A plethora, an abundance, a slew, and a myriad of games

I feel like I've been neglecting this blog, which is a shame especially considering all the time I've spent playing games in the past couple of weeks. So I'm going to attempt to rectify that situation now with a review of the past month of my video game playing life, with discussions of all the games Xbox.com has told me I've played in the past month.

Project Gotham Racing 4 - Fun game. Weird to play if you've spent a lot of time playing Forza 2, because the absence of the racing line can really fuck up some corners. I like the kudos system, and I like the bikes. It's not amazing or anything, but it is good fun.

Age of Booty - Still a hugely entertaining console RTS. Not much else to say; haven't beaten all the missions yet, but will eventually.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts - An incredible game. So unique, so engrossing, so charming and so amusing. An absolute triumph.

Ikaruga - This game hates me. I think I hate it back.

Rock Band - Yup, it's still Rock Band. And that's a good thing.

Gauntlet - Played for 5 minutes. It's old.

Left 4 Dead - Played one campaign with my sister. Still fun, but starting to feel shallow and repetitive.

Forza Motorsport 2 - Still Forza; one of the few games that is simulatenously rewarding and punishing. And in between those two, there is also fun to be found.

Zuma - Yup.

Rez HD - Really cool. A great downloadable game to pick up and play for 15 minutes or so.

Penny Arcade Episode One - As a huge fan of the comic, I loved this game. Combat was surprisingly solid, but the real reason to play is the great story and terrific humour.

Uno - A perfect game to play while eating lunch.

UNO Rush - NOT a perfect game to play while eating lunch. Can be challenging, but also a fun twist on a cool game. Queueing a winning hand out of nowhere is incredibly satisfying and fun.

Mass Effect - This is a game I bought a year ago, tried to get into about 5 times, failed and discarded. But then I had an epiphany on my most recent attempt to crack the game. I've now completed it and have concluded it's actually one of the best games I've ever played. A masterpiece of interactive storytelling with a really solid combat system, great visuals and nice depth.

Alien Hominid HD - Ass-rapingly challenging. Still haven't beaten the first level.

Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix - Also ass-rapingly difficult, but still fun.

Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3 - A weird experience for a novice to the wacky world of MK, but I kinda like it. Haven't spent a lot of time with it, though.

Soulcalibur - Yes, fighting games were played. It's still Soulcalibur, which, much like Rock Band, is nothing but a great thing. Despite my recent appreciation of Street Fighter, probably still my favourite fighting game series.

Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2 - An excellent much deeper sequal to the original Live Arcade classic. Feels more accessible now; I've already got more achievements points from my 3 or so hours spent with the game than I got during the dozens of hours I spent playing the original.

Dead or Alive 4 - Very difficult, as one would expect from a Team Ninja game, but still fun. Features some great fighting game characters (Brad Wong especially), still looks good despite its age and plays well.

Street Fighter IV - A very good fighting game. Still getting my ass kicked online repeatedly (my win percentage is still about 20%), but still having fun playing it. I feel like I'm getting better at playing Fei-Long and Ken, but am also having fun playing Dhalsim.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - Started a new game a few days ago and am a few hours in. What can I say; it's Oblivion, my favourite game of all-time. I'm trying to play the game in a different way than I did before, so I'm playing a Breton for the first time and specialising in light armour and different forms of magic. It's three years old now, but it's still probably the best game in my collection. Bring on Elder Scrolls 5 I say.

FIFA 09 - Still one of the best sports games I've ever played, right up there with Madden 05. So incredibly deep, fun to play and engaging. Looks great, too. Not a completely realistic version of the sport, but a great game, which is all that matters really.

Wow, I never realised the list was going to be so long. And that doesn't count the time I've spent with Age of Empires II and Tetris. Also, I've got a hankering for some Nintendo DS right now, so I think I'll go play Pokemon Pearl. Later.

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Immaculate Timing

So about a week ago, I decided that since I'm a huge fan of the comic series and their sense of humour, it was time to check out the Penny Arcade Aventures game, On the Rain Slick Precipise of Darkness. I bought both the episodes available on Xbox Live right, and had to lay down a hefty 2,800 points to get them, which considering how much I usually spend on Xbox Live is pretty steep.

So then this week they announce that for one week this April, Penny Arcade Episode One is going to be half price, down from 1,600 points to 800, a massive saving. This is just a week after I bought the game, which has been available for almost a year now. Words cannot describe my frustration right now. This is just so bloody typical. Granted, I've beaten Episode One and bloody loved it, but I don't think it was really worth paying 1,600 points for. 1,200 would have been a reasonable compromise; 800 is a bargain. I'm so pissed off, not at Penny Arcade, because those guys are awesome, not at Xbox Live, for cutting the price a week after I got the game. I'm pissed off with myself and my own misfortune.

To be honest I feel a lot like this guy right now:

http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2002/5/15/going-down/

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More Street Fighter, RTS games, the next step

First off, I beat Prince of Persia last week. I really liked that game. It did have some flaws, and I wasn't crazy about the ending, but it was very solid, well polished and enjoyable. Dunno how long I spent playing but I got the 12 hours achievement, so it must have been under that.

So now once again I don't have a story based game to really immersed in, so I'm jumping around from random game to random game. I'm still loving FIFA 09, and started a new manager season with Notts County to see how long it would take to get to the Premiership. I've also been enjoying Ticket to Ride recently, although I think that maybe I'm getting a little bored of it now.

There have also been more attempts to get good at Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, and there have been a few revelations. First, I decided to lay my controller flat and hold it like an arcade stick, and I think it's a slightly more effective way of playing the game. However, the more time I spend with fighting games like Street Fighter, the more I'm convincing to lay down some seriously money for one of the new SF sticks. Secondly, I discovered that I can get some stuff done when playing as Fei-Long. After trying to play the game with all non-charge characters, I eventually settled on Fei-Long as my guy, as I like his style, his special moves are relatively simple to pull off, and because he's Bruce Lee. I beat arcade mode for the second time with him (Chun-Li was the fighter I first beat the game with). Then I tried to play through as Ken, and finally nailed my first Shoryuken in the heat of battle, but then got my ass destroyed by Blanka. I find that in arcade mode I can win a few fights and things can be going nicely, then I come up against an opponent that I just can't get past. This happened with my Fei-Long playthrough, and it took multiple attempts to beat Blanka, Honda and Zangief. Strangely though it only took one attempt to beat Balrog. Swings and roundabouts, I guess.

In light of my recent interest in the Street Fighter series, I have also fallen back into my old fighting game favourite, Soulcalibur, more specifically the 4th game in the series, including my first few successful fights online. I'm really not a man who plays a lot of online games or who likes to, but playing online

Then there's been a semi-regular dose of real-time strategy games. I recently bought Age of Booty for XBLA, and I love that game. It's got a ton of character and humour, but it's also a really solid and addictive strategy game. So far I've only really beaten all the easy challenges, but I intend to spend a lot more time with it. There's also been more time dedicated to Age of Empires II, and that game is still amazing. 10 years after it first came out and it's still fantastic. What's strange that in all the time I've spent playing it in the last month or so, I haven't once played any of the campaigns. I've been all about playing random map games and designing and building my own maps. In the light of my recent love of Age of Booty, I've been playing a lot of Islands recently, and lots of games with naval combat, which is a total blast. Just can't say enough good things about this game.

In terms of my future gaming prospects, I suspect that much more Age of Booty and Street Fighter will follow, and I really feel like I may pick up a fight stick and a copy of SFIV. I've also had my eye on a couple of other fighting games, including wanting to spend more time with Dead or Alive 4 and Virtua Fighter 5. I also have some interest in checking out MKvsDC. I think I really am becoming a fighting game fan. I'm also awaiting my recently ordered copy of Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, a game I've wanted to play for months. There are a few other games I've had my eye on; Halo Wars comes to mind. There's also a chance I'll drop back into Fallout 3 at some point, or maybe even spend some more time with Oblivion.

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A Request From my Fellow Giant Bombers

As something of an addendum to my analysis of Left 4 Dead in my last entry, I've decided that I do want to spend more time using the 360's online capabilities, especially since I'm paying £30 a year for it. But my Xbox friends list consists of exactly one person, who is my cousin, who doesn't have a Gold account. So I am extending the hand of friendship to the Giant Bomb community in hopes of finding people to play online games with. I'll be the first to confess that I'm not great at most games, but I think I'm a pretty cool person, especially by the standards of Xbox Live, and would really appreciate meeting cool likeminded people to share my gaming experiences with.

My gamertag is ColtsFan8718. I'm from the UK, so considering potential lag factors in online games, I'll probably have more success with players from the same region (UK or Europe).

There have been several games I've tried that I'd love to spend more time playing online, so if you like these games let me know. The games in question are; Left 4 Dead, Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix, Soul Calibur IV, Burnout Paradise, Pure, Forza 2, FIFA 09, Rock Band and Madden NFL 09.

Thank you.

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Recent Games - Left 4 Dead, Prince of Persia

My recent gaming activity has seen me rotate between five games, usually spending at least some time with each one every day. Firstly there's Age of Empires II of course, which I'm still enjoying. Then there's Ticket to Ride, which I usually only play when listening to music as an extra something to do, but also because it's a fun game and I enjoy it. Thirdly, there's FIFA 09, which has been in my regular rotation for over a month now and may be starting to exhaust itself, but I'm still having fun playing it.

The fourth game I've been going at recently is Left 4 Dead. Now I was in no hurry to buy Left 4 Dead when it came out last November, as I am a player who much prefers single player gameplay than multiplayer. Co-op is more interesting to me than competitive multiplayer, but I still spend virtually no time engaging in it. So a couple of weeks ago, Amazon cut the price of Left 4 Dead down to £25, and having heard a lot of good things about it, I thought why not? And having now played a reasonable amount of it, I can say that I was wrong about it, and I was wrong to ever doubt Valve. They always manage to make games I love.

First thing worth saying about this game is that I bought it expecting to not get a lot of value out of it. I was going on the understanding that it really wasn't worth playing this game in single player mode. And while I'll conceed that the game is more fun when played with someone else, as I did with my sister during her recent return from university, you could totally play Left 4 Dead as just a single player experience. The A.I. of your teammates and opponents works extremely well, and you still have that intense visceral experience which is the core of L4D's success.

Valve has always been a master of atmospheric gameplay; one need only point at the Ravenholm level in Half-Life 2 as an example of this. However L4D may well be their finest hour. Regardless of whether you are alone or with a friend, the tension and thrills provided by this game are almost unmatched. As has been said, you really feel an overwhelming sense of panic and terror when the horde approaches, and the sobbing cries of the Witch are an easy contender for the most terrifying use of sound effects in a video game - ironically it's stiffest competition is probably the sound of the poison headcrabs from Half-Life 2, which still sends shivers down my spine when I hear it. So as a technical exercise, that is including graphics, visual design, level design, sound design etc., L4D is an absolute masterpiece.

Left 4 Dead does have weaknesses however. Although I haven't really spent enough time with the game to feel the sting of this weakness, there is a sense that there isn't a hell of a lot to this game. There are only five campaigns, and that doesn't feel like quite enough. Considering it usually takes an hour to get through each campaign, L4D offers a minimum of 5 hours of gameplay, which is still an hour or two longer than Portal, and the levels and campaigns are designed well, so what you get is 5 hours of excellent content. Plus there is replayability here. I'm dying to try versus mode, because I'd love to play as a Hunter, but don't have any friends of Xbox Live, and don't really like to enter other people's games. There is also the A.I. Director, which does help make each campaign something of a different experience, but the linearity of the campaigns and the sheer lack of them does make the game feel a little thin.

Then there's the issue of story and character design. Left 4 Dead's story offers the bare minimum in terms of detail, but still offers more immersion and genius than many story-focused games I've played (I'm looking at you Lost Odyssey). Yes, the story can be boiled down to just five words - there are zombies, kill them - and all the characters are stereotypical non-entities, but none of this matters, because the world and characters Valve has created is not only well realised but also believable. They really have done an exceptional job of capturing that spirit of the epic zombie moving, so much so that it is a total blast just watching someone else play the game.

So Left 4 Dead is an absolute triumph, and once I've worked out how to get more value out of the game experience I'm sure it will only go from strength to strength. The 5-6 hours I've spent with the game have been greatly enjoyed; it's been frustrating at times, tense and terrifying at others, but it's been a complete and total blast. I am incredibly impressed by the strength of Valve's design yet again, and considering Half-Life and Portal, they are quickly becoming my favourite game studio, rivalling even Bethesda.

And so the fith and final game that has been a mainstay of my rotation for the past week or so is my rental copy of Prince of Persia. I decided to rent this game as I was unsure if it really was for me, had some questions about it's replayability, and my only previous experience of the Prince of Persia series was a brief encounter with Warrior Within for the GameCube. Regardless, I was somewhat excited to try this game, and having now played about half of it, I can say that I like it. I don't love it, but it does have a lot going for it.

I think I can boil down my experience with Prince of Persia into a simple list of pros and cons. So let's start with the cons. The story isn't particularly engaging so far, the characters aren't hugely well realised, combat feels sticky and at times can be really infuriating, especially with it's heavy dependence on quick-time events, the gameplay isn't massively varied and can get a little tedious at times, and considering the presence of an achievement for beating the game in under 12 hours, which isn't bad, there are many games that offer a longer more varied and interesting experience.

But since I did say that I liked this game, allow me to explain why, despite these faults, I'm enjoying my time spent with PoP. I really like the artistic design, it's a good looking game with a pretty well realised, crafted and designed world to jump around in, the parkour gameplay works well, occasionally I get a kick out of the Prince's snarky personality and humour, I really like the sound design, I appreciate the ability to choose my own path through the game as while it doesn't hugely affect gameplay it does remove the game's sense of linearity, and although it isn't quite as open-world as Assassin's Creed was, there is still a good sense of freedom to the game.

Prince of Persia is a game that does remind me quite a bit of Assassin's Creed, although with some significant tweeks. And although in hindsight Assassin's Creed was a game I'd have rather rented than bought, I still really liked Assassin's Creed, and I'm really liking Prince of Persia as well. There is something compelling and hypnotic about the game design, especially visually. In fact the visual design is almost as good as Mirror's Edge, but unlike Mirror's Edge it isn't crippled by atrocious gameplay and bad level design. In many ways this is the game Mirror's Edge should have been, except adapted for modern day and with some other major tweeks as well. I've spent about 7 hours with the game so far, and have cleared about half the worlds, so I've still got a fair bit of time to spend with the game, but so far I really am enjoying it.

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AoEII Chronicles Cotd., Street Fighter

There's a handful of things I want to chat about on this blog entry. First of all, I've been playing more Age of Empires II recently, but more importantly I also got my new copy of the Age of Empires Gold Edition, featuring the Conquerors Expansion. It's amazing how much different, and frankly better, that game is with the expansion. They took so many small things and made them much more user friendly, so you don't have to assign villagers to a task when they've just built a resource building next to the task you want them to do, and I don't have to manually reseed all my farms every time they expire. The raised population cap on all games also is useful, and some of the maps they included are really cool. But what I'm realising is that one of the best things about the Conquerors is being able to play as the Huns. I never really spent that much time with them during my early days as an Age of Empires player, but playing them now I'm realising they may be my favourite civilisation. Not having to build houses is an amazing advantage, and they have some really cool special abilities.

So one of the side effects of this added time spent playing AoE is that I decided to cancel my Halo Wars pre-order. A number of reasons for this. Firstly, I realised that a lot of what I liked about playing the Halo Wars demo was just the sense of nostalgia, which is now being fully exercised by my return to AoE. Secondly, the game's price is £35, and I have a policy of not spending more than £30 on a game unless I really want to play it. Thirdly, the reviews are now out, and some people didn't seem to think it was a good console RTS, which has me a little concerned. Still, I think my probable course of action is that when I get bored of AoEII and the nostalgia wears off, I'll get a copy of Halo Wars for cheap or rent it. I still see a situation where I could have a lot of fun with that game, and I still think it could turn out really well, but I'm not sure I want to have it on day one.

Moving on the new business, it's quite hard to ignore the incredbile response to the recent release of Street Fighter IV. The gaming world seems to be going mad over it. Now my own experience with Street Fighter is completely limited to the small amount of time I've spent with Super Street Fighter II Turbo HD Remix in the past couple of months. Good lord that game is hard. Even on easy mode I get my ass handed to me most of the time, and I daren't go anywhere near the online mode for fear of a brutal beating.

At first I decided I was going to use Sagat in HD Remix, because he looked cool, and Honda, because he was a Japanese sumo and therefore awesome. However I judged these decisions to be unwise, and at the advice of Jeff during a recent Bombcast, I served my apprenticeship with Chun-Li. Indeed, I won a few battles by just hammering on the kick button, and actually unlocked two achievements, one for beating the arcade mode (on easy, having died like 5 times) and one for beating Honda in under 15 seconds. I've had a little bit of fun playing Street Fighter, including experimenting with other characters, including some time spent playing with Ken, with limited success, and I find that with an Xbox controller, I can't reliably do a Hadouken or Hurricane Kick, and I've yet to successful pull off a Dragon Punch. Maybe I should invest in a joystick.

Still, after my limited time with HD Remix, I can see it's going to take a lengthy trial to get decent at Street Fighter, and there's a part of me that's debating whether it's worth the effort. I quite like the characters, gameplay can be fun if a little frustrating, and it looks really clean and cool, but I hate failing at games, and just feel that I can't enjoy Street Fighter until I get somewhere close to being a halfway decent player. Maybe it's a fatal flaw of playing against the A.I. Also, from what I hear, the SFIV training mode isn't a great solution as it doesn't quite explain the full principles of Street Fighter's gameplay, and all this talk of charge focus cancelling is fucking with my head. So I may rent SFIV just to see if I can get into SF that way, and maybe spend some more time with HD Remix, but there may come a point where I'll have to run back to Soul Calibur and Dead or Alive with my tail between my legs. But hey, at least I'd be having fun playing those games.

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More Halo Wars and AoEII, Frustrations With Mirror's Edge

First of all, I want to add an addendum to my last blog entry. First, I tried a bit of the Halo Wars campaign, at least the part of which is available via the demo. It seems alright. To be honest, the more I think about it the more I realise the campaigns aren't what I love about RTS games. I'm more into creating and playing different skirmishes, scenarios and random maps. I played a couple more since my last entry. It seems to have a strange difficulty setting; I played one game as the UNSC where I totally got my ass handed to me by the Covenant, but then today I play again and just destroy the Covenant. I don't think I did that much different this time, and looking at the map after the fact the Covenant hadn't taken over their adjacent second base; it was just there, lying empty. So I'm wandering if this is stuff that'll be in the final game, or some stuff that'll get patched when the game comes out, or it's just in there by design to make the games different. We shall see.

Secondly, since I've been talking about and thinking about Age of Empires II recently, I had a look through my old PC game collection. When I say old, I mean really old. Like, still sold in CD cases rather than boxes. And once I had pushed aside my old burnt out copies of SimCity 2000 and RollerCoasterTycoon, I found my copy of AoEII. Sadly, my Conquerors Expansion case contained no CD. Still, I decided to see what was what. I installed the game on our home computer which still runs XP, and got it to load super fast, and played a map. And I got owned. I think maybe the AI teamed up to kill me, though, as I was playing with more than one AI opponent. Still, I had fun. It looks crappy by today's standards, but seems to run ok, and obviously has a huge nostalgia factor for me. It's insane to think that this game is 10 years old already. I was 9 when this game was released. That is madness. Anyway, I think I'll play more AoE in the next couple of weeks, at least until Halo Wars comes out. It could be a really fun diversion; I enjoyed sitting at my computer playing a game again, since I've pretty much been all consoles since I got my 360, and I really enjoyed being able to listen to my music while playing a good old strategy game. It was a lot of fun.

And so recently I placed a couple of Amazon orders. One was a pre-order for the standard edition of Halo Wars, and the other was for the Age of Empires II Gold Edition, which has the advantage of replacing my hella old AoK disc, and will replace my lost Conquerors Expansion disc. I really feel like Conquerors Expansion is really what brought that game to life, and the original feels a little hollow and empty without it. It wasn't so much the new civilisations because they were cool (even though my three favourite civs were Britons, Byzantines and Chinese, all of whom were in the original game), but the little game tweeks, raised population limit and extra map options really enhanced the game, so much so that now without the expansion, it doesn't feel right anymore.

So now onto a fresh topic, although I may have some extra AoE and HW thoughts in the coming weeks. But now I want to talk about a game that I recently rented online and have been playing a bit of; Mirror's Edge. And I guess the first thing I should say is that I've had this game on rental for a week, haven't finished it, and am thinking about sending it back unfinished.

Mirror's Edge is a game with a lot of problems. The combat seems like a good place to start, and then there's the leap-of-faith gameplay, and some fairly obnoxious level design, and some of the clipping and physics issues, and the lame story. But you know what the worst thing about Mirror's Edge was? It could have been an awesome game. I'm not sold on the first person parkour idea being broken, I just think that if DICE were to make a sequal some things would have to be addressed. By far the most impressive thing about Mirror's Edge is just how well it looks. Faith and the world in which she inhabits are both extremely well designed aesthetically, and the usage of colour and light affects throughout really make a good impression. It may have the best artistic design of any game I've played since Eternal Sonata.

The other big thing that Mirror's Edge has going for it is that a lot of the time the parkour works well. During the moments when you have to leap across rooftops to get to your next objective, the game is at it's best, as it is a lot of fun to just run around looking for the next route and just admiring the visuals. The problem is, too often the game takes you into an inclosed environment giving you limited freedom of movements, or throws at you a number of obnixously difficult enemy soldiers who you can't run past, or has a jumping puzzle that is crippled by weak physics. I don't think I've ever seen a game be so good at doing one thing and so appalling at another. It's amazing that no one at DICE just looked at the game and suggest it be made an open world game, or an Assassin's Creed clone, because then we would have had a much better game, in my opinion.

So Mirror's Edge failure is a heartbreaking one, as it was a game that had a lot going for it before it started falling off a cliff. However I agree with Ryan when he says that given a chance at a Mirror's Edge 2, DICE could make a good game from this template. But that doesn't give me any more desire to finish Mirror's Edge, because it's so stodgy and frustrating to try and get through, and the visual style and parkour sequences aren't enough to make up for these crippling flaws. In short, everything I read about Mirror's Edge when it came out is true. I tried to like it, I really did, and I was very impressed by the demo, but the actual game just cannot live up to the bargain. I found Mirror's Edge to be one of the biggest disappointments of 2008, and am glad that I rented it rather than bought it. That being said, were DICE to make a new game and address some of the game's key flaws, I would give the world of Mirror's Edge a second chance, because I liked enough about it to come back for more.

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Halo Wars Demo Thoughts + AoEII Reminiscences

Today's blog entry has a hint of nostalgia about it, as well as thoughts on a demo for an upcoming release. Those who read my all-time Top 20 will see that Age of Empires 2 and it's expansion sit at a fairly lofty #4. Not only that, but it is the highest rated game that is not from this console generation (unless you count Half-Life 2, which sort of did), meaning that with the added nostalgia factor, I could make a case for AoEII being my favourite game of all-time. The relevance of this referal is of course that the development studio that constructed this magnum opus of the real-time strategy genre, Ensemble Studios, owned by Microsoft, are soon to release their latest, and sadly, last work, the much anticipated Halo Wars for the 360.

Now while my nostalgia and love of the works of Ensemble Studios is considerable, my feelings towards the Halo series are nothing more or less than totally neutral. I've read and heard plenty about that infamous FPS series which quickly became the Xbox's killer-app, but have never spent more than 20 minutes with a Halo game. I know enough about the game to know that it almost certainly isn't something that doesn't appeal to me, being a multiplayer-heavy, all-on combat macho FPS with a short story mode and a futuristic setting. That's all fine, but it's not my cup of tea.

AoEII was my exact cup of tea; a strategy game in a medieval setting with huge depth of gameplay without having to go online (although I understand that if you did take it online, your experience could potentially be even better). So my feelings and expectations for Halo Wars was mixed. On one hand, the idea of a console RTS isn't hugely appealing to me, and I have no feelings towards the Halo franchise. On the other hand, it's made by Ensemble Studios. And they made AoEII. Just like last year with Bethesda, I suddenly realised that "oh snap, they made a new game. I better go pre-order it." And AoEII is one of the few games that could rival Oblivion in terms of exciting me.

The demo for Halo Wars is now available on Xbox Live, and has been for about a week or so, and I've been playing a bit of it. A couple of hours actually. Haven't got into the campaign yet, but have done some skirmishes, some on the medium difficulty and some on the hard difficulty, some with the humans and some with the Covenant. It seems like a pretty sizeable chunk of the game they gave you as a demo, but it still leaves you longing for more. I'd love for example to try out more skirmish maps and maybe actually get into some online, which the demo doesn't deliver. But what the demo does deliver is a glimpse into exactly what Halo Wars is all about.

The control scheme seems pretty good; they did a good job of mapping the classic PC RTS controls around a gamepad. There are still limitations, but none of them really feel like they are getting in the way of the central gaming experience, and in terms of bringing the RTS to consoles, Halo Wars is one of the most solid I've yet to see. Presentation is also really nice. The game looks really good, and while I can't speak of variety of maps based on only the demo, the ones I have seen look nice and well realised. Menus and interfaces seem pretty solid too. So on the surface there is really nothing to complain about in regards to the UI and essential experience of Halo Wars. It still doesn't feel wholly natural playing an RTS on a gamepad, but Halo Wars does a good job of giving as much control to the player as possible without burdening them with an EndWar style console-specific gameplay mechanic.

One of the things I loved about AoEII was the variety of the civilisations you could choose from. Sure, in terms of building and character design there were only four distinct groups, but all the sub-groups had their own perks and quirks, so it felt like a legitimately different experience when playing as a civilisation within a group. Playing as a Saracen army was a very different experience to playing with a Persian army or Byzantine army. Halo Wars sadly only looks like it features two civilisations; Human and Covenant. This is a shame, because it completely dissolves one of AoEII's greatest strengths. That being said, they have done a good job of making using each civ a different experience, and more time with the game will surely reveal more quirks and customisation when it comes to exactly how your Human or Covenant army will progress.

I could go on and on about my 2-3 hour experience of playing Halo Wars, but it's best I just boil it down, considering I haven't played the full game yet. I think Halo Wars is going to turn out extremely well. The campaign will still need to prove itself, and I'm hoping there is plenty of variety to the missions and locations, and the same can be said for the skirmish maps. But in terms of core structure, UI, controls and the overall feel of the game, Halo Wars feels like a very polished and well focused game. The only real flaws with the game seem to be some clunkiness in carrying over the PC style of RTS to the consoles, which may just be something to get used to. But playing Halo Wars doesn't feel like sacriledge; this is a game that I feel like I can really enjoy playing on my 360, even though it's a genre that is one of the holy grails of PC gaming.

Of course, a lot of my feelings towards Halo Wars will be coloured by the years I spent with AoEII, and one of the most appealing things about Ensemble's swan song is that it still "feels" like that game I fell in love with all those years ago. There is a sense of nostalgia that comes from playing Halo Wars, which wasn't a feeling I get when playing Command & Conquer or any other RTS. I don't think it's a coincidence that the civilisation I had the most fun playing with - the Covenant - is the civ that most faithfully recreated the gameplay of AoEII, in that the Covenant can upgrade their technology by progressing to the next age, which is straight out of AoEII. There are some fundamental differences that help separate the game from its spiritual predecessor, such as using buildings to generate resources rather than gathering them manually, which is a nice feature in that it gives you more time to focus on military strategy, but still makes the game feel like there's something missing.

But I think that even when disregarding my love of AoEII, Halo Wars looks to be a definite success, in that Ensemble have created a console RTS that doesn't feel significantly gimped by being a console RTS. It's the first RTS I've ever played on a console that I feel like I could lose myself in the same way I could with a PC RTS. Most importantly though, it feels like a great game. It controls well, looks great, sounds great, seems well designed, and could turn out to be the supreme RTS of this generation, regardless of platform. I hope and pray that the rest of the game is as polished and solid as the 2-3 hours I spent with the demo, because this has potential GOTY canditate written all over it, at least in my book.

Basically though what it comes down to is this; if you are a fan of the Halo universe or of the RTS game, you owe it to yourself to give Halo Wars a try. Halo fans may hate the game play style, and hardcore RTS fans may feel the absence of mouse and keyboard is more significant, but I think there is huge potential for this game. Don't dismiss it just because it's a console RTS, or just because it's a Halo game. Download the demo if you don't believe me.

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Fable II - Second Tour of Duty, Knothole Island, "Pure Evil"

For all the time I've spent playing games recently, it feels like a real shame to leave this blog inactive, especially since I've found I've got some stuff on my mind recently in regards to games. So I've decided that the best way to continue this blog on a consistent basis is by only covering one game at a time. That way, I can do multiple entries a week and don't get overloaded by doing a hella long entry. I may talk about a couple of games at a time, but most of the time it'll just be a report on my experience with one specific game.

In my last lengthy blog post, I mentioned being frustrated over having finished Dead Space, because it left me with no focused story-driven game to engage myself in; I was just left with odds and ends games like Geometry Wars and Rock Band, games I like to play for 30-60 mins a day and then put down. I try to fill this void by finally spending some time with GTAIV, but this didn't work. I'm starting to think I'm destined to spend an hour or so with that game every three months or so and then put it down again. There's just nothing that grabs me about it right now. Maybe I should just start again. Or maybe I should conclude that everyone is wrong and that game is bullshit and sell it on eBay.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I finally found a game to fill this void. Inspired by its frequent mentions on recent editions of the Giant Bombcast, as well as the recently released DLC, I decided it was time to spend more time with Fable II, one of my favourite games of 2008. It's still awesome. The DLC offers some cool stuff. I could argue that a 2 hour quest and some items doesn't justify a 800 point price, but I don't feel too bad about it, especially since I love the game so much. But aside from the DLC, I got much more pleasure out of just playing through the game again. I only beat it once before, with my almost totally good character (he did do some bad stuff, as demonstrated by his beautiful young complexion), and obviously for my second playthrough I decided to change things up a bit.

So this time I created a female character whose major strength was skill and whose favourite weapon was her trusty pistol, and made her "pure evil", that is a character of evil morality, but pure intentions, meaning that even though I spent plenty of time in the Temple of Shadows earning bad-girl points, I also feasted solely on tofu and celery. I also played as a bigamist and a bisexual, with three husbands, all of whom gave my character kids, and three lesbian lover wives. It was good times.

Not that much changed playing the game through a second time, although I did get to experience the full wonders of the Temple of Shadows for the first time. I was a lot of fun doing evil shit, so much so that I decided to create another evil character who was not only totally evil but totally corrupt as well, so he was a complete asshole. Also for my pure evil bisexual bigamist I decided I was going to play through the game without buying any real estate. It does add a certain element of challenge, as you have to work a bit harder to make money without the constant influx of rent money, but I still found it relatively easy to make a lot of money by buying goods from stalls during sales and selling them during shortages. There is something oddly satisfying about making money this way, almost as much as buying real estate to make money to buy more real estate, which is one of the real joys of Fable II.

Also I spent a lot of time doing the jobs. Oh, so much time spent doing the jobs. So many blades forged and beers poured. To liven things up I listened to the Bombcast while performing my menial tasks, which felt less rewarding and satisfying the second time, even though I didn't hate them as much as some people did. My totally evil character never did no jobs; he just stole shit and killed dudes for stuff.

So yeah, Fable II is still amazing. That game is really special. It delivers what the first Fable promised and so much more, in a very charming and engrossing adventure. I have nothing but good things to say about the game...apart from the fact that you can't get all the achievements without buying Pub Games, which I refuse to do. I'm going to spend some more time with it in the future, as I never beat the game with my totally evil character, and may try to create a good character who is totally corrupt, to counter my pure evil character. If they release more DLC, I will also buy that and try it out.

So that's it for now. There's plenty more games I'll be chiming in with some thoughts on in the next few days or so, including one game that is driving me insane, and another that I am absolutely in love with. Until then.

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2008 > 2009

I've still got loads of 2008 games I want to spend more time with, including GTAIV, Condemned 2, Burnout Paradise and Braid. Hell, I've still got games left over from 2007 I need to finish, like Mass Effect and Viva Pinata. As for 2009, the only games that strike any sort of interest are Street Fighter IV, RE5 I guess, Bioshock 2 (not out for ages), and that's pretty much it. So my answer is I'm definitely still stuck in 2008.

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