Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Dragon has Landed!

So, I'm walking in the door on this wickedly freezing day and the Fed Ex guy pops up out of nowhere from behind me and almost scares me to death with his big grin and package waving ways. Seems I was his last stop and he was more than happy to see me, as it meant he got to finally go home.

Anyway, my review copy of Divinity II Ego Draconis hath arrived, so I now have New Year's Eve plans. Yeesh - I KNEW I should have finished that preview a few weeks back!

Tempus Fugit, that's for damn sure!

Ah well. Early impressions from the preview builds: the game is pretty damn good. The final versions should be better. Off to get in some more flight time... Back in a bit with an update.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Review: Dragon Age: Origins

Platform: PS3, Xbox 360

Developer: BioWare

Publisher: EA

# of Players: 1

Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: A

Has BioWare ever made a bad game? I'm inclined to shout a defiant "No" towards the heavens, as I've enjoyed everything they've ever done, warts and all. Hell, I may be somewhat biased here, but at least I'm definitely right (that's a little in-joke, by the way). Anyway, in terms of their RPG output, the company has a superb track record with everything from the Baldur's Gate and Icewind Dale games to Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire and even Sonic Chronicles: the Dark Brotherhood. Of course, their two current console projects, the upcoming Mass Effect 2 and the recently released Dragon Age: Origins will be the games on RPG fans' lips and minds for quite some time thanks to the developer's ability to craft completely different sub-genres while consistently bringing gamers superb storytelling and deep, challenging gameplay.

The game works almost perfectly as it delivers a completely new IP onto the scene with plenty of dramatic flourish, dynamic combat and a deeply engrossing storyline that absolutely begs for a sequel. No matter which of the six story lines you delve into the game just soars. Once you're hooked you in for one tale, you just HAVE to replay it as another character (or have two or more save files going) just so you can experiment with every dialog response, every choice until you've exhausted your options and see just how characters major and minor react. Your chosen hero or heroine is customizable, standard fare for any decent RPG these days. Once that's done (or you pick a pre-made avatar), you'll guide your hero or heroine through their lengthy quest chock full of events that make each play through unique.

With well over 60 hours of gameplay here for each character plus some great additional download content available right from the game's launch (and more on the way), hardcore RPG fans won't be coming up for air for quite some time. New players may feel a bit swarmed by what's here, but the very handy tutorials and wealth of other reading material will get them up to speed and coming back for more in short order. There's actually so much stuff to read (and all of it important or informative) that you'll absolutely want to play this on an HD setup. Running DA:O on a standard definition TV will have you breaking out the reading glasses AND a pair of binoculars.

In the game, your character is selected to become a Grey Warden (a legendary group of skilled warriors chosen from all walks of life) as a massive horde of demons known as Darkspawn reappears and resumes their terrorizing ways throughout the kingdom of Ferelden. How and why each character is chosen as a Warden makes up the introductory section and after a bit of exploration and exposition, the game world opens up. As you set out with a few new companions to put an end to the Darkspawn blight and the Archdemon leading them, you'll run into quite a few folks that can use a bit of heroic help. Your other party members may include a sultry forest witch, an elf assassin, a stoic warrior type, a drunken elf and others, but depending on how you interact with some of these characters, you can choose to drop them from your party forever or never get them to join at all.

As ou meet up and recruit characters, you'll find yourself growing attached to some and possibly ignoring others. This is a bad idea, as everyone is useful to some extent and there's nothing worse than jumping into battle with a few guys or gals you ignored because you didn't like their starting skills. Not only can some members only equip certain magical gear, having certain party members in certain areas can unlock new quests, dialog options or even a special skill or two. Let's just say if you're a dog's best friend, poke around for certain trees that will give your pet a nice advantage in combat.

If you've played Mass Effect, you'll notice similarities in how BioWare's brilliant storytelling such as the branching conversation paths and the possibilities of romantic couplings with certain party members under the proper circumstances. Finding and giving gifts to your teammates unlocks new skills and more of their stories, which also leads to new quests most of the time. There's no “pure” good or evil path here and other than how your party and a few other characters react to your decisions, you won't feel as if you've done something “wrong” if you decide to play the game as a pure saint or a total bastard. The extremely well-written script offers up some great dialog and as you travel throughout the nicely-sized game world, some of the conversations your companions have with you and each other are priceless, informative and often hilarious.

Combat can be tackled as real-time hacking and spellcasting, but you can also pause the action and input commands for each party member, much like in BioWare's other RPGs. Things can get really hectic in some large scale battles and it would have been nice to have the ability for some sort of multiplayer mode where up to four players could dive in together on one screen. On the other hand, the game has a few areas (particularly during the last epic battles) where a multiplayer mode would be a bit impossible to manage. There's a great series of fights where you'll get to "command" units and fight side by side with them against waves of Darkspawn and I'd imagine how tough that would be to pull off with four live players and dozens of other AI units fighting it out. You'd be hearing stories of real people rolling on the floor in living rooms all around the world.

Now, where was I? Right - As you're limited to four active members in your party, deciding whom to select is part of the fun. In some areas, having certain party members around allows access to locked chests or doors. If you consider yourself a treasure hunter supreme, I'd recommend playing as a Rogue if you want easy access to a great deal of chests in the game's beginning stages, but if you want to be a Warrior of Mage, go for it. Just don't expect those chests to magically open themselves. The fact that you can't go back to certain areas is a bit annoying, but once you start seeing all the cool gear that shows up at your camp shop and in other places in the game, you really won't miss those earlier chests.

The game's world map initially seems massive, but compared to other recent RPGs, there are actually only a few locations to explore along with a number of combat-focused areas you'll only get to visit once. To spice things up, you'll be able to take on guild quests as well as run into the occasional random over world map battle. Some of these mid to late game side quests can actually be more brutal than a few of the bosses in the main storyline. The dungeons and majority of other areas you move about in are pretty expansive, nicely designed and packed to the gills with everything from undead, giant spiders and later on more than a few dragons of different sizes.

In terms of difficulty, new players can stick to the easier modes, but hardcore RPG fans will want to crank the challenge up so fights don't fly by in a few button presses. If a character falls in battle, they're only lost for the duration of that fight and revived afterward. Of course, getting all your party members knocked out is an automatic Game Over and a trip to a previous save. Bumping up the difficulty is more rewarding in terms of experience gained, but the game has a number of very brutal bosses that can wipe the floor with an unprepared party on the easiest setting. If you love playing the "tank", you'd best have some great mages and ranged weapon users in your team, as status effects and the occasional powerful knockdown are commonplace when things get up close and personal.

Presentation here is mostly stellar on both consoles, with the PS3 getting the slight advantage. The visuals are pretty solid, with some grand in-game engine movies, beautifully detailed characters and plenty of lovely environments. Unfortunately, you'll also see some graphics glitches (mild clipping issues plus textures and the occasional background popping in) and hear the occasional sound drop during extended dialog sequences. However, the technical issues don't destroy the illusion of the richly detailed world BioWare has crafted. Still, picky purists will whine a bit about things not being “perfect” all the way through. The game nabs a Mature rating for a ton of blood, a bit of mild (but still not for the kiddies) sexuality and some rough language. I'd say some of the dialog and plot surprises are where the real M-rated content lie.

As for the game being "shocking" in its depictions of characters having desires for one another, all this fuss over sexual content in video games has been so overblown (well, unless you've got a copy of Pocket Pool for the PSP) that when you finally do get to the naughty bits here, you may be disappointed. Then again, if you need a video game to get your kicks that way, you really need to get outside more. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the sound effects, music and voice acting are all stellar, pulling you into the game world for a near-perfect aural experience. Those pesky sound drops that take place are a bit of a letdown, but never a game-killing blow at all. There's so much spoken dialog in the game that you get used to hearing everyone speak all the time and when the conversation abruptly cuts out, it's jarring.

Despite the sound flaws and occasional graphics hitches, the overall experience is consistently grand and yes, epic. I ask again, Has BioWare ever made a bad game? After about a dozen years of personal experience playing hit after hit, I certainly can't think of one. With Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare continues its long-running streak of solid, high quality epic role-playing experiences with yet another deep and incredibly addictive time eating monster gaming experience that's going to please genre fans new and old alike. Like any great story, the game is always highly compelling and rarely misses a thematic beat throughout. There's so much content packed onto the disc that it's almost overwhelming, but you'll find yourself staying up “just one more hour...” each time you step into the rich world the dev team has created.

If you're a huge fan of Western-style RPGs (hell, ANY type of RPG) and want something that's going to be expanded upon in DLC as well as sequels down the road, definitely make this one a purchase. The Grey Wardens, whose local chapter just so happens to be your nearby game shop or other retailer that sells Dragon Age: Origins are waiting patiently. Or maybe not so patiently... those Darkspawn certainly aren't going to kill themselves, that's for sure...

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Review: Torchlight

Platform: PC

Developer: Runic Games

Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment/Encore

# of Players: 1


Official Site

Score: A-

The joke's on me, folks. When I first heard about Torchlight late last year, I somehow managed to get it confused with Twilight AND Torchwood and it immediately got ignored. Sorry, but I'm not a 13-year old girl with a vampire death wish on one hand and while I do like Torchwood a lot, a licensed game based on the series made me shudder a bit for all the wrong reasons. Anyway (and, yes. a BIG duh to the me), I happened to pop open a recent press release about the game a few months back and was pleasantly shocked and surprised that not only wasn't this a licensed game, it was in my favorite genre AND it was looking quite like a spectacular sleeper, to boot.

So, how did it all turn out? Read on and see...

Torchlight is one of the best game surprises of 2009, period. In a year with far too many many well-hyped huge budgeted games with needless midnight launches and ridiculously priced limited edition packaging, Runic Games has created a simple, gorgeous, elegant and near perfect economy priced hack and slash that's a more than solid time killer for fans of the genre. Everything from the great cartoon graphics to the addictive gameplay work extremely well in pulling you into the game for that "one more level" experience that will keep you up into the wee hours and beyond. While the game currently has no support for multiplayer, Runic is indeed working on adding the feature for a future update. As it stands, this is one of those great games that will keep you busy enough without having a friend or six along for the ride.

If the game looks and plays (to those out there less familiar with games such as Rogue or Nethack) very much like a Diablo or Fate clone, well... it is. But this is in no way a bad thing, particularly since the game takes what's best about both of those games and adds its own fine touches. Runic is made up of folks who've worked on both games and they've taken the best elements of both, tweaked them out and added more overall polish. In terms of story, you're not going into this one for a spectacularly scripted plot or dialog that's going to make you break out the Kleenex, that's for sure. Expect some of the usual RPG suspects with a slight twist. You pick and play as one of three different character classes who finds him (or her) self in the tiny little mining village of Torchlight, where something down in the mines is causing a bit of trouble. There's more about a blight, lots of demons to exterminate and a mad scientist/wizard type as the main villain, but going into more detail isn't really necessary. However, the game does just enough with what's here to keep you going deeper and deeper into dungeon after dungeon.

There are only three character types to choose from (Vanquisher, Destroyer, Alchemist) and other than the seemingly endless tons of gear you'll find, you can't change their faces or body types. To those who crave more in-depth fiddling, this might seem like a reason to NOT want this game. On the other hand, it's an dirt clever means of getting you to just pick a hero and jump into the action feet first. Runic keeps the exposition light enough and short enough that you're off killing monsters as quickly as possible (long loading times aside, but I'll get to that later). Dungeons are big enough to require a few glances at the mini-map, yet they don't drag on and on because you're almost always fighting something every few paces, including powerful sub-bosses and boss-like creatures that even early on, can dish out some major damage on the harder difficulty levels.

If you've never played this type of game previously, you can jump right in and get clicking, thanks to the great tutorials that pop up whenever you do something new. Veterans of this style of game can of course, toggle these tips off, but it's just fun to read them and see when and where they show up. Like Fate, you can take a pet into the dungeons who can not only fight with you, it can also act as a pack mule and personal selling assistant when you need to clear out your inventory. Unlike Fate: The Traitor Soul and its wider variety of pets, you're limited to a dog or cat here. However, unlike Fate, Torchlight allows for your pet to cast any spells in the game you can, which makes fighting against groups of enemies or tough bosses a bit less daunting.

Killing monsters will often have them drop plenty of choice loot, which is of course, the main reason many players will be diving into these dungeons again and again. The game allows for enchantments to items (courtesy of a village wizard) that add new powers, boost your stats and even beef up your hit points to some incredible numbers. Your pet can also wear rings, necklaces and earrings (an element borrowed from the Fate games), making for one blinged-out companion. You can't see these items ON your pet, mind you. Somehow, a dog or cat with gold caps on its grille and a big diamond ring or necklace doesn't exactly scream "fantasy RPG", so I'm glad Runic didn't decide to extend that level of detail to the feline and canine side of things.

One other thing Torchlight does a lot better than Diablo and Fate is inventory. Every item takes up a single slot in your pack, your pet's pack and your town storage (hoo-freakin' raaaay!) AND you have a shared storage chest should you, a family member or whomever else decide to play as a second or third character. No Plug Y, ATMA or other muling mods are required, although it would have been nice to see the option for multiple pages in both storage chests for us hoarders out there. Given the wealth of weaponry, armor and trinkets to wear plus the ability to buy more rear random gear from a few folks you come across in town or in the dungeons, all that space seems like not enough after about two hours of play. Still, you'll learn to distinguish between good gear, great gear and crap gear in no time. Then again, there's always those enchantments I noted above...

Oh, did I mention you can fish in the game? Yes, it's a simplistic mouse-clicking mini-game that's exactly the same as the one in the Fate series. But it's pretty cool to get special fish that can transform your pet into a powerhouse for a few minutes at a time. When transformed, your pet can still cast spells, go into town to sell items and in general, be just as useful as it is normally. Of course, those added bonus skills gained from transforming makes for a pretty sweet bonus. Being able to blast poison, ice, lightning or whatever else at a pack of angry skeletons of walking tree-things of assorted sizes is pretty darn handy. If your pet gets too wounded, it will flee the scene, so you'll want to have enough healing items for the both of you.

Visually, the game is a total knockout. The dark, stylized "Disney-like" art style fits like a glove and between the great animation and outstanding details everywhere, the game never fails to constantly impress. Things such as how different headgear affects the hair of characters who have it, the way your avatar moves, idles and attacks all make the hours slide by faster than you'll care to admit. Runic not only took a chance here by not following "today's standards" in graphics (*yawn*), they've also quietly raised the bar on just how well stylized graphics CAN and should be utilized by a lot more developers in different types of games. I was less than a minute into the game and so floored by the presentation that I wondered out loud just why the heck it's taking Blizzard so long to crank out Diablo III (well, other than making sure it's going to be a big and perfect online/offline beast that's tested to death and beyond).

The game does suffer a bit from a small set of monster types and yes, although the environments are gorgeous and lushly colored like huge, hand-painted 3D backdrops, there are only a few different types with some random maps that repeat. Nevertheless, the color usage and lighting are brilliant and the game actually takes on a darker palette and overall tone the lower you descend. If you didn't think shades of dark blue, purple, red, pink and black weren't all that sinister before, you will when you start hitting the last portion of the game. In addition to the regular story maps, you can buy random maps from the magic items seller in town that extend the game almost indefinitely. It's here that you'll find the most repetition in dungeon layout and it's something I'd love to see Runic add to in the next update. The music is also solid, with a mix of quiet village stuff and slightly more rousing dungeon tunes that don't go overboard while they embed themselves into your brain after a few hours of play.

Alright, the game both looks great and plays great... but how does it perform? Very darn good overall despite a few issues. System requirements are super low, yet the game ran on everything I tried it on, from a 4-year old XP PC with a 2-year old Nvidia card to a more current gaming laptop of a friend I convinced to try the game despite him not being a RPG fan (or much of a gamer, for that matter). He was hooked in by the art style and after a few hours, I got an email asking "why did you DO this to me?!!!", which cracked me up, a I was deep into another eight-hour grind-fest marathon using purchased maps to kill up new loot drops.

There are a few knocks to the game, however. As noted above, depth is more limited to the dungeons than the plot, so other than one or two twists that make you go "Hmmm....", you won't be moved much by what happens. On the technical side, un-patched, there are a few annoying bugs and yes, those pesky loading times can be tortuously long. How long, you ask? Long enough to make you think the game has crashed and hung up on a load screen when your start, end or enter certain dungeons. There's a recent patch (as well as a relatively simple fix available that involves unpacking, renaming and moving a file around) that takes care of the loading issue, unless your system has low virtual minimum memory (or you really hate fiddling with your game or system folders).

Granted, NO game is flawless, especially in this day and age of even console games requiring patches and updates. Still, what's here works so well that any bugs that did slip by are so easily forgivable. Runic has been addressing the technical problems and if you poke around on the official forums, you'll see a few player solutions that not only help out, they can actually make your PC run better in the process. Back to the good stuff, I haven't even discussed the excellent TorchED game editor or the healthy amount of user-created mods already available. Some are great, some need work - it's like any other mod community out there packed with folks who've fallen in love with the game and want to cook up their own creative content. Although, if you think about it long enough, making a Diablo-style HUD or other mod that turns what's here into a older game is sort of going backwards... but hey, it's a free country (and so are the mods).

My one BIG wish for Torchlight is not for some sort of super huge MMO mode down the road, but for Runic to somehow bring this game to consoles in some form or another once their multiplayer plans are set. Not only would PS3, 360 and possibly Wii owners be getting a game in a genre that doesn't exactly have a whole lot of new releases dropping from the heavens, with solid co-op and online play (plus larger maps to accommodate the hordes who want to hop on board the bandwagon), it would be a hit from day one. Granted, a console version on a disc would cost a bit more than the twenty bucks the game is currently priced at. However, I'd bet the farm that the game would be a total smash across the board if it's easy to control and has even more content made available via download at some point. Anyway, my suggestion to Runic is to contact the good folks at Splitfish and see about getting FragFX (and some sort of USB keyboard) support for a console version so PC players won't automatically whine about their version being the better-controlling one. Then again, both the PS3 and 360 support USB keyboards and mice, so it's a no-brainer if funding can be acquired for a console port...

In the meantime, if you have a PC and play games on it, by all means, go BUY Torchlight NOW. Your support for this product will not only make Runic smile, it'll help them make the game even better in the near future. With Diablo II seemingly ages and a day from completion, Torchlight will not only make you forget all about Blizzard while you're waiting, it'll be the first game its fans think of when they finally do play DIII. Beautiful, brilliant and highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TRON: Evolution Teaser Trailer

Hmmm... This definitely looks pretty interesting and it's a great teaser, for sure. I'm ancient enough to recall seeing the original film a few times during it's first run back in 1982 and catching it on cable as many times as possible back in the day. Propaganda Games might have a sleeper here, provided the game goes beyond what the film brings to the table.