Monday, February 7, 2011

Test Drive Unlimited 2

Test Drive Unlimited 2 expands on the traditional racing experience providing gamers with M.O.O.R.: Massively Open Online Racing; immersing drivers in a persistent online environment and revolutionizing multiplayer racing communities as players compete, team up, and share their achievements and creations online. Unlike any other driving game, TDU2 blends the open world experience with realistic vehicles and performance dynamics and for the first time, TDU2 features vehicle damage, weather effects, day and night cycles, and a brand new island to explore.
Release Date: February 8, 2011 (Tomorrow!)

Sunday, February 6, 2011

MORE DLC: Battlefield BC2 - Vietnam DLC

Calling Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam a simple map pack would be doing this add-on an injustice. On the surface, it would seem like a typical piece of downloadable content: four maps (a fifth is to come later), new weapons, and new vehicles all designed around Vietnam-era combat. Yet while the destructible environments and silky-smooth game engine are clearly those of Battlefield: Bad Company 2, this content changes the way you approach battle, stressing long-range combat less and forcing players forward into exciting ground combat scenarios that are among Bad Company 2's best. This shift in focus makes BC2 Vietnam feel terrifically fresh, and the new maps do their part to keep firefights intense while rewarding careful teamwork. Limited unlocks and a few technical problems keep the new content from having the same impact as the original multiplayer suite, but it you're in it for the action, there's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't attend this rumble in the jungle.
This isn't just because of the weapon adjustments, however; the superbly designed maps deliver the sense of a down-and-dirty skirmish between two sides fighting the terrain as much as they are fighting each other. The Hill 137 map is a fantastic example of how striking visuals and intricate map design make for intense firefights. The battlefield has been devastated by napalm. Flaming underbrush in the distance sends billows of thick smoke into the air, and dense dust thrown up from an exploding grenade clouds your view. Meanwhile, well-placed choke points force squads to the front lines, charging en masse and hoping to inch forward until they can take an important objective. The charred terrain gives snipers plenty of room to aim in some areas, while rocky hills, trenches, and rickety huts provide multiple ambush and flanking opportunities for other classes. There are also destructible structures that provide temporary respite, though this element (afforded by Bad Company 2's amazing physics engine) is not as prevalent as it was in the core game.
Rush mode showcases these features at their best. Numerous narrow passages lead to tense shoot-outs, and progressing from the initial bunkers into the flaming jungle beyond is a good reward for destroying an M-COM (communications) station. Rushes are a particular delight for medics, who become perhaps even more important than ever, reviving teammates getting mowed down at choke points or when greater expanses like those in Phu Bai Valley become littered with fallen comrades. That isn't to say, however, that BC2 Vietnam encourages you to rush forward without thought or consequence. Even with the greater sense of urgency such charges deliver, you have to consider your actions with care and stick with your squad when possible. Hurrying ahead might bring you face-to-face with someone wielding a flamethrower, one of many new weapons featured in the add-on. (Incidentally, if you're looking for a good close-quarters substitute for the shotgun, this is a good one in the hands of a skilled player. Getting flamed by a talented player causes your health to dissipate rapidly, though you can jump into the water if there's a lake or river nearby.)
There are three other maps in addition to Hill 137, with a fifth due to unlock once the player base has committed 69 million total team actions. On Cao Son Temple, a waterway winds around, giving you a back way into unprotected capture points. Meanwhile, you and a squadmate might jump into a patrol boat, laying suppressing fire while giving you quick transport down the shoreline. Just be careful: a good shot can make quick mincemeat of the pilot. And while ground combat is particularly stirring, vehicles still play a role, though not as vital or varied as in the previous visit to this setting: Battlefield Vietnam. On the Phu Bai map, Huey gunships are a formidable presence. On Vantage Point, a flame-spewing M48 Patton tank can be your best friend, especially given that antitank weapons are less varied. (The RPG-7 is the only real standby in this regard.) On the same map, a narrow bridge and a capture point at a central high ground keep the action focused and provide ample opportunities for both snipers and engineers to get down to business, provided other infantry offer the proper support.
Every class gets new weapons to play with and use of the flamethrower. If you enjoy Battlefield: Bad Company 2 for its rank progression and unlockable gadgets and weapons, you'll be glad to know that you gain rank whether you play Vietnam or vanilla BC2; thus, you unlock new weapons, gadgets, and specializations in the main game regardless of which you play. On the downside, you have access to almost every Vietnam weapon from the get-go, so there's less sense of forward progress in the metagame than in the core game. Of course, if you've already reached maximum rank, you're here not for the unlockables but for the enjoyment. And as in the main game, Vietnam enhances your enjoyment with good visuals and fantastic sound effects. You could nitpick simple ground textures and various jagged edges among other visual foibles, but the game moves along effortlessly, with few hints of slowdown. The way the sunlight gleams through foliage softens the deadly destruction on Phu Bai, and splinters of wood fly about when a shell destroys the hut sheltering you. As attractive as BC2 Vietnam is, its visuals are surpassed by its marvelous sound design. The in-game radio is one highlight, playing such period tunes as "Wild Thing" and "Surfin' Bird," and nothing says "the '60s" like a good helping of Creedence Clearwater Revival. But it's the sound effects that make the audio truly special. The "thunk" you hear when launching a grenade is as distinctive as ever, and the subtle sounds of your footsteps in the underbrush mix with the overwhelming fury of Huey fire to great effect.
BC2 Vietnam has suffered from some problems with its stat tracking. Player ranks and statistics haven't always been accurate, though this is a mild annoyance, considering how much less important player progression and unlocks are to the overall experience when compared to the original release. Nevertheless, if you strayed from Battlefield: Bad Company 2 once you reached maximum level or are new to the game and want a good reason to show off your elite shooting skills, the Vietnam add-on is your ticket to big explosions, big shoot-outs, and big thrills. And you get it all for 1200 Microsoft Points ($15).

Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money DLC

If you were to list your favorite aspects of Fallout: New Vegas, "trap avoidance" would not likely be a top entry. Nevertheless, New Vegas' first downloadable add-on, Dead Money, requires you to make your way through trap-infested streets and corridors, where you must keep your eyes peeled and your ears keen, lest you miss the signs of the game's deadly hazards. The focus on careful exploration sometimes acts as a strength; at other times, a weakness. Escaping a mine-infested street can make for tense progress, which in turn leads to a pleasant feeling of relief should you make it through unharmed. On the other hand, these constant dangers eventually lead to frustration because the labyrinthine and monotonous levels suck the joy out of exploration. Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money too often stresses the main game's worst qualities. For example, it's incredible that developer Obsidian Entertainment thought to include several jumping bits, considering the game engine's terrible, unresponsive jumping mechanics. Fortunately, great voice acting and intriguing new characters provide a counterpoint to the flaws and inspire you to push ahead regardless of the frustrations.
As with Fallout 3's add-ons, Dead Money begins with a radio signal. In this case, that signal draws you to a bunker entrance, where you are knocked unconscious, stripped of your belongings, and outfitted with a collar that threatens to explode if you refuse to comply with your orders. Those orders come from the holographic image of a man called Father Elijah, who enlists your help to infiltrate the infamous Sierra Madre casino and pilfer the riches within it. Many have already followed the signal and apparently failed at their task, victims of the casino's built-in defenses, a hazardous red mist that has settled over the area, and their own treacherous greed. You have little choice but to follow Elijah's orders, which means finding three other individuals and convincing them to follow your lead.
Dead Money's highlight is its characters--specifically, the three companions that join you as you stalk your way through the dangerous corridors and later figure into your sojourn in a mysterious casino. A mutant with two personalities is the most memorable of them, alternating between a hungry and obedient simpleton (Dog) and a logical sophisticate (God) eager to keep his unintelligent other self "in the cage." Each personality offers its own companion perk, and Dog's is one of the more helpful ones. Unless you dismember them, the creatures you encounter will rise up again after defeat, but Dog can munch on their downed bodies to render them dead once and for all. Christine, another companion, is a mute that communicates with awkwardly animated gestures, but you eventually discover she's got even more bite than Dog. And then, there is Dean, a smooth-talking ghoul with slippery morals and a talent for self-preservation. Turn by turn, you lead these three characters to key locations, and though you leave them behind once you arrive, they still play a role in your adventure. It's unfortunate that all three of them require you to complete a fetch quest once you reach your destination. By the time you lead your third companion to your objective, all you can do is groan as he or she predictably drums up an excuse to make you go collect or kill something.
You spend most of your time in the streets of the casino's surrounding villa, making your way to important locations while avoiding a number of dangers. One such danger is your collar, which begins beeping--and eventually explodes--when you wander too close to radios and other devices that trigger its self-destruct mechanism. You can destroy most of these instruments, though locating them during the small window of opportunity can be a challenge, forcing you to put yourself in temporary danger to find the offending radio and shoot it down. Your collar isn't the only reason to proceed cautiously, however. The streets are dotted with bear traps and mines, and doorways might be protected with shotgun traps. And then, there's that feared red cloud, which reduces your health should you breathe in its vapors for long. The pace is slow and methodical, and at first, the resulting tension makes for a pleasant twist on the typical New Vegas exploration. Gunning down a speaker as your collar signals your impending demise provides relief to the rising stress, as does spotting and disarming a bear trap before it harms you.
The tension turns into tedium with time, however. This, in part, results from the sameness of the corridors you traverse. The villa is separated into a few different sections, but the maze of streets and balconies looks much the same everywhere you go, and the imprecise quest marker doesn't always provide a clear sense of direction. The red cloud and subdued lighting are atmospheric at first, but because there's so little to break up the view, the muddiness loses its short appeal. After hours of slow progress--punctuated with frequent saves and reloads--you long to explore without so many stringent rules holding you back. Once you make it into the casino, your eyes will thank you for the visual variety, but the invulnerable holographic sentries you encounter don't ease the frustrations. A forced stealth sequence in which being spotted means an instant fiery death is New Vegas at its worst, as are multiple timed escape sections that test your patience and have you cursing the game's clumsy movement mechanics and vague sense of direction. The casino trip rewards you not with fascinating exploration, but with excellently written backstory uncovered at terminals and in voice recordings. The Sierra Madre's riches aren't the resources locked in the casino's vault--they are the glimpses of past greed and deception, as well as the drive of one man to protect the woman he loved.
Fortunately, New Vegas' flexibility occasionally shines through the trial-and-error murk, most notably in how you approach your companion relationships once you enter the casino. If you aren't big on combat, there are still plenty of chances to talk your way out of certain quests and hack into security systems. If you prefer to get your hands dirty, you get new toys to play with, such as bear traps fashioned into melee weapons, throwing spears, and a rifle that comes in mighty handy during the end sequence. If you have these on your person when you complete the add-on, you get to keep them, along with anything else you have pilfered, though otherwise, Dead Money is a mostly encapsulated experience. It features its own economy, based on Sierra Madre chips, and has its own network of vending machines. (One nice touch: You stumble upon codes for unlocking new items to purchase at these glowing machines.) It also offers crafty players new items and recipes to cobble together.
Dead Money represents a change of pace for Fallout: New Vegas, though it's not a consistently enjoyable one. Tense, deliberate pacing gives way to aggravation as the game forces you to watch every step while you meander through its dull surroundings. Lest you forget this content's Fallout roots, however, there are numerous technical oddities to remind you of them. Activating VATS targeting while firing at a turret may get the game stuck in slow-motion purgatory for a minute or more; companions might get mired in the environment or inexplicably make their way to the rooftops while you traverse the streets below. Nevertheless, Fallout: New Vegas - Dead Money's provocative characters and fantastic writing make it a tempting detour for Fallout fans aching for something new. You also get some bang for your buck here: depending on the thoroughness of your exploration, you could spend anywhere from four to eight hours on Dead Money for only 800 Microsoft points ($10). Here's hoping that New Vegas' next add-on sticks to what the game is good at rather than forcing its weakest gameplay mechanics on players who want to do things their own way.

Two Worlds II

If you played the original Two Worlds, you might not be surprised to learn that its sequel does not represent the role-playing genre at its most refined. What may surprise you, however, is that Two Worlds II's clumsy features don't greatly diminish the impact of its big, busy world. Here is an expansive third-person RPG brimming with fearsome monsters to slay, colorful spells to cast, varied quests to perform, and murky swamps to explore. The game lacks the fine points that adorn the greatest role-playing adventures--distinctive characters, a compelling narrative, and beautiful panoramas. But this is an entertaining journey nonetheless, due in no small part to intriguing but accessible systems that allow you to create your own magic spells, concoct potions, and upgrade your favorite weapons and armor. If you've been looking to lose yourself in a fantastical kingdom, and don't mind some clumsy combat, graphical inconsistencies, and nagging interface issues, Two Worlds II is a fine way to escape the rigors of the real world.
As with its precursor, Two Worlds II takes place in the land of Antaloor, where (once again), your sister is in trouble, and where (once again), the evil wizard Gandohar is up to no good. It's a suitable framework, but the game fails to build on its foundations. Through a series of good-looking flashback sequences, you eventually learn more about Gandohar, but the personal touch is conspicuously absent. The game devotes little time to giving your sister a personality, making her a simple MacGuffin to help put the story in motion, but nothing more. Nor will you meet many memorable characters. While much of the voice acting isn't bad, some of it is lifeless (your own character), ridiculous (a drunken local), or stiff (a student in need). The tomes you collect contain some fascinating tales and tidbits, but much of the dialogue sounds forced and unnatural--like something an author would write, but not something an actual person would say.
That isn't to say that Two Worlds II's quests won't draw you in. Sometimes, it's the bits of humor that keep you interested. A one-armed man threatens you, but as it turns out, it's a two-handed weapon he hangs on his wall. The dialogue's little jests may put a grin on your face, but you might actually guffaw if you explore this abode later and discover that the treasure chests within all contain two-handed bludgeons. An encounter with a black knight recalls a memorable scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, while a character involved with the quest is a Sean Connery soundalike (a clear reference toIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade). If the humor doesn't inspire you, perhaps the chance to drive the outcome of the quest will. In multiple cases, you choose how to proceed. This kind of decision-making isn't unique to Two Worlds II, and you won't see the exciting flexibility you may in a game like Fallout: New Vegas or Dragon Age: Origins. Nevertheless, quests involving the element of choice stand out in Two Worlds II because there is not always a clear "bad" or "good" path. A witch accused of crimes against nature; a professor accused by a supposedly innocent student: these characters may or may not be who they appear to be, and choosing to follow one path may result in unforeseen and occasionally heartbreaking circumstances.

Of course, there's more to Two Worlds II than its narrative. There's a whole world to explore, made up of rolling green hills, decrepit universities, and dank dungeons filled with rattling skeletons and hulking beasts. The visuals aren't best in class, however, and suffer from some noticeable technical flaws. Colors and textures look washed out, and occasional frame rate hitches, screen tearing, and loading times interrupt your travels. You may also run into various visual glitches, like seeing your character warp ahead and then back again. Other quirks are apparent when the camera zooms in to give you a closer look at Antaloor's inhabitants, who gesticulate stiffly and exhibit little personality as they converse. Nevertheless, the art design aspires to more than simple "generic fantasyland." The Asian-inspired design that kicks off chapter two (of four) revels in attractive red trimmings and intricately adorned bookcases. Nearby, gnarled branches and grim darkness lend an air of mystery to a society of outsiders. You still set foot in some boring caverns and bland (if sunny) fields, but progressing through the story exposes a number of artistic delights.
When facing your menacing adversaries, you aren't stuck with just blades, or a bow, or magic spells: you can choose any of these, and easily switch between up to three equipment sets with the press of a button. Regardless of your weapon of choice, combat is appealing, if a bit ragged at times. If you wield a blade, crunchy sound effects give battles some oomph, as do melee moves that knock back nearby enemies. On the other hand, inconsistent collision detection means you don't always get that delightful sense of impact you might hope for when plunging an axe into an ostrich. Casting a spell results in windy noises (summon a giant spider!) and swirling visual effects (heal yourself!)--though the auto-targeting will have the camera occasionally whipping around in uncomfortable ways. If you enjoy ranged weapons and magic, you might find bows and spells better left to certain occasions, since it's often difficult to put space between you and that swarm of bees descending on you.

That's especially true in Two Worlds II's tight, dark dungeons, where many of the game's most obvious flaws come to light. Narrow caverns are often populated with monsters too large for them. Maneuvering into an effective position can be tricky in these cases, especially when the uncooperative camera makes it impossible to figure out exactly what's going on. The need to manually unsheathe your weapon--and the delay when switching between weapon sets--can also complicate these sticky moments. Fortunately, some slippery combat situations can be exploited to your advantage. Monsters and humanoids alike suffer from pathfinding and AI difficulties. A beast might get stuck running against a rock, allowing you to pelt it with arrows until it falls over dead. Or if you put enough distance between you and your target, it might not even react at all when your arrow finds its mark. You can see that some thought was given to how certain creatures behave. For example, big cats run towards you to attack, then scamper away at a quick clip to escape your blows. But when the same cat runs halfway up a crevasse and gets stuck, or slides across a rock formation at angles that defy gravity, the immersion is broken.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Dead Space 2

Isaac Clarke, the unluckiest space engineer of the 26th century, is more unfortunate than ever in Dead Space 2. 2008's superb Dead Space took the style of survival horror shooter action exemplified by games like Resident Evil 4 and meshed it with an atmospheric deep-space setting and some terrific, distinctly sci-fi gameplay elements, creating something that felt simultaneously familiar and unique. Dead Space 2, on the other hand, will feel thoroughly familiar to those who have played the original; its few improvements over Dead Space are minor tweaks rather than game changers. But blasting the limbs off of hideous necromorphs remains tremendously satisfying, and although the pacing lags a bit during the game's middle portions, this second outing packs more than enough scares and surprises to make stepping back into Isaac Clarke's suit extremely worthwhile. In addition, a new multiplayer component successfully translates Dead Space's particular breed of dismemberment-focused combat into a pulse-pounding team-based experience that casts you as both humans and as the foul necromorphs. As long as you've got the stomach for it, Dead Space 2 is one sci-fi horror thrill ride you definitely want to take.

The first few moments of Dead Space 2 smartly accomplish a good deal in a very short amount of time. We get a glimpse into Isaac's psychological state, his psyche still tormented by the painful loss he experienced on the Ishimura during the events of the first game. We also learn that the three years since then have been little more than a blur to Isaac--he's in some kind of hospital facility, but has only the vaguest memories of his time there. And almost before you can say "necromorph outbreak," you take control of Isaac as he runs for his life from the hideous creatures who, for reasons that aren't immediately clear, have suddenly appeared and started slaughtering the human population here in the Sprawl, a vast urban area on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Isaac, who said not a word in the original game, has a voice here, and although he's a bit bland as a character, the intensity of the action that surrounds him makes you feel invested in his desperate struggle for survival. Revealing glimpses into the world of Dead Space--such as a trek through a Unitology center that sheds light on the inner workings of the church whose activity is inextricably linked to the necromorph outbreaks--keep the momentum rolling during the early chapters. The game later falls into predictable rhythms for a while, but it picks up steam again toward the end, as the story goes to some unexpected and exciting places and puts almost as much emphasis on Isaac's struggle against his own demons of guilt and regret as on his battles against the necromorphs.
But those battles against the hideous undead mutations remain front and center, where they belong. The key to dropping necromorphs is still blasting off their often frighteningly pointy limbs, which you do with a number of repurposed mining tools and a few actual guns, all of which feel powerful and are immensely fun to use. All of the weapons from Dead Space return in this sequel, including the plasma cutter and the line gun, which fire beams of energy capable of slicing necromorph limbs clean off. Another returning weapon is the ripper, a terrific tool whose spinning blade can result in a noisy, grisly end to necromorphs who make the mistake of getting too close to you. And there are a few new weapons as well: the detonator lets you place laser-triggered trip mines to set explosive traps for approaching necromorphs, and the javelin gun fires spikes at such a tremendous velocity that any necromorph unfortunate enough to be in their path is likely to find itself impaled to a wall.
As you progress, you can upgrade your weapons with nodes that you collect, making them noticeably more effective at limb-ripping and laying waste to necromorphs, resulting in a satisfying sense of progression. What's more, it seems kinesis technology has seen remarkable advances in the three years since Isaac's fateful trip to the Ishimura, and it's now a much more effective offensive tool. Using this ability to pick up severed necromorph limbs or any of the sharp rods conveniently scattered across the Sprawl and hurl them at necromorphs is no substitute for a trusty plasma rifle by your side, but it works well in a pinch. There's a delicious feeling of dishing out poetic justice in turning the necromorphs' own limbs against them, and making use of this tactic is an effective way to conserve your often very limited ammo supply.
The Sprawl's pressurized environment also occasionally offers a spectacularly reckless and dramatic way to eliminate some necromorphs. Certain rooms have windows that you can easily shatter with a shot of your weapon or a hurled object. The instant you do so, everything in the room--furniture, necromorphs, and you--is rapidly pulled toward the window as the air rushes out into the vacuum of space. To save yourself, as you are being pulled toward the opening, you must quickly shoot a sensor that brings a metallic emergency door down over it. It's a risky and thrilling maneuver that brings some action-movie-style craziness to what is often a more grim and atmospheric adventure. These Hollywood set-piece moments and others that involve speeding trains, pursuits by massive necromorphs, and other surprises are great, but they're not entirely enough to keep things from falling into a predictable rhythm for much of the second half. Still, things start revving up again as you approach the conclusion, and the outrageous final moments make for an intense and truly memorable climax.
Despite your powerful and satisfying arsenal, you still feel as if you're in constant danger, and that's never more the case than when you're faced with a few of the terrifying new types of necromorphs that make their debuts here. One new variety, called the pack, resembles a twisted version of a human toddler. Individually very weak, these terrors run at you in groups, emitting bloodcurdling shrieks all the while, and if one manages to leap up onto you, it can cause tremendous damage. The other new standout necromorph type is called a stalker. These hunters display an intelligence previously unseen in necromorphs, making use of cover to try to stay hidden from you until they decide to strike, charging at you with incredible speed. It's particularly satisfying to hit one of these charging beasts with your very useful stasis ability, stopping it in its tracks before blasting it to bits. On the other hand, these creatures are so speedy and so prone to charge at you when your back is turned that Isaac's slow turning ability can at times become less a source of tension than a source of frustration.
Stasis remains an invaluable part of your arsenal, but turnabout is fair play, and the bile of another new necromorph type, the puker, slows you down almost as much as your stasis ability slows the necromorphs down, leaving you extremely vulnerable for a short period of time. All of these new necromorph threats fit in perfectly with all the returning varieties from the first game, creating a diverse and deadly assortment of both short- and long-range attackers to keep you constantly on edge as you make your way across the Sprawl. Unfortunately, as in the first game, the camera sometimes contributes to the challenge. When you're backed up against a wall and a necromorph gets too close to you, the camera often won't show you your assailant, and targeting the creature can require you to move around to get a decent angle, which is frustrating when your health is rapidly being slashed away.