Saturday, March 21, 2009

Fallout 3: Operation Anchorage (Downloadable Content)

I started writing this a while ago and only recently found time to finish it up. If you know that any of the bugs mentioned below have been patched, feel free to post so in the comments. To my knowledge, most of them still remain.

For this review, we return to the Capital Wasteland, but only for short while. While we are still in the wasteland that most are probably familiar with by now; Fallout 3’s first downloadable content, Operation Anchorage, has a virtual reality simulator that will takes us to Alaska to fight in one of the famous battles in the Fallout timeline: the liberation of Anchorage.

When I first heard about this download, I was skeptical. It was pretty much decided at the time that this was going to take place in virtual reality and not the “real world” of Fallout 3. Sure, a new area and weapons would be fun, but I’d be unable to bring them back to the real world and use them there. However, it turns out that you do get to keep your new toys and you have a chance to earn a new perk.

The story behind the expansion is fairly simple. While out in the wasteland, you will pick up a distress signal on your radio. Listening to this and following the quest objectives it gives will lead to a new area of DC where a bunch of Outcasts are fighting off super mutants. You can help them out, but it probably isn’t all that necessary, as the Outcasts seem to be able to hold their own. What is important is that you follow them back to their base.

After speaking to the people in charge, they’ll inform you that there’s a vault (a regular vault, not one of the Vault-tec vaults) in their base that is locked and the only way to open it is to complete the simulation that’s being run. Unfortunately for them, they can’t work it because it needs a specific type of interface. Namely, the Pipboy 3000 on your wrist. So, they ask you to help them out and agree to give you part of the loot inside if you do.

The actual simulation is much more linear than the rest of Fallout 3 has been. Also, it’s very combat-oriented. So, if you’re one of those people who have gone through the game by talking your way out of situations, then you probably won’t like this download. Those, like myself, who prefer to run and gun will find this is more up their alley. Even then, the simulation has none of the things I really liked about Fallout 3.

As I said above, Operation: Anchorage is very linear with very few places to explore. I felt almost like I was playing a first-person shooter that had the Fallout 3 combat system. Ammo and health is dispensed to you at regular intervals and you can’t search any of the containers that you normally could outside of the simulation nor can you search bodies (they disappear after being killed).

Also, for some reason, items aren’t picked up the same way as they are outside of the simulation. Instead, an ammo piece is “activated” and it disappears and ammo is added to your inventory. While this has little difference from the regular system, for some reason you can only activate something that you have your crosshairs over it perfectly instead of like normal where you just have to point it in its general vicinity. This made picking up ammo take longer than it should have as you had to move over every individual piece and pick it up (I envy those of you who are playing on PCs.)

I also mentioned that there is a new perk that one can get. It’s the “Covert Ops” perk and one can get it by getting all 10 of the “intel” suitcases spread throughout the simulation. It’s a pretty good perk, increasing small arms, lock picking, and science. However, at this time you cannot go back into the simulation. Whether or not this is a bug or if it is intentional, I don’t know. I’m rather hoping it’s the first. However, this means you have one chance to get all of the suitcases. So, if you’re gunning for the perk, I’d suggest getting a guide to tell you where they are so you don’t miss one (as I have twice.)

This is another thing that annoyed me. There are some places, like the first place you land in the simulation, where you can’t go back to once you pass a certain point. If you’re just going through the simulation to get the vault open, this probably won’t bother you. However, it was annoying to get 9 out of 10 suitcases and then learn that the last one is in a place where you can’t go.

The toys that you get once you’ve gotten through the simulation are pretty nice. The most talked about is the Gauss Rifle. Players of the first two Fallouts will recognize this weapon as being one of the most powerful projectile weapons one could get. The weapon has been changed to an energy weapon in Fallout 3 and uses mircofusion cell ammo, but is still quite powerful and very accurate. However, the gun is tarnished by several bugs that will make you reach for some of the other guns in the Fallout arsenal instead. One of the bugs has the projectile sometimes going through the target and not doing any damage (though the knockdown critical effect will take place.) This combined with the single-shot magazine, which forces you to reload after every shot, made the weapon get old really fast. Hopefully, they will fix the bugs soon.

The other toys in the vault are not quite so broken. For those who like melee weapons, there is a Chinese sword with an electric damage over time effect. Those who like stealth will find the Chinese stealth suit, which gives a never-ending stealth field (a la stealth boy) when crouched, is right up their alley. I’m sure that those with the Ninja perk will find both quite entertaining.

Along with a new knife, the other new item is a set of snow camouflage T-51b Power Armor. Very protective with no stat debuffs and a slight charisma buff make the armor very useful for your average run and gunner. As of right now, it is also bugged, but in a fairly good way. The armor given to you is the simulation version, which degrades at a very show rate (imperceptibly slow) and so won’t need repairs for a long time. The downside is that if it ever does need repairs, you can’t use other power armor to repair it. And don’t worry about not having the Power Armor perk yet. You automatically receive it when you complete the simulation.

The downside to all of this is that if you’ve gotten to the level cap in the game and you’ve done all the quests, you will probably get through the new content in an afternoon and get tired of your new toys soon afterwards. It seems the content is more geared towards low to mid-level range characters; who will find the simulation more of a challenge and will actually put the new items to good use as they travel through the wasteland.

Good news is: there are more downloadable content packs on the way. So, even if you are at the level cap and you aren’t going to be starting up another character, if you like the sound of any of the items above, you should get the content pack anyway so that you can use them in the new content packs that are to come where they will raise the level cap and give us completely new areas to explore in the wasteland.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

I hope Caleb helps me out

I've been spending this week hustling for the scratch. Got some good stuff coming down the pike, but it's rather, uh, labor intensive. So, I probably can't keep up weekly posts for the next few weeks. On the other hand, I'll have more cash for more shitty games to review for you at the end of it.

Caleb assures me that he has a review of the recent Fallout DLC ready to go. So, you can expect to see that up soon.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tom Clancy's HAWX

I want to bet that the same development team, with an upgraded flight physics engine and a new graphics team, built HAWX as built Blazing Angels. From the moment I booted it up, it felt all too familiar. Of course, the surprise is that while Blazing Angels pretty much sucked, HAWX is pretty fun. A little shallow, but fun.

First off, the install time took forever. Forever enough that I saw it was going to take a while, so I made some cookies and put them in the oven. Then came back and looked. Then had a pipe and waited. Then the cookies were done right before the game installed itself. It was easily twenty five minutes or something like that. And, of course, it's installing and taking up your valuable time without actually getting you any sort of entertainment value. And there're still long-ass loading times before missions.

So, having gotten that out of the way, on to the meat.

The basic flight system is nearly identical to Blazing Angels. Your airplane will fly in the direction in which it's pointed, even if that's straight up. One of my friends complains about "airplanes in space" for games like Wing Commander. This flight system is "spaceships close to the ground". However, I'm far more willing to accept this trope on a jet than I was on a prop-plane. The ideal modern fighter would fly that way, and they get closer daily. Unlike a P-51, which should fly like a period aircraft.

They also solved a couple of problems from the previous game. First, they opened the ceiling way up--15km up, or something like that. I never found myself hitting it, and I also rarely found myself crashing during dogfights. Since they had an "in-game", motivated HUD to work with, they could justify marking the ceiling and map borders directly on the screen as red and blue walls.

There were no takeoffs or landings, which actually detracted greatly from Blazing Angels. With such unrealistic physics, there's no joy in taking off or landing. Likewise, there was absolutely nothing like the horribly broken emergency landing event from the older game.

There was however, the Obligatory Canyon Level. However, it was far less annoying and acted as the epilogue, not an integral mission.

And then there was the big addition to the game: Assistance OFF Mode. By double-clicking either of the throttle buttons, you switch to a new camera angle. In this angle, the throttle-down button allows you to brake to the point of stall and perform post stall maneuvers. To which my initial reaction was, "That's cool, but utter bullshit."

But, it turns out that the current generation of fighters are, for the most part, designed to stall with favorable properties. So, even without thrust vectoring, you can probably do most of the stunts with the modern aircraft. The 40 year old ones, not so much.

But, as a gameplay mechanic, it's pretty fun. Mainly, it's useful to be able to dodge missiles (without expending precious flares) and cut short otherwise tiresome dogfights--the bad guys don't seem to know how to do this OFF mode stuff.

The one complaint I've heard is that the plane controls are difficult in OFF mode. It is true that the camera goes to a cinematic view, putting your plane between your target and the camera. And it's also true that your controls continue to be relative to your plane. But, input-to-game motion is highly assisted unless you choose for complete manual control. And it's easier than flying an RC plane, which plenty of folks out there haven't found impossible. Suck it up and display some adaptability.

The developers also saw fit to include a feature that computes flightpaths for you. So, you lock on to a dude, press the button, and it indicates gates in the air through which you should fly to wind up on his tail. I almost totally ignored this option, as it takes forever to fly all of the gates. I could always get there faster myself. But, for a couple of ground-attack runs it was helpful. And it's mandatory in one mission.

HAWX is definitely an arcade-style fighter jet game. It's not a simulator by any stretch. Even putting aside the rather, uh, optimistic flight physics, it's nothing like flying a real fighter. All of the weapons work at roughly visual range. You carry about two hundred missiles. Which is good, because you'll be fighting a couple hundred targets every mission.

And some of those missions are fiendishly difficult. Not because they require any great precision flight or because they require advanced tactical reasoning. Just because there are a million fast-moving targets attacking your defense objective and only one of you. Well, and a couple of wingmen (whose planes invariably fly three times faster than yours for some reason).

It's in these missions that the online CO-OP really shines. Assuming you can find three other people who won't all stupidly go after the same flight of enemies, having some other humans in the mission radically improves your odds of success. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the moment the game is multiplayer, you respawn ten seconds after dying instead of dropping back to the last checkpoint.

My biggest gripe with the CO-OP mode is a technical one. Nowhere is there the option to turn off voice chat completely. No headset, and the incoherent echoes and feedback from everybody else's mic is pumped out your speakers at full-blast. Plug in a headset to end the noise, and you just contribute to the problem. The interplay between headsets and high-power hi-fi gear is complex, and the player should always be given the option to opt out.

My biggest gripe with the Versus mode is also a technical one: I think it's fucking busted, at least on the PS3. I tried to join a versus game several dozen times. I let it sit. I refreshed. I stopped trying to find a match, and restarted it. I twiddled with my modem and fiddled with my router.

It appeared to work once. But, when I got into the game, I couldn't target any of the other players. And there were a bunch of AI-controlled airplanes. Either it dumped me into a CO-OP game when I was looking for versus, or "versus" actually means "whoever shoots down the most AI targets wins". The former option is pretty lame, but the latter would be absolutely unforgivable. However, I was dropped from that game within about forty-five seconds, so I never got to find out. And this was after I brought the game home on launch day to find that there was already a patch available (v1.01).

The variety of planes is excellent. Lots of neat jets from the last forty years of military aviation, and a half dozen from the next fifteen years. All of them very well rendered, with plenty of attention to detail. Everything articulates nicely.

There's also a good selection of diverse weaponry. None of it's "name brand" weaponry, except the Joint Strike Missile (which is still in development IRL). For instance, it's not an AMRAAM it's just a "radar guided missile". But, there's plenty to choose from, with each available weapons package for each plane locked to your progress.

The graphics are quite decent. The terrain, derived from satellite photography, is detailed and varied. I do wish they'd gone with smaller HUD infographics, as it means you see only the infographic until you're a few hundred meters from another plane. But, there's not much else to complain about graphically. No slowdown.

Overall, I'd say that HAWX is, ehh, decent enough. I really wish it had been a simulator, but I see the market issues with releasing a realistic simulator. But, as a game, viewed on its own merits, HAWX is decent enough. Pretty short, with broken multiplayer, but fun for the week it interests you.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Nintendo are Assholes

In a desire to actually enjoy a damn game, I bought a rare copy of Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes to play on my Wii. I also bought a GameCube controller.

So, tonight, as a reward for playing through that last piece of shit and getting the review out, I inserted the tiny disc in the giant slot on the front of the Wii, plugged in the controller, and settled back on a chair pulled up a measly five feet from the TV. By the way, did you know that controllers used to have wires? Whoda thunkit?

I booted up Twin Snakes and was presented with a screen: No Memory Card present in either Slot A or Slot B. Retry or Continue? wat!? I say? Okay, well, I must have to create a "memory card" back in the Wii's configuration.

So, I restart the console and go to Data Management. The screen informs me that I have nothing inserted in either Slot A or Slot B. "I know, you dipshit, that's what I'm trying to configure." I search for a "create memory card" button, but none is to be found. So I go looking around in Configuration.

About this time my wife, who's been watching and googling, informs me that the Wii needs a "GameCube memory card to save GameCube game progress".

"But, there's no place to put one," I protest.

"On the side, where you plugged in the controller," she replies firmly.

"No, no, there isn't," I say as I poke at the console with growing pissiness. And then I see it. The door that I didn't see before. The door could and should have opened when I opened the first GameCube-related door. Way back in the back. Behind the pickled pigs feet and the weird Asian thing in a can that nobody I know can identify. Another door, filled with GameCube memory card slots.

"Fuck you, Nintendo! Fuck you right in your fucking warp pipe! You couldn't spend 8 cents a unit on a fucking interconnect chip to the flash memory? You couldn't pull a sweet software hack? You couldn't even use the damn SD card slot isntead? You dog fuckers!" I screamed, indignant in my rage.

The WalMart doesn't have a memory card. I have to wait until tomorrow to go see if GameStop does. Fuck.

Remind me again why I bought this damn thing? This was going to be the first game I've played on my Wii in about eighteen months. And it's a GameCube game.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Eat Lead: the Return of Matt Hazzard

I picked up a copy of Eat Lead on release day after watching a couple of gameplay videos. The videos were hilarious, showing really funny parodies of a couple of gaming genres. On the promise of wit and amusement, I bought it.

When I think of funny games, I immediately think of Conker's Bad Fur Day. A tight, playable platformer married to a running string of shit jokes and sexual innuendo. I literally laughed my way through the entire game.

Eat Lead, not so much. It is amusing, when you get to the custcenes. And it does have its share of cute details (like the crates labeled "Crate #3 Low Cover") scattered throughout the levels. But, ultimately, it's a mediocre third-person shooter mashed up with occasional retrogaming parodies an in-jokes.

The thing that kills it is the gameplay. It's based on the trendy take-cover then peek-and-shoot mechanic, made popular in Gears of War and Rainbow Six: Vegas. But, while it's crisp and intuitive in those examples, it's mushy and frustrating in Eat Lead. There's no way to win if you don't use the cover system, but by god you'll wish there were every time you have to duck behind a box.

Equally annoying for what should be a light-hearted adventure with a player character who knows he's in a video game is that you can only carry two weapons. You want a new gun, you'll have to drop one. It seems like they easily could have gotten about fifty good jokes out of the old "where does he keep all that?" questions. And you never have enough ammo for those weapons you like. As a result, you're forced to pick up whatever piece of shit--including squirt guns--the current batch of enemies is wielding. This becomes especially irksome during boss battles. It doesn't help that most of the guns suck.

All of the enemies are roughly the same difficulty, until you get pretty far into the game, when they become impossible to beat with any weapons you've encountered before. Furthermore, they all exhibit nearly identical behaviors. They foolishly run around pointlessly, occasionally dodging behind nearby cover. The game also has an annoying habit of spawning bad guys behind you in the middle of large firefights, leaving you to fight with the cover to detach from the wall and protect your back.

And then there's the slowdown. Insufferable framerate drops in the middle of battle the moment you encounter the slightest whiff of smoke, flame, or any other particle effect. It's the PS3 for god's sake, and it's not as if we're talking about breathtaking graphics here. Most of the level geometry is barely above Goldeneye quality. Although I'm sure that if pressed, the developers would claim that the slowdown is present ironically.

The opening credits inform us that Eat Lead is built on something called the Vicious Engine. If I were looking to license a cross-platform engine, this would not be it. This game simply does not look modern or professional. It looks like either a hobbyist engine (think Torque) or a low-cost last-gen engine hastily ported forward. I've gotten better performance in Java using JMonkeyEngine, and if I were going to build a commercial 3D game, I'd take just about anything else.

I'd forgive all of this if I were laughing the whole time, but I wasn't. The cutscenes are witty and poke fun at all the obvious tropes. But only the obvious ones, making the same jokes I've heard on the forums since 2000.

And none of the wit makes it into the gameplay. You slog through long, boring, repetitive, derivative lengths of level to be rewarded with thirty seconds of mildly amusing dialog. The game fails utterly as humor and entirely as satire.

Basically, it feels like the developers thought "Oh, this game isn't serious. What's the point in polishing to make it fun?" It's the awkward repartee of a socially-retarded pre-teen who squanders every beautiful setup with "that's what she said." It emulates the cliches instead of parodying them.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A little late

My next review will be a couple days late. I only got the game yesterday, and so haven't completed it yet.

It's an actual new release, you see.