Friday, October 29, 2010

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II Review

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II -- Say this for Star Wars: The Force Unleashed II: there is no pull-the-Star-Destroyer-out-of-the-sky moment. The original game got a bum rap because of that Sisyphean boss fight and other missteps like it, not to mention an abundance of small technical glitches. The sequel was supposed to learn from those mistakes. And it does, somewhat.

Sadly, this follow-up fails to learn from the things that made its predecessor great in spite of the flaws. Star Wars has been called both a space western and a space opera, and in The Force Unleashed, writer/producer Haden Blackman managed to capture both sensibilities in one crackling game. Starkiller was the ultimate gunslinger, riding into town and taking names (even the ones unpronounceable by human tongues). Yet he also played the central part in an epic tale of Wagnerian proportions, one that brought depth to the pre-Luke portion of the Star Wars timeline – more so than George Lucas' prequels did.

The Force Unleashed II maintains some of the crazy cowboy mentality. It's still fun to wade into a posse of stormtroopers and unleash every Force stunt in Starkiller's repertoire: slamming the bad guys against the wall, flinging them into oblivion, stunning them with lightning, and of course, decapitation-by-lightsaber. The game is at its best in prosaic moments, when the screen isn't filled with some titanic mega-boss but rather with an array of smaller challenges to dispatch one by one.

The epic scale is gone, though, at least in terms of storytelling. The game zips from beginning to end with practically no fanfare – the second act, such as it is, consists of a five-minute trip to Dagobah. (Allows for the obligatory backward-talking Yoda monologue, it does.) The Force Unleashed II is about half as long as the original, but it's not that the game is short – I'll take a crisp, energetic five hours over a 20-hour slog – the trouble is that not much takes place in that time. Dude escapes Empire, dude retrieves Jedi master, dude fights Empire. Fin.

The central conflict is supposed to be the mystery of whether this Starkiller is the authentic article or just one of many clones that Vader brewed up in his backyard lab. Yet the game minces about this question without advancing toward a meaningful answer, like it's bored with its own premise. Starkiller yells "You lie!" at Vader once or twice or a thousand times, and that's about it.

As far as combat is concerned, while there's nothing that approaches the tedium of the Star Destroyer fight, the handful of boss showdowns don't exactly sparkle with excitement. The Force Unleashed II subscribes to the notion that boss fights need only to be long and noisy.

There is no cleverness required, or even allowed, to battle these monsters. A relentless series of tips pops up on screen throughout the game to guide you to the next step, lest you figure it out for yourself. Likewise, General Kota, the world's bitchiest Jedi Master, is on the comm channel to coach you at every turn. When this ill-tempered lout repeatedly screeches, "You have to deactivate the shield!" over a crackly radio connection, I can't help but think, hey, the Dark Side seems mighty nice this time of year.

Combat against the lesser foes is more entertaining, even though the selection of enemies is so skimpy that you'll see most of the game's basic antagonists within the first 20 minutes. There's the usual array of stormtroopers, of course. As mentioned above, screwing with these guys is so much fun it should be an Olympic sport.

Fable III Review

Fable 3 Trailer - E3 2010 -- Fable III Review

Fable 3 is here promising improvements from Fable 2
but is this Revolution worth fighting for?

you play as the hero from fable 2 who was the king of albion, he died but he did have 2 kids

a supposed evil tyrant who is basically harming everyone

yup you and its your job after leaving the castle to gain followers and overthrow him to become king
then your job is to rule as king your first step is to decide the fate of your brother
not knowing ultimately in the end there is a much greater evil and the world itself is at stake

the campaign was excellent filled with memorable characters epic moments and the choices over life death thriving completing and breaking promises you made and more

i will say this you will have to break some promises to save albion
though the story is predicable at times its still fun

Combat has been improved sense fable 2 its actually very fun to take down enemies
the campaign will last you around 12 - 16 hours at the most with good replay value [not counting side quests]
side quests pop up when you do other missions or make a friend
make a new friend the will have a quest for you to complete

of course jobs is the best way to earn money and its more of a challenge this time around making it funner
hit the targets matching the buttons on your controller to make a pie play a lute or even craft a sword
i found it cool how shops have discounts on some days and if your not exactly Rich those are jackpots

the new pause menu [the sanctuary] is awesome and jasper is funny [at times] its easy to work through and you can join a persons game

spells are improved sense you can 2 different spells at once in 2 hands which i love
my personal favorite is Shock and Blades
and doing some reversals are a good way of showing how awesome your character is

Truth be told this is the first fable game that i enjoy
fun combat plus the fact you feel very powerful as king when you become one
tough choices that have deep impacts on the world that make you think
interesting characters
good graphics
fable 3 is a must have
if you've never played a fable game, liked fable 2 or not this game can be enjoyed by anyone

Undead Nightmare Pack Review

After years of seeing zombies in games and movies, you, or at least someone you know, would probably have some thoughts on what to do if the undead were to attack tomorrow. That wasn't the case 100 years ago, though, so when the dead start coming back to life in Red Dead Redemption's world, nobody has a clue what's going on or how to deal with it. Reprising the role of protagonist John Marston, you become embroiled in the battle against the undead when the brain munching hits a little too close to home. And as Undead Nightmare's story unfolds, it becomes clear that similar events are playing out across the entire map from the original game. This horror-themed and often humorous add-on isn't the tour de force that Red Dead Redemption was, but it's great fun and a welcome excuse to return to memorable locations like Blackwater, Armadillo, and Chuparosa.

With that said, Red Dead Redemption's world feels very different in Undead Nightmare. A large percentage of the population is either dead or undead, the wildlife is different, and every town on the map has been overrun by victims of what the survivors believe to be some new kind of plague--caused possibly by immigrants, the government, or both. You need to liberate towns before you can accept missions or even sleep and save your progress in them, and although you can't head south of the border initially, you're free to tackle towns that you can reach at any time and in any order. Reclaiming towns for the living also affords you the ability to fast-travel between them, which you are likely to take advantage of on occasion, even if you enjoy lengthy rides through the wilderness.

When you enter a settlement that's under siege, your goal is to completely eradicate the undead presence. Survivors do a good job of assisting you if you share some of your ammo with them, but you should know that--at least early on--bullets are something of a commodity in Undead Nightmare because none of the stores that sell them are open for business. Regardless of what you choose to do with your precious projectiles, the clearing of every town unfortunately plays out in much the same way. You arrive in town, decide whether or not you're going to give bullets to the locals, and then do your best to kill rather than satisfy your enemies' hunger for brain meat. The problem is that while decapitations of the decaying are entertaining for a time, combat in Undead Nightmare isn't as much fun as it was in Red Dead Redemption. There are some sweet new weapons to play with, including a powerful blunderbuss that uses zombie parts for ammunition, but you're unlikely to ever need them.

Undead enemies don't pose as much of a challenge as their cowboy counterparts. The living-impaired don't use guns, don't use cover, and don't ride horses. For the most part, they just head straight for you, and they're only dangerous when they attack in numbers. Some sorely needed challenge and variety comes courtesy of three special zombie types, but even these faster, stronger, and retching reanimated are no match for the tactics that you're likely to employ once you get a feel for how your encounters with them play out. The easiest way to kill a zombie is with a headshot, and the easiest way to get a headshot is to forgo aiming from a distance and just squeeze the trigger after moving into melee range. It doesn't matter which zombie you're up against or which gun from Undead Nightmare's sizeable arsenal you have equipped because the result is the same. Alternatively, you can kill zombies with fire, putting the new torch weapon to good use. Waving the torch around and watching your enemies burn as they continue to pursue you is initially a lot of fun, but even this gets old after an hour or so. You're free to engage in traditional gunplay if you choose, of course, but it's unfortunate that Undead Nightmare never encourages you to do so, and it's disappointing that anytime you take position on a rooftop, you get to pick off the undead with ease because, like fish in a barrel, they can't climb ladders.

Thankfully, a number of the story missions require you to do things other than just kill the undead, and there are also plenty of optional challenges to undertake. There are missing persons to locate and return to their loved ones in missions that play out a lot like the original game's bounties. There are also new skill challenges and outfits to complete, as well as mythological creatures to track down and tame. Specifically, it's possible to break the four horses of the apocalypse; Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death. All four of these nags look great, and each offers a different gameplay advantage. War sets nearby enemies on fire while Pestilence is resistant enough to pain that even attacks from undead cougars are no cause for concern, for example. Famine's perk is unlimited stamina, but given that their stamina gauges never move, the other three mythological mounts appear to have that as well.

Depending on how much of the optional content you choose to complete and how much you use the fast-travel option, Undead Nightmare's story might take you anywhere from five to a dozen or more hours to complete. The add-on ends every bit as well as Red Dead Redemption did, and if you haven't beaten the original game yet, you'd do well to do so before playing this add-on. That way, you can fully appreciate not only the superb ending but also the appearance of numerous returning characters whose predicaments are made even more amusing by your knowledge of them from previous encounters. Seth the grave robber, for example, is still messing with the deceased and now attempting to befriend them.

In addition to its sizable single-player offering, Undead Nightmare introduces a new multiplayer mode titled Undead Overrun. Up to four of you team up and then, after deciding on which of the four weapon loadouts you each want to play with, you're dropped into a spooky environment and must survive for as long as possible against increasingly tough waves of undead. In a neat twist on the formula, the in-game clock counts down rather than up and can be replenished only by opening coffins that appear on the map between waves. This not only forces you to move around rather than fortify yourself inside a structure, but also encourages you to take risks so that you can clear the waves as quickly as possible. Cooperation is a must, and if you stray too far from your teammates, they're less likely to come and revive you successfully should you find yourself incapacitated.

While it clearly retains many of Red Dead Redemption's best qualities as far as presentation is concerned, Undead Nightmare isn't a more-of-the-same add-on. The combat isn't as good, the story isn't as compelling, and the missions aren't as varied. On the flipside, the humor is more plentiful, the arsenal is more imaginative, the soundtrack is suitably spooky, and the rare mounts are now well worth the fairly minimal effort that it takes to track them down. There's a whole lot of fun to be had here for just 800 Microsoft points, which makes Undead Nightmare a great reason to return to the world of Red Dead Redemption.

Rock Band 3 Review

Three years after Rock Band blazed a new trail in the rhythm game genre, Rock Band 3 takes the art of living-room rock to new heights. A new keyboard peripheral joins guitars, drums, and microphones, providing a great new way to play along. And if you want to take your musical skills beyond the fake plastic stage, the new Pro modes and instrument training sessions can help you on your way. Though these impressive instructive modes require pricey extra peripherals, you don't need to pay a premium to enjoy Rock Band 3. It's easier than ever to have an awesome time playing your plastic instruments and singing your heart out, thanks to the ingenious menus, the rewarding goal system, and the diverse 83-song setlist. Rock Band 3 builds on all the things that made its predecessors great and introduces some engrossing new elements, making it the most robust rhythm game on consoles today.

One of the best ways to enjoy Rock Band 3 is the same way you've been enjoying Rock Band for years--get a bunch of friends together and rock out using two guitars, a drum set, and up to three microphones (thanks to the inclusion of vocal harmonies). Though only four profiles can be signed in at once, up to seven people can play at the same time using the aforementioned instruments and the new keyboard peripheral. Playing songs in Quickplay is an easy way to get things rocking, and it's now even easier thanks to new song sorting options, built-in setlists from developer Harmonix, and the ability to download user-created setlists. You can also take on one of the many Road Challenges, which are like segmented versions of the World Tour that appeared in previous Rock Band games. These short tours string together a few setlists and feature bonus goals that give you extra credit for feats like deploying overdrive or accumulating long note streaks. Road Challenges nicely harness the progression-oriented appeal of a career mode and neatly avoid the rigidity of previous World Tours, creating a great blend of structure and flexibility.

Regardless of which mode you are playing, your performance earns you progress toward a bevy of overarching goals that reward you for a wide variety of accomplishments. Some are simple, like visiting the downloadable music store, and others are more challenging, like playing a 500-note streak. Some can be accomplished in the span of one song (hit 100 percent of the notes in a solo), while others take much longer (earn a career score of 5 million points). Completing goals can earn you fans for your band and gear for your character, as well as bragging rights on the online leaderboards. Almost every performance can earn you some sort of progress, and it's pleasantly satisfying to finish a setlist and watch the fans roll in.

Aside from refining and improving the familiar Rock Band experience, Rock Band 3 supports a new instrument peripheral to bolster your band. The sold-separately keyboard ($79.99, or in a bundle with the game for $129.99) gives you a chance to tickle the ivories along with some excellent songs and offers two distinct ways to play. In straightforward Keys mode, you use only five white keys, and the note highway looks just like that of a guitar or bass. This mode is a great way to cut loose on the keyboard, especially if you've attached a strap in order to rock out keytar-style. The one-button-per-finger ratio also makes it arguably the easiest instrumental entry point into the series for those who haven't cut their teeth on a guitar or drum set.

If you want to take on a more serious challenge, you can also play the keyboard in Pro mode. Here, you use both white and black keys across the 25-key peripheral to play parts that more closely mimic what it is like to actually play a given song. Just like when you play another instrument, Pro Keys has a difficulty scale that allows you to ease into it. There are also extensive lessons that cater to all levels of players, teaching things ranging from simple scales all the way up through chords and arpeggios. The lessons are clearly and logically delivered, offering novice keyboardists plenty of room to work on their skills. Those with experience playing actual keyboards or pianos are also advised to check out some of the lessons in order to familiarize themselves with the way Rock Band 3 handles the instrument. Though the vertically scrolling note highway does a good job of visually representing the notes, it is unlike any other music reading experience you are likely to have had. Furthermore, you may have to resist your hand positioning instincts in order to get comfortable with the keyboard. Yet though Pro Keys probably won't earn you a spot in a real band, it cultivates dexterity and musical sensibility in a concrete, transferrable way that was previously accessible only for Rock Band drummers. And once you get the hang of it, it makes rocking out feel a whole lot cooler.

There is also a Pro Drums mode that incorporates cymbals that you can attach to your drum set. These offer the opportunity to play the already-legit drums in a more engaging, challenging, and legitimate way, but you have to buy the cymbals ($39.99) if you want to indulge your inner Neil Peart. The peripheral required for Pro Guitar also involves a hefty additional investment, but the excellent training lessons will help teach you dexterity and core concepts that apply to real-world guitar playing. Actual guitarists face a similar learning curve to actual keyboardists because they must get accustomed to reading musical notation the Rock Band 3 way and, at least until the compatible stringed guitar is released, contend with a not-quite-the-real-thing peripheral. The expensive guitar peripheral ($149.99) replaces strings with more than 100 tiny plastic buttons, and it can be tricky to find your place in the sea of little nubs. Still, it allows you to play Rock Band using actual guitar fingerings, and the note highway does an impressive job of communicating a lot of information in an intelligible way.

Though these Pro modes come with an extra cover charge, they offer something truly unique in the realm of rhythm games: a way to turn time spent with Rock Band into skills that can help you learn to play an actual instrument. Practicing chords over and over again may not be as unabashedly fun as ripping into an intense solo with only five fret buttons to worry about, but the thrill of building some musical skills definitely provides some strong satisfaction. Yet even if you don't invest in the brave new world of Pro mode, Rock Band 3 is still an excellent game that provides the best platform yet for plastic living-room rock. A slick menu system ties it all together, making it easy to swap around difficulty levels, instruments, and even profiles without having to back out to the main menu. It seamlessly incorporates all your downloaded or imported tracks, and pipes in leaderboard info to fuel the competitive fire within. Rock Band 3 not only introduces new and exciting things to the world of rhythm games, but it does almost everything better than those that have come before it. When it comes to accessible, inventive, and immensely entertaining music video games, nobody does it better than Rock Band 3.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Street Fighter IV

A stellar upgrade to an already solid fighter, Super Street Fighter IV makes a great brawler even better, boasting 10 new characters, various balancing tweaks, and plenty of worthwhile gameplay flourishes.

Fighting game fans have long been used to the necessary evil of the upgrade. A game comes out, people find a multitude of exploits and bugs, and designers step in to release a new version that adds fixes while also throwing in a few extra characters or modes to sweeten the deal. Back in the old days of cartridges, these minor upgrades could run $70 or more. The Super NES alone had three different versions of Street Fighter II, for example, forcing gamers to spend extra money in order to get the latest version.

It's a much harder sell these days, but when it comes to fighting games, there is still room for improvement. Take Street Fighter IV, for instance: while it was a terrific addition to the franchise, it was apparent that the balance was a little off. Certain characters were overpowered, leading to lopsided matchups, and many of the "console exclusive" characters like Rose and Gen were weak compared to their peers. As any fighting-game fan will tell you, nothing sucks more than investing time in a character only to realize that their chances of surviving heavy competition are slim. Fortunately, Super Street Fighter IV proves that you can upgrade a product and still justify the price tag. While many gamers will scoff at paying another $40 for an update, it's a terrific value for what you get: serious rebalancing, 10 new characters, new online play modes, and lots of little touch-ups and flourishes.

It's fair to point out that eight of the new combatants aren't actually "new," as most gamers will remember them from previous Street Fighter titles. However, their presence on the roster is still much appreciated. Grappler T. Hawk and speedy Rastafarian DeeJay complete the New Challengers from Super Street Fighter II, while Muay Thai master Adon, convict Cody, and urban ninja Guy bolster the presence of the SF Alpha cast. The elegant boxer Dudley, tomboy martial master Makoto, and schoolgirl shinobi Ibuki also drop in from fan-favorite SFIII: Third Strike. Finally, two all-new members join the cast: tricky, psychotic Juri and the delightfully bizarre grappler Hakan. Despite some similarities between some of the characters, every fighter still manages to be unique: Balrog, for example, plays very differently from fellow boxer Dudley. The two new additions, Juri and Hakan, are especially interesting in this regard: Juri employs tricky mind games that can be used to keep to keep the opponent guessing her next move, while Hakan is not what you would typically expect out of a grappler character. He's fairly speedy with the ability to "oil up" and significantly expand the reach of his damaging throws. They both add something unique and fun to the SF paradigm, making them wonderful additions to the cast.

The retooled gameplay modes are also satisfying, with the standard one-player arcade mode receiving new story scenes for the characters as well as the inclusion of old-school bonus stages. New challenge mode goals are also available for learning combos and other advanced techniques, and the training mode remains very robust. Online play has also been expanded with two new modes: the arcade-style "Infinite Battle" mode (where one player fights everyone in a group until someone beats him and takes his place) and the "Team Battle" tournament setup (where players can form teams of up to four members each and fight each other round robin-style).

Perhaps most exciting to devout fighting-game fans is the "Replay Channel," where players can upload, download, share replays of their matches recorded online, and view highly detailed statistics like player controller input data to studiously analyze their bouts. A glaring oversight, however, is the inability to record replays of local versus matches, which means you won't be able to save all those awesome bouts you had at the local SSFIV tournament.

But those tournaments, as well as matches in general, are going to play out much differently thanks to some of the rebalancing Capcom did for this update. Notorious powerhouses like Sagat have lost certain skill properties or been tweaked to deal less damage, while formerly lower-tiered cast members have had their capabilities buffed a few notches. While very few members of the old SFIV cast have all-new regular or special moves, they all get an added dash of variety by means of one additional Ultra Combo to choose from before a match starts, some of which are incredibly cool and painful to watch.

Super Street Fighter IV is just more of a good thing and fans of the original have plenty of reasons to invest in it. But seasoned players who didn't care for the original SFIV won't have any reason to like the update because, despite the improvements and additions, the fundamental gameplay hasn't changed; it might have familiar faces from Alpha and Third Strike, but the presence of those characters won't magically transform Street Fighter IV into a different game. So it boils down to this: if you loved Street Fighter IV, Super is an absolute must-buy; if you didn't, you can save your money for something else. And of course, if you didn't buy SFIV the first time around, consider this $40 package the "definitive" version of the title.