Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Ultimate Sandbox

It's interesting to me that Bethesda and Rockstar games seem to be going in different directions.

What I mean by that is, to me, Bethesda's most recent games, Oblivion and Fallout 3, are even more sandboxy than their previous games.

In Morrowind, for example, the world didn't scale with you. What this meant was that you could technically go anywhere and do anything but in reality, some areas and some quests were best left until later.

This forced a certain level of grinding into the mix, or at least made tackling the game in a certain order the path of least resistance.

While making the entire world revolve around the character was disliked by some players, I loved it, precisely because it made Oblivion the Ultimate Sandbox.

If you look at Grand Theft Auto IV, by contrast, it's much less of a sandbox than previous GTA games, for my money. The game constantly prompts you (through the cellphone) to quests, to hanging out with your friends and so forth.

It's really interesting to see the two companies that (in my mind at least) really pioneered the true sandbox and watch one of them trying to find ways to make the game even MORE flexible, while the other wants to try and nudge you onto an optimal path.

And oddly enough, I think both strategies were winners for the companies involved. GTA IV had much more of a story and a much tighter, consistent feel. Basically, the more you walked that path the game tried to nudge you onto, the better an experience you had.

Meanwhile in Fallout 3, the game is often at its best when you pick a direction and just walk until something catches your eye, then investigate it.

While I've done the big quests many times, if I pick a direction and walk I *will* encounter something brand new within an hour or so. It might be a random encounter but often it's a place I've seen on the horizon but never visited.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Starting Well

As I continue to play Fallout 3, it's occurred to me that one of the best things Fallout 3 does is start well. This is something Fallout 3 has in common with Bethesda's other recent classic, Oblivion.

The tutorial in Fallout 3 really gives you a feel for living in a vault. Your birthday presents are a hand-me down baseball and a single comic "with no missing pages". In other words, stuff that's been getting passed from person to person for 200 years.

When you escape the vault, you are immediately thrust into the game, encountering the town sheriff of Megaton, evil businessman Mr. Burke, amoral saloon owner Moriarty and drug-addled ex-prostitute Silver within the game's first 30 minutes (assuming you don't just kill everyone you meet- also a possibility).

These early encounters introduce you to the kinds of karmic choices you're going to be asked to make. Do you disarm the bomb at the center of Megaton or blow the place sky-high?

Do you ice Silver and give some of her caps to Moriarty or do you take some of her caps and lie to him about it? Or do you kill her, take her all her caps, then hack Moriarty's computer and steal the information you need from him anyway.

I'd also point out that the two closest "dungeons" to you at the beginning of the game, the Super-Duper Mart and Springvale Elementary School are two of the most evocative in the entire game. These aren't the endless metro tunnels, Vaults and caves you'll explore later. These are real places and are carefully crafted.

There's a special magic to a game that starts early.

Here I contrast Oblivion and Fallout 3 with most Final Fantasy games, which are notorious for starting terribly. I have a great affection for the FF series but the tutorials and early stages of their games are chores and are the biggest barrier to playing them multiple times.

While the initial tutorial in Fallout 3 can get old, the early stages of the game itself, when you make your way to Megaton and explore the nearby environs seems to just get better the second (ok let's be real, the 7th) time through.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Beyond Reviews Fallout 3: The Pitt

Presentation: 10/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Fun Factor: 9/10
Total Score: 27/30

Fallout 3 is a game that has drawn me in like few games have. In fact, as I recently remarked to a friend, the last time a game drew me in to this degree was the original Diablo.
In short, it's been like, since the 70's that I was this into a game. No wait, make that since 1997. It only feels like it's been since the 70's.

With Oblivion, Bethesda set an extremely high bar for game design that Fallout 3 exceeds in many respects, while staying true to the legacy of one of the great PC RPG franchises of all time.

But one doesn't simply release a game these days. After a game's release it seems that Downloadable Content (DLC to us hipsters) is inevitable. Of course, with games taking years to develop, it makes sense that developers wouldn't want to immediately walk away and with games as great as Oblivion and Fallout 3, why would players want them to?

The first DLC update for Fallout 3 was Operation: Anchorage, which sent your intrepid post-apocalyptic adventurer into a deadly VR simulation of the Chinese invasion of Anchorage. As part of the simulation, you left all your equipment in the real world and used virtual equipment.

While The Pitt again has you leaving your equipment behind for a time, in this case to pose as a slave, it offers a much more compelling mix of the gameplay elements that make Fallout 3 so great.

The Pitt is a dark, smoggy, polluted area that actually makes one long for the beauty of the Capital Wasteland. Armed only with an Auto-Ax (think a combination of a weed-whacker and a circular saw and you've got an image of what this baby is) you're sent to gather steel ingots, a mission no one expects you to return from.

On this mission you have your first encounter with Trogs, creatures that look something like the feral ghouls of Fallout 3 except they have distended stomachs and crawl around on all fours.

Of course you do return and from there you are given a chance to earn your "freedom" by competing in the arena. I'd say two men enter one man leaves (believe me, I really, really want to) but unfortunately you are usually outnumbered in the arena so I can't.

While I won't give away the ending, let me say that The Pitt offers more or what's great about Fallout 3. There are perks to earn, items to find, NPCs to interact with and slavers to put down (or prop up for you negative karma types).

If you're a fan of Fallout 3 and (unlike me) stopped playing, you now have a perfect reason to get back in. If you haven't yet tried Fallout 3, you now have one more reason to give this great game a look.

Beyond Reviews Blue Dragon Plus

Presentation: 10/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Fun Factor: 8/10
Total Score: 26/30

Sometimes it doesn't take long for an idea to catch on.

Looking at Blue Dragon Plus for the Nintendo DS, it sure seems that a trend has formed of RPG games branching into the strategy genre.

And why not? Final Fantasy Tactics has been such a success its become its own cottage industry. Final Fantasy XII sported a real-time strategy sequel for the DS called Revenant Wings and now Blue Dragon has a RTS sequel of its own in Blue Dragon Plus.

Like its predecessors, Blue Dragon Plus offers a mix of real-time strategy and RPG elements.

The overall presentation is top-notch both during play and during the game's cinematics. The game boasts a sountrack by Final Fantasy legend Nobuo Uematsu and character designs by Akira Toriyama (character designer for Dragon Ball Z and the Dragon Quest series).

The control scheme is simple enough that the game can be controlled with the stylus alone, selecting units by touch, selecting a destination (or target) and choosing between magical abilities are easy to get the hang of, though sometimes the small screen makes things a little confusing during the heat of battle.

Still, the characters are distinctive enough that you can tell them apart, even though they're quite small and the game does a good job of walking you through the early missions, which are played with a smaller party of more generalized characters.

For someone like me, who prefers his strategy in turns and not real-time, this was a welcome introduction to the game and made it easy to get involved in the action. The game's tutorial missions also spell out quite clearly what the roles of the various characters are- who should be wading into melee and who should hiding behind them to throw spells.

Although the game sports a few dedicated spellcasters, including an elemental "artillery" caster and healer, almost all the characters have a special spell-like ability to inflict elemental damage, usually in an area. Some of these attacks strike in a line while others affect an area. Once an ability is used, there's a "cool down" period in real time before a special ability can be used again.

Blue Dragon Plus packs a lot of fun gameplay into its 30-hour single player campaign. Your characters gain levels and can find items to increase their abilities. Each character has a unique feel and has a role to fill and the maps where the battles take place are large and allow plenty of room for maneuvering.

The levels are well designed and give you plenty of chances to use the terrain to your advantage.

Blue Dragon Plus is an engaging game for gamers of all ages. In addition to playing the game myself, I loaned it to my neice, a 12 year-old dedicated gamer who has beaten Final Fantasy X-2 and the Kingdom Hearts games more times than I can count (more times than me for sure).

Like me, she enjoyed the game and was drawn in by its cute character designs, which she immediately recognized as "by that Dragon Quest guy".

If you are a fan of strategy games, especially on handheld platforms where they seem particularly strong right now, or if you are a fan of old-school Japanese RPGs, you should definitely check out Blue Dragon Plus.