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Fallout: New Vegas

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Fallout: New Vegas

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Shock! Horror! I've updated my blog for the first time in over a year. I've a theory that being on twitter has pretty much killed my blog, but I digress...

I recently completed Fallout: New Vegas, spending 50 hours playing (according to Steam). I'd definitely put it up there with my favourite games of all time, despite the well publicised technical flaws. However, my issue with the game is of a different nature. Spoilers inbound!

The ending (or at least the ending I chose) was deeply unsatisfying. In Fallout 3, I chose the sacrificial ending that left my character dead, but with a limitless supply of clean, and most importantly, radiation free water for the whole of the Capital Wasteland. This felt like the right thing to do and was a satisfying end to the narrative as a result.

In New Vegas however, I couldn't resist the lure of the Wild Card ending, whereby I took out the sinister Mr House, destroyed the horrible Caesar's Legion and turned New Vegas into an independent nation. This all sounds awesome, but my dissatifaction came from the treatment of the New California Republic (NCR) the game then forced upon me.

As the leader of a new independent New Vegas, my preference would have been to create a strong alliance with the NCR. I'd played their quest line as far as I could take it without sabotaging the Wild Card ending and was quite happy to work with them, but the game did not offer this as an option (in fact I was humorously surprised, and a little shocked when Yes Man took me literally when I asked him to throw the NCR general off the Hoover Dam). The game forced my hand - my only option was to send the NCR fleeing west again, or to tell my Securitron army to wipe them out, neither of which I wanted to do.

This was surprising to me in a game in which a major feature was the alliances between the various factions. Getting into Nellis Airforce Base and helping the isolationist Boomers onto on my side by floating an old bomber plane from the bottom of Lake Mead led to a Crowning Moment of Awesome when the very same bomber blew the Legion to hell as I was crossing the Hoover Dam in the final battle. I persuaded the Vault 19 Powder Gangers to join up with The Great Khans, who in turn I persuaded to leave the Legion and become independent themselves. Why in this case was there no option to ally with the NCR after my choice to make New Vegas independent?

Perhaps the game's writers were making the point that great power demands a great cost. I became the leader of New Vegas and as a result lost the group of people I'd been helping throughout most of the game. I think I'm going to have to change the canon of my playthrough and do the ending again, but this time play for the NCR. The Dead Money DLC is out on PC in a couple of days, so it's a good excuse to continue with the game.
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Mass Effect

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I seem to be catching up with a few older Xbox 360 games lately, and Mass Effect has been the latest game I have completed.

According to my save game I played for almost 32 hours. I actually think I played for longer than this as I'm not sure whether it includes cumulative time spent dying and retrying sections. Either way, this is pretty long for a single playthrough of a modern game, bucking the recent trend for shorter (and arguably higher quality) experiences. However, in this case there was little lack of quality, and I now consider Mass Effect to be one of my favourite games of all time.

However, that's not to say it's perfect. There's the incredibly far reaching storyline, interesting dialogue, deep characters, fascinating background information in the codex, fun combat and truly significant moral decisions on the plus side, but a lot of annoyances that keep it more than a hair's breadth away from genius. The long elevator rides and poor inventory system (at least on the Xbox 360 version) have been mentioned a lot around the internet, so I won't repeat that here, but I think other problems detract from the experience in more significant ways.

The Mako vehicle has awful handling, especially since I played this game right after Halo 3 with it's fantastic Warthogs. It'll drive up near vertical slopes, but bounces wildly around all over the place going over the shallowest bump. There seems to be a huge amount of autorighting to prevent it from rolling over but this just feels like a physics code hack. It has the ability to do a little rocket powered jump for a couple of seconds but this facility is little more than a novelty. However, the most annoying feature of the Mako is that it's not upgradable, unlike all of the rest of your equipment. I think I ended up with a more powerful shotgun than the Mako's cannon by the end of the game. Also, there was no tutorial for the Mako, so it was purely by accident that I discovered its cannon and zoom features to go with the machine gun.

I also had surround sound problems which made some dialogue hard to hear - particularly when characters started chatting in the lifts. Sound designers for games seem unaware of the golden rules of speech that film and TV follow, which is to almost always keep it on the front speaker channels, rather than treating it as a normal 3D positional sound and panning it round to the back to be drowned out by background noise and music.

On the non-story arc planets, there is a lot of repeated geometry which breaks immersion slightly, though this is forgiveable as to produce unique environments for every single planet in the game would be an immense undertaking.

The difficultly curve occasionally has massive spikes, though for a branching storyline where you can't predict what skills and equipment the player and their team has it's quite impressive that the curve is as flat as it is.

For all these problems, I've been totally absorbed in Mass Effect, playing this game most nights for the last couple of weeks or so, till 1am and beyond (much to the annoyance of my wife - Sorry!).

One other problem remains. I downloaded the Bring Down the Sky DLC and decided to leave it till the end of the game to play. It was released after the game, so I think it's a fair assumption that I would be able to play it with my character after completing the game, but it turns out this isn't the case. I played the game using one save game and my last save would be in a position where I couldn't get back to the galactic map so couldn't go to the system that triggers the DLC. I could start a new game, but that would leave me with a low level character that would make the DLC very difficult. This leads onto another problem...

I'd like to do another playthrough, making totally different decisions along the way (be a renagade!) and specialise in biotics rather than weaponry. However, the press releases for Mass Effect 2 state that the game will use your Mass Effect save game to set up the story, which sounds great, but I'd like it to use my first playthrough as a template as any decisions I made were based to the information available to me at the time, so the consequences are real (or as real as you can get in a game). If the game uses your last playthrough, that's kinda like cheating to me. Therefore I'm leaving my save game well alone until Mass Effect 2 comes out, unless someone can clear up this quandry for me.

Halo 3

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I'm well behind the curve with this, but as I mentioned in my Halo Wars post, I might play Halo 3 if I enjoyed Halo Wars enough. This turned out to be the case.

To start with I found the game surprisingly frustrating. I was playing on easy mode, but it was anything but straightforward. I was killed at least half a dozen times in the first level and found that the available weapons were not really powerful enough to take out the sturdy Covenant Brutes with any level of efficiency, leaving me hiding behind rocks to recharge my shield quite often. This was not the easing into the game I had hoped for.

The second level nearly made me give up entirely. It was a little easier (or perhaps I'd become more used to the style of play required), but this level showed up another major shortcoming in the game design, namely navigation. One mission objective asked me to go to a hangar to clear out some Covenant invaders, but neglected to tell me how to get there. I hung around in the command centre to see if any of the marines hanging around would show me the way, but no help was forthcoming - in fact I kept getting told "Chief, get to the hangar NOW!" After some aimless wandering around, a directional arrow appeared in the HUD which showed me the way. After clearing the hangar, a marine helpfully said "Follow me!" to the next objective. Where was he when I needed him earlier?

Frustrations were put aside on the next level as I got to drive like a lunatic in a Warthog running over the very same guys who had been wiping me out minutes previously. Most satisfying. This reminded me that my favourite bits of the earlier games were the vehicle sections. As Halo 3 progressed, it showed the same pattern of difficult on foot sections, and really cool driving and flying sections where I was kicking bottom! More cool stuff followed, such as taking out a giant Scarab tank.

Overall the difficulty level peaked in odd places throughout the game - the Flood being a particular problem due to their numbers and resistance to the weedy guns I could use. Occasionally I was able to grab a huge plasma cannon for a little while which was fun.

Plot wise the game certainly made more sense than Halo 2, with clear progression throughout. The ending was fairly satisfying, though the post credits "teaser" left things wide open for more (not counting the Halo 2 timeframe Halo:ODST). It would have been nice to have an optional "The story so far..." option to watch at the start of the game though. I occasionally found it tricky to hear what characters were saying over the bombastic soundtrack though - some of us have to play at night without waking up a wife and child!).

Overall, Halo 3 is definitely a game where (for me) the fun bits are the easier sections where you do cool stuff, and the harder stuff is just frustrating rather than challenging. I don't feel much temptation to replay the game on a higher difficulty level (even though most of the achievements can't be unlocked in easy mode, another punishing feature). It just feels like this is a pure hardcore game, which totally goes against its mass market advertising and sales figures. I can imagine a lot of people got fed up on the first couple of levels and gave up with it, which is such a shame for a game with such obvious love and attention spent on it.

Halo Wars

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Long ago, on a giant black and green monolith under my television, I played Halo: Combat Evolved. It was a nice experience with some annoyances. At some point later I played Halo 2 on the same machine (and the same television for that matter). It had the same nice AI and combat, but was even more annoying to play, with a ridiculously overcomplicated story told entirely through glitchy cutscenes - the less said about the abrupt ending the better. I reckoned I would never play a Halo game again after that. I got a free copy of Halo 3 (the special edition no less!) some time ago, and it remains in its box unplayed on my newer, smaller black monolith and much nicer HD television to this day.

However, I recently got a copy of Halo Wars and was intrigued by the idea of an RTS in this universe, especially since Starcraft is my one of my favourite games of all time. A comparison would be interesting.

I popped the disc into my Xbox 360, played a few missions and was suitably impressed. It suffers from the usual unit selection issues of console RTS games - the options more or less boil down to select one or select all in practical use. However, the game has been designed around this limitation - for example, your base and support buildings are all in one location and when the defence turrets are upgraded enough the base can pretty much look after itself while you take all your units off to fight.

I've encountered some pretty cool missions so far - they're pretty varied in their objectives and the pre-rendered cutscenes in between aren't bad either. However one point puzzles me somewhat...

At the risk of a spoiler (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to know!), Halo Wars is set 20 years before the first Halo game. At one point in the new game the Flood arrive on the scene, trying to overrun your forces on an unknown planet. Correct me if I'm wrong, but It's my understanding from the first two FPS games that the Flood were contained centuries ago by the Covenant on the Halo that Master Chief has fun on in the first game. The FPS games make no mention they've been encountered before, so their presence in Halo Wars is erroneous. It feels like the developers simply ignored continuity in order to cram all the races into the game.

As for multiplayer, like all games I've little interest in playing against random people on Xbox Live, so unless some of my friends fancy a game I probably won't play.

Overall, this game works well, and counteracts the control problems inherent in console RTS games rather nicely. Perhaps my copy of Halo 3 will finally make its way to my Xbox 360...

I've recently been playing Portal: Prelude, another fan made mod for Portal. I'm currently about half way through - or I think I'm half way through.  I've played as far as test chamber 9 out of 19, though of course there could be more content afterwards.

However, I'm finding this mod a lot more difficult than the original game. I'm not finding the puzzles particularly difficult to work out - the problem is that I'm lacking the skill to perform the tricks needed. There are a lot of cases where you need to move a portal whilst moving at high speed and it's led me to think that actually the core mechanics of the game need tweaking as it's making the game more difficult than it should be.

The root cause of my problem can be demonstrated quite easily. Just create two portals on the floor and then fall into one of them. If you aim your fall right you will now oscillate up and down through them. When you fall through one of the portals, you emerge upside down from the other one. The problem is that the game will immediately try to turn you the right way up. If you're looking nearly straight up or down, it quickly flicks you the right way up with a slight change in your viewpoint. If you're looking nearer to horizontal then you will be rolled slowly to the right way up over the course of a second or so.

When just falling this isn't too bad, but when it interacts with your ability to aim at things we start to have serious problems. If you're looking vertically, the instant flip reverses your turn direction. If you're looking straight down you'll emerge looking straight up, so mouse movement is now suddenly different. Before you enter the portal you can't look any further down, and then suddenly you can move your viewport down another 180 degrees because it thinks you emerged looking straight up. Also when looking vertically, your turn direction will suddenly reverse. If you are looking down and turn the mouse to the right, the image will appear to rotate anti clockwise, but once you have fallen through the portal and are looking straight up, a mouse movement to the right will result in the view turning clockwise.

If you are looking closer to horizontal when you enter the portal, the situation is even worse as the auto rolling just totally messes up any attempt to aim.

I think that the only reason this isn't a problem in the original game is that the puzzles were deliberately designed to avoid this situation. The only occasion that comes to mind is one part of test chamber 18 where you are "climbing" by falling into successively higher portals, but in that case you have a fairly long fall so you have a couple of seconds to get accustomed to the new viewpoint.

The only way I can think to fix this is to postpone the correcting of your orientation until you have landed on a surface. What do people think?

Portal TFV map pack

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I finished this fan made map pack for Portal last night and found it surprisingly good for an unofficial addon.  It's based upon the 2D flash Portal game by the same team.

It features some rather cunning (though more difficult) level design which makes you think beyond what the original game asks of you.  It's about as long as the original game too, so you certainly get your money's worth which isn't bad for a freebie.  It doesn't quite flow as well as the original game, with spikes in the difficulty here and there, though it's quite a feat to have produced such a high quality experience without Valve's resources.

Worth checking out if you have the PC version of this game.

My eagerly awaited copy of GTA IV arrived at work yesterday.  I'd ordered the special edition which comes in a huge cardboard box containing a metal lockable deposit box.  Inside this is a fabric Rockstar bag, a Rockstar keyring, two keys for the deposit box, a CD of music from the game, a nice art book and of course the game itself.

My introduction to GTA was the third game on PS2.  I loved it at the time.  The first game I'd ever encountered where I could choose between ploughing through missions or just playing in the world.  Simply getting in a car and caning it around the city was fun.  I played it until I finished the main campaign missions, with the climactic battle at the dam.

Vice City had me equally hooked, though I haven't finished it by a long shot (and most probably never will).  Towards the end of my playthrough some of the missions just got too hard and annoying for me to continue with it, but I played enough to open up the entire world (including a great moment where you take over the mansion in the middle island) and had some great times.

San Andreas was where it all went wrong for me.  The main character didn't come across as interesting or likable to me.  In fact none of characters did it for me - they were just a bunch of one dimensional gangsta rap stereotypes.  The "Yo homies" style of dialogue was just laughable for all the wrong reasons.  It was as though they were trying too hard to be "down with the kids".  Also, the PS2 version I played had a really poor framerate.  I didn't bother playing past about 6%.

Back to the last night...  On a busy evening of cycling home from work in heavy rain and visiting a mortgage advisor who likes to talk (a LOT), I managed get a couple of hours of gameplay in on GTA IV.

I was worried the game may be overhyped (Halo 3), but so far this game is a massive return to form for me.  The title sequence is incredibly slick and very quickly you meet some fun and interesting characters.  Without spoiling anything I've done a few missions, been bowling on a date with a slightly creepy woman and generally just pootled around the world taking in the sights.  It hasn't been particularly violent so far either (though that won't stop the Daily Mail/Jack Thompson brigade from asserting otherwise).  The only fighting I've had to do is to protect Niko's cousin from debt collectors.

The attention to detail is incredible, right down to the interference in the car radio when your mobile phone is about to ring.

The only problem I've had so far is that dialogue is sometimes drowned out by background noise or music.  It's probably just a bug in the 5.1 sound mix (other games have had similar problems for me which have been patched), but I've turned on subtitles for now which neatly solves the problem, with the additional bonus of automatically translating to English when characters speak in another language.

Contrived Game Design

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I encountered a completely mad bit of game design in Lost Odyssey last night.  Don't read on if you don't want a (minor) spoiler.

At one point in the game you get locked up in a prison cell.  To get out, one of the characters in your party throws a magic gem at the guard which makes him lose his memory.  You then persuade him to let you out, which he does without much resistance.  Far fetched (why didn't the guard go and ask someone?), but just about plausible.

Then you have a section where you have to sneak past guards and cameras without being seen.  If you get caught you're sent back to the cell, where the amnesiac guard then spots you and says (paraphrasing)

"Oh dear, you seem to have been locked up again, I'll have you out in a sec."

He then lets you out to try the stealth section again, seemingly oblivious to the fact you've just been bundled in the cell by the other guards.  Since I'm rubbish at stealth this happened about four or five times, which just became preposterous.

It totally breaks all immersion when stuff like this happens in games - I'm ignoring the fact that the other two characters in your party disappear when you're exploring the world and then reappear for battles, cut scenes and plot points.

Game designers - STOP IT!!!

Lost: The Video Game

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...or Lost: Via Domus as it appears to be called (poor latin and everything) elsewhere in the world.

Before my foray into the JRPG genre I played the Lost game (with Katherine watching closely as she's into Lost too!).  I hate to say that like most licensed games, it's a simplistic rush job of a game with lots of minor annoyances.  However, it does have a half decent plot to it and fits in with the mythology of the TV series fairly well.

Basically, I wouldn't bother if you're not into Lost, but if you are it's worth a look, though not essential by any means.

Lost Odyssey

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I've utterly rejected the JRPG genre for years, dismissing it as a pointless exercise in grind and random battles, so imagine my surprise (if you will) at finding myself rather addicted to one of them. I was given a copy of Lost Odyssey for free from work (one of the advantages of working in the games industry) and put it into my 360 expecting to tinker about with it for half an hour or so and then never play it again.  In actual fact, it's drawn me in and I'm really enjoying it.  A deep plot (which does take a while to get going), some wonderful writing, great production values and even the random battles are fun as there's a lot of depth and strategy to them. I'm pleasantly shocked and intend to play this one to completion. I'm currently somewhere in disc one of four, so I expect it to take a while.  There are a few niggles, as with everything - it's too sentimental in places, too cheesy in others and the long time between save points is evil in its purest form, but I am finding it difficult to put the game down.  I can heartily recommend this as a good intro to the genre.

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