Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Costume Quest (Review)

October 15, 2010
PlayStation 3, Windows, Xbox 360

Developed by Double Fine Productions

Published by THQ


You now have a place where you can always go trick-or-treating. Costume Quest (2010)
Costume Quest is a sweet tribute to popular culture and suburban Halloween.

I'm an adult (or so they tell me), which is why I have not been trick-or-treating in years. In fact, as I write this on Halloween night I am having a quiet, relatively uneventful evening. We're going to watch a horror film, we got a candy bowl at hand should anyone ring our doorbell, and I am writing a review for a game I purposely completed this month, Costume Quest.

Released two years ago this Halloween as a downloaded title, Costume Quest was a somewhat unexpected treat from Tim Schafer and team at Double Fine (the creative crowd behind Psychonauts). This title was a result from one of their renowned "amnesia fortnight" sessions. Fittingly, the game takes place on Halloween night and you choose to play as one kid in a set a fraternal twins, Reynold and Wren. Your first costume is that of a robot made from cardboard boxes. The twin you do not play as gets stuck with the "lame" candy corn costume and is swiftly kidnapped by a Grubbin (a goblin-like monster) with a sweet tooth! Talk about getting the narrative ball rolling. The rest of the game, your quest if you will, pits you against these Grubbins as you follow the candy trail and attempt to rescue your sister (I played as Reynold).



In battle your costumes take on a whole new appearance and function. Costume Quest (2010)
The majority of Costume Quest is split between navigating the game world in your search and taking part in a turn-based battle system. Both work well as the game looks and feels polished (especially for a downloadable game that you can own for less than $20). That said, both aspects do grow laborious in their monotony as I will tell you soon enough. The visuals are charming and colorful in their own autumn palette. The world bears a distinct art style not unlike Animal Crossing. The battles take on a comic-book style all to themselves, complete with action panes and an occasional stylized backdrop. Your young character (and those you will meet and add to your party along the way) jump up and into a fantastic world of their design. Your robot is no longer made of household materials but is a shiny, intimidating  and towering presence. In this regard Costume Quest realizes the imaginations of children similarly to modern classics like Rugrats or Toy Story.

By far the best part of Costume Quest are the costumes themselves and using their abilities on and off the battlefield. You'll collect the ingredients needed to dress up as a knight, a unicorn, even the Statue of Liberty, and more throughout your travels. Each has a unique special attack that you must charge up to keep the monsters at bay.


A costume contest is just one of the side activities you can take part in. Costume Quest (2010)
When you're not smiting Grubbins you are interacting with other unassuming children going about their holiday business. The world is split into a few distinct levels with doors to knock, secrets to find, and side quests to take on. All of this is easy to keep track of in the game's notebook-like menu system. This is one facet of the game I am sure will be overlooked, but I adore what I see every time I pushed the "Start" button.

As I mentioned before, my main gripe against the experience is the overall lack of variety and the tediousness of the tasks. For example, each door you knock hides an adult or a goblin on the other side, the former fills your candy pail with more sugar, the latter starts yet another fight. I found myself groaning each and every time a monster opened the door as the battles practically play the same each time, making for a draining grind. Additional attacks/defenses, change of backgrounds, and a wider array of enemy types are desperately needed here. Furthermore, the experience of navigating the world sometimes falls into that camp of mindless wandering and backtracking in an effort to simply progress the game. That and the useless collect-a-thon of trading cards are on the list of activities I loathe in my video games.

The story here is nothing spectacular, but the text-only dialogue held my attention when each character spoke his/her mind and brought a smile to my face on many occasions. At the end of your quest one character says to another, "We should do this every Halloween." It is one of several winking moments that Double Fine included in the game. While it is not a game I consider to have strong replay value, I will mostly look back on my experience in Costume Quest with fondness and a possible place to re-kindle childhood fantasies. I also look forward to downloading and playing Grubbins on Ice, the game's only DLC, this holiday season. You can look for my review of it come Christmastime.


7.5

Words by J.S. Lewis

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Grand Theft Auto V (Preview)

Spring 2013
PS3, Xbox 360

Developed by Rockstar North

Published by Rockstar



Grand Theft Auto V, the biggest entry in the series yet.

Today Rockstar Games posted the above picture on their official website, confirming speculations of a release in the first half of 2013 (I'm guessing May when both Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire fell into our laps over the past two years respectively). There was no way it was coming out this holiday season as many fans hoped.

Along with the sensual poster Rockstar released the following press notes:


"Today, we're proud to announce that Grand Theft Auto V is expected to launch worldwide spring 2013 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

Developed by series creator Rockstar North, Grand Theft Auto V takes place in a re-imagined, present-day Southern California in the largest and most thriving game-world we have ever created set in the sprawling city of Los Santos and for miles beyond – from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the ocean.

Starting next week November 5, 2012, Grand Theft Auto V will become available for pre-order everywhere and fans can expect a host of new information to become available in November."

Paragliding is likely just one of the many activities you can engage in. Grand Theft Auto V (2013)
There is a lot of food for thought there. Calling it "the largest" is a very big deal. San Andreas, possibly my favorite of the series was some 14 square miles - and felt even bigger than that. As a point of reference, Grand Theft Auto IV was less than half that coming in around 6 sq. miles. (FYI: Game worlds are speciality of mine, I plan to do plenty-a-post on the topic.) The presentation in the trailer (below) looks remarkably polished considering the size, but we still need to see actual gameplay before making any bold declarations.

The phrase "from the tops of the mountains to the depths of the ocean" particularly intrigues/excites. Expect base-jumping and and paragliding (as this screenshot proves) but also anticipate scuba diving and, dare I suggest, a submarine of some sort. Now let's not forget the name of the game. There will be a whole city (a take on modern day L.A.) of cars to jack and its denizens to interact with.

I for one am eagerly awaiting the next issue of GameInformer wherein GTA V has received cover treatment...





It was almost a year ago today (November 2, 2011) that Grand Theft Auto V became official with this trailer. We have not received one more shred of video since that time (impressive really when you consider the leak-y digital age we live in) though Rockstar has left fans with baited breath through a released screenshot here and there. You can guarantee myself and the other members of the Crew will keep you posted on this game until (and after) it hits shelves several months from now.

Words by J.S. Lewis

Among the Sleep (Preview)

2013
Windows, Mac

Developed by Krillbite Studios
Published by Krillbite Studios



You might be small, but Among the Sleep promises big thrills.

First, watch the above "gameplay teaser." Creepy yet wonderful, am I right? This was first announced and showcased in May, but I thought it would be a nice time of year to bring it back into the spotlight. Among the Sleep lets players control a two-year child in a survival-horror romp. You may want to read that sentence again. Can't say we've ever seen that before...

Newcomers Krillbite Studios describe the experience with the following:

"In Among the Sleep you take on the role of a young child. You have yet to develop a full sense of reality, making you weak and susceptible to the horrifying creatures inhabiting your nightmares.

One particular night a dramatic event occurs, forcing you to flee from your home and enter a surreal world. Only accompanied by Teddy, you must overcome many hardships to stay alive and find a way home."



Some charming concept art for the game. Among the Sleep (2013)
I don't know about you, but that makes me very interested. I hope Teddy is similar to the one in Steven Spielberg's "A.I." That would make a great companion for a protagonist that cannot speak. If you ever played "Fallout 3" you got a brief taste of playing a baby in a first-person game. (Hell, that one even let us relive our own birth sequence!) Thankfully (for multiple reasons) Krillbite has clarified that this is NOT a first-person shooter. Seeing the world through this character's eyes will undoubtedly amp up the tension. Just look at what the developers behind Amnesia: The Dark Descent were able to do to similar effect.

This teaser is actual gameplay and it is looks adequately terrifying. The house-shaking physics are a very nice touch. Such realism consistently impresses me. Be on the lookout for Among the Sleep sometime next year!

Words by J.S. Lewis

Crew Post: Halloween Recommendations & Scary Games

Concerning Crew Posts

Dear readers, let me introduce you to the very first Crew Post! On Mondays (though not necessarily every Monday) we will publish a post wherein all members of The Crew are invited to give their two cents on the topic or question at hand. One of us will set the affairs up and be the first voice in the discussion to get the ball rolling. They will then pass it on to the rest of the interested crew before deadline time.

Although we hope the dialogue will not end there. We would love to hear what you have to add (or take away) from the conversation. Can you not believe we left out that game or did not mention so-and-so? Do you whole-heartedly agree with Trent, but have a bone to pick with yours truly? Whatever your reaction to the Crew Post (or any post on the site for that matter) we would love to hear about it in the comments below!


Halloween Recommendations & Scary Games

With All Hallow's Eve falling upon us this week I thought it would be fitting to have our first Crew Post relate to this spooky season. It's a popular time for horror films and TV shows, but how does it affect the world of video games? Are there any games you recommend others looking into this Halloween? As a follow-up question, what is the scariest game you have ever played?

J.S.:


At least I can always trick-or-treat in this virtual world... Costume Quest (2010)
Last year I embarked on my Double Fine's Costume Quest, a light RPG that has you playing as a neighborhood kid looking for his kidnapped sibling on Halloween night. I never got around to finishing it (I blame "Skyrim" and "Minecraft"). When October rolled around again I finally committed to finish the experience and it gave me a healthy dose of nostalgia and fun. It would be frowned upon for me to go trick-or-treating at my age, but I believe playing Costume Quest is my next best option. You can look for my review of Costume Quest on Halloween day!

It's always a good time for good (because there are plenty of bad ones) zombie games, but this month I further found myself restarting Dead Rising and purchasing the HD re-release of Resident Evil 4 on Xbox Live. I've played them both in years prior but never got around to beating them. I'm looking forward to spending more time with both of them this week. Also, I have been playing and mostly loving what Telltale Games has been doing (episodically) with their creative use of The Walking Dead license. I have a feeling that game is going to end up on a lot of end-year best-of lists.



A rare instance where someone isn't trying to scare you to death. Condemned: Criminal Origins (2005)
As far as the scariest game(s) I have ever played go, I must mention Condemned: Criminal Origins, which released early in the 360's lifecycle and later appeared on Windows. It may be the closest thing we have to a video game equivalent of David Fincher's Se7en, which you can try to imagine how terrifying some of those situations would be if you were in the detective's worn shoes. The gameplay? Close quarters, darkly lit, never enough ammo, and an artificial intelligence that is both smart and creepy as hell. Sure, the game got a little supernatural, but it is endured since 2005 has a hallmark of horror games.

I still need to dive further into Amnesia: The Dark Descent, but after surviving the demo I am sure it belongs on the table in this discussion. Memories from The SufferingDoom 3 and Fatal Frame II: The Crimson Butterfly are beginning to surface. Oh! And what Silent Hill game was I watching you play Casey that had those babies who really shouldn't be called babies? I better stop. I'm getting scared...


Ritchie:


Launch title for the Gamecube. Luigi's Mansion (2001)

When I think of Halloween I think of spooky scary, but spooky scary doesn't always have to be...spooky scary. Such is the case of Luigi's Mansion. Nintendo wanted to make a parody of the survival horror genre for the soon to be released Gamecube, so they threw Mario's brother into a haunted mansion, gave him a vacuum, and tossed in all sorts of ghouls. It's not a particularly scary game (although Luigi may disagree), but its got ghosts, dark hallways and all that stuff that's normally associated with all things spooky. If you're lookin' for a break from all the terrors and scares, but still want something in the vein of horror definitely give Luigi's Mansion a play-through.

I've played my fair share of terrifying games. I've played the Condemned series, I've played the Fatal Frame series, I've played Amnesia: The Dark Descent; but I don't think any game has spooked me quite as much as Half-Life 2 and its Ravenholm level. 

"We don't go to Ravenholm." Half-Life 2 (2004)
Half-Life 2 isn't a horror game, but when it drops you into this hell hole that all changes. The sun does not shine on Ravenholm. All you have is darkness, zombies, and a feeling of dread. I think what makes it even more unnerving is the fact that Half-Life 2 isn't a horror game. In games like Silent Hill and Condemned you expect the scares, they're your reasons for playing the game. But in Half-Life 2 its forced upon you and all you want is out. So if you get the chance give Ravenholm a visit this Halloween season. I guarantee you'll get more than a hand full of scares.

Casey:

Halloween for me has always been a time for spooks and thrills, and for that means two games in particular: Silent Hill and Resident Evil 3. Yeah, they are old games, but that's exactly what makes them scary. Old graphics and clunky controls gives both games a whole new level of tension!
Silent Hill is one of the scariest games I have ever played. Not only did it traumatize me as a child but it made me a die-hard fan from day one. In the original Silent Hill, you play the character Harry Mason who is on a road trip with his daughter. While driving in the middle of the night he sees an apparition in the road and swerves out of the way, crashing into a nearby cliff side  After being knocked out for several hours, Harry wakes up to find that his daughter is nowhere to be found. Harry finds himself in the nearby town of Silent Hill as be begins his search for his daughter. Little does he know Silent Hill has a nasty secret!

Looks legit, lets go through there! Silent Hill (1999)

Silent Hill is full of disturbing images, challenging puzzles, and grotesque monsters spawned from Harry's personal hell. Anyone who takes the time to play this game is sure to walk away uncomfortable and disturbed for life (this is the game you're thinking of Jared).

Resident Evil 3 follows Jill Valentine who was one of the protagonists in the first game. She holes up in her apartment after zombies begin to attack the city, then she decides to make a run for it. Jill quickly becomes overwhelmed by the hungry horde and runs into a nearby warehouse where she hunkers down for a few more days. This doesn't suit Jill so she waits until the worst is over and attempts to escape the city one more time.

Now this is a classic that's suited more for a thriller/survival horror junkie. It is also the last game feature "old school" Resident Evil game play (fixed camera, shambling zombies, oddly shaped keys for surprisingly normal doors etc.). The best part of this particular game in the series is the monster named Nemesis. Nemesis is a bio weapon designed by Umbrella to hunt the members of a S.W.A.T. team equivalent named S.T.A.R.S.. Throughout the game Nemesis will randomly jump in and chase you down until you defeat him or outsmart him. Every time I play this game, these parts always make my muscles tighten up in suspense!

AGH CRAP!  Resident Evil 3 (1999)

Now this is a classic that's suited more for a thriller/survival horror junkie. It is also the last game feature "old school" Resident Evil game play (fixed camera, shambling zombies, oddly shaped keys for surprisingly normal doors etc.). The best part of this particular game in the series is the monster named Nemesis. Nemesis is a bio weapon designed by Umbrella to hunt the members of a S.W.A.T. team equivalent named S.T.A.R.S.. Throughout the game Nemesis will randomly jump in and chase you down until you defeat him or outsmart him. Every time I play this game, these parts always make my muscles tighten up in suspense!

Josh:

When I was younger, I didn't like scary games at all.  Now though, I can't seem to get enough of them.  Haunting stories and tragic figures make for compelling gameplay. Well, when done right.  Let me suggest some games that do, and some that aren't scary but fit the Halloween spirit.

I must second J.S. in his recommendation of Costume Quest.  I beat it (and the expansion) and must say it is a lot of fun and very..."cute" in a way.  It definitely has the Halloween feel and reminded me of fantasies I had about Halloween as a kid.  The gameplay is also a bit of a throwback to the old turn-based RPG fighting, so you can relive all of your childhood in a single game.  How nice!

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is definitely a freaky game worthy of Halloween.  If you are looking for scares and pulse-pounding survival as you run from monsters and your own insanity, definitely check it out.  It did a great job of keeping me on edge and is very different from most other games in that there is simply no way to fight back against monsters.  You are literally helpless and must run for your life.  The atmosphere is fantastic: gothic, dark, and creepy.  If any game comes close to a Lovecraftian experience, this one definitely does.

If you want to take a more active role in killing the monsters trying to kill you then I heartily recommend Dead Space.  It too has a great atmosphere as you struggle to survive in a space station that is falling apart.  The monsters are also freaky as anything and make you want to shoot at every sound.  Another game recommendation is Alan Wake.  It advertises itself as a psychological thriller, which I agree it is, but it definitely has its horror moments.  I felt palpably afraid each time I had to venture out of the lights and into the woods to progress, knowing that insane "taken" would appear everywhere and try to slaughter me.  The game did a fantastic job of focusing on the theme of light and dark while making it a key component of gameplay.  I consider it one of my favorite games.


And this guy.  Can't forget this guy. Silent Hill 2 (2001)
As great as those games are, scariest game holds no contest for me.  As soon as I played the first 30 minutes of the HD remake of Silent Hill 2, I was tense as I'd ever been.  The game isn't scary because of jump scares or scrambling to survive (although those are present).  It's the atmosphere.  As you walk, you hear footsteps walk with you with no one in site.  You expect a scare, but none comes.  Darkness and fog enshroud the whole town.  Everything looks like it's decaying and withering around you, but simply won't die.  The "residents" are twisted and deformed and set off static on your radio when near.  Everything subtly adds to the game's themes and horror.  The living characters are great too.  I empathized with the main character as he tries to understand how he got a letter from his dead wife, leading him to Silent Hill.  He struggles with his own inner demons while also fleeing the real monsters trying to kill him.  It's scary, it's sad, and it's very good.  If you play, be prepared to be scared.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why Nintendo's All I Need: Racing

I. Love. Nintendo. They’ve always been good to me and I’ve always been good to them. If Microsoft and Sony ceased to exist and I was only left with Nintendo I’d still be a happy gamer. That’s not to say Sony and Microsoft have nothing for me, I’d be missing out on tons of  fantastic games if I only played Nintendo exclusives. But Nintendo has such a large variety of games it’d be difficult to find a type of game they don’t offer.


Which begs the question, does Nintendo have a series for every genre? It seems like each of their IPs was tailor made to cover a certain genre. Think about it (Mario-Platformer, Zelda-Action-adventure, Pokemon-RPG, F-Zero-Racing, Smash Bros.-Fighting, Animal Crossing-Social-sim etc.) Each IP is Nintendo's take on that genre.


In this on-going feature I will be taking a look at each genre and seeing what Nintendo has to offer. This means Nintendo first-party and second-party titles, as well as third-party exclusives. Basically, games you’ll only find on Nintendo’s consoles. This also means I won’t mention games you can find elsewhere. So lets get started, first up:

Racing


Dry Bones tearing it up on Maple Treeway.  Mario Kart Wii (2008)


Mario Kart
I think you knew this one was coming. Why? Because chances are when you think of racing games Mario Kart is one of the first things to pop into your head. I don't wanna say its the best racing series out there, but its probably the most popular. I don't thing its a stretch to say the multiplayer in the Mario Kart series is the most fun (and upsetting) of the entire racing genre. You know what Mario Kart is, you know whether you love it or not, its one of Nintendo's best selling IPs and it isn't going anywhere.

The Captain gettin' awfully close to the speed of sound.  F-Zero GX (2003)


F-Zero

For those who like a little more speed and challenge in their racing Nintendo has F-Zero. The inspiration for Sony's WipeOut series, F-Zero was the first extreme speed racer to hit it big (originating on the SNES). Surprisingly, Nintendo only made the first two F-Zero games and then contracted the rest to other developers, including Sega. But that doesn't mean the quality of the series was shot. In fact many fans, myself included, enjoy Sega's F-Zero GX the most. To this day I have never played a racing game so brutally difficult as F-Zero GX; it's definitely not for players with little patience. It's also worth noting that Nintendo hasn't put out an F-Zero game on their home console since the Gamecube; but with the series making several appearances in the Smash Bros. series and the soon to come Nintendoland, Nintendo has definitely not forgotten about the Blue Falcon.


What a good lookin' title screen.  1080° Avalanche (2003)


1080° Snowboarding
There are three big snowboarding series in the gaming industry: SSX, Amped, and Nintendo's own 1080°. Sure there's only two games in the series, one for the N64 and one for the Gamecube, but man were they fun. The closest thing we get now is the snowboarding portion of Wii Fit. However, there's a solid number of fans who still remember and love the series. Nintendo could easily bring back 1080° and plenty of gamers would eat it right up.

Those wave physics were actually revolutionary for their time.  Waverace 64 (1996)


Waverace
Here's a series suffering the same fate as 1080°. It originated on the Game Boy, hit it huge with the N64, and hit a dead end after the Gamecube, with the nearest equivalent being the jet-ski portion of Wii Sports Resort. But also like 1080°, this series has plenty of fans just waiting for its return. Games involving jet skis are few and far between, and (if I may) if Nintendo rebooted this series it would make quite a... splash.

Excitebike (1984)
Excite Series
This series is a little complicated. The first game, Excitebike, came out for the NES and is one of the most well-known games from that generation. The second, Excitebike 64, was made by a third-party developer and was received even better than the first. The third, Excite Truck, was made by a different third-party developer, Monster Games, for the Wii. From then on Monster Games has made a few more games in the series, including Excitebike: World Rally for WiiWare. Nintendo then gave Monster Games rights to work on the next game in the Pilotwings series, and created Pilotwings Resort. Nintendo also put out a  3D remake of the original Excitebike for the 3DS (put together by yet another third-party developer). With Monster Games working on the Pilotwings series, they may no longer be working the Excite series, so its just unclear where this series is going to go in the future. But one thing's for sure, it's not leaving anytime soon.

Please remember this feature covers Nintendo exclusives only and not third-party games found on other platforms, so if you notice a certain series missing from this list that may be why (otherwise, please let me know).

Words by Ritchie Carpenter

Torchlight II (Review)

September 20, 2012
Windows

Developed by Runic Games

Published by Perfect World


The four heroes: Embermage (top), Engineer (Left), Berserker (Right), Outlander (Bottom). Torchlight II (2012)
Finally, a "loot-fest" that can compete with Diablo.

In the action-RPG market it is very difficult to differentiate one game from another, especially when one of those games is Diablo III. The people over at Runic Games have done just that in spite of it all. Torchlight II establishes it's own identity in an otherwise static genre. 

Torchlight II opens up years after the first game's events. The Alchemist (one of the three heroes from Torchlight), has been corrupted by the Ember Blight coming from the heart of Ordrak, who was the antagonist that destroyed the mining town of Torchlight in the first game. The role of the hero is to follow the Alchemist's trail through the world over the game's three acts and undo the corruption caused by the Ember Blight and eventually overtake him.

Character creation has been very simple in these types of games: Choose a class, gender and a name, then click play! Torchlight II allows the player to choose from four classes: The Embermage, a powerful magic user; The Engineer, a steam powered melee class; The Berserker, an animalistic powerhouse; and The Outlander, a rogue like gun toter. Subsequently the player can customize the appearance of the characters right from the beginning with different faces, hairstyles and hair color. In addition, the player chooses a pet to follow them on their adventures and these vary from a dog or cat to a hawk or ferret. Each level earned awards five attribute points and one skill point which can be allocated however the player wishes. The only drawback is that only the last three skills learned can be refunded to the player for reuse. 

The world of Torchlight is a very colorful, detailed and simple world to behold. The randomly generated maps littered with normal monsters and powerful champion creatures keep the player on their toes as they explore and complete quests. Unlike the first Torchlight, the game takes place on the surface spanning four different themes; calm highlands, snowy mountains, scorching deserts, and dense swamps. Each act has its own hub city where the player can purchase general goods as well as weapons and armor. The game begins to show its genius here with the players pet.

The pet chosen in the character creation can be loaded up with junk and sent to town to sell it all as well as pick up items from a shopping list! On top of this stroke of brilliance, the player can teach the same spells to their pet that they can to themselves, allowing for a whole new level of customization.


The pet tab open with shopping list. Torchlight II (2012)
The pacing the game offers is something that opens itself up to a wider audience. Diablo III offers a painfully slow character progression that feels too "grindy" for a casual player and quickly looses momentum after only a few hours. Torchlight II is much more fast-paced. With levels being gained like candy on Halloween and a specialization system that is very simple. Of course, none of these specializations are skin deep. The hardcore players can create the perfect powerhouses if that's what they want.

The first Torchlight was a lonely experience with its lack of a multiplayer function  After hearing the cries of many fans Runic Games added in multiplayer functionality! Unfortunately, it is difficult to navigate and isn't sure what direction it wanted to take resulting in a less than satisfying experience. During online games the player can basically play the game however they wish. Want to help a friend quest with your level 40 Embermage? Have fun! Want to play solo in a game filled with your friends so you can chat away as you hack and slash away? Go right ahead! It sounds amazing on paper, but the resulting addition is much less something desirable. When trying to play with friends, the open "do whatever" feel that Runic Games is going for leaves the player not sure what to do. In this day and age of action role-playing games Torchlight II lacks the basic functionality that other games like Borderlands 2 and Diablo III spoils us with.


Ugh. What you don't see is that you have to jump through some hurdles to even sign up for online play on top of the horrendous navigation problems of this menu! Torchlight II (2012) 

Overall Torchlight II is a wonderful addition to the action role-playing genre. With some almost ingenious functions and fast paced leveling system, players may find themselves ten hours into the game in what feels like much less. Consequently, as a gamer becoming more and more fond of games I can enjoy with friends, the lack of a solid multiplayer is a bit disappointing.

8.0

Words by Casey "Baby Gorilla" Holt

Thursday, October 25, 2012

NVIDIA 3D Vision Surround, 120hz and 3-Monitor Gaming: One Man's Incredible Journey and Credit Card Bill to Seek the Truth

There is a of confusion (and opinions) around 3D Gaming, 120hz vs 60hz, 16:10 vs 16:9 aspect ratio, and three monitor gaming. Being an avid PC-Gamer and wanting the best possible gaming experience, I put over 3 grand on a credit card to test out these technologies for myself (with almost no intention of keeping them) all to answer the big question: which technologies are worth my (and your) hard-earned cash?

Federal Warning: May cause awesomeness...or bankruptcy. Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2012)

The Setup:

NVIDIA had just released their 3D Vision 2 monitors which were supposed to be a vast improvement over the previous generation. I sincerely wanted to know if this new technology was worth the hefty price tag. I've had a myriad of PC gaming hardware and monitors in my past, and at the time, I still had my beloved 30" HP ZR30w 2560x1600 resolution monitor, but I wasn't sure which was better: one massive monitor or three smaller? I decided to go all the way with three 3D monitors. 

There was no way I could afford all of this hardware, but I wanted to know if it was something I wanted to save up for (and I would have had to save for a very long time) and obviously, it would be ridiculous to drop this chunk of change without actually testing it first, so I did the only thing a sane person would do: I used (maybe abused?) Amazon.com's and Buy.com's very generous return policies to test the hardware. In the end it only cost me $50 in return-shipping, which was well-worth the experience and ability to test it for over a month.

I had a nice gaming rig, but I was still worried my two GTX470's in SLI wouldn't cut it so I bought two EVGA GeForce GTX580 3GB CLASSIFIED's off of Amazon for $1,060 (which anyone could have easily gotten off eBay for much cheaper). I then bought three ASUS VG278H 27" monitors for $700 each off of Buy.com which have NVIDIA's 3D Vision 2 technology.

NVIDIA 3D Vision Discover vs. NVIDIA 3D Vision vs. NVIDIA 3D Vison 2:

And you thought he couldn't get any creepier. Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)

The first 3D technology I ever tried was NVIDIA's 3D Vision Discover which can be used with any monitor and any graphics card past the 8800GT. All it requires is a pair of red/cyan anagylph glasses and the latest graphics drivers. I had NVIDIA's official pair of glasses and was excited to use this as a gauge to see if 3D gaming could work. The problem is that it was painful to look at the screen, it hurt my eyes, it hurt my brain, and most importantly, it did't offer a valid 3D experience. It's a cheap way to get a very sub-par look at 3D gaming but don't make any decisions based on what you see.

I had actually tested out NVIDIA's 3D gaming a year earlier on the Acer GD235HZ 23" which I found on Craigslist. I was very underwhelmed by the technology because 1) it was  23" screen and 2) I couldn't stand how dark the screen was so I ended up selling it back on craigslist a month later (while making a hefty $20 in profit). NVIDIA 3D Vision 2 was a huge improvement, solving the problem with bigger screens, bigger glass lenses and "LightBoost technology" which address any issues regarding brightness. If you choose to do 3D gaming, make sure it is with this second generation technology.

Well, at least you don't look like a total nerd when wearing the glasses...(sigh)

3D Gaming:

Tested Games: Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Left4Dead 2, Battlefield 3, Just Cause 2, Crysis 2, Dragon Age: Origins, Fallout: New Vegas, Mass Effect 2, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Need for Speed: Undercover.

NVIDIA's solution uses Active Shutter Glasses which offers a better 3D experience than Passive (which to be fair, I've never tested). Overall, I really liked gaming in 3D. Some people have complained of eye-strain and there is more eye-strain than regular gaming but I was able to do it for long-enough periods of time as long as everything worked properly. Sometimes UI elements didn't quite work, menus or indicators such as a health bar, text or cross-hairs would appear to float in front of the screen which was very distracting. There some fixes to these problems but it didn't always work perfectly. It was also a lot harder to use scopes, especially when sniping I had to turn off the 3D effect which luckily only takes a click of a button to do.

The point of 3D in my opinion is to add to immersion, and to be fair, it did. There were some moments which would take my breath away and were incredibly enhanced by the 3D effect. I played through the opening of Skyrim thinking that the dragon crashing down would be awesome, and it was, but what made me stop and stare was a banner hanging from the ceiling which I could walk around and view in 3 dimensions. The most-impressive moment in all my testing was in Fallout: New Vegas when I was crouching by a fence post and I could see the barb-wire around the fence in 3D; I kid you not: It was stunning.

The main problem with 3D is that us humans have something called 'sensory adaptation'. If there is a bad smell in the air after a while it will seem to go away, it doesn't, it's just that we've adapted to it and don't notice it any longer. The same principle extends to 3D gaming, I would forget that it was there and it didn't seem to add much beyond not being able to play as long and causing funny visual effects. That's why the 'stop and smell the roses' moments are most memorable. Don't get me wrong, I want 3D, but I want a glasses-free 3D that is as good as Active Shutter 3D at a much cheaper price. Until this occurs, I won't make the leap, and I can't recommend it to anyone else either. It's really something each user needs to try though to make an informed decision, and not just for a few minutes.



1 vs 3 Monitor Gaming:

Even though during my testing I had 3 monitors in 3D, I'm treating these as separate topics as you can purchase three 2D monitors and run them in Eyefinity or Surround just fine. Going from one to three monitors will change your gaming life. Being able to see around you offers a very compelling and immersive experience. Instead of moving the mouse you just glance your eyes over, just as you would in real-life, it also. The bezels don't bother me at all since both NVIDIA and AMD have bezel-correction software which works perfectly. Not all games work out of the box with 3-monitors but luckily there are some very talented people over at wsgf.org (widescreen gaming forum) who have easy-to-use tools and fixes to make most games work.

I ended up selling my 30" monitor and purchasing 3 27" Hanns-G HL272HPB monitors (I chose these as they were cheap and had thin bezels). I bought them on sale and they ended up costing less than a single 27" 3D monitor. I miss the resolution on the 30" monitor, there was a noticeable decrease in detail and clarity, but two more 30" monitors would have been too expensive and required far more GPU horse-power than I could afford. The most important sensory input is sight and it is well worth the investment in this area to get the best possible gaming experience.


120hz vs. 60hz:


Ghosting effect shown above. 3DMark03 (2008)


I've heard the argument that "even if you don't like the 3D, it's worth it for the 120hz." The hz (hertz) here translates directly to Frames Per Second (FPS). Active 3D technology delivers 120 frames per second but only 60 frames per second to each eye. When you turn off the 3D effect this means you can deliver 120 frames to both eyes which should give a smoother experience with less motion-blur or "ghosting" (shown above). This was a great test as I had 2 of the same monitors. I ran the Just Cause 2 benchmarks simultaneously on 2 different machines (I put one of the GTX580's in each and had FRAPS running). One I capped at 60hz and the other at 120hz. I also spent time in a few games playing in 120hz 2D.

When looking at the Benchmarks side by side I could tell a difference, but it was minor. In-game, I didn't notice any significant difference, but there are a lot of gamer's out there who swear they can see a big difference and have a tactical advantage because of it. I'm not doubting them, but I couldn't see a large enough difference.

It's also important to keep in mind that your machines actually has to be powerful enough to produce 120fps, and personally, if it came down to it, I would choose graphic-fidelity over super-high frame rates.



16:10 vs. 16:9 aspect ratio:



The aspect ratio refers to the ratio of horizontal pixels to vertical pixels. The standard monitors have a 16:9 ratio of 1920x1080 or 2560x1444. The standard 16:10 resolutions are 1920x1200 and 2560x1600. From a productivity stand-point 16:10 is much better, those extra 120 or 156 vertical lines do wonders in Microsoft word and side-by-side windows. For gaming it's not a simple answer. A 16:10 monitor has greater PPI (Pixels Per Inch) which is essentially a higher resolution and offers a sharper image but at the expense of narrowing the Field of View (FOV). Here, a picture is worth a thousand words:


Left 16:10, Right 16:9 (Note this is without a FOV fix). Battlefield 2 (2005)

The caveat here is that many games allow you to adjust the FOV. With those that do, you could actually have the best of both worlds with a greater PPI and the same FOV as 16:9.

If you have 3 monitors in it really doesn't matter as your field of view is increased three-fold and the extra space offers virtually no benefit while the 16:10 ratio gives a higher pixel-density. The problem is that they don't make many 1920x1200 monitors anymore as 1080p has become standard and the 2560x1600 monitors are very expensive.


Conclusions:
  • In-person testing is the only real way of knowing what is important to you, if you can test it without paying much for it like I did, do it.
  • 3D: Great but the technology needs to mature and the price needs to go down.
  • 3-monitor gaming: Absolutely worth the investment and minor hassle.
  • 120hz: I couldn't tell enough of a difference but some gamers swear by it.
  • 16:10: Better for productivity and usually for gaming but harder to find and is more expensive.

I can't wait until we have 32" 4k 120hz Passive 3D bezeless monitors, hardware powerful enough to handle it...and me being in a tax-bracket where I could actually afford it. (Heck why stop there, let's have a single 100"48:10 aspect ratio with passive 3D 8k 240hz monitor and curved glass).

Right now though, the holy grail is three 30" 60hz 2560x1600 monitors (various) or three 120hz 27" 2560x1444 monitors (Catleap 2B extreme ~$550 each) which isn't a bad place to be at all.


Words by Trent

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Secret World (Review)

July 3, 2012
Windows

Developed by Funcom

Published by Electronic Arts


The Secret World (2012)
This MMORPG tries something new and largely succeeds.

First, a confession.  I like fantasy and its place in video games.  Great stories and games come from this genre; however, it seems that the massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) market is overcrowded with fantasy style games.  The only other prominent genre is sci-fi  (Star Wars: The Old Republic, Eve Online) but much less so.  So when I heard about a modern day MMORPG, it piqued my interest.

The Secret World is set in modern times but with a twist.  As the tag lines states, "Everything is true" and "Dark days are coming."  Three secret societies (Templars, Illuminati, and Dragons) exert there influence all over the world and each attempts to be the dominant faction.  You, the player, recently came upon some mystical powers and get recruited by one of them depending on which you chose during character creation.  You find out that not only are there secret societies but every legend or myth is true, from werewolves to hidden messages in radio waves.  Alas, all is not well.  An unknown force is assailing the world, opening rifts to hellish dimensions, and the factions must sheath their backstabbing knives for as long as possible and work together in order to confront this new threat from beyond.

The developers did a fantastic job of world-building.  Mystical creatures chat with secret world members in the London markets.  Travel is done through Agartha, the woods between the worlds with giant robotic custodians and a Victorian England-era navigator.  Lore is hidden away everywhere and can be collected to expand your understanding of factions, places, creatures, and everything else.  Although your character is always silent, the voice acting for everyone else is good and believable, keeping you immersed.  Funcom went out of their way to give everyone you can talk to fleshed out personalities, which I greatly respect. 

That flaming portal to Hell?  We should totally go in there.  The Secret World (2012)

Character creation is about on par with modern RPGs.  Clothes, eyes, hair, body and facial structure can all be changed.  Choosing stats and powers come later in what Funcom proudly boasts is its classless based system.  Instead of choosing a class and increasing levels, you gain skill points and ability points.  These points can be assigned how you want to weapons and talismans.  You can wield two weapons at a time ranging from shotguns to swords to chaos magic.  Skills unlock proficiency in a weapon, allowing for more effectiveness in combat, while abilities unlock new moves.  Though there are not classes per se, the standard MMORPG trinity of healer, tank, and DPS is still prevalent, for better or for worse.  Instead of leveling up, increasing your skill allows you to buy higher level weaponry and talismans, with the best stuff only available in the toughest dungeons and lairs. New clothes are also available through purchase, missions, or bonuses.

Each weapon has two tier one subcategories and six tier two subcategories for abilities, allowing for a wide range of gameplay.  Some abilities naturally play off each other better and allow for synergy, which results in a lot of experimentation.  To help, Funcom created decks unique to each faction that are a set of abilities and weapons that compliment each other in some way.  Players can work to unlock these or they can forge their own path and make a more customized character.  It is also possible to unlock every ability, allowing you to experiment however you want.

Choosing a faction doesn't affect the gameplay as much as one would hope.  A few faction related quests are different but otherwise all gameplay is the same.  Instead, the faction you choose sets the tone of the game.  The Templars are traditional, professional, and crusade oriented.  The Illuminati are shadowy, practical, and manipulative.  The Dragons are mysterious, strategic, and mystical.  After completing a mission, you report to your superiors by PDA and they comment on what happened and where it will go.  The responses between the factions are vastly different and help the game feel more immersive, but I wish there had been more story and mission differences among them.

Scarecrows with chainsaws in abandoned carnivals.  Nothing you can't handle. The Secret World (2012)

The missions (or quests) are much more thought-out than in most MMOs.  Some of them are your typical "kill 10 monsters" or "collect 5 items," but even these are spiced up a bit by having monsters be killed in specific ways such as with environmental effects or a special weapon for just that mission.  Missions are separated into seven types with six capable of being active at a time.  There are story, main, side, sabotage, investigative, dungeon, and faction missions each with a unique distinction.  

By far the most interesting and most difficult are the investigative missions.  These require puzzle solving, internet research, and attention to detail.  There is even an in-game browser to assist with research.  I feel that these missions are one of the strongest distinctions between this MMORPG and its counterparts.  The story and main quests are immersive and fun though the main ones can be repetitive.  I was very impressed by the effort that goes into making each mission have a story-driven purpose even if I felt some of those missions were monotonous.

Dungeons, instances in other games, are very well done and keep being fun to play by having three different difficulty levels.  The visuals for the bosses and battlegrounds are impressive, and the stories still take center point.  In addition to dungeons, the highest level players can go to lairs.  Lairs are found in every area and have much more difficult monsters to defeat.  Defeating the right monsters and doing missions within lairs results in blueprints which can be assembled to fight the lair boss.  Defeating enough lair bosses gets you higher level blueprints which allow for regional lair bosses, the ultimate tests in skill.  Funcom worked hard to make sure higher level players would always have something to do.

Don't worry guys, we totally got this. The Secret World (2012)
  Combat is similar to most other MMOs but with a higher importance placed on mobility.  Fourteen different abilities based on your current weapons can be chosen.  Seven of them are active abilities which are moves that you can do.  The other seven are passive abilities which buff you or debuff your opponent in specific ways.  Each active ability has a use time and a recharge time.  Some of the more powerful abilities also require weapon resources, which are built up by using specific weaker abilities.  Unlike most other MMOs, combat is not just clicking your abilities and waiting for them to recharge.  Movement allows the player to dodge many of the more powerful attacks, and when in a group, you can direct the monster to where the group can be most effective.  It's a nice touch to the combat system, but I would have preferred a real time battle system like Fable if possible.

The weakest part of the game is the player vs. player (PVP).  It is only permitted in certain designated areas, the Fight Clubs and the PVP Zone.  Fight clubs are where you go to just, well, fight.  The PVP Zone has three different modes: Capture the Flag, King of the Hill, and Capture Point.  The funnest one is Capture Point which is simply a large map with bases that each faction fights for control of.  This mode can be entered and left whenever you wish and can be quite entertaining when yourself and forty other players rush a small group of five opponents; however, the combat system is much better suited to AI enemies and I really wish PVP could occur anywhere.

Funcom does a good job of putting out regular new content and have committed to putting out new updates every month.  In addition to fixing bugs, they add new missions, new clothing, and even new weapons and abilities.  Most bugs I have run into with missions have been fixed by the subsequent patches.  That doesn't mean everything runs perfectly, but it's nice to see problems found and fixed in a timely manner. I feel it makes the $15 monthly fee worth it because new content is being added monthly or even more regularly.

The Secret World is definitely a must have for anyone who likes secret conspiracies, interesting missions, or just having fun. The world is immersive and the stories are interesting, very important in this kind of game for me.  Despite its weak PVP, I highly recommend it to anyone who likes MMOs and would also recommend it to anyone who doesn't play MMORPGs as a good starting game.


9.0

Words by Josh Matern