Friday, November 25, 2005

Dark & Light: It's not ALL about the 360

The 360 hasn't quite taken over my whole gaming life yet! I'm a fan of MMORPGs, and the PC is still the platform of choice for that genre.

Of the MMORPG's due out in the next half year or so, I'm most interested in Dark & Light, a game being created by a small French company. They have some interesting and ambitious design ideas such as having only one large instance of their world that can host up to 100,000 people at once. (At least, that's their goal.) In addition the geographic area itself will be enormous, and they are looking to create very rich alternatives to combat, with lots of things to do for crafters, traders, etc.. The game will also provide plenty of opportunities for PVP and faction vs. faction activities.

Another new approach they're taking is to offer a slowly-increasing subset of the final game's feature set starting December 8th that will be open to the public. It is pretty much an open beta, but they're branding it 'Settlers of Ganareth', and seem to be putting alot of thought into making it a fun gaming experience on its own right, without requiring people to go through the usual beta formalities.

They're also letting people pre-purchase a limited number of keys to Dark & Light that will give all sorts of in-game perks. At the time of this post lots of people were trying to get in to purchase those, so their site may be slow right now. (Essentially it's the beta for their billing procedures!) But, you do not have to do this to participate in SoG starting on December 8th, so you may just want to wait a couple days before trying to check things out.

Things running smoothly...

I've been seeing some newsbuzz around problems with 360s. So far, aside from the one freeze-up I experienced while updating my Bejewelled from trial to full version, everything has been smooth-as-silk for me.

I'll keep my fingers crossed, but, so far so good!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Condemned: Criminal Origins: First thoughts

This is the second of two games I got for the 360, and it's a great example of how strong graphics and gaming muscle alone don't make for a compelling gaming experience. Don't get me wrong: the graphics and sound are solid, rivaling those of current generation PC shooters, but the already repetitive gameplay and confined game environments (that I've encountered so far) keep it from being something special.

It's less about gunplay as your typical first-person shooter, and more centered around brutal, visceral melee combat. Wandering through the rundown, junk-ridden settings feels stereotypical and uninspired, but the game nevertheless builds some moments of strong tension due to the well-implemented audio and detailed graphics.

The experience of fighting the others in the game is disturbingly well done, but I did find myself getting into a groove, with each combat playing out very similarly to the last. I haven't played this much yet, so there probably are some twists and turns to come.

The 'forensic' portions of the game are only window-dressing so far, used as a way to advance the plot. There's no real thought involved with are told to pull out some tool, you do so by hitting the X button, then just move your view window around slightly to focus in on whatever glows brightly and send the evidence off to your research partner, who will then contact you via cellphone to advance the plot.

Overall, I'm still enjoying myself playing this, but it does show how next-gen audio and graphics do not suffice in making a great gameplay experience. I'll post more when done (or near done), and let you know if Condemned shows more varied moves later on in the game.

Kameo: First thoughts

Kameo has gorgeous graphics, and shows the 360 off to good effect. In the past I've called Russ over to see some new game with good graphics, and he's not too impressed. But, when he saw me playing Kameo he seemed quite impressed with the graphics of the game. Since he's quite the curmudgeon when it comes to games, this is high praise indeed.

The gameplay is smooth, and so far is reminiscent of a smaller-scale Zelda-style game. It's quite linear so far, and I agree with other reviews that criticized it's overly-difficult beginning being followed by a simple tutorial. After this odd choice in game flow, it improves, and I'm having a blast playing it.

I'll post more after a few more hours of time with it, but in the meantime I think it's safe to enthusiastically recommend this to those who like Zelda and/or platform-style games. It's also a strong introduction to what the 360 is capable of doing.

First Impressions: The XBox 360 itself

The XBox 360 lives up to the hype. The new games, even these first releases that were done on a fast timetable, are a noticeable improvement over the prior generation, and bode well for future games that will be made once developers are familiar with the system and learn to better exploit its power. The 'minor' features such as the options for communicating with friends, the low cost arcade/puzzle games for online purchase, and the media integration capabilities proved more compelling than I expected.

I got my 360 at 8am yesterday morning when the EB I'd preordered at had opened. It's the complete version, with wireless controller, remote control, hard drive, and high-def cables. The 360 is surprisingly heavy, and almost as big as the current XBox. However, it is very cleverly designed to minimize this fact, and gives the impression of being smaller than it is due to its light color and inward-curving surfaces.

The new controller felt excellent, with the two analog sticks having small indentations in the center and a ring of slight ridges around the outside. They've acknowledged that Sony's and Nintendo's design of having Left/Right shoulder buttons and triggers was better by adopting it themselves and got rid of the black/white buttons.

The 360 itself had a good solid feel: less like a toy, and more like a substantial component. Set-up was straight forward. A couple minor points if you don't want to read the instructions: if you get the HD cable, make sure you set the sliding switch so it uses the HD cables instead of the regular connections (it's an "all in one" cable), and the 360 will start out at 480i, so you won't be seeing it at its best until you boost it to 720p or 1080i in the options menu.

Menus are brightly colored, well thought out, and easy to use. I quickly grew to appreciate the capabilities offered for keeping in touch with your friends. After they've accepted your friend request, you can see if each other is on when you start up your XBox, and also see what each other is playing. If they aren't initially on when you are, you will see a small notification when they start playing on their 360. You can send text or (brief) voice messages as well as establish a chat session with each other that can continue while you each play your games (whether the same or not). One note: to avoid annoying feedback be sure you each turn your headset volume to something less than full, otherwise you can hear double or even triple echoes of whatever you say.

The included puzzle game Hexic is lots of fun, with a great techno soundtrack (if you like that sort of thing) and the usual addictive gameplay typical of these types of games when well-designed. I also bought Bejewelled 2 via the marketplace feature. I did hit my one hitch while doing this: After downloading the feature-limited trial version I purchased the full version license, which I assume just downloaded a small additional license file, but upon returning to my in-progress game the 360 froze, and had to be manually restarted. When I next returned to the game it recognized the save game file on the hard drive was corrupt, and replaced it. All has been fine since then, and I played for an embarrasingly long period of time before I even cracked open my new games (Kameo and Condemned). After a particularly good game I managed to get to 8th on the leaderboard, which I was very proud of since I'm not a very capable gamer in general. (I wonder how often those are cleared, and if they will be nation/continent specific?)

Since I'm not a particularly talented gamer, I appreciate the new zones you can use to indicate your general playing attitude/style. I chose the 'Recreation' zone, and you can also choose more competitive and/or family friendly zones as well. In addition, the 360 will use your achievements in playing games to further rate you and match you against other opponents. This is great for those of us with less talent (or is it obsessive persistence?) than most when it comes to gaming competition chops.

I've heard some people are having trouble getting the 360 to work with their PCs (Media Center edition or otherwise). I'll be trying that side of things out Friday, and will relay my experiences then.

In the meantime, my tag is 'Twilight Sky'. Feel free to say 'hi' if you feel like it!

Overall, I'm quite impressed so far with the 360, and very happy to have reserved in time to get one on launch day (In case you're wondering I reserved it back in May). Big hint to those looking forward to the PS3: Reserve one AS SOON AS your local EB/Gamestop will let you to ensure you get one of those on day one. Getting a hot new console on opening day is tremendous fun, especially when it delivers like this!

Monday, November 21, 2005

Tomorrow morning looms

Scott and I are going over to a local EB and plan to get there 30 to 45 minutes before they open at 8am. We both have 360's waiting for us, so there's no rush, but we do want to get in then out relatively quickly so we can get home and start gaming.

Of course the main attraction are the 2 games I got, but there a few minor features I'm looking forward to:

- Being able to send voicemail to other friends online
- Being able to chat with friends even though we're playing different games
- Hooking my iPod up to the 360
- Streaming video from my Media Center laptop to it. It's a big pain having to connect and disconnect all the cables everytime I want to plug the laptop in to the cable box/tv/receiver/etc., and this way all I have to do is hook/unhook to the cable box and let the 360 use the wireless network to play the recorded shows. I haven't used the laptop's Media Center capabilities much because of the awkwardness of it, but this just might make it much more convenient.

The next post tomorrow morning will be some first impressions....

Sunday, November 20, 2005

XBox 360 Tuesday

I reserved an XBox 360 at a local EBX back in late May. At the time I started bugging my videogame fanatic friend Scott to do the same, and he pre-ordered in early June. Another coworker who likes her gaming pre-ordered in September.

This last week, after hearing that many pre-orders would go unfulfilled on its debut, I wanted to make sure I was all set to go. I figured I was all set, but it can't hurt to check. I called the EB, and after brushing off the canned "We'll call those getting one soon" response, I got the salesguy to check. He did, and I was indeed all set to go. Same for Scott. (It actually turned out I was 10th on their list.)

Later that week our other co-worker checked, and she will not be getting one on opening day. (But, she's having a blast with Half-Life 2 on the XBox, so it's not a tragedy by any means, because that is such a superb game.)

I've already pre-ordered and received my first two games: Kameo and Condemned. Scott pre-ordered Project Gotham Racing 3 and Perfect Dark:Zero. We deliberately made sure we don't have any overlap so we can swap games when done, at least for trying the others out for a few days.

The one (admittedly minor) hitch is that our EBX that we pre-ordered from will not be opening at midnight, but instead wait until 8am the next morning. They were originally saying they'd open at midnight, but now were saying they received fewer 360s Microsoft initially said they would get, and it was no longer worth it to open early. Fortunately I took that Tuesday off, so it's only a minor delay, and at least I know my system will be waiting for me, and can still spend most of the day in next-gen console heaven rather than anxiously waiting on line(s) trying to nab one of the 'first-come-first-serve' 360s.

I'll post first impressions of the console, the expanded XBox Live offerings, and the games themselves over the coming week.