I'd apologise for the lack of updates recently, but we have far more pressing matters to discuss. Namely some hands-on time I had with pretty much every major upcoming 360 game this week! Here are some early impressions from the opening hour of each;
One of the more highly anticipated games of the year, Fable 2 takes us back to Albion for more humorous, fantasy action adventuring, in a free-form, role-playing Zelda for grown-ups.
|Set 500 years after the first, you begin Fable 2 as a homeless boy destined for great (or terrible) things|
Even as a humungous Molyneux fan that adored the original Fable though, the sequel's opening minutes are a little disappointing, truth be told. It feels very much in line with the original
from a stylistic and atmospheric perspective - even down to the "cor blimey" accents and superb music - but much of that game's polish and shine is replaced by a game that could have used a month or two longer in the oven by the looks of it. In particular I refer to some iffy animation issues and the odd bit of jankiness in the controls and responsiveness.
Get over this though - and you will in the first 10 minutes - and brilliance starts to appear. Gameplay-wise, it starts out simple, but does a nice wee job of easing you into the characters, universe and choices at your disposal. As you interact with the citizens of Albion's (admittedly beautiful) snow-capped opening town, such choices range from merely doing the right thing, to being a bit cheeky, to some really rather dark shit that surprised me. The moralistic choices that Fable 1 promised, yet "hit or missed" on way too often, appear far more refined and inspired this time around. Cute and cuddly on the outside - with a lovely exaggerated look and feel - the game's oddly mature underneath the hood you see, with its decisions and choices showcasing some often alarming and hilarious results. I'd get into specifics, but really? Why spoil.
|Animation issues and technical glitches can't hold back these visuals|
Then there's the dog. In just the opening moments he'll tug on the heart strings of any animal lover, so I dread to think what's in store for later in the game (if homeboy doesn't make it through in one piece, I'll be a very upset individual). Beyond barking out the location of items he's discovered amidst your travels, I've yet to really grasp how he affects gameplay beyond looking awesome (not to mention eerily realistic), but it's hard not to love the little guy.
Combat however, feels a little simple and lacking by comparison. The one-button context sensitive bashing ultimately led to me merely forcing dudes into corners then wailing on them incessantly 'til they dropped, and lacked much in the way of satisfaction and fun. Hopefully the depth and moves increase as your weaponry and skills do.
Fable 2 isn't a game you can really get a good grasp on in just an hour or so to be honest though. The scope of the world, the family aspects, and the co-op modes are all areas I've yet to meddle with, but I'm certainly anxious to sink my teeth in and get exploring regardless. In spite of those early issues, the humor of the quests I tried, and indeed the surprising coolness of the story sucked me in wholeheartedly; I was just hoping for a little more polish on the technical side.
Believe it or not, of all the games I saw this week Dead Space was the pick of the lot. What can only be described as Doom III
reinterpreted through Resident Evil's eyes and Bioshock's style, it's a jaw-dropping freak-show of a third person shooter that's hard not to love.
In that same way Mass Effect
tapped into the great sci-fi works of the 80s in its general look and feel - transporting you to a style and genre pitch-perfectly - one could argue Dead Space does so for horror nolstagia. From the flickering strobes of Aliens to the haunting beauty of Sunshine, it feels like a tour de force of all the greats, its inspirations plundered admirably and perfectly. Not only are the graphics shockingly gorgeous and smooth - particularly an early docking sequence on board your shuttle - but the art and sheer style boast sleekness seen rarely in a western game. The fact this all comes courtesy of EA
of all places, certainly fills one with some major hope for the future of humanity.
|A third person sci-fi horror shooter, one of Dead Space's coolest feats is its hud-less interface, in which every menu and bar appears within the game world itself|
I could prattle on about the look - and indeed the sound - of this thing forever, but thankfully Dead Space plays well too. With EA holding the rights these days, it ain't hard to hypothesize that this game may have originated as a full-blown sequel to System Shock 2 as rumors have hinted at. Much like that game, you land on a haunted space station in its opening minutes, subsequently trying to figure out what went wrong, while surviving long enough to contend with its monstrous denizens, who may or may not be the original crew turned "bad". Whether the System Shock hints are true or not, Dead Space as it stands is very much its own beast though, that while lacking the depth and complexity of Shock, certainly provides a far more thrilling shooter experience.
provides major inspiration for its over-the-shoulder combat, not to mention general pace and feel, yet DS proves far from a knock-off, interspersing bionic powers, puzzle solving and some really rather original weaponry into the proceedings. The various pieces of laser mining equipment that pass themselves off as your guns are oddly new and interesting, as are the amputation-centric fire-fights that see you blowing limbs and heads off enemies to drop 'em (blindly spray 'n' preying won't cut it here). I'd argue in fact, that in this genre, it bests even the likes of GRAW
and Gears at such antics, which I'd previously heralded as the heavyweights in the third person field. Big words, but it earns 'em.
I just worry about repetition to be honest, as for all its amaze, just one mere hour of DS felt like the same five minutes repeated on a loop. One damn fine loop, don't get me wrong, but whether it's enough to sustain a 7+ hour game remains to be seen. Scouring this ominous station, restoring power and battling grotesque abominations of nature is all well and good, but I hope there's enough variety ploughed into the latter stages to keep us coming back for more.
I can't freakin' wait to find out though. Bloody hell.
Gears of War 2
The first thing that struck me about Gears 2 is how much more satisfying the guns feel than the first
game. They've noticeably beefed up the power and force of even the most basic Lancer, and it certainly gives battles an added sense of weight.
There's some nice new weapons too, if the fab new single shot rifle I nabbed in the opening minutes is anything to go by (picture a scope-less, semi-automatic Locust sniper rifle, and you get the picture).
|Gears 2: still the pretty|
Sadly it's kinda hard to discuss new additions beyond that though, as the opening to Gears 2 felt more like a 1.5 than a full-blown twosies. The way Marcus handles is borderline identical, with only the odd new execution move and ability to take downed Locusts hostage setting him apart from the Fenix of '06. This isn't helped by the somewhat mundane intro level which, honestly, could have been a mission from Gears 1 and I'd not have noticed.
Thankfully, just the second level alone sees a massive, humungous injection of ace-ness that made me sit right up at attention. An on-rails forest sequence that you may have seen in early promo vids, Marcus and Dom find themselves on the back of these huge convoy rigs when the Locust assault, and it basically feels like the entirety of the first Gears' enemy arsenal thrown at you in one humungous go. Everything from ginormous Corpser spiders, to the previously un-fightable T-Rex-esque Brumaks attack in multiple numbers, while Locust henchmen grapple onto the side of your vehicle in an attempt to penetrate from behind. It's one of the most flat-out epic and memorable Gears sequences yet.
Graphically, this level's a fine example of how Gears 2 doesn't reinvent the wheel of one of the prettiest games ever made, but certainly ups the ante. Minor lighting refinements aside, it may look startlingly similar, but there's way
more happening on-screen this time out, with the number of enemies in particular multiplied by the tens. We saw only very
minor slow-down in split-screen co-op, which was pretty darn admirable, given the sheer chaos happening on screen.
I had mixed thoughts on what I saw from Gears 2 overall then. On the one hand it seems to be perfecting the fab cover based gameplay of its predecessor, thanks to beefier weapons and an improved sense of scale, but at the same time there's a huge sense of d?j?-vu, as if some of these stages may have been Gears hold-backs. Ill-advised "emotional" moments involving Dom don't sit too well in the stomach either, and make me fear for the story once again.
We'll see, like.
|The '90s PC classics get their well-deserved sequel, and boy is it worth the wait. Courtesy of Oblivion devs Bethesda, Fallout 3 takes that same open-ended RPG premise into post-apocalyptic territories. No, you need no experience with the originals to enjoy|
F3 has one of the greatest videogame intros I've ever played. The lengthy, wordy and fully playable opening hour begins with a first person birth sequence (mum's straddled legs 'n' all), which then flashes forward through to your first birthday, then to your tenth, and multiple instances beyond, regularly interspersing gameplay segments along the way. At each milestone in your life, you're given choices and decisions to make, each one affecting your character's look, stats and personality, in what's essentially one whopping great big character creation screen, tied dramatically into the story of the universe.
I for one, think it's fucking incredible.
Just this opener alone has ample choice and multiple outcomes that'll provide a myriad of different tales for all who play. The wealth of dialogue choices and subsequent responses reminded far more of a BioWare game in fact, than the typical one dimensional Bethesda offering. Whether the game maintains this level of freedom and interaction later on will be interesting to see, particularly in a world of this size.
Following this intro - set inside one of Fallout's ominous vaults - you're set loose on the game aproper. In stark contrast to Oblivion
's release from the prison sewers out into Tamriel's beautiful green pastures though, here your initial views are that of bombed out craters and desolate wastelands for miles on end. The post-apocalyptic, futuristic setting is far from as beautiful, yet way more atmospheric, with a bizarre feeling of solitude that'll see you anxious to find the nearest outpost as soon as humanly possible. Mutant boar and burnso dogs don't help.
They called STALKER
"Oblivion with guns" last year, but Fallout 3 is literally
such a premise. Everything from the interface to the controls is borderline identical, even down to the floaty, unusable third person mode (still couldn't nail it, huh Bethesda?). Although far more RPG than shooter, those guns handle well enough for my liking though, making shoot-outs fun, fast-paced and enjoyable from the offset.
|From what little I played, F3 does a superb job of re-envisioning the original 2D Fallout universe in three dimensions|
Of course, there's the much-hailed (and entirely optional) "VATS" system for those who want to slow it down a notch. A hint back to the turn-based combat of the original Fallouts (which may I remind you, I discussed a month or two back
), VATS lets you pause the action, target specific body parts, and add more of a JRPG slant to the combat. It provides some pleasing animations and slow-mo death sequences that are sweet to watch, but I certainly know how this bad boy will be playing the game. And it ain't like this.
Much like Fable, you can't even begin to get a grasp on a game like Fallout in one mere hour. Particularly as its intro is so self-contained and juxtaposed next to the experience of emerging out into the radiated wastelands above. I had such fun in that opening section in fact, that the latter was almost a let-down by comparison. I wanted to get straight back into more cool story stuff and fucked up dialogue choices. Manipulating and messing with the NPCs in a way the Elder Scrolls games never really made good on previously. Instead I felt a little lost and daunted by the sheer enormity of what lay before me. You don't know where the hell to begin. Perhaps unlike Oblivion, F3 will be one free-roamer in which I stick primarily to the central plot for a change.
Hopefully I'll get onto full blown reviews for all of these in the coming weeks anyway, as each seems to range from potentially cool to down-right amazing in its own right.
Yep, it's that time of year again folks...