First Look: Anomaly – Warzone Earth for XBLA

If you’re a PC or mobile gamer, 11 Bit Studios’s Anomaly – Warzone Earth might be old news to you. The game originally came out on PC about a year ago, on iOS last summer and on Android earlier this year. Now it’s finally made it to Xbox Live Arcade and in turn I finally got around to giving it a try.

Anomaly is a tower defense game, inverted. Instead of placing towers to ward off incoming attackers, you control the incoming attackers trying to get past, or take out, fixed emplacements. You’ve got two tiers of control in order to accomplish this.

First there’s a strategic map, accessed any time by hitting the Y button, where you plot your route to your destination. Your troops all follow roads in a single file line (at least in the first half dozen levels that I got through) and at each intersection you determine whether they should turn left, turn right, or go straight through the intersection. You can jump in and out of this map at any time, tweaking the route your troops take in response to battlefield conditions.

Once you’re done on the strategic map, your view changes to a nicely rendered map of the city and you appear on the field as a commander unit. He’s a pretty fast, quite durable unit with no offensive abilities. His job is (minimally) to draw fire, to run around and collect power-ups dropped by air support, and to use these power-ups to help keep your units alive. The three power-ups I’ve encountered are Repair, Smoke and Decoy. Repair forms a short-lived auto-repair circle on the map. Any unit that travels through it gets patched up. Smoke offers limited cover in a section of the map, and Decoy draws fire from all enemies within range (until the decoys are destroyed). There’s a least one more type of power-up that I haven’t uncovered yet. Some kind of Bomb. Yay bombs!

As you travel along the map fighting towers (your units, other than the commander, move and attack autonomously) you’ll also encounter nodules of ore. Destroying those converts them into cash. Cash is used to purchase or upgrade units. You can do that any time by pressing X. You can buy new units, upgrade existing units, sell units, or re-arrange the order of your units. In the 6 missions I played I was exposed to 3 kinds of units: an APC with good armor but mediocre firepower, a crawler with weak armor but good offense and range, and a shield unit that had no offense but placed a shield around the units in front of and behind itself.

As for enemy towers, there are basic machine gun towers, beam towers that you should only take on from the sides or behind (not always easy when you need to factor in the limited choices the road grid offers), Behemoths that are very powerful but slow to aim, and some kind of lightning tower that I haven’t quite figured out yet.

And that’s about it so far in terms of game mechanics. I’m playing through the Story Mode: chunks of an alien space craft have fallen to earth and covered Baghdad and Tokyo in strange domes. What’s going on inside? My military unit has been chosen to go in to investigate, and kick some alien ass at the same time. It’s not an epic tale but it’s enough story to keep your interest and get you to play just one more mission.

The game looks great and plays really well with a controller. It comes with some Xbox-y unlocks like stuff for your Avatar and so forth (I don’t play a ton of XBLA games these days…maybe these are standard features now?) and you get scored on each mission so there’s replayability there as you strive to earn more medals.

Like I said, I’ve only spent a couple hours with the game, so don’t consider this any kind of definitive review, but I had a really good time playing. I’d avoided the game on PC because I was pretty burnt out on Tower Defense, but I was offered a review copy of the XBLA version so I figured I’d give it a shot. I was very pleasantly surprised. Turning the tables and making you the attacker is a nice twist on the genre.

Old hands at the game may be tempted by the 6 Xbox-exclusive ‘tactical trials’ that 11 Bit Studios has created for the XBLA version.

Anomaly – Warzone Earth is 800 Microsoft Points, and of course there’s a free demo available.

The new Xbox, hands-on

Last Monday at their E3 press conference, Microsoft dropped…well, not a bombshell, but a really large firecracker, when they made official the long-rumored “Xbox Slim” and said it was shipping to retailers that same day. I snagged one from Best Buy on Friday and have been dinking around with it on and off since. So far I’m pretty happy.

Now I should put me and Xbox in perspective. My old Xbox 360 was a 20 GB model with a manufacture day of September 2006. It’s my third Xbox. My first Xbox (I was one of the lucky few to get a 360 on Day 1) died without having the decency of RRODing, so I had to pay $100 to get it “fixed.” It took several weeks for MS to get my dead one, replace it and get a refurb back to me. I was not a happy camper. My second Xbox died less than a year later, so my repair warranty was still in effect. That time turn-around was much faster, too.

But generally I haven’t been a huge Xbox 360 fan. Besides reliability issues, my old Xboxes were *loud*. If you have a relatively new model you probably can’t imagine how loud the original units were. With my first two units, I could play the Xbox with full headphones (not earbuds) on and still easily hear the turbine whine of the fan over the game sounds being pumped right into my noggin. It was that loud. You had to raise your voice to be heard over it. Seriously.

The third unit, the one I’m replacing, was a bit quieter but still too loud for me ever to watch Netflix or stream music on the 360.

So, low reliability and super noisy. The third problem I had with the original was that 20 gb hard drive. Back when the system launched that sounded like plenty of space, but for the past year or so I’ve felt extremely constrained on disk space. Of the 20 GB about 5 GB is taken up by the OS (or something). Suffice to say that if I wanted to download a new demo, I’d have to go and delete something else, and installing games to disk and Games on Demand were out of the question. The recent addition of USB support did help that some. A 16 GB USB stick pretty much doubled my usable space.

OK enough bitching about the old Xbox, let’s talk about this shiny new black model. The cost is the same as the old Xbox ($300 US) but it does come with built-in WiFi. Not a feature I’ll put to use since my entertainment center has wired internet access, but for a lot of people it’ll be a nice perk. A 250 GB hard drive feels enormous to me. (We’ll see how long that lasts!) When Kinect comes out, the new Xbox has a dedicated port for it that’ll supply power as well as data transfer to Kinect (not that I’m all that interested in Kinect at this point). 2 USB ports on the front, 3 on the back, so plenty of room for expansion.

What’s missing? Well, some of the bulk, for one thing. But this isn’t really an Xbox Slim in the same way that Sony drastically reduced the size of the PS3 with the PS3 Slim. The new Xbox is smaller but not radically smaller. Sites with whiz-bang electro-tools say this new one uses significantly less power than the old one, which is nothing but good news.

One other thing missing that MS is downplaying are ports for the old-style Microsoft Memory Units. If you’re upgrading and have data on one of those, you’ll need to transfer that data to a USB stick on your old Xbox before swapping in the new Xbox. That’s not a big deal unless you get home ready to play and find out about it. USB sticks are dirt cheap these days so just be sure to pick one up when you’re buying your Xbox. Also there’s no HDMI cable in the box, but I think MS stopped supplying those a while ago. They do include a proprietary composite cable; if you need component cables those made for the old 360 will work (thanks to JD at XBoxSupport for confirming this). The new Xbox has a separate optical audio port, thank goodness. For my set up, I used HDMI for video and optical audio (ancient receiver w/no HDMI ports) so I don’t need to use the proprietary cables at all.

One benefit of my tiny 20 GB hard drive is that I didn’t need a MS Transfer Kit to move into the new Xbox; I just used a USB stick. It was a bit slow but otherwise worked like a charm. I couldn’t transfer some saves from original Xbox games; I’m not even sure what the status of backwards compatibility is. Those saves were years old and I won’t miss them.

So now we’ve got this puppy all powered up (and how come swapping 1 component of your home theater always turns into a bigger project of tweaking everything else) what’s the experience like?

Well, it’s an Xbox. There’re no new revelations, really. Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. When a disk is spinning, you can definitely hear it. It isn’t really whisper quiet, and in my case the noise, which is a low-frequency hum, really drives me batty. That’s a very personal observation. I’m just bothered by this type of sound; it gives me a headache. Y’know how some people are really bothered by fingernails on a chalkboard? Low-frequency hums do that to me. Angela doesn’t even notice it, and when I pointed it out to her she could hear it but it didn’t really bother her at all. If this kind of noise bothers you, you already know it and should be aware of the issue. If you’re wondering what the heck I’m going on about, just ignore this paragraph. 🙂

So far that’s the extent of the bad news, and with that big fat 250 GB hard drive it isn’t bothering me much, because my intent is to install all my games to the hard drive anyway. That way the Xbox just has to poll the drive to make sure the disk is there and then we’re back to silent running. Because when the drive isn’t spinning, the new Xbox *is* whisper quiet, and that has completely changed the Xbox experience for me. I find myself watching videos and poking around in the dashboard looking for things to watch. I’ll probably start using Netflix on the Xbox more now, just for the pseudo-social aspects of it (in our house we have approximate 523 devices that will stream Netflix…ok I exaggerate, but we have a Roku, 2 PS3s, the Wii, 2 iPads, all the computers plus the Xbox 360, all of which can stream Netflix. Before now the Roku was my #1 source).

Game demos? Load me up. Games on Demand? I’m downloading my first one as I type this. Who knows, I might even dabble in the Zune Marketplace to see how their 1080P content looks (generally I’m an Amazon Video-on-Demand/Roku guy, but that tops out at 720P).

Oh, and it’s worth noting that hardware-geek sites say the new Xbox loads games faster. I don’t really have a way to measure that, so I’ll take their word for it.

All in all, I’m very pleased with the new Xbox 360 so far. My one concern is whether it’ll have any reliability issues; so far I haven’t heard anything negative along those lines (and my guess is that MS went above and beyond the call of duty in insuring they don’t have a repeat of the RROD fiasco).

[UPDATE: Kotaku has a post showing a new Xbox shutting down due to over-heating. This is a good sign (at least in theory): if the system gets too hot it shuts itself down before (hopefully!) any permanent damage is done.]

So should you get one? If you’re like me and have a launch Xbox 360 with a jet turbine for a fan, then I’d say yes, it’s definitely worth it. Otherwise, if you’re considering an upgrade, it’s probably a safe bet that waiting for the fall will get you a better deal; there’s bound to be some kind of Xbox + Game bundles around the holidays, and if you’re interested in Kinect then for sure there’ll be Xbox + Kinect bundles.

Remember at the end of the day it’s still an Xbox 360. Quieter and with a nice big hard drive, but it’s not a radical change. It’s just a nice solid evolution on the Xbox 360 design. For me, I got HDMI, peace and quiet and lots more drive space so I’m very pleased with the unit so far.

Blur multiplayer first impressions

A week or so back I got an invite to a “secret Xbox beta” via Fileplanet. Turns out it was for Bizarre Creation’s Blur, the upcoming combat-racing game. I’ve spent the last few evenings playing and I’m surprised at how much fun I’m having in a multiplayer XBox Live game with a bunch of strangers (the beta is mp only).

Starting Monday, March 8th, the beta will open to a much bigger group of testers. You can get keys from a raft of different gaming blogs if you’re quick. They seem to run out fast once they put them up for grabs. Snag one if you can and if you have any interest at all in arcade racing.

So when you start the beta, you’re a level 1 racer with access to two lobbies. One of them is for races of 2-10 players and the other is for races of 4-20 players. The second one has been more or less deserted and there may be other differences besides number of players; different tracks perhaps? I’ve only been in there once (the beta is really small…last night when I was playing, there were 30 players logged into the beta, all of them in Lobby 1).

So you get into this lobby. As a level 1 racer you start with a couple of basic cars. Cars (all licensed, by the way) are divided in classes, A-D. IIRC you started with 1 class D and 1 class C car. Once the prior race is finished there’s a short voting session where players vote for which of two tracks to race on. Each track will allow a specific class of car.

After the voting there’s a 30 second countdown to the race; it’ll feel too long for you at level 1, but later you’ll use this time to switch out cars and mods. At level 1 you have no choices so just sit tight. Soon enough you’re transported to the track.

The actual racing is (so far at least) all done on tracks with several routes/shortcuts on them. There’re various power-ups scattered around. Shields, mines, missiles and the like. These all feel pretty good and many of them can be fired forward or backward. Honestly the racing feels a lot like a cart-racer with a more grown-up ambiance. As I said, cars are licensed and realistic looking. The driving model feels slightly more realistic than that of a cart racer but it is still very drifty with an emphasis on accessibility; this is not a racing sim!

Hitting other players with weapons tends to slow them down or turn them around. Each car has a health-bar and if you get hit too many times you’ll wreck. Wrecking just means you lose a couple seconds before you respawn. There are “Repair” powerups that will replenish your car’s “health.” Rather than having a “rubber band” effect in the game, there’s a lightning powerup that will drop columns of lightning in front of the race leaders, no matter where you are when you trigger it. If the leaders can’t avoid these it’ll slow them down and let the pack catch up. It’s a nice ‘fair’ mechanic aimed at keeping races tense.

The overall goal of the game is to gain Fans. Fans are the “experience points” of Blur. You get Fans from placing in the race, but you can also get them from hitting other players with weapons, clean laps, good drifting and a host of other things. If you’ve played Project Gotham Racing, swap in “Fans” for “Kudos” and you’ll get the idea.

After the race, you’ll learn how many Fans you’ve earned and see how far you’ve gone towards the next racing level. Then it’s back to the lobby to vote on the next track.

It won’t take you many races to level. In two nights (maybe two hours of playing) I’ve reached level 7. The beta has a cap of level 15 but the full game will go to 50. It looks like things slow down past 10. I’ve seen a lot of level 10 racers and not many beyond that.

What makes Blur so fun is that progress-quest itch that you can keep scratching. At level 1 you have a beginner car and beginner player skills. Chances of you placing in a race are pretty slim. But you can still earn a lot of Fans by driving well. I think it took me 2 races to get to level 2.

As you gain levels you’ll earn new cars with better capabilities and more advanced handling models. These are, in theory, harder to drive but much more competitive. Ideally you’ll match car to track… if a track has a lot of dirt you might take a car that’s build for off-road racing… somethink like an SUV. If that track is really twisty you might favor handling and acceleration over top-end speed. Only by learning the tracks will you be able to determine what car to use on which track.

After a few more levels you’ll unlock Mods. Mods come in sets of three and they tweak various things. Some mods give you a power-up at the start of the race. Some let you earn more Fans for good driving. Some improve defense and others improve offense. Sometimes you have to compromise since you can’t mix and match individual Mods; they all come 3-to-a-set.

It looks like the cars themselves can eventually be tweaked/upgraded but I haven’t got that far yet.

Blur feels pretty simple when you start playing it, and honestly it never gets overly complex, but as you learn the tracks and the power-ups you start picking up nuances to the gameplay. Just as an example, there’s a Shunt powerup that fires a relatively slow moving homing ‘missile’ at a player. If you’re targeted there’s a flashing indicator to let you know. You can try to out drive the Shunt by janking around a corner or something, or you can drive straight, let it get almost to you and drop a powerup, or fire one backwards, either of which will negate the Shunt. There’s a powerup that “pulses” around your car, pushing everyone away from you (and probably into an obstalce). The counter to a pulse is popping a Shield powerup. And if you have a Shield and the right mod equipped, the energy from the “pulse” gets turned into something beneficial to you; maybe a weapon that you can immediately fire at the dude who tried to Pulse you.

The game looks great, feels really fun to play, and seems like it’ll have enough “leveling up” to keep players occupied for a good while. Getting into a race is fast and earning Fans always leads to “One more race” syndrome as you try to hit the next milestone. (There are also Challenges to work towards, like “Shunt 50 players” or what-have-you. I haven’t earned any of these yet so not sure what you gain from completing them.)

I had zero interest in Blur and had I known this was what the secret beta was, I never would’ve applied for it. But once I was in it, I figured I should give it a try. Now I find myself budgeting money for the game when it comes out. It’s that fun.

As to other players, I don’t even have a headset hooked up to my XBox. So though I saw the ‘talking’ icons lighting up, I never heard anyone talking (maybe that’s a setting…not sure) and there’s really no reason you’d need to talk to other players. On XBox Live, that’s a huge selling point for me. OTOH, getting a group of friends together to chat and race would be awesome fun, because Blur is full of “Oh sh*t did you SEE THAT!!?” moments as racers pull off awesome moves or narrowly escape terrific crashes.

Here’s a rather long “quick look” from Giant Bomb:

Brutal Legend Single Player review

This afternoon I finished Brutal Legend’s single player campaign, and figured that was enough to do a review.

By now you undoubtedly know the background. Tim Schafer game, voiced by Jack Black and a bunch of great heavy metal musicians. The game world is like a death metal album cover come to life, all chains and giant bones and piles of skulls.

So rule #1: If you hate metal music, stay away from this game. There’s a lot of it both in terms of actual music and in the imagery. You’re going to get sick of the game really fast if metal isn’t your thing. This is a world where wasp-waisted, large boobed blonde chicks with feathered Farrah Fawcett hair get their weapons by ripping the skull and spine out of boars with razor (literally) tusks and wheels instead of hooves. (These “razor girls” are your basic ranged troops.)

The actual gameplay consists of mediocre third person action sequences, mediocre driving sequences, and kind of annoying RTS sequences. Now that sounds pretty damning, but all these gameplay sequences work to tell a pretty interesting, well executed story.

Eddie Riggs (Jack Black) is a roadie born into the wrong time. During a stage accident, his blood drips onto a demonic belt buckle his father gave him, transporting him to a world of metal where the few remaining humans are enslaved by a demon (wonderfully voice acted by Tim Curry). Early on, Eddie encounters Ophelia (Jennifer Hale), a metal/goth chick who leads him back to a band of free humans. Eddie then finds himself helping Lars (Zach Hanks), the blond-haired, open-shirted leader of the resistance, in his fight to free his enslaved people.

Brutal Legend is an open-world game with lots of side-missions that you can take whenever you feel the need to gain a bit more power before moving the main story forward. You gain currency for completing missions and sometimes just for killing enemies in the open world (I never quite figured out what conditions were required for you to get credit for open world kills). There’s also lots of stuff to “collect” (dragon statues to unchain, relics to uncover, sights to see, and so forth). Some of these improve your character, some just unlock new songs for the stereo in your car, and some just seem to be there for the purpose of Achievements/Trophies. It can be fun just cruising around exploring the world and finding these hidden items, though.

The other way of improving your character is to head down to hell to the Motorlodge there, where Ozzie Osborne lends his voice and likeness to the God of Metal. He’ll sell you weapon and car upgrades. Some of these are ‘toggles’. So your axe can have a fire attack, or a lightning attack, or a soul sucking attack…but not more than one of these, and you have to head back underground if you want to switch from one to the other, even after you’ve purchased several.

Eddie’s axe is used for melee and Clementine, his guitar, is used for ranged attacks. There’s a bunch of combos you can unlock, but I had trouble pulling them off and wound up button-mashing through most of the game. Clementine will ‘overheat’ if you use it too much and you’ll need to let it cool off (a gimmick to keep it from being too powerful), but the 3rd person action stuff really never gets too difficult on the ‘Normal’ difficulty setting.

When it comes to driving, the “Deuce” is a pretty neat vehicle that you can upgrade to have rockets and mines and all sorts of stuff. I finished the game with basic machine guns and extra armor. Even though the Deuce looks like an open-topped coupe, it steers kind of like a tank, which makes the driving parts a bit more frustrating than they should be, but just cruising around for the hell of it, trying to jump through clouds of fireflies (for some easy $$) is pleasing enough.

After you’ve gotten a ways into the game, you end up building a stage and start to put on shows. This is the RTS portion of the game, and it is by far the weakest of the three aspects of gameplay. The stage is your headquarters, and there are ‘fan geysers’ scattered around the landscape and to draw in these fans you have to build a merch booth on top of them. Then you spend fans to build or upgrade troops. Neat motif but this is gameplay you’ve seen dozens of times. What makes it really clunky is that Eddie has to be near a squad of troops to give them orders (the exception being a “Rally to me” command that draws all troops to your present location). Eddie, after a few missions, learns to fly during these stages so you can take to the air and scoot back and forth pretty quickly, but it never felt natural to me and I always felt like I was fighting the controls. On the plus side, Eddie can (and should) mix it up with the troops to tip the scales in favor of the good guys. He can cast buffing spells or directly attack the enemy. He can even do combo attacks with every troop unit and these are often both silly and powerful.

Clearly a lot of work went into the RTS portion of the game, but I still feel that Brutal Legend would’ve been a stronger title if those resources had gone into polishing the 3rd person combat and driving sequences. What’s really curious is that the somewhat weak other two aspects would probably be fine for a casual gamer who is a fan of metal, but the RTS stuff is going to be pretty unfriendly to that same casual gamer.

In the end, I have to say I enjoyed Brutal Legend, but that was based on the devotion to the metal theme and a pretty good story. Top notch, really fun voice acting added to the experience as well. The great production value extended even to the ‘menu’ system: the game boots into a video of Jack Black escorting the player into a used record store, where he presents an album that winds up being the menu interface. Neat touch. Another feature that stands out is the hint system, where Eddie offers hints that at first aren’t even recognizable as hints, but eventually get more and more specific until he tells you exactly what to do.

But this is one of those games where you play through the missions mostly to get to the next story segment; to see what happens next. The actual gameplay is pretty forgettable, and that’s a shame because it provides very little incentive to replay. And the game is fairly short. It doesn’t track your time but it certainly wasn’t more than 10 hours and was probably closer to 8.

Multiplayer is all about the RTS game, which I found more frustrating than fun, so I can’t see doing much of that. But generally speaking I’m not very interested in competitive multiplayer games so I’d suggest you check some other reviews for opinions on the MP here.

If Double Fine had lavished the same attention to the gameplay that they did to the art and sound, this might have been a very special game. As it is, definitely worth a rental or scooping up out of the bargain bin, but not worth buying at the $60 price point. While the story doesn’t end with a cliffhanger, there are definitely some hooks there for a sequel, and I’d look forward to seeing what a second iteration of the IP played like.

Super quick look at Brutal Legend

So the hype for Brutal Legend was kind of off the charts running up to release, but suspiciously enough, there was a review embargo up right until launch day. That’s generally a bad sign.

And now that the embargo is lifted, reviews seem kind of mixed. Tom Chick at Fidgit loves the game, whereas Ars says it is “more opening band than headliner.” The metacritic score is hovering around 84 last time I looked, which is good, not great.

Everyone seems to think the voice talent is great and the theme of the game is a lot of fun, but where opinions diverge is in the actual gameplay and polish. I got the game yesterday and put in a couple of hours and thought I’d just share my very early experience. I opted for the Xbox 360 version since I knew Uncharted 2 was going to live in the PS3 for the next few weeks (and I’m too lazy to get up and switch disks)!

So let’s get the bad stuff out of the way. The game locked up tight on me once; I had to power down the Xbox manually — the controller had become unresponsive. This was early in the game, during the same content we played through in the demo. It only happened once, but it was still cause for concern. My only other real gripe is that the special moves that include another character seem finicky as heck. I just can’t seem to pull them off reliably and since they’re a 1 button press move, that shouldn’t be the case. I’ll also agree with Ars that, at least early in the game, friendlies and enemies look very similar, particularly in a big melee. Happily Clementine (protagonist Eddie Rigg’s guitar and ranged weapon) will happily auto-target bad guys for you.

Now some of the good stuff. I’ll join in on the love fest around the voice talent and the heavy metal theme. The music is awesome, of course, and even though I knew it was coming I still grinned ear-to-ear the first time Ozzie Osborne manifested in front of me and started a mumbling tirade. Very funny stuff. The world is weird and wonderful, too. Just roaming around finding things is a lot of fun. The hint system is brilliant, done via audio snippets of Eddie ‘thinking to himself.’ In fact at first you’ll think a hint is just random banter but the longer you remain stumped by something, the more explicitly hint-like this banter becomes, until Eddie just flat-out tells you what you need to do. It’s a nice system to keep things rolling along.

After a couple of hours playing I had to stop for the night and I was a bit disappointed to see my game was 14% complete already, so it seems the storyline isn’t very long. I’m told you can keep playing/collecting past the end of the main mission sequence. There’s also a multiplayer mode that I haven’t tried yet (I’ve heard it can spoil the plotline of the single player campaign so I’m going to hold off…multiplayer isn’t generally my thing anyway).

So my very early feeling is that this is a good game. I don’t think it’ll end up being Game of the Year material or anything like that. I’m glad I picked it up, but I’m equally glad that Amazon was giving a $10 gift coupon with the pre-order. $50 feels like a better price for this game than $60 does and probably it’s rental material. Put it this way, I’m looking forward to playing more tonight, but it isn’t the kind of game I can’t get out of my head.

I’ll check back in after I’ve got 8-10 hours in and report how things are going then.

Halo ODST Single Player Campaign Review (Xbox 360)

Halo is a unique IP in that it has bridged the gap between two generations of console gaming. The original Halo was primarily a single player game with a compelling narrative that drew players in and helped the game become a huge hit. Then XBox Live arrived, and with it, the beginning of the end of quality single player narrative FPS experiences on the platform. Halo 2 had a decent single player campaign (albeit with a maddening cliff-hanger ending) but its multiplayer component is what drove its success. Halo 3, the first Halo title on the XBox 360, was primarily a multiplayer game with a completely forgettable single player campaign (I’m speaking literally…I can’t even remember what happened in Halo 3).

So now we have Halo ODST, a kind of side-story thrown together in 14 months, using the Halo 3 engine. A game that never would’ve happened if the Peter Jackson Halo project and its accompanying games hadn’t imploded before getting off the ground.

So what does Halo ODST have to offer for those of us who still prefer narrative-driven, single player gaming? Not too much, really. The story revolves around The Rookie, an ODST (it stands for Oribital Drop Ship Trooper) grunt who gets separated from his squad during his first drop. The story takes place in New Mombasa (which, you’ll recall, is pretty much a smoking crater in Halo 3). The goal is basically just to re-unite with your squad. As The Rookie runs around the city, fighting Covenant and scrounging for health packs and ammo, he’ll find items that will cause him to, erm, psychically link to other squad members. I jest, but I don’t really know what the plot device is called here. You target an item…maybe a gun, or a busted turret, or a piece of scorched shielding, and you get transported into the body of one of the other squad members to play through his part of the story.

It’s an interesting way of telling a story…if there was a story to tell. But the plot is so shallow, and all the troopers you control so similar, that it all kind of fizzles. Essentially one member of the jump team, a woman named Dare (voiced by Trisha Helfer of Battlestar Gallactica fame) seems to be working for some black ops group or something. She changes the drop target at the last minute, causing all this chaos. Your squad leader, and Dare’s boy-toy, is Buck (voiced by Nathan Fillion of Firefly/Serenity, and more recently Castle). Buck is trying to find Dare, while the rest of the squad is trying to find each other. And Dare is trying to find something or someone else (avoiding spoilers here).

The actual gameplay is classic Halo stuff. You’re not Master Chief so you don’t have regenerating health or shields, but you do have “stamina” which is essentially a shield, and which regenerates. To restore your health you’ll have to find health packs. New Mombasa must have been a dangerous place even before the covenant since there’s an auto-hospital unit on just about every corner, from which you can get healed up.

So you run around the city, generally following a way point, until you find an item that lets you jump into another squad member’s body, and then you play through his story, then jump back to The Rookie, and repeat. The last 20% of the game or so is all Rookie stuff and just as the story finally starts to at least feel cohesive and’s over. For the most part you’ll be using weapons taken from the Covenant, and ammo is a constant issue forcing you to swap out a new weapon every few minutes. This is also why jumping into another squad member’s body feels so pointless. Sure, these guys each has a specialty (sniper rifle, heavy weapon, or whatever) but the ammo for their special weapon will quickly run out after which he’ll be scrounging the same Covenant weapons all the other characters wind up using.

Essentially there’s not a thing new here, including the engine, which is either starting to show its age or just always did a crappy job rendering faces (Master Chief never took his helmet off, after all). For the character of Buck they’ve digitally painted Fillion’s face onto the ploygons and it looks creepy as hell. Dare’s character is equally creepy though not a map of Helfer’s face. This is the ugliest you’ll ever see Ms. Helfer.

The voice work is good, and the team let Buck be Fillion — if you’re a fan of Nathan Fillion you’ll know what I mean. He even works a “Bam, said the lady!” into his voice work. Firefly fans might also recognize Alan Tudyk & Adam Baldwin (Wash & Jayne, respectively) voicing Mickey & Dutch.

So we have great voice talent…but they just don’t have a story to tell us, really. Such a shame.

The one bright spot in the campaign is the story of Sadie, a woman trying to get into New Mombasa while everyone else is trying to get out. We never meet Sadie face-to-face. Instead her story is told via “audio drops” that The Rookie gets from pay phones as he runs around New Mombasa. Sadie’s father created The Superintendent — the AI construct that controls New Mombasa. For reasons unclear to me, Sadie wants to get back to The Superintendent.

I’m sad to say, I didn’t find all the drops, so I don’t know how Sadie’s story ends. That’s the one incentive I have for going back to replay the game. If the main story had been as intriguing as this hidden audio tale, Halo ODST would’ve been a much stronger title. BTW, VentureBeat has a great article up on how this story came about — well worth a read.

Bottom line, if you’re like me and love strong narrative in your single player games…don’t buy Halo ODST. If you’re a Halo junkie then the game is probably worth renting (it isn’t very long) just so you can say you played it. It might even be worth a rental if you’re a huge Nathan Fillion fan.

At this point, maybe it’s time for Bungie to just make pure multiplayer games and drop the lackluster single-player stuff all together. There’s no way this campaign is worth $60, and Halo 3’s wasn’t, either. Better to skip it than do it half-assed, Bungie. How about doing the right thing for your fans and making Halo: Reach a $40 multiplayer-only title?

Could Natal be Microsoft’s 32x?

Engadget ran a post today quoting EA VP Patrick Soderlund as saying “…we’ve maxed out the 360…” Now obviously this is a statement open to all kinds of debate/interpretation, but for the sake of this post, let’s assume this is true and that developers have squeezed all they can out of the 360.

We know that Project Natal requires more CPU cycles than the Xbox 360 can muster (while still running games) so it needs a separate processor. At E3 this took the form (as I understand it) of a fairly typical PC stashed under the table. The final product will apparently come with the sensor and a box of some kind that’ll hold the hardware required to drive Natal.

So what happens when Natal is idling? That processor is sitting there doing nothing. But does it have to be that way? If the interface between Natal and the Xbox is fast enough to act as an input device, is there a way for the XBox to offload some of its slower processes to Natal? Could Natal act as an off-board brain for the 360, extending its life by a few years?

Sega tried this with the 32X years ago — an add-on to the Sega Genesis that never really caught on. But it didn’t have Milo pushing it into homes.

This is just pie-in-the-sky thinking on my part, and I don’t know if any of the processing going on inside the 360 is time-insensitive enough that you could offload it through a USB cable to an external device. But it’d be a nice ‘bonus’ to adopting Natal — getting a speed boost as well as motion controls.

Motion Controller Wars

So now that all three of the major console makers have some kind of motion controller system, I figured I’d stick my oar in and give my thoughts on what each platform offers. Major caveat: I’m not at E3. I’m basing all the following on what I’ve read, and building on the hard work the professional gaming press is doing in LA.

Nintendo (Existing):
When the Nintendo Wii initially came out, it offered 2 weeks of great fun followed by a period of “This is it?” for a lot of early adopters. Playing Wii Sports was awesome, but once that was out of the way, a long procession of games with ‘forced waggle’ followed, and many gamers quickly tired of randomly shaking the controller in order to accomplish anything.

Eventually the waggle-wave cooled a bit, and games started coming out that used motion control where it fit in naturally (e.g. pointing, or a quick flip to reload a gun), and standard controls for the rest of the game. Suddenly the Wii was interesting again, and I actually grew fond of the nunchuk/remote combo for controlling games. Having the controller essentially broken into two halves made gaming very comfortable.

Nintendo (Wii Motion Plus):
Next week, the Wii Motion Plus comes out. This is supposed to add more precision and 1-to-1 correspondence between controller and on-screen presentation. This means we’ll have to get up off the couch again. When Tiger Woods 10 is played with the Wii Motion Plus, you’ll have to actually do a full swing of the virtual club, rather than a quick pendulum motion with the WiiMote. At least, that’s my understanding. Hopefully the Wii Motion Plus won’t set back the state of Wii games by very much.

At this point, the Wii is essentially the ‘base line’ of motion controllers. Both Sony and Microsoft seem to be leap-frogging Nintendo in the motion controller arena.

Microsoft and Project Natal:
Microsoft really wowed audiences with its controller-free motion control system. A sensor bar consisting of an IR camera, an RGB camera, and a microphone sits in front of (or on top of) the TV and reads the movements of players. The IR camera actually measures heat, and via heat, distance from the TV. The microphone is for voice commands.

Folks who’ve tried the system say it really works. The neatest demo I saw was a version of Burnout hacked so that the player steered just by holding his arms out as if they were on a steering wheel. When they turn the imaginary wheel, the car turns. Sliding their foot forward and back controlled acceleration. Very neat tech demo.

But I have some concerns. First of all, how well is this going to work when I’m wearing a checkered shirt and standing in front of a paisley-print couch? [Update: After pondering this for a while, it occurred to me that this might not be an issue, given the IR camera. It could use the heat of you body to tell the difference between you and the couch.] The demos were done in an empty room with white walls. Apparently the system can adjust for lighting differences, so they have that much licked.

Assuming the tech works, is this what we really want? If you have a choice of playing air guitar Rock Band, or fake-instrument Rock Band, which would be more fun? Props are important; they give play a visceral feel. I find it ironic that when the PS3 came out with a controller that lacked rumble, they were heavily criticized for losing that feedback. But now Microsoft has a system that by definition has no feedback at all, and everyone is going nuts for it. Nintendo’s Wii Remote has rumble and a microphone and these aspects really add to the immersion. When you wallop a tennis ball with the Wii Remote, you hear and feel the impact of the racket hitting the ball. You won’t get that kind of feedback with Natal, nor is it clear how you’d move around using Natal. How do you get your on-screen character to run, turn (without you turning so you can no longer see the screen) or fire a gun?

So I think Natal will spawn a new genre of games that take advantage of the hands-free control system. But where I think Natal will have the largest impact is with the overall UI of the Xbox. The idea of never having to search for the remote is very appealing. I wave my hand to browser through video or music selections, then I say “Play” to begin playback. Now *that* is both radical and useful, and I’d really love to see MS license Natal to other consumer electronics manufacturers.

And then there’s Milo. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in Milo. The demo was a heavily scripted event (Molyneux himself apparently admitted that) that made the demo seem more than it was. One of the most interesting aspect of Milo was the facial recognition. A person could stand in front of the Natal sensor and say his name, then when he returned, ‘Milo’ could identify who the person was. That’s pretty neat. The bit where the player splashed around in the water wasn’t anything new: the Sony Eyetoy has been able to do that for a while (granted the fidelity was better here). The conversation stuff was the most scripted…apparently Milo ‘understood’ just a few questions: this is understandable. If Milo worked as well as he *seemed* to work (without tricks) then he’d be about as smart as the voice actuated and controlled computer on Star Trek, and we just aren’t there yet.

But what was really, really cool about Milo was the head tracking. As you walked around the room, the view on-screen changed to reflect how you’d see the virtual world from that new location. This is really huge because it allows some very cool ‘virtual 3D’ effects; I can’t wait for MS to roll those out (see the video at the end of this post for an example of what I’m talking about).

So Milo was a really fun tech demo with some really cutting edge aspects, some rehashed stuff, and some smoke and mirrors. But the aspects that people seem so excited about (talking to Milo) isn’t what was really cool about the demo.

Sony’s Wand System:
Lastly we have Sony’s wand-based motion-control system. If you haven’t seen it, it consists of a pair of wands that include traditional controller buttons, and a light on the end of each wand. The Sony Eyetoy can track the lights with a high degree of fidelity. During the Project Natal demo, a player ‘painted’ by splashing buckets of paint on a wall. During the Sony demo, a player very legibly wrote his name on a virtual wall. That’s the difference in fidelity between the two systems.

In a lot of ways the Sony system seems like the Nintendo Wii Remote on steroids. A bunch of game applications immediately spring to mind. It has buttons so you can shoot a gun, and they could put an analog stick on it so you could move around a 3D space that way (a la the Nintendo nunchuk). The demo showed a very simple RTS game being played using the wands like a mouse. Let’s just pray that we don’t get a bunch of waggle games from Sony!

Really the three systems map well to now, soon, and future. Nintendo is the now solution. Depending on how much Wii Motion Plus adds, we’re all pretty familiar with what Nintendo can do. Sony offers the next step; an enhanced way of controlling your games that should be available and working well pretty soon (Spring 2010 they’re saying). And Project Natal represents the dreamy future. When Natal launches (my guess? sometime in 2011) it’s going to mean a rebirth of the Xbox 360 in much the same way that the NXE did. I don’t honestly see a lot of mainstream games supporting Natal, but I do see it refreshing the entire UI of the Xbox in remarkable ways, as well as adding a new genre: Natal Games.

Back to the head tracking issue. Here’s the video I mentioned. This fellow now works for Microsoft, but before he went to the big M he was hacking Wii Remotes:

*THIS* is the technology of Project Natal that I am most excited about!

UPDATE: GameSetWatch has a brief article up confirming that Johnny Lee is working on Natal.

UPDATE: Johnny Lee himself chimes in on his blog.

Too Human First Look Pt 1 (XBox 360)

When Too Human released to pretty horrible reviews last summer, it seemed there was more talk going on about Silicon Knight’s Dennis Dyack trying to socially engineer scores than there was about the game itself. I remember downloading the demo, feeling pretty “Meh” about it, and then forgetting all about the game.

Over the past week, someone I follow on Twitter ( has been playing and enjoying the game *a lot*. Whenever I see someone really enjoying a game that got bad reviews, I get intrigued. And it so happened that I’ve been casting about looking for a good loot-centric hack&slash action-rpg to play, and that’s exactly what Too Human is. And the nice thing about picking up a poorly reviewed game 6 months or so after release is that you can get it for cheap. Target has it in the discount bin for $20, but I couldn’t find it in my local store and didn’t want to wait to mail order it, so I hit Best Buy and picked it up for $40.

At this point my played time is around 6 hours and my first character (a Berserker — melee focused, low armor) is level 17 or thereabouts, and so far I’m in SAGExSDX’s camp: I’m having a good time playing this game. I’ve gone back and read some of the reviews and they all feel pretty vague to me when it comes to explaining why they gave it such low ratings, and I can’t help wonder how much the controversy and expectations shaped the review rating landscape.

But again I’m only 6 hours in.

Gameplay is a nice combination of Diable-style kill/loot/level and a fast paced action game (think Shinobi, or if you don’t remember that one, Devil May Cry). Melee attacks are mapped to the right thumbstick; push the stick towards an enemy and you’ll charge it and attack. If you push it towards another enemy before you reach the one you’re sliding towards, you’ll combo off to that next enemy. Pretty soon you’re a human pinball of death. Or you can leap into the air and come crashing down. Or double tap the stick to juggle the enemies into the sky. Pushing both sticks in the same direction unleashes a “fierce” attack, which is, oddly enough, a ranged attack pulled off with melee weapons.

The trigger buttons are used for firing ranged weapons. You also have a little spider bot “pet” that you can use as a debuff, and a Ruiner attack that trades combo level for a potent area-of-attack, the style of which depends on the weapons you have equipped.

I’d be lying if I said combat was all about pin-point precision. The controls are more visceral than precise, but since fights tend to be about 10+ enemies vs you and some wimpy underlings, that doesn’t matter too much. Too Human is about wading into swarms of baddies and sending them all flying.

And these baddies (all of which are robots, which pleases me — I’m not a huge fan of over-the-top gore and body parts flying) are definitely monster pinatas. Looting is automagic…stuff just kind of gets sucked into your backpack. At any time you can “Salvage” gear, turning it into Bounty (the game’s currency) so there’s never a need to head home to sell vendor trash. In fact, you can set an ‘auto-salvage’ setting so that a particular level of item you pick up gets turned into Bounty, or use a “Smart” setting that will salvage the worst gear you’re carrying if your inventory fills up. These are really nice features that keep you focused on the action and not on inventory space.

When you die, rather than having to reload a saved game, a Valkyrie floats down to whisk you off to Valhalla. But then I guess she changes her mind because you’ll respawn close to where you fell. I’ve heard a lot of complaints about this system, but I love it. As an MMO player, I really don’t like save/load systems; they break me out of the world I’m playing in. But the rebirth cut-scene is long enough to feel like a death penalty (your gear also takes an endurance hit and will have to be repaired if you die often enough — I speak from experience) without being overly onerous.

If you find you’re dying just a bit too often, you can head back to your HQ (that’s a menu option, you can do it from anywhere) and from there, teleport to an earlier level to replay it and level up a bit. These earlier levels seem to scale somewhat. So at character level 15 I went back to the first game level for a bit of grindy fun, and it was still a light challenge for me, vs the total walk-through that I’d expected it would be. Again, the focus is on keeping you gaming, earning new gear and new levels, and not about a lot of pointless running around.

Anyway, I’ll say for the third time, I’m only 6 hours in. But so far I’ve been having a blast. In my next post I’ll look at some of the downsides. I’d like to get to 12-15 hours before I post again, so it could take me a few days.

The New XBox Experience

I spent the evening messing about with the New XBox Experience. Figured I’d share my thoughts like everyone else has. Download and install was fairly quick: 10-15 minutes (this was right after work ET so I’m sure everyone else was grabbing it at the same time). No problems there.

Creating an avatar was actually more fun than I expected it to be. The examples I’ve seen in the past all looked kind of boring middle-class, and there’s more variety than that. Now that I have an avatar….who knows? I took a gamer-picture of it, so that’s something.

My old theme got borked under the NXE, so I sprang for a premium Fable 2 theme. That fancies up your friends list (a place I very rarely visit) but otherwise is just an expensive wallpaper.

Overall, the interface is more cuddly but feels less efficient to me, but maybe that depends on getting used to it? You can hit the XBox button on your controller to bring up a mini-version of the old ‘blade’ interface and from there quickly launch the game in the drive…but that’s one more step than I used to have to do, when the “Play game” button was on every screen.

There’s a jillion ads, as there has always been in spite of MS charging us $50/year to play online, but they seem more intrusive now since you have to flip past them.

I can’t really used the “copy game to hard drive” since my launch unit doesn’t have the space, unless I delete lots of stuff I’d rather not delete. Fable 2 wanted about 7 gigs of space. Don’t ask me where all my hard drive space has gone..I have a handful of demos and lots of Arcade Titles. I guess I’ll need to do more purging if I want to try “copy game to hard drive” and still have room for downloading demos.

Netflix integration is a great feature, but nothing in my queue was being offered in HD. So it looks just like it looks on my Roku box, except I have a nice remote for the Roku box, and there’s no fan noise with it (though this 360 is much quieter than my previous two have been).

Overall, it feels kind of “fun for an hour” and now it’ll be a matter of figuring out my way around the interface. I don’t really feel like I’ve gained much. If I had a bigger hard drive, or if I didn’t already have a Roku box, then the install to disk and Netflix features would’ve been big wins, but for me personally, it was really much ado about nothing. But hopefully MS can build on this interface and offer new, cool features.

If you’re a really social gamer who has a big Friends list that you’re always looking at, and is always playing online with your buds, then the update is probably a lot more significant for you. For those of us part of the dying breed of people who enjoy solitude now and then… it’s kind of “meh.”