water, if just barely. The game in itself is a continuation of the Sega Genesis entry, Castlevania Bloodlines, overall lineage and storyline. The main character is the son of the first hero of Bloodlines, John Morris, and there are references to that adventure littered about. A few nice cameos pop up here and there as well. Added on to that, we finally get some semblance of an answer to why the Belmonts dropped out of the picture until 1999 only for the Morris family to take up the whip; a bit of a dangling plotline for quite a while now.

Unfortunately, the latest Morris is rather bland; he hates his father for dying and leaving them, is overly bitter and that's pretty much it. If it was added to it could have worked, but as it is, it was pretty basic; Charollete is not much better, acting more as a nanny than a best friend at times with a bit of a temper if you call her a kid. If it weren't for some of the neat throwbacks and surprising little easter egg type things, like finding out once and for all who was the last Belmont to weild the Vampire Killer until 1999 was, the story probably would have soured me a bit on this entry. Johnathan ain't no Alucard, that much is certain.

The sound is fitting, as usual, with a few remixes of classic themes in the game. One of my favorites actually came with one of my personal favorite fights in the game, which it's hard not to spoil, but suffice to say you'll know the fight when you see it. This isn't exactly anything new; as the Castlevania franchise has always had good music. But it's always comforting to realize when you jump into one of the games.

Like most previous games, there is replay to be had here, considering the very nature of the game. Anyone familiar with the Sorrows and Julius mode will find a similar mode here, with two new teams that can be used instead of Johnathan and Charolette. Oddly enough, one of the two teams in particular for this mode is more of a balanced experience than the main games duo. The Castlevania fanboy in me loved the extra duo. There's also a Boss Rush mode, if you're into that, which I know some are. Other requisite extra's are there as well, such as the Sound Test.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

Overall, it's a decent Castlevania entry. It never really rises above the pack to really distinguish itself from it's predecessors and that's probably the games biggest shortcoming. Aside from locals more varied than in the past, there's only the team gimmick, which didn't pan out as well as would have been expected due largely to an imbalance in usefullness. Which is frustrating, because I'm convinced that with some proper tuning, it would have worked well. Otherwise it's just another Castlevania game, so while I enjoyed myself I really cannot give this game a better rating. Even if this is an improvement over some previous installments since Symphony, it doesn't change the fact that they still have not reached those heights again and that we've seen most of this before. Reccomended.

Ramblings: Stone Cold and the Attitude Era of WWE

It's funny. It was announced about a week or so ago, from what I understand, but I've only just now heard about it. I'm talking about Stone Cold Steve Austin's induction in the WWE Hall of Fame, really. I probably would have been up to speed on that if I hadn't missed wrestling the week it was announced.

Honestly, it really took me back to hear that. I'm thinking, has it really been that long? Has it really been ten years since Stone Cold Steve Austin was the top face of the WWE, then called the WWF? I couldn't help but remember those years, which were probably the most formative years to me.

To be honest, I wasn't even really brought in during the Attitude era. I used to watch a lot of old wrestling tapes I'd pick up used in a bin in the supermarket. Stuff from the days of Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, Ted Dibiase, Hacksaw Jim Duggan and even Bret the Hitman Hart's glory days. It wasn't until around the Royal Rumble of 1996 that I came into things when it came to the weekly show. The days when Shawn Michaels was just returning, won the Royal Rumble and was going to Wrestlemania XII to face Bret Hart for the title in an Iron Man match. I was a big fan of his and he pulled it off. Pretty much from then on, you couldn't keep me away from the television Monday Nights; school or not.

I had pretty much every pay per view that year, always excited and watching as Shawns reign as champion trucked on. That was really what I look at as a major transitionary period when it comes to the WWE. A lot of people point to Stone Colds victory at Wrestlemania XIV as where the Attitude era began, but I honestly think that's a bit of a crock. To me, I started in '96 and grew onwards, with '97 being where it really began. You look at it, Stone Cold was really starting to rise during that time, thanks in part due to his King of the Ring win where the Stone Cold persona started and his fued with the Hitman, leading right up to Wrestlemania XIII where he was basically turned face in the same night the Hitman turned heel. The first incarnation of Degeneration X was formed, which was really where the Attitude era got roots. The Hitman, the whole "Canadians are better" storyline and all the junk that came with it.

Anyways, when I look back on it, I really wish Shawns reign as head face wasn't so damn short. It was something like six months before he lost the title to Sycho Sid at Survivor Series. I actually cried, I'll admit, when Shawn was hit with the camera and put away for the three count after the Powerbomb. Then when he got it back at the Royal Rumble a couple months later, he left wrestling some two weeks later on Raw. This is compared to the long runs in the past, where Diesel was the head guy for over a year, Bret Hart was one of the top dogs for years, Macho Man had a year long reign when he was champion post Wrestlemania IV. It really felt like that era didn't last long enough. To top it off, the next big face with the title, Undertaker, saw his reign end maybe three months after he won the title; losing it at Summerslam. Then Shawn went heel and so on. But this is all beside the point.

So, Stone Cold. I really do have fond memories of that era. It was lewd and a rapid change from where the WWF had been just two years previous, but it was without a doubt exciting. Stone Cold was the top dog while The Rock, one of my all time favorites, was just climbing up towards that level. Mankind was becoming a force in the heavyweight title race. Triple H became more of a force in things. As time progressed, the Undertaker came back reborn after the Ministry nonsense in early 2000 as a top competitor. Eddie Guererro and Chris Beniot entered the scene. Big Show made his first appearance in his long career with the WWE. I honestly, really do miss those days.

Of course, I didn't even bother with WCW. In fact, I completely skipped almost everything they did. When I did tune in, it always bored the living hell out of me. The NWO thing may have been a big hit with most everyone else, but I honestly thought it was little more than a snooze-fest. Not to mention it drug on forever. There was also the neverending feeling that I was watching a bunch of washed up wrestlers from the WWE's golden age. Half the roster was little more than old WWE rejects, after all. Macho Man, Lex Luger, Hulk Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, the Stieners and so many other culled past their prime from the WWE's ranks. Their most bankable stars were Sting, who I never even gave a damn about even after he adopted that whole "The Crow" ripoff gimmick, and Goldberg, whom not only tended to injure himself doing relatively routine moves but also tended to injure others. It was laughable really. If I tuned in at all it was usually for the Cruiserweight division and Rey Mysterio; try as they might, the WWE's Light Heavyweight division was never much more than a low card title that few ever cared about with an unimpressive roster.

It always seems like that era was cut short to me. It wasn't too long at all before the car angle at Survivor Series took Stone Cold out of the picture for a while. Things thankfully thrived afterwards. The Rock had a chance to shine and become the biggest player and biggest fan draw the WWE had arguably since Hulk Hogan. Triple H was a real, sneering heel that you loved to hate; a quality few heels these days can pull off. Kurt Angle was becoming a similar heel who played with the big boys. But then, Stone Cold came back and not too long after, it all slowly crumbled away. I stopped watching as regularly out of disgust when Stone Cold turned heel at Wrestlemania XVII. The Rock vanished, away making movies. Triple H was injured badly not long after. The Tag Team Division started it's journey down the road leading towards the farce it is today. By the time The Invasion storyline had started, I didn't watch wrestling at all.

I came back for about the period of a year maybe after Wrestlemania XIX. I remember this period best due to Brock Lesnar being around. Kevin Nash was back after who knows how many years and fueding with Triple H, who had obviously come back by then and regained the title. Goldberg was around, though I must admit I didn't care for him much. It actually felt like the WWE had bankable stars again. Then those slowly faded away too. Kevin Nash left at some point I can't pin down. Brock Lesnar ditched when he was arguably at his peak. Hell, I think Goldberg retired, both he and Brock Lesnar fighting their last match at Wrestlemania XX. Then there was The Rock, who literally did not enter the ring again after his last match at Wrestlemania XX. Kurt Angle wasn't around for a whole hell of a lot longer either having left to go to TNA. I was gone again. Quicker than a flash.

I kinda wish I hadn't. I missed Rey Mysterio as World Heavyweight Champion. I didn't even hear about that until who knows how long after his reign ended. But other than that, I don't think I missed much.

Nowadays, I'm pretty much back in the fold. I admittedly only really watch Raw; not a fan of Smackdowns roster of late. It feels like they're finally getting more star material again. CM Punk in particular is a favorite, Triple H is back as a face and the only reason I might tune into Smackdown. Randy Orton, who I think is terrible as a hell, is a great competitor. John Cena is a heavyweight contender now; and I actually think I see why he's kind of a big deal in the WWE. It actually feels watchable again.

It's not like it has much competition, really. TNA is basically this generations WCW. A bunch of washed up WWE wrestlers, some washed up WCW wrestlers, terrible storylines and few real, bankable stars. It's embarassing. I can hardly stand to watch it; honestly, do we really need to see only the old time wrestlers in the big leagues aside from Samoa Joe? It's laughable.

Still... I do miss the Attitude era. I miss both Stone Cold and The Rock. Badly. It's kind of sad to realize Stone Cold will never wrestle again. That The Rock hasn't been in the ring for over four years now. I don't know what it is, but it just feels like those days were so much more exciting. Hopefully the WWE can recapture that magic at some point.

Still... despite his relatively short time in the WWE as a big thing,compared to a lot of other bankable stars the WWE has had, I do think Stone Cold deserves the honor. It feels so long ago and yet like it was yesterday, as much of a paradox as that may be. Such a shame.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Op/Ed: Is DLC Bad or Good?

DLC seems to be the new wave these days when it comes to the console markets. Pretty much everyone knows what it is; add-on's for pre-existing games whether it be items or whatnot. Of course, we had stuff like that before in the form of PC games and their expansion packs sold in retail on physical discs. But downloading through the internet straight to the system seems to be the wave of the future; and it's not just items anymore as full expansion packs are starting to be offered through these services. So of course, the question becomes; is downloadable content really all that great or really a good idea at all?

Well, it's damn sure got it's negative qualities, that's for certain.

One thing I've noticed since services like X-Box Live appeared - and to a lesser extent when console exclusivity started going out the window - is that a problem that used to only affect PC gaming has unfortunately started creeping into console titles. In effect, console games have started being pushed out the door unfinished in several cases, which need patches shortly after release or down the road. In essence, it feels like developers have started to get lazy; or maybe even greedy, which it is doesn't really matter a whole lot.

I grew up during the days when you bought a game and that was pretty much it. The whole thing was there, for better or for worse, and there was no going back; the next time you'd see Donkey Kong or Sonic would be in a sequel. Of course, the offset is that the developers had to actually try in those days. The games they shipped needed to have as few bugs as possible because once it was out there, that was it. If it was a glitchy mess, it would be an ink blot on their record that few gamers would forget in the future. Sure, the gameplay experience was finite, but this was a golden age of sorts; games were getting longer and hidden secrets were starting to become the order of the day, which made the games a better time investment than the days of the NES and Sega Master System. Not being able to extend the experience didn't matter a whole lot.

These days, however, more and more games are being shoved out the door for the cash reasons; especially when we're getting around the Holiday season. Sega in particular is notorious for this sort of behavior, having forced a good deal of their games out the door to meet the holiday season for years now; but it's becoming a problem with a lot more developers. In the old days, there were fewer bugs in general; but the games were also tested a hell of a lot better. What happened?

It seems the online patch happened. Coming right alongside downloadable content and arguably the same thing. As was unfortunately demonstrated to me recently when I finally got a true next gen system, when big name games like Fable II or Fallout 3 are released with gamebreaking bugs or big ones, with a patch promised down the line, you know there's a problem here. It's gotten even worse with PC gaming; some games, from what I hear, can't even be played for some people until a patch is released and downloaded; rendering their fifty or so dollar purchase into nothing more than an expensive frisbee or coaster to put your ice cold soda can on.

To add insult to injury, downloadable content is not exempt from problems. As I've started to see as a new user looking in, price gouging is beginning to become a bit too much of a factor in these sort of things. It wasn't that much of a problem when it came to price back when DLC was little more than items added to the game; a microtransation ordeal that was experimented with to find just the right price point. Now, with new quests and expansions starting to become the norm, it becomes a bit dicier.

Things like what are upcoming with Fallout 3 are generally priced alright. Operation: Anchorage, for instance, adds new quests, new achievements, new equipment and allows you to simulate a battle through one of the most important points in Fallout history for the standard issue price of 800 Microsoft points. or ten dollars US currency. Ten dollars for what they offer in that alone is a fair price by far. Another good example was the Mass Effect DLC offered, which gave a new planet to explore, maybe another two to three hours of gameplay depending on how you went through it, a new achievement and other stuff for 400 points, or five dollars. Not only do these add story, but they are meant to enhance the gameplay experience. That's fine.

Unfortunately, then you get to the other end of the spectrum. Like the upcoming Mirrors Edge DLC, which more or less amounts to ceveral time trial maps where you race around a level for the fastest time; this being for the price of 800 points, or ten dollars as mentioned. Now that is ridiculous. Time Trial modes are generally an afterthought in most games and have been for years. Often they are there as extra's alongside of the beefy main game, there mostly to please the people who enjoy racing for the best times. Which is all fine, well and good, but not when you're overpricing it. That is the sort of content that's worth maybe five dollars, or 400 points; ten dollars is just ripping you off by hiding it behind arbitrary points systems to mask the real price point. Let's not get into Halo 3, which charged you asinine amounts for simple multiplayer map packs of three.

Nintendo and company are just as bad at this sort of thing. The Wii is home to some of the most overpriced schlock I've seen, not the least of which being Virtual Console games, where you will end up paying anywhere from five to fifteen dollars a pop for games that often enough don't even fully emulate the games shoved up there; an insult when you consider kids in their basements have written software that could play these games perfectly for years and years as opposed to a multi million dollar company with all sorts of resources at their disposal.

Then there are the points systems, which are really the most unnecesary and asinine restrictions ever really placed on transactions. It's fine for kids, I suppose; it allows parents to measure how much their kids can have a week or month or whatever without having to hand them a credit card or such. But there really should be an option by now for adults to just use their credit cards to purchase items online. And if that's out of the question, the least they could do is allow you to purchase a specific amount of points at a time. As anyone who's gone online with a console so far has probably noticed, any of the companies force you into purchasing one of set point amount packages instead of choosing the amount you want to buy yourself. Which usually goes from ten dollars worth to twenty on up. This is positively asinine as it forces you to buy more points than you need, leaving you with unfortunate leftovers you really wish you hadn't needed to buy. If this restriction was eliminated or a more advanced option allowing you to choose how many points to buy was put in place, things would be so much smoother.

To make matters worse, Microsoft, the notoriously greedy corporation that they are, have actually been forcing some people to price their downloadable content. Remember that Halo 3 thing I mentioned earlier? Microsoft pissed Bungie off by forcing them to price those packs instead of giving them away for free. Epic Games, forerunners of the Gears of War titles, were also victims of this; being forced to stalemate with the game until a compromise was able to be made, making Epic have to price their map packs for four months before being allowed to offer them for free. Even XBLA is not exempt, with Microsoft recently forcing the creators of Braid to sell a dashboard theme instead of giving it away for free, to much chagrin. Of course, Microsoft is more than happy to give away free dash themes that are nothing more than ad's; which I'm sure they got money to put up for free. Subway theme anyone? I didn't think so. Of course, Microsoft loves forcing people into things anyways; there's no way around getting the New X-Box Experience dashboard whether you think it looks like horse manure or not. They've made it a mandatory update, after all; and there's no option to keep the old "blades" dash, which would probably cost them maybe two days of coding to rework and offer as an option.

Can you tell I don't like Microsoft at all? I didn't like them long before I finally broke down and got a 360 recently because of the system finally getting some good games. I don't know if it's comforting or not to see them as bad as they've always been. Of course, this is hardly our topic.

Of course, even with all that bad, there's a big part of me that believes DLC can be something special in the right hands. Anyone who's played the recent expansions that have been offered for some of the most recent games can see the sort of potential inherant with this kind of service. Instead of agonizing waits for sequels to a favorite game, downloadable extra's can be added to give you more fun and make that wait just a little less painful. I've played several games over the years that I've finished and wished with all my heart that there was more of. Now, with games like Fable II and Fallout 3 beginning to offer add-on content to their main games online, we're finally starting to see what I was hoping would come around the first time; true expansions and not just a plethora of priced items for games, "free" online MMORPG style. Something that is undoubtably very exciting.

Also, while the negatives inherant in patch updates and what they seem to bring still hold true, it also allows developers a lot more leeway that before. Leeway to listen to fans. Bethseda in particular are champions of this. They seem to take pride in listening to their fans to get reports of bugs on their forums and to get suggestions, which leads to the strong possibility of more focused downloadable content furthur in the future. If a game actually does slip through with bugs despite efforts and it wasn't just laziness, now the developers can respond to peoples cries and fix what they missed.

Above all, development of online resources have the possibility of actually helping small developers. There are fee's, of course, but things like the Wii Shop Channel and X-Box Live allow for smaller developers to stretch their legs and make games for less overall money, without having to worry about the pressures of things like publishing and such. It has the possibility to, and already seems to be, expand on the video game market into other avenues.

Which all makes these problems and greed on the part of some so much more frustrating. It's always such a sad thing to see something with great potential and realize the things that hold it down. But maybe, just maybe, it can rise above all that. As it stands, I must admit I'm very disappointed in the way that it has gone so far; there are a lot of negative elements springing from the emergance of online functionality with consoles. Pricing issues in general seem to be the biggest problem with it all so far, one that I think really needs to be sorted out before anything else. At the very least, Microsoft needs to lay off; and if developers have to charge for certain content, they should be allowed to decide how little.

Can it do it? We'll see I suppose. We're only in the second real console generation of online functionality, with the original X-Box Live having paved the way for it's second incarnation, along with Sony and Nintendo's own online funtions. Hopefully things change moving forward. They have to. Otherwise I fear that the road of online content is only going to get rockier thanks to underhanded tactics and overpricing.

In case I haven't really made it clear enough, I personally think that in the end, DLC and online connectivity in general is just as much in bad as it is good.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kirby Super Star Ultra (video game)

Platform: Nintendo DS
Developers: HAL Laboratory
Genre: Platformer
ESRB Rating: Everyone
Release Date: September 22nd, 2008

Ah, the DS remake. We've been seeing a lot of these lately. This time, Kirby's in on the action with a remake of Kirby Super Star Deluxe. Though I admittedly think of this game more as an upgrade than a remake; new quests and minigames have been added, but otherwise the game hasn't changed much.

Anyone familiar with Kirby, much less the original Super Star Deluxe, likely already knows what to expect from this title. A fun, colorful romp through Dreamland starring our favorite pink puff. For the most part, you'd be right. In other's, not so much.

This game in particular shakes up the usual Kirby formula in different ways at times. There are seven or eight small games packed into Super Star Deluxe which have translated to Ultra, each giving a different play mechanic to your powers or what-have-you. For instance, the opener, Spring Breeze, is a light romp through Dreamland with your classic Kirby gameplay. In actuality, this particular subgame is a full blown remake of the original Kirby adventure, Kirby's Dream Land. It retains your classic Kirby gameplay with no hitches and is probably the easiest of the games included. In contrast, there is The Great Cave Offensive, which is a trek through a sweeping cave with different areas, not unlike Kirby and the Amazing Mirror, on a treasure hunt for different treasures; some even from other Nintendo games. Then again in contrast is Milky Way Wishes. The gameplay hitch in this one is that you cannot swallow most enemies to gain their powers. Instead, you are forced to find statues of each individual power in the collection scattered about the planets; but the catch is that once you find a statue of a power, you may call upon it at any time, making up for the lack of power swallowing and giving you options to explore areas in previous levels.

But this is all old news for anyone who has played the Super Nintendo original. What is new are about four or five new games, two full adventures and two of the Arena sort. They come with their own gameplay hitches like all the other games in the collection, of course. Meta Knightmare Ultra, for instance, has you play as Meta Knight, complete with his own playstyle and a power/point system to replace the ability to swallow enemies to gain their powers. The other main adventure, however, is in effect just a palette swapped and harder Spring Breeze, which is an unfortunate disappointment. The Arena games can be fun though, if you enjoy Boss Rush style modes. The new minigames aren't enough of a draw to mention.

In the end, if comes down to the question of if you should buy it, which is kind of a divide. Some people elsewhere have brought up a decent point that they shouldn't have to pay thirty dollars for a game they had on the Super Nintendo years ago with a new mode or two and that it should have been a ten dollar SNES Virtual Console title downloadable to the Wii system. If you're the sort who feel's this way, this upgrade may not have enough new elements to be worth your time; there are four new modes, but two are only Boss Rush modes and one of the new adventures is kind of a copout. You'd be better served playing the old Super Nintendo cartridge if you still have it.

While the caveat above does apply, I must say that I would wholly reccomend this game to anyone who either does not mind the above much or has never played this fine game before. There is a lot to see and do in this cartridge and enough varying experiences to make a nice portable title for whatever road trips you still make. This is a great game for any gamer, young or old.
My Opinion: Play It

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Nostradamus (music CD)

Band Name: Judas Priest
Music Type: Heavy Metal
Release Date: June 17, 2008

Sometimes, even one of your favorite bands can surprise you.

I've been a fan of Judas Priest since I was a little kid; they're one of the many bands I grew up on. It wasn't until around the turn of the century that I became really attached to the band and noticed them, however. Since then, I've reveled in the music of one of the true masters of metal, bar none. Even Black Sabbath has a hard time competing with these guys for the best of all metal in my eyes; and they practically founded the damn genre.

So of course I entered their latest album with anticipation. I had heard of the subject matter a good deal before it's release; after all, the band made no bones about the fact that it's latest effort would focus on Nostradamus. This didn't bother me as much as I think it should have. I generally look at Nostradamus as something of a hack from a bygone era of superstition and beliefs in things such as prophecies. Many of his so called prophecies were so horribly vague that they could apply to almost anything, reaping any meaning they might have. Not to mention the people who actually believe in them, who come off borderline stupid at times. But, like many figures I do not believe in or think much of, I find him and his legacy to be suitably fascinating; which probably helped temper my reaction. So going in, I suppose you could say I was all for it. Nostradamus is suitably metal enough, I think.

As always, Judas Priest did not disappoint me for my faith. This two disc album is by far the best they have done since Painkiller, the infamous album where Priest found themselves at their very heaviest and quite possibly their best. It's also hands down the most musically cohesive album they have ever done, a big plus. The best possible way that I could ever describe this album is that it is something of a Heavy Metal Opera, rife with an epic feel and subject matter without any of the wailing or fat chicks.

The first disc is the better of the two in this album. It focuses mainly on the prophecies Nostradamus gave over his lifetime and many of the songs are suitably epic. At least three quarters of the disc focuses on the Legendary Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The original four, mind you. There's no Famine to be found here; only Conquest. The rest mainly focuses on other prophecies and Nostradamus himself, leading to persecution.

"Dawn of Creation" opens the album, a suitably low key lead in to another song; like how The Hellion was to Electric Eye. It sets something of a tone before we're launched into the first relatively heavy piece of the album, "Prophecy". The album immediatly grabs you with this song, sounding suitably epic in scope and introducing us to the concept of the album, Nostradamus himself. Before the song is through, there is a positively epic twenty seconds of guitar solo that was enough to get my heart racing before the song closed and flowed into the next. "Awakening" followed, another short lead in to the next song and setting aside any doubt that this would be a pattern throughout the album. Then, it seemlessly transitioned into the next main song, "Revelations". The song has a wonderful throughline throughout to keep you enthralled. Already we have winners out of everything so far in the album.

Next is where the main subject of this half of the album begins. "The Four Horsemen" is slow, telling the rise of the Horsemen, slowly leading us into "War", the next major song in the album and obviously representing the first of the Horsemen. "War" grabs you by the throat right off the bat with a pounding drum beat as Halford sings of the coming of War. Like much of the album, this is a heavy sound, but a slower one, which many may not be used to, especially considering Priests often fast paced songs. But it still does it's job handily. Again we transition to a slower, lower beat with "Sands of Time", the next lead in song to set the stage after War. Then comes "Pestilence and Plague", driving us forward again with another heavy piece, this one moving a bit faster than the ones before it.

From there we go right to "Death", one of the two songs to quite possibly be the best of the album. It's opening from "Pestilence and Plague" on into it is positively gloomy before a guitar slowly riffs onward. A slightly growly Halford begins to sing in the first person, as though he were the voice for Death himself. It's almost chilling. Halfway through the song, we move into one of the most infectious verses I've heard in a long time. When Halford begins to sing of Death riding out from the storm, you feel the incessant urge to sing along as the song kicks into a higher gear, signaling "Death" arriving to do his merciless deed. Cue in a positively epic guitar solo before the last verses of the song. From there we move onto "Peace", another lower piece for the purpose of setting up the next song, before we go into the final song representing the Horsemen, "Conquest". This song is as good as any of the other four, giving something of a more positive, hopeful sound after the relatively gloomy "Death". After "Conquest" we move to "Lost Love", a slower paced love song that sounds positively beautiful and reminds me of "Before the Dawn" from an album years previous, though with more verses than the short aforementioned song. Then the first disc closes with "Persecution", which is a much faster song than anything heard so far on the album, far more like their usual work. It's a nice closer for the first half, at which point it's time to switch discs.

The second disc is far less gloomy than the sound of the first, and one could make the case that it's not quite as driving either. By no means is it bad in any way, in fact, I think it's very strong as well and wouldn't cut anything from it. But by now we are past the gloomy, dark prophecies of Nostradamus and his persecution, which drove the first disc of this album. The second disc opens with another lower lead in called "Solitude" before we move on to "Exile", a great drum beat opening the song with the subject of, obviously, Nostradamus in exile. "Alone" is next, which is a personal favorite of mine from this album. It's catchy with a great chorus, the kind you would usually hear in typical Priest songs. From there on we get a much more upbeat sound in "Shadows in the Flame" and "Visions". This continues through "Hope" and the song it leads to, "New Beginnings". After this four song reprieve, things go back to a slower, lower beat with "Calm Before the Storm", the lead in to the next song, the albums title track, "Nostradamus". "Nostradamus" is like the earlier "Persecution" in that it's a much faster song. From there, it's on to the closer, the epic "Future of Mankind". This one is a competitor for best from the entire album, with an awesome sound throughout as Halford sings of Nostradamus and his death.

Overall, this album as a whole is unbelievably cohesive. Each song leads into the next in a way Priest is certainly not known for. Their traditional fare is more of a typical, broken set; each song is it's own being and it's own unique sound that does not always blend with the others. Of course, said work has always been excellent, but I found this album refreshing because it turns that traditional mold on it's head. This is a cohesive concept album from start to finish with a wonderful flow.

In a way, it's something new from the band. They've gone on for well over thirty years with their perticular sound and it's gotten them far. For me, that means they've earned the right to experiement a bit, trying something with a suitably more epic, flowing scope. For others, I know this is unfortunately going to be a sticking point. I've been around metal fans enough to know many of them have a stick up their ass in regards to this sort of thing; they want their traditional fare and that's that. But this is the case with most of the fanboy sort of any media, is it not?

Musically, I don't care what anyone says. Thirty years later, Judas Priest is as top of their game as they have ever been. They are the the true legends of metal, the original leather clad badasses. Since the reunion with Halford, they've pressed forward with two great albums, including this one, and I look forward to where they go from here. I hope they never retire. The day they do is the day I cry for metal, because it would be the day it lost one of it's truest legends.

This album is one of the finest works I've heard come from the heavy metal scene in a while. In an age where legends of metal are returning to glory left and right, Judas Priest set themselves apart from the pack once more, as they always have. This is something different for them, but it works wonderfully. I honestly would not mind if they did more of this sort of thing every now and then. This comes with my highest reccomendation for anyone who likes their metal with something of an epic feel; but those with an open enough mind should still find plenty to love. For me, this is another Judas Priest classic, hands down.
My Opinion: Buy It

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Fable II (video game)

Platforms: X-Box 360
Developers: Lionhead Studios
Genre: RPG
ESRB Rating: Mature
Release Date: October 21st, 2008

There are some games that divide you on the inside. Some games that have a lot to love, but unfortunately have a few glaring shortcomings to hinder it. There are just as many games that manage to overcome these flaws.

For me, Fable II is all of the above mentioned.

This is truly a game that divided me on the inside as to what I loved and what I thought needed work. This is largely because as I played it, I saw all that it was and all that it could have been; and it's clear that with a bit more time in the oven, it could have been even better. Which is an unfortunate truth with many games these days; but this is not about that, this is a review for this game.

We'll start with what Fable II gets right. Many players of the previous game will remember it's hype by the teams own Peter Molyneux, including many of the lofty promises made of what the game would contain upon it's release. While still a very good game, upon the original Fable's release, it was evident that many of the things teased prior to release did not make it into the final cut. Which was something of a stinging blow if you went for the game right off based on what you thought would be in it. This time around, however, many of the pre-release promises made have been held to. Your actions truly do affect the world around you more than ever before with areas morphing in good or bad ways depending on the choices you make. More importantly, the core experience from the previous iteration has been improved upon, helping make this game all the more enjoyable.

In many ways, this game is more about making a life for yourself as a character than anything else. The options that flow before you are indeed impressive; you may marry, have children, own every piece of enterable property in Albion with few exceptions, engage in bigamy, cheat on your spouse, work for extra money, earn renown with the many deeds you perform all across the land and win over the citizens of Albion. In this way, Fable II is something of a cross between a basic RPG such as the Legend of Zelda and EA megahit The Sims. You have your combat portions with such foes as bandits or creatures such as Hobbes, creatures told in local folklore to be mutated children, and Balverines, vicious humanoidesque wolverine monsters, and you have your simulation portions with wooing villagers, marrying, making nice with the locals which can lead to store discounts among other things. This game does indeed live up to the promise of your actions having consequences.

The similarities to The Sims are actually far more surprising than I had expected. Much of your interactions with villagers and attempts to win them over occur through use of expressions, which can range from scary to social to fun to flirty, depending on what affect you wish to have on people. Different villagers with different properties will react to certain expressions differently. Trying to fart in front of a serious person, for instance, is not likely to win you any favor from them. There is not even any real dialogue from your protagonist; just grunts and growls and the occasional gibberish, which again reminded me of The Sims. This is all by no means a bad thing; it all has a nice synergy and blends to create a simple yet pleasing experience with interacting with other denizens of Albion.

The graphics are asthetically pleasing, giving a nice old world feel. The graphics feel simple in some ways and somewhat cartoony in others through use of the color pallets, yet still manages to be relatively deep and always pleasing to the eye. Combat is also a somewhat in depth yet still simple and pleasing affair. Three of the four face buttons are assigned to a different attack; one for your short range weapon, one for your long range and one for your will attack, which is this universes equivilent of magic. Upon upgrading your skills or styles, you gain the ability to block by a task as simple as merely holding the short range attack button down or use a powerful, unblockable strike by holding both the short range attack button and the direction to attack in. Locking on to a target is as simple as holding the left trigger and switching the target locked onto as simple as flicking the right stick. It all helps to keep combat smooth and flowing with relatively few hitches; which helps keep adventuring as fun as winning over your villagers.

Unfortunately, the story in particular is the point where things may go a bit sour for some. A game as epic and ambitious as this one deserves a suitably epic narrative to go along with it, if only to give major help keeping players enthralled between house purchases. Fable II does not quite provide. The main story is somewhat cliche and trite; this is far from a problem in itself as even the most cliche plot in history can be made interesting, but unfortunately Fable II does not quite rise up past this device or even give much depth to it. Your sister is murdered and you are out for revenge. That's pretty much it, there's barely even a hint of complexity to the villains motives for everything he does or at least anything that doesn't sound trite.

You barely spend any time with the heroes you recruit aside from the first one; worst is the third hero whom you recruit within the last hour or so of gametime. The entire main storyline, should you choose to stick to it, could be moved through in a meager seven or eight hours. This is chicken feed for even the simplest RPG on the market; you'll rarely see one who's main plotline does not extend at least past the twenty hour mark with side quests all set aside. Even worse, many of the questions that are raised through the games plot are never truly given sufficient answers; fine if you plan to leave a couple for a sequel, but basic storytelling demands you at least wrap up several of the dangling plot threads raised within the context of the story. The first Fable had the same problem and despite this being a sequel, several of the answers to questions in the last game still are not answered here. Then there's the final showdown of the game, which I can only sufficiently describe as the ultimate anti-climax, something that if used right can be brilliant and used poorly can be horribly annoying. This game leans more towards the latter.

Despite the sins of the storyline, the core gameplay manages to shine through in the end. The experience provided through combat and making a life for yourself is truly immersive in a way few games not called The Sims offer you. There is thankfully still a lot for you to do once the meager plot has finished, with some optional quests only opening up after you have done so. Thankfully, the experience is rewarding enough to keep you coming back even after you've gone through the relatively disappointing storyline; and the DLC promises to add even more of this sort of fun in the future.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

In the end, there are things to improve in this series as it goes forward. But this game has a leg up on the competition in that it's experience rewards in ways few other games of it's type do. Also, we have been promised several sequels in this slowly growing franchise, which allows Lionhead Studios a lot of time to get things right moving forward. Judging from the experience presented in this sequel, I think they can do it. Reccomended.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Obligatory Opening Post

Well, I suppose this is what you would call your basic opening post. You know, where I shoot the bull and give you a basic idea what I'll be blogging about.

More or less, this is a blog for reviews and Op/Ed type deals. I'm a fairly vocal kind of guy who has a sense of what he finds to be good, bad, decent or terrible and I certainly write about such enough elsewhere. So I guess it was time I put them down somewhere a bit more together. Blogspot seemed as good a place as any, as I visit some similar type of blogs elsewhere and it has a nice format to it. So I figured, why the hell not?

This blog will cover reviews for your basic media, of course. Music, movies, video games or DVD's. That sort of thing. Any Op/Ed pieces will likely be a bit more varied. I may comment on anything from something that's annoyed me at the time and how stupid it may be, I may decide to say something political or I may want to discuss something to do with entertainment like with the reviews. It depends really.

Hopefully if you've stumbled on this little obscure corner of the internet you like what you see and it's of some use to you. If not, it's a good way for me to get some ramblings out of my system.