Saturday, January 24, 2009

Parappa the Cracka: Fable 2

2008 was a big year for gaming exclusives when it came to the PS3 vs 360 console wars: Sony had Little Big Planet, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Resistance 2 among others; while Microsoft answered with Gear of War 2 and the delightful Fable 2. So to get myself into the groove of game reviews I have decided to review Lionhead Studios' Fable 2.

Fable 2 is set some years after the events of the first game from the original Xbox in the very medieval-England inspired land of Albion, you start off as a poor child nick-named 'Little Sparrow' following your big sister around your town until you are both summoned to looming castle by the king where, after some unfortunate events, you are ultimately left for dead by said king. Your sister does not survive the event thereby establishing a story based upon vengeance and ridding the world of the power-hungry ruler who threatens to destroy it with the establishment of a dark new world order. The story takes you to many interesting towns both big and small, prosperous and poverty-striken where you gather information and ultimately gather three fellow 'heroes' to defeat the bad-guy. However, I felt that the story really wasn't as engrossing as it really could have been; after playing the much more mature Fallout 3, where it felt like peoples' fates were really in your hands, the fantastical and light-hearted elements of Fable 2 failed to capture my attention. Also due to the fact that your character never talks, instead simply gives thumbs up/down or other simple expressions, you caring for the world of Albion seems overtly absent. Another niggle I had with the plot was that, like Fallout 3 the climax was, well, not very climatic at all - sure the last boss fight was pretty good, but it didn't feel like the last boss fight.

Speaking of fighting the gameplay of Fable 2 is simple enough for any twit to pick up and play and also challenging enough to really suck you in and have fun, thus Lionhead Studios have crafted a control scheme suitable for both the hardcore RPG nut and the casual gamer. There are buttons specifically assigned to meelee, ranged and magic attacks and combining the three to defeat enemies when completely outnumbered can be very satisfying. Of course it wouldn't be an RPG without some sort of experience-based, leveling-up system enabling your character to become a near unstoppable force on the battlefield. Whenever you defeat an enemy they will drop glowing coloured orbs corresponding to each of your attacks as mentioned above will also fall to the ground as well as green experience orbs, combining the coloured and experience orbs allows you to upgrade these attributes resulting in increasing your health and giving you new melee moves (strength), increasing your accuracy and speed (skill), and granting you the ability to cast magic (will). It's a simple enough system to allow you to plan your moves in advance, but also strongly encourages you to become a sort of jack-of-all trades ability-wise.

With all RPGs and fighting there comes a moment of two when you will frankly get your ass kicked, whether this be by a gang of hollow men or by the gargantuan hand of a troll. Ultimately Fable 2 is very forgiving in this sense because once you die, or rather 'knocked out', you are brought back to life by some mysterious force momentarilly knocking back all surrounding enemies and completely recovering your health bar. The only negative consequences of which is that you lose any remaining experice orbs unclaimed and you gain a scar, both of which may ultimately encourage any penny-pinching gamer to save his or her money for investing in property as opposed to purchasing potions. What is a little dissapointing about Fable 2 is that if you are smart, and not rushing through the main plot, there is a chance that you may well not die at all. This is because the game is also very forgiving in its lack of difficulty, sure there are some tough fights out in Albion but they are all easily manageable to any seasoned RPG veteran.

Property is among many of the ways to make money in Albion, which, let's face it, you're going to kind of need when it comes to upgrading your weapons. Almost every building that you can walk into has a sign by the entrance giving you the option to purchase and move in or purchase and rent out. Cheaper properties such as shacks can be found in towns which are small and have bad economies and crime rates, while the more expensive ones come in the form of big shops and fancy houses in nice towns and cities - in fact it's even possible to purchase an entire castle! You can smartly invest in a property by purchasing it when the town is a dump, and then clean the town up by running out the criminals and giving gold to an investor who, after a certain period of time, will transform the ugly dump into a thriving metropolis. The return of your investment in property comes every five minutes in the form of rent, whether you're actually playing the game or not. This is a very interesting mechanic because it runs on real time based upon your 360's clock, however this can be taken advantage of by changing your console's clock ahead by a year and then reaping the benefits of god knows how many minutes of rent. But when you start your adventure through Albion property is going to be way too expensive for your n00b ass, so it's much smarter to start off with a simple job chopping wood, making swords or even serving drinks at the local pub. Whilst initially low paying and mundane, the more you keep at it, the more you'll be promoted - thus boosting your pay rate and pay multiplier. The interaction for these jobs involve a semi-circular plain and a marker that must stop in the green area in order to maximise the quality of the wood/sword/beer. While it's easy once you get used to the swinging marker this gets tedious fast and ultimately encourages you to get enough money to invest in property.

It is not just jobs that you interact with, several times in the game you are required to built up renown points among villagers and townsfolk in order to progress, this can be acheived in two ways: by completing side quests, and by impressing them in certain ways. The latter is where Fable 2's interacting mechanism comes into play. Certain people like certain things: drunks and vagabonds enjoy lewdness, so ripping out a fart or dancing will impress them; whilst fair maidens (or gents) will be impressed by whistling and flexing of one's muscles. However you can be as scary and intimidating as you want to be as well: for example if you think a vendor is being too steep with his prices why not give them a slap or scare the crap out of them with an evil laugh to force them to lower said prices? Intriguingly this also works for when you want to purchase someone's business too. The interaction with NPCs in Fable 2 goes further still by allowing you to flirt with townsfolk to the point where you can get married, move into one of your purchased properties and even have children, while this may have been a good idea at the time the actual effect of this is kind of hollow. Sure, the more immature (and 15-year old) gamers will be delighted to learn that you can have sex with damn near anyone, so long as they like you enough...or is a hooker, but really it just feels like time wasted trying to gain similar controversy coverage that came along with GTA: San Andreas' Hot Coffee issue.

One of Fable 2's biggest selling points is that you can be as evil or as good as you want to be, there are multiple factors to shape you character as you progress, starting from the beginning you can give arrest warrants to the town guard or to the head of a gang among others to decide whether your childhood town will be prosperous or a crime-ridden dump in the future. Your character changes over time based upon the choices you make, and citizens of Albion react to you accordingly. For example if you free slaves and vanquish the head slaver people will pass you in the street and complement you on your efforts...however if you run against the grain and enslave townsfolk people will avoid talking to you and you may even get in trouble with the town guard. The physical appearance of your character can change with your actions as well: want to stop that pair of horns sprouting from your head? Maybe you should stop slaying innocents and walking on the wild side buddy!

Along with negotiating the fine line between good and evil the thing that sets Fable 2 apart from other RPGs is something fairly minor that adds a very human side to your whole Albion experience, your dog. You save your dear mutt from a bully at the beginning of the game and he sticks by you throughout the plot providing some cutesy moments and one or two instances of amusement - at one time coming in the form of stealing an undead skeleton's head and bringing it to you oh so proud. But apart from the light hearted moments you dog does help out in practical ways: in combat if you knock an opponent down he will finish them off on the ground while you deal with someone else; he will also sniff out treasure chests and dig spots gaining some items that you otherwise may have missed. Your dog is not completely impervious to attacks however and will every now and then require some healing, or even a pat on the head or a doggie treat to cheer him up when scared. It's the little moments like these that actually make you give a damn about the mutt and make you genuinely value his company. However, your dog, like you, can change based upon your actions: the more evil you are, the more fierce he will appear; whilst the more kind hearted you are, the more noble and playfull he will become.

I cannot really say if Fable 2 is a major improvement upon the original's formula on the Xbox as I never played it, however it does bring some interesting gameplay mechanics to the console RPG table. At times it feels lacking in that extra oomph to really set it apart from other WoW clones out there, but in saying that it does have some truly exellent levels, such as exploring a massive evil spire with suffering and death pulling at your heart strings. While playing this game I did notice that my 360 was working very hard to keep everything going and at times suffered from some pretty dire frame rate issues and slow down, most notably whenever I pulled up the pause menu to add to my stats or fiddle with equipment the game would stop for a second or two considering what it would do with itself. However, Fable 2 is still a great game and an excellent 360 exclusive for those who love their RPGs, and with so many sidequests (some of which can only be unlocked after finishing the main story) it is doubtful that any RPG junkie will get bored quick.


Friday, January 9, 2009

Parapper the Cracker: Incoming 2009

To kick-off my gaming journalism for 2009 I've decided to compile a list of what I think will be some of this year's most exciting games for the 360 and the PS3 (I'm ignoring the Wii because I don't own one).

Skate 2 (360 & PS3): After the major success that was EA's Skate it's hard not to be excited about this game, and better yet it comes out later this month! Blackbox (EA's development company behind the game) are promising us a marked improvement over the original in the form of the ability to skitch cars, get off your board and even move objects around any area of the New San Velona. It all sounds like the Skate franchise is developing in a similar way to the Tony Hawke's franchise, but with such vastly different (and way better) control mechanics Skate 2 is promising to once again take the genre to a whole new level. Expect to see a review very soon!

Heavy Rain (PS3): In 2005 French developer Quantic Dream released the very unique Fahrenheit, a game that challenged the way gamers get involved in the story by actually making being directly involved in how the plot unfolded, creating what can only be described as an interactive movie. Four years later Quantic Dream are poised to release another game that allows you, the gamer, to decide how the story is told with the PS3 exclusive Heavy Rain. The plot and characters are still hazy at this point in time - something about a taxidermist serial killer - but with David Cage behind the helm of Quantic Dream I expect great things.

Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (PS3): Uncharted: Drakes Fortune was among the establishing game for PS3 owners when released, developer Naughty Dog (behind the original Crash Bandicoot series as well as Jak & Daxter) combined third-person shooter elements with platforming exploration to create a game that felt like the quirky love-child of Gears of War and Tomb Raider. While the original introduced us to the flawed hero Nathan Drake and his company in some very pretty Pacific island settings Uncharted 2 has appeared to present a polar opposite setting - the Arctic (gotta love puns eh?). While fighting mercs in a snowy landscape may not sound as visually impressive as a tropical paradise infested with pirates I have full confidence in Naughty Dog.

God of War III (PS3): Kratos makes his long awaited debut to the PS3 with the fourth game in the uber-bloody God of War franchise that promises to be as unrelenting and violent as its prequels. Trailers for this game have everyone's favourite Spartan-turned Greek god badass taking on everything from centuars and ogres to entire skeleton armies in the pursuit of one thing and one thing only: vengeance.

Final Fantasy XIII (360 & PS3): Long have I been a Final Fantasy nut and long have I waited for the infamous J-RPG franchise to make its appearance on next-gen consoles. After the initial shock announcement that Final Fantasy 13 would be released on 360 as well as traditional PS3 it seemed that Square Enix had sold out, but Sony lovers rejoiced when news emerged of not one FFXIII being released, but three to be released with the other two to be PS3 and PSP exclusive. Another reason why I'm very excited about this game is because of the return of one of my favourite Final Fantasy weapons, the gunblade - albeit in a slightly different form changing from blade to gun, as opposed to Squall's in FFVIII. Square Enix have a reputation for making visually impressive games with some of the prettiest settings you will ever see in a game, and with the great battle mechanics of Final Fantasy 12 hopefully remaining, Final Fantasy XIII could very well be the best role playing game of 2009.

Note: As much as I'd love to throw in the darker PS3 exclusive Final Fantasy XIII Versus into this list I don't even know for sure if it will even be released this year as no release date has even been hinted at. However if I do hear word of it being slated for release this year it will be on this list!

Gran Turismo 5 (PS3): The original Gran Turismo one the PlayStation was one of those games that got me hooked on gaming: the sheer amount of cars available, the realistic physics and the pretty visuals. Fast-forward and in 2009 I am eagerly awaiting GT5 with much baited breath. Earlier in 2008 Gran Turismo 5: Prologue was released to whet the appetites of racing nuts, and it certainly did the job. Gran Turismo 5 includes more manufacturers (Ferraris!), greater graphics (including a very nice in-car view, something which is very hard to come by), and, the crowning achievement, exclusive Top Gear content including episodes and the mighty Top Gear test track. Forza, eat your heart out.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Chinese Democracy - Guns N' Roses

Before I write anything about the long, long awaited new Gunners album one thing has to be made clear: this is not the Guns N' Roses that we have all grown to love, this is Axl Rose. That's it.

Now that I've got that off my chest let's get into the album shall we?

Chinese Democracy can probably be defined by two words: egotistical and epic.

Let's start with epic: With fourteen tracks clocking in at over seventy minutes this is hardly a short album. Starting from the first track's, Chinese Democracy, build-up intro you gather a good idea of what this album is going to be like, coupled with the fact that this album averages around 5 minutes a song, this isn't an easy album to listen to. An especially difficult song I find to listen to is 'Riad N' the Redouins' which just seems to be a frantic combination of noise by trying to combine screeching cat vocals with some crazy solos.

The main thing that struck me about Chinese Democracy is just how bloody heavy it gets, especially the opening tracks. 'Shackler's Revenge' (which will be available on Rock Band) and 'Better' both have very strong industrial feel evident in their sound thanks to the efforts of legendary guitarist Buckethead, while the latter is probably most attributable to NIN's own guitarist Robert Finck helping out. However 'I.R.S.' stands out for this reason in that it's one of the very few decent songs on the album that has a traditional rock'n'roll feel to it with great screeching guitar leads and interestingly enough some acoustic sections.

With Axl Rose at the helm this wouldn't be a Guns N' Roses album without some power ballads, of which there is no short supply of. If your idea of a Gunner's power ball is 'November Rain' then 'Street of Dreams' and 'This I Love' is something to listen to while 'If the World' is definately one of the more interesting songs on the album combining piano, Spanish guitars, porno grooves and recurring heavy industrial sounds. Another interesting, and catchy, song is 'Sorry' with some very nice licks from whatever guitarist it was (really it's proving to be too much effort to figure it out) as well as Sebastian Bach providing back up vocals.

Now onto the egotisitcal part of the review: Again it has to be stressed that this album is an Axl album, 'Scraped' speaks to this clearly with the lyrics "Don't you try to stop us now/I just refuse/Don't you try to stop us now/Cause I won't just let you" with annoying "A-yo"'s between the lines. Flip through the CD pamphlet and you can count three guitarists, two keyboardists and two drummers in the pictures alone making you realise how much of a dictatorship Rose has over the album and how dispensible everyone else is.

As I said above Chinese Democracy can be described by two words: egotistical and epic. While this may deter some from actually buying the album this is in no way a total write off of the album. The new Guns N' Roses may be swept up in their own might providing a number of sometimes difficult to listen to or just plain boring songs there are a few gems hidden in there which may mature as time trucks on. However I'm personally choosing to keep my hopes up for Slash's solo album emerging this coming year and listening to something less epic.

2.5 stars

Heart On - Eagles of Death Metal

Whenever I hear of a new Eagles of Death Metal album coming around the corner I always get butterflies in my stomach. However, these aren't your normal butterflies, they are, in fact, dirty groupie-loving butterflies.

Yup, the best kind.

For those not in the know Eagles of Death Metal, despite the name, is not a metal band, but in fact is the rock'n'roll offspring of Jesse "Boots Electric" Hughes and the mighty Joshua "Baby Duck" Homme (of Queens of the Stone Age and formerly Kyuss fame). Heart On is their third album together since the band was formed out of the Desert Sessions and has barely halted their creative love-juices from spirting all over your carpet.

Heart On takes a more diverse approach to EODM's blue grass-inspired flavour of rock'n'roll with some refreshing slower tempo songs ('Now I'm a Fool' and the drunk sounding 'Solo Flight') thrown in to balance out the million-miles an hour stlye that Homme's quirky drumming and Hughes sleeze-machine vocals and guitar has come to symbolise. In true EODM style Heart On reeks with rock'n'roll sleedyness (the good kind) with track titles including '(I Used To Couldn't Dance) Tight Pants' and the title track 'Heart On'. Erotic puns aside the album continues many fine EODM traditions evident in the first single 'I Wanna Be In L.A.' and the slide guitar-strewn 'How Can a Man With So Many Friends Feel So Alone'. While 'Cheap Thrills' contains the echoey back up vocals reminiscent of Death By Sexy's 'The Ballad Of Queen Bee And Baby Duck''s chorus, again we are thrown back into the gaping abyss of bouncing rock'n'roll 'I'm Your Torpedo' courtesy of Homme's drumming prowess.

If you're looking for a refreshing take on rock music then you cannot go past Eagles of Death Metal's Heart On, while it may not be as amazing as their last album Death By Sexy or as ground-breaking as their debut Peace, Love, Death Metal it is still something that needs to be checked out.
4 stars