Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Top 5 on Xbox 360

As we stumble towards a new decade I offer up these 5 suggestions for gaming genius over the New Year period. All are in stores now and are currently draining hours of my life every week.

5. GTA4: The Ballad of Gay Tony

Spend some more time in Liberty City causing mayhem and making a profit.

4. Left 4 Dead 2

More infected annihilating fun, this time in the Deep South.

3. Assassin’s Creed 2

Continuing where Assassin’s Creed left off, this time Desmond’s adventure takes him to Renaissance Italy.

2. Dragon Age: Origins

Bioware’s outstanding RPG. Choose your background; build your character; save the world.

1. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

The benchmark for First Person Shooters and gaming realism. Fight the good fight in story mode and have hours of fun online in multiplayer.

Have a very happy New Year.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Awestruck by Avatar?

Last week I heard lots said about James Cameron’s new film, Avatar. In several publicity spots, on TV and in the printed press, members of the cast and crew as well as Mr. Cameron himself have been talking at length about the film’s use of 3D technology and how important this event is for the media of film. I wasn’t convinced. I had seen some advertisements for the film and I couldn’t escape the billboards everywhere with 20-foot high blue faces, but something about the publicity drive made me suspect that I would be disappointed if and when I went to see it.

On Friday night I took my fiancée out for a meal and, afterwards, to the cinema. As it happened, Avatar 3D was the next film showing; we paid for our tickets as well as an extra £3 for the 3D glasses then took our seats. I had an underlying sense of cynicism about the whole thing because of the hype that I had been subjected to in the week before and was not expecting very much. I was, in fact, prepared to be thoroughly disappointed. I could not have been more wrong and I have eaten a healthy portion of humble pie.

The 3D experience is awesome. Getting used to watching something that makes you feel like you are in the room with the action was one of the most absorbing experiences I have had in quite some time. Quite apart from the storyline, which is compelling if somewhat predictable after a time, the visual effects are quite simply breathtaking. Cameron has produced a visually spectacular masterpiece and it will, I’m sure, influence how movies are made in the future. With the 3D technology used so sublimely in Avatar, the film industry has a new benchmark with which to compare all future big releases. Cameron’s stroke of genius in the movie was not to let the 3D aspect drive the movie, but rather to fill it out and add, for want of a better phrase, a new dimension to the film. Avatar can be seen in standard 2D format, but viewers would miss out on the whole experience that comes with 3D.

The storyline keeps the viewer interested and you do genuinely care about what happens to the characters. Its futuristic plot thinly veils the underlying themes of the movie, climate change, destruction of habitat and the arrogance of the human race, all of which are hot topics at present. The CGI is almost seamless and despite the alien landscape, creatures and environment it is rare, throughout the film, to spot anything that looks fake or out of place.

Avatar has made me acutely aware of the move to 3D technology in entertainment. Sky TV in the UK has announced it is launching 3D TV in 2010 and I am sure it won’t be long before more movies, TV programmes and the games industry follow in the footsteps of Mr. Cameron and his 3D pioneering predecessors. The cherry on the top was that my fiancée enjoyed it too, which is surprising as Sci-fi isn’t ordinarily her first choice. My thanks go out to Mr Cameron.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Dungeons and Dragon Age

Bioware, the new masters of the RPG, have released their latest enthralling, engaging, story driven, action packed delve into the genre: Dragon Age: Origins. Like many RPGs, Dragon Age follows the route of the fantasy epic but with a focus on the background, or Origin, of the character that you play. Players are offered to start the game from one of six very different backgrounds, covering a variety of races, social backdrops, and genders. The player’s start position in the game very much effects how the game will unfold as you are ferried along the storyline, and your choices and moral decisions effect the game world and how characters interact with you. The initial part of the game is unique to each character type and, unless you choose to play the game through six times, players will experience only one Origin story before the game proper begins.

It doesn’t take long before the depth of the storyline is hinted at, with a rich back-story unfolding that includes suggestions of deep class and racial divides throughout the land of Ferelden. This complex background is the canvas upon which the main plot is painted. A dark threat to all living creatures, in the form of the demonic Darkspawn, is unleashing a Blight upon the land. Not long into the game we see humanity’s big stand against the monsters, and it goes horribly wrong. Unsurprisingly, despite the player character’s age and inexperience, we soon discover that you are the only person who can unite the divided lands and people to make a final heroic stand against the Arch-demon (a Dragon). Made a member of the Grey Wardens, an elite group of warriors sworn to destroy the Darkspawn, you and your band of warriors, mages, war dogs, elfs, dwarfs and Golems are sent off to finish what the armies of men could not.

The game is very long and engaging. Expect to lose tens of hours to the intricacies of the storyline, combat and character customisation. The combat itself seems to breach the gap between the needs of the hardcore RPG fan and those of the part-time gamer, with real time fighting that can be paused to choose and customise attacks and other actions from any of your player characters in order to achieve a victory. Moving away from the usual turn based combat that RPGs traditionally use, this form of combat interface allows gamers who are new to the genre to enjoy the game without loosing interest due to the intricacies of the character profile and the effects of attack, defence and chance upon the successful outcome of any action. It is all there for gamers who want it and can be ignored by those who don’t.

The game suffers slightly from long loading periods and on the Xbox 360 version some of the graphics and background textures can detract from an otherwise excellent gaming experience. On occasion some of the cut scenes suffer from glitches or missing segments of dialogue but these are very few and far between. Re-playing the section concerned often fixes the problem. Dragon Age: Origins is, overall, an RPG fan’s dream and Bioware’s efforts to make the genre more accessible to gamers not usually drawn to such titles is remarkable. With downloadable content available and more planned for the Christmas market the games longevity could well increase like other titles such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3.