Saturday, April 25, 2009

Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. Review

It's been awhile since I've played a flight sim (or at least anything close to one) until I heard about H.A.W.X. which would allow you to pick several planes and, like a series of other games that have come out recently, it comes with co-op - so I thought it'd be worth a whirl with my guildies and hence why I bought it. Now after finishing the single player campaign and played several mission with my mates, here's the review.

Sound (3/5)
Voice acting in the game is done well and the gun and missile sound effects are satisfactory (although the dropping of bombs somehow doesn’t give the distinctive whistling noise). The sonic boom when you break the sound barrier though is a very nice touch and something I haven’t noticed in flight sims (but then again, the last time I flew a flight sim was a looong time ago, T.F.X. anyone?)

T.F.X. Video (ah the nostalgia)

Music (4/5)
Tom Salta has done a good with the music with a heroic-sounding theme being incorporated in many of the tracks in the game and appropriately tense action music during combat.

Graphics (4/5)
As mentioned earlier, it’s been a long time since I’ve played flight sims although I can’t find anything to really fault about the graphics in this game. Yes, I’ve read reviews saying the graphics suck and that the ground looks pixelated up close but since there’s so much detail with the amount of foliage and buildings in cities, a little pixelated ground isn’t going to bother me.

What I particularly liked about this game is that even with the large number of flyable aircraft on offer, cockpit views have been painstakingly recreated for each of the aircraft which is commendable. Of course you can’t actually look around the cockpit, and some dials and MFDs don’t actually move or flicker, but hey you can’t have everything I suppose!

Plot (4/5)
The game has a good plot as it’s your typical Tom Clancy storyline. The game is set in the near future where you’re part of a decommissioned elite USAF fighter outfit known as H.A.W.X. The game sees you and your wingmen joining one of many PMCs which have become quite common in the future, thanks to the Reykjavik Accords. You end up flying missions for them to earn a living and inevitably a plot twist occurs somewhere in the middle of the game. Okay it may be predictable to some but it’s a lot better than what you experience in other games where they have shocking plots or none at all.

In a way the game’s plot reminds me of Strike Commander, except unlike the venerable Origin flight sim (at least in terms of actual gameplay) you can’t pick wingmen in H.A.W.X. or manage the company’s funding.

Ah more nostalgia... Strike Commander!

Before going any further, it must be mentioned that even though H.A.W.X. looks and feels like a flight sim it doesn’t play like one. It’s more of an arcade-style flight sim. Flying the planes have been simplified for non-flight sim fans and this is all good in my books however some features that have been added tend to emphasise even more that H.A.W.X. is an arcade game rather than a flight sim with features such as the ERS (Enhanced Reality System) and the OFF-mode.

Basically ERS creates a path for you to follow in order to intercept targets. When it’s turned on, you get a tunnel of concentric rings on your HUD that you’re meant to follow through in order to get the best trajectory to your target – it reminds me a lot of a similar system in Frontier: Elite II. I must admit that ERS is useful in some situations (when buildings are obscuring the view of ground targets) but probably becomes overkill when you are using it on air targets or to evade missiles and quite frankly I think it’s cheating in these situations, so I turn it off.

The OFF-mode is another feature that I don’t use, since it makes it extremely difficult to manoeuvrer and aim at targets. Basically switching to OFF-mode allows you to be more manoeuvrable at the expense of the plane’s stability. That means as soon as you turn OFF-mode on physics becomes more realistic and your plane will be more prone to stalling (without OFF-mode you can’t stall). As much as I’m a fan of adding a bit more realism into the game (by allowing the plane to stall), unfortunately, OFF-mode turns out being unrealistic because you end up playing the game in a side-on 3rd person view and I have no idea how it makes the game easier to play.

Plane statistics are also simplified with a series of stars and bars rating their abilities. For example, the A-10 Thunderbolt would have its Anti-Ground rating much higher than its Anti-Air, and it has a slow speed bar but a very high armour bar. The game also gives plane little perks as well, so back to our A-10 Thunderbolt example, the plane has a perk called “Ultra Cannon” or something similar, which means its cannon does extra damage (and so it should, when you’re firing depleted Uranium shells the size of milk bottles!).

F-117A Gameplay Footage

Replayability (4/5)
The ability to hop in and play the single-player campaign co-operatively with up to three friends is a nice touch, although you’ll probably have to rely on having friends to play with since H.A.W.X., depending on the time of day, have very little players online, which could make setting up a Team Deathmatch challenging.

The game has also incorporated an experience system where earning XP (experience points for you non-RPG types) allows you to unlock new plans, maps. XP is earned by getting kills but can be earned quicker if you complete achievements like finishing single player campaign missions or getting a certain number kills with a particular weapon.

The interface is very clunky and somehow my plane automatically fires missiles when I’m in a single player campaign – I thought that it might be a problem with the joystick but I noticed that in multiplayer it never does that, which is kind of strange (although I read somewhere that apparently it is caused by a voice-activated-commands bug). Fortunately you don’t get any awards based on accuracy so it doesn’t matter too much if I accidentally let off a few missiles (since you get a generous amount of them anyway).

Getting around the menus is a chore as well. Sometimes when you expect hitting a key will work, it doesn’t and you have to resort to a mouse click or a double mouse-click, you’re always second guessing what to do. For example, setting up a multiplayer co-op game is a complex affair. Basically you need to have added some friends to your friend list first, then you create a multiplayer game and then hit a key to invite friends which ONLY appears when you’ve created the multiplayer game. Also if you’ve already invited your friends to join the game once during the session you can’t do it again since the button blacks out. And that’s not all, specifying a player slot as “private” doesn’t seem to stop random players joining the game lobby either. As you can see the interface is really annoying but at least it’s functional I suppose.

F-22 Raptor Gameplay Footage

Overall - 69%
A fun arcade-style flight sim to play with friends, although hardcore flight sim fans will find little to like, besides the large hangar of planes available to fly!

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Age of Booty Review

I had high hopes for Age of Booty - what better setting for a casual game than pirate ships fighting each other for control over some islands? YAAARGH! Unfortunately I encountered many problems whilst trying to get into the game and even though the game is only $10 USD, some of its faults are inexcusable. Read on to find out why.

Age of Booty Gameplay Video

Sound (3/5)
There’s nothing wrong with the game’s sound. It’s functional. An appropriately piratey voice announces events during the game and whilst cruising around the map, you’ll frequently hear the sounds of the sea, cannons, horns and parrots. All very piratey.

Music (2/5)
The game is somewhat lacking in music, only having one piratey jig that plays during the main menu. The pity is that the music isn’t too bad but it would’ve been nice if they had more. In Sid Meier’s Pirates! I thought a nice touch was the occasional little sea shanties that were played every time you won a battle – quite a simple gimmick yet one that wouldn’t have gone amiss in Age of Booty!

Graphics (3/5)
Graphics aren’t too special but hey it’s a casual game, so what do you expect? At least they’re bright, colourful and functional, since that’s all you really need.

Plot (4/5)
There really isn’t much of a plot in this game since it’s just a casual game after all, however there was some effort put into making one so kudos should be given because of that.

The game takes place on a hexagonal grid. Most of it is covered with sea tiles and the rest with land tiles, some of them containing towns, Native villages and volcanos (which represent Pirate Bases). The premise is quite simple: use your pirate ship to capture as many towns as possible to win the game – it’s basically a piratey version of Capture the Flag. The towns and villages will give you resources which allow you to upgrade your ship’s speed, defense and attack, and bolster the defences of towns you control. Sinking merchant ships will give you special abilities that you can use on your opponents (e.g. bombs to do damage, stealing resources, etc.).

That’s basically the game in a nutshell and while the gameplay is okay, and there’s nothing really to fault about it, it can seem somewhat boring to non-casual gamers since the RPG fans will be looking for ways to “power-level” which is very limited in this game, and the FPS/action fans will be looking for ways to test their skill, which you can’t really do in this either since combat is automatic. Ultimately a lot of it relies on chance and the only advantage to be gained from being a veteran player is in knowing the maps.

True most casual games do rely a lot on chance and not much decision making (I know Uno is a bit like that) but computer gamers don’t want a game that is too casual… or if it does, it has to have a lot of customisation to make it worth while (e.g. The Sims formula). Being able to customise your pirate avatar or ship may have been a nice touch that would’ve improved the game’s appeal and longevity.

Replayability (2/5)
There is a marked lack of players at the moment which is a shame. Fortunately, some players have decided to make online communities to help counter the problem (one such community exists here on Steam:, however it just goes to show how unpopular the game is and the lack of opponents severely affects the game’s replayability. I don’t know if it’s because of poor marketing or not but I would’ve expected a bit more people for a game that’s only $10 USD!

The map editor is a nice addition and this helps with the replayability value of the game but again, if there aren’t any others around to show off your creations too, then what’s the point? There’s only so much you can play on single player since the maps aren’t randomised and you’re playing against the same AI, so once you’ve finished with that, then there’s not much else.

It took me a lot of effort to get the game working in the first place and sadly even this game uses SecuROM (NOOoooooo!). Speaking of which, several people have reported problems with mismatched serial keys being provided. This is what Capcom had to say about the "CD Key In Use" error:

If you're getting this error and purchased via the Capcom Store, Capcom customer support is now able to give you a new Gamespy CD-Key. Note it won't work for product activation, just for Gamespy matchmaking.

I'm not quite sure why there were duplicate keys being issued on the store, but we're going to reissue keys to the capcom store so going forward new customers will be issued unique keys. Sorry for the cd key issue :(

I've also asked CA to look through these threads at the other issues currently being observed.

I however started getting problems as early as installation of the game, but then I discovered uninstalling the beta copy somehow fixed things!

DRM issues aside, the game also has a rather drab interface that looks amateurish. I know the developers were probably going for a piratey look but the interface looks very pixelated and a cleaner high-resolution interface would’ve looked better. Also running the game at my monitor’s native resolution is impossible since it only supports a few, so the 22” Widescreen LCD users will just have to do with a lower resolution setting.

Overall - 51%
A cheap, casual pirate game that is mired by DRM issues and gameplay that would appease only the most casual of PC players.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fallout 3 Review

It's finally here. It's been a long time coming but Bethesda Softworks has finally create a new addition to the venerable Fallout series - an RPG that post-apocalyptic sci-fi fans can enjoy! The game looks a lot different and plays a lot different than its predecessors - in fact the first two shared very similar engines. They were also developed in the day when 3D FPSs were in their infancy. The original Fallout (the one I played most) captured a unique atmosphere. It wasn't only the post-apocalyptic setting which was rare in computer games, but the fact it had such wit and dark humour in it, the 50s nostalgia and optimism that lurked in the background and which was so brutally crushed by the atomic bomb. The game had an excellent plot, memorable characters, music, and like with many Black Isle games, what you did in the game had several different consequences come end-game. The game was a classic so Fallout 3 has a lot to live up to. Can it be considered as good or better than the original Fallout? Read on to find out.

Fallout 3 Early Character Creation Video

Sound (4/5)
Sound Effects are generally good, it's especially humorous hearing screams in slow-mo when you're using V.A.T.S. (more on V.A.T.S. later). The voice acting is excellent thanks to some professional screen and voice actors such as Liam Neeson and Malcolm McDowell. Ron Perlman also reprises his role as the narrator which is a nice touch, although I wonder if he's getting sick of saying "War, war never changes" all the time...

Music (5/5)
A lot of effort was made in bringing a nostalgic feel to the music of Fallout 3, which is great since the earlier games did the same, at least with the theme songs. However in Fallout 3, you actually get to play radio stations with music from the 50s and earlier. Songs like I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy from the South Pacific musical, Anything Goes by Cole Porter and even Maybe by The Inkspots (which was the original Fallout theme song).

The only disadvantage of the licensed music on the radio stations is that you don't get to hear the actual background music for the game.

Oh and fans of the Fallout series would be happy to know that Bethesda Softworks actually obtained the song rights for the song they wanted to play at the start of the original Fallout: I Don't Want to Set the World on Fire by The Inkspots.

Graphics (3/5)
The graphics are good and a bombed out, post-apocalyptic Washington D.C. never looked so good – but the graphics aren’t exactly cutting edge and you can tell the game is just Oblivion in post-apocalyptic clothes. Even the jumping animations look as clumsy as they did in Oblivion.

Also the game is not for the squeamish – heads, arms, legs, brains and eyeballs tend to splatter all over the place when critical hits are involved – but then again the original Fallout was like that too.

Plot (5/5)
It has a great alternate history timeline for its plot that really immerses you into the world – what happened if the optimistic Atomic Age of the Future, imagined in the 50s, was a reality (and then destroyed in an instant thanks to nuclear war)? That's basically what the Fallout series is all about. In Fallout 3 you get to play in Washington D.C. on the Eastern Coast of the United States as opposed to the West Coast which was where the first two games were set. This allows Bethesda Softworks some freedom in crafting the story while still borrowing elements from the older games that made them great.

There are quite a few new gameplay elements in Fallout 3, the most obvious being the game is now an FPS although it mixes a lot of RPG elements too, just like Oblivion. The RPG elements determines how effective your FPS skills are (i.e. in terms of damage and accuracy).

There is also the introduction of the V.A.T.S. system which is a legacy of the original Fallout days where you could target specific body parts to focus damage. The system makes things considerably easier which you'll either love or hate (personally I think it balances a bit since it's quite difficult to aim when your accuracy is determined by stats).

Character creation is quite novel in this, as I'm sure you've heard already, as you guide your character literally from the womb until adulthood and you mold your character through several chapters in his/her childhood. This is a trademark of Bethesda Softworks games which allows those non-power gamers within us to just go with the flow and see what character you turn up with, which I think is a plus. You can of course, always tailor it to your liking later on if you're not satisfied with the game's recommendation.

The game also has some neat hacking and lockpicking mini-games. The former has you playing a game similar to Mastermind as you attempt to guess the password on computers with monochrome monitors. Lockpicking has you twisting the picks back and forth until you find the sweet spot. Both mini-games work reasonably well and quite closely resemble the real thing (or at least does so in an aesthetically pleasing way).

The only criticism I could offer is that the interface can sometimes feel a bit clunky since it takes several clicks to get to items of interest you want to buy/sell with the mouse but it’s only a minor quibble since besides that, everything else works well.

Fallout 3 Gameplay Video

Replayability (3/5)
Fallout 3 has as much replayability as Oblivion although maybe less so since it seems there’s a lot less sub-quests. The main storyline definitely seems shorter.

Also unlike the old Fallout which gave you an epilogue of how you changed each community in the Wastes, the ending in Fallout 3 is centred more around you and only pays lip service to how the Wastes were changed by you, which is a pity, since I thought that was a major strength of the original (and Black Isle games in general - take Arcanum for an example).

The game sadly uses SecuROM (like most games nowadays) even if it's only for a so-called simple disc check. Also the game has frequent Crashes to Desktops although patches have been apparently reducing the frequency.

The AI in the game also has pathing issues which is annoying as sometimes they storm off to their deaths (which is obviously a legacy of Oblivion)

And what RPG would be complete without quest bugs? Yes there are plenty here too - one time I went into a town only to have them all turn against me for no apparent reason! That pretty much shut down any quests I could get from there...

On the plus side, a lot of effort has been made in capturing the same feel as the original Fallout, which is a good thing. The retro-futuristic feel to the series is rare to find in the entertainment industry - it's like the Jetsons with a dose of reality added to the mix.

Overall - 80%
An excellent free-roaming post-apocalyptic RPG, Bethesda Softworks style.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Guild Wars approaches 4th year anniversary

Firstly, my apologies for a lack of reviews recently - I've actually got four drafted waiting to go, namely Fallout 3, Age of Booty and Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. but thanks to a timely breaking down of my actual computer (I'm using my fiance's one at the moment) I'm unable to dig up the videos and other supporting material to actually post the review.

Anyway, in the meantime, Guild Wars fans can rejoice as the 4th anniversary is almost upon us which does not only mean the usual new miniatures for characters reaching their 4th birthdays and Boardwalk games but ArenaNet are introducing quite a few other upgrades to the game:

1) Every character will now have a fifth slot that's reserved for an "Equipment Pack" which stores 5-20 weapons or armour. Additional tabs can be purchased for the Xunlai Storage as well from the online store.

2) Introduction of the Zaishen Menagerie, not sure exactly what the point of this is but it seems that you may be able to unlock all the pets in the game provided you bring a pet that belongs to a certain "tier".

3) Zaishen Challenge Quests will be added which are kind of like "Quests of the Day"

The 23rd April is when it will all start.

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Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sims 3 DRM confirmed

Well it doesn't look like EA and Maxis are going to be using as invasive a DRM system as they did for Spore (thank God) but "disc-based copyright protection" doesn't mean SecuROM is out of the picture yet.

So I guess it's a mix of good and bad news.

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