Since I've been making a concerted effort to go through my Xbox 360 backlog I've been sneaking an Xbox Live Arcade title between every game or two. Having just completed Orcs Must Die! I figured I’d also go ahead and mention a couple others I put some time into recently.
"Not pictured: imminent painful death."
First, at some point I ended up buying and giving Trials HD a whirl. For those unfamiliar with the series (who are you?!) the game is kind of like a modern day Excitebike, only using an amped up physics engine and courses designed by total fucking sadists. You play an anonymous motocross rider negotiating various obstacles (that aren't necessarily based in reality) as quickly and smoothly as possible. It’s not really a “race” in the traditional sense but you’re always racing against the clock to beat pre-defined goals. There’s also a nice feature that lets you easily compare your scores against your XBL friends'. I knew this game had a reputation for being brutally difficult but that it was also built from the ground up on that premise, making restarts and retries convenient and forgiving. It definitely delivers there, instilling a “just one more try!” attitude on even the least addictive personalities. Personally, while I feel like I could play this game forever, attempting to gold medal every race, unlock all of the achievements, etc. I honestly have too many games on my backlog to justify subjecting myself to the kind of frustration that started rearing its head once I got into the “hard” and “extreme” rated levels for too long. Yeah, I shamefully put this one down before completing it. If I had bought it when it came out I might have finished it but I just can’t force myself through it right now.
Speaking of which, I also ended up picking up Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater HD during a XBLA sale at some point. Thinking of the first three Tony Hawk games causes an almost instant nostalgic flashback to my college years, with just about every one of my punk rock, wanna-be skater friends that owned a Playstation or Dreamcast at the time totally addicted to the series. I owned the barely adequate Nintendo 64 port of the first game myself and was totally addicted to it despite its shortcomings. How does it feel to go back? Eh, kind of shitty actually. The game looks pretty good and, at first play, controls more or less like what I remembered the series playing like. Unfortunately those positive impressions didn't last long as I began to notice that the controls didn't quite make the translation to the new HD engine which itself “feels” totally different and is chalk full of some now rather infamous physics bugs. Most offensively, the classic THPS soundtrack has been totally gutted. Licensing issues, most likely, but it still changes the experience drastically. While I wouldn't necessarily tell any fans of the original to totally steer clear of this remake I’d definitely suggest giving the demo a shot first. Personally, after clearing about half of the levels I've decided to put it down.
Finally, an XBLA game I couldn't even start to put down early was Orcs Must Die! Holy shit, I love this game! I've talked very fondly about both Toy Soldiers and Defense Grid on this blog in the past so it probably comes as no surprise that I’m raving about yet another highly polished tower defense game. Orcs Must Die! probably more closely resembles Toy Soldiers, as it gives the player the ability to participate in the action themselves rather than just hover above the battlefield like some kind of micromanagement obsessed deity. Actually, this game goes even further with the third person action component being a much more fleshed out and indeed, important part of the game. Some of my strategies actually centered on my reinforcing one or two paths with traps while guarding the other with my character’s selection of weapons and spells.
"Step into my web, little orcs..."
Let me back up for a second and explain the premise a little better – you play as a sarcastic apprentice “war mage” who has been tasked with guarding the magical portals from one world, apparently occupied by all manner of nasty orcs and other stereotypical fantasy monsters, to your own. These portals are all inside of dungeon-like fortresses, some of them fairly elaborate, though unlike a lot of tower defense games their layouts never really get *too* complicated. As per usual, your enemies come in various “waves” of different combinations of enemies with breaks in between in which you can use the money you've earned by killing enemies from previous waves to shore up your defenses. In this game your “towers” actually consist of various types of dungeon traps – spiked floor panels and wall dart launchers to kill your enemies, swinging maces and crushing ceiling tiles to maim them, and sliding walls and springing floor panels to send them hilariously flailing off of ledges and into lava pools. There’s even placeable archer and paladin NPCs to help guard your paths. Unlike some tower defenses games, you can also place them just about anywhere they'll fit. The traps and other defenses are rolled out to you steadily as you progress, which means back tracking in the campaign can be helpful to improve your score, and there’s even an optional (and ultimately very useful) skill tree system that gets introduced a little further into the campaign.
"No good shots showing the UI, unfortunately."
I ended up working my way through the entire War Mage campaign (normal difficulty) with 4 or 5 skull ratings on every map. I highly considered going back and chasing 5 skull ratings on every map, or playing through the campaign on a higher difficulty, but again, too many games too little time. It’s a shame that the sequel never got released on Xbox 360 but I MOST DEFINITELY plan to pick up Orcs Must Die! 2 on Steam at some point. Robot is also apparently working on Orcs Must Die! Unchained now which turns the whole thing into some kind of weird, Team Fortress 2 inspired 5 vs 5 competitive game. Intriguing!
Per usual, Xbox 360 screenshots stolen from wherever possible.
As promised, hot off the heels of completing the main Red Dead Redemption single player campaign I installed and started playing the game’s expansion pack / DLC Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare. Undead Nightmare is interesting for sure, being something of a “total conversion” of the main game with some different gameplay elements and a different flow than the core game. The (obviously totally non-canon) story revolves around RDR’s protagonist having to track down a cure to an evil undead invasion that has taken over the frontier.
Now, given how “straight” the story and characters of Red Dead Redemption are I really wasn't sure of what to expect of the expansion. Zombies, really? Was it going to be serious or totally ridiculous? The answer is somewhere in between though for the most part it keeps its serious tone and most of the more fantastic elements and humor are delivered in a very dry way which I found amusing in itself. That actually effected the entire feel of the expansion for me too – on one hand I felt like I shouldn't take my playthrough too seriously, as it is just a silly spin-off story. On the other the fact that the world still feels dark and gritty and, over the top moments like when I found and then “broke” one of the four fucking horses of the apocalypse aside, the tone is never really completely shattered helped continue to keep me almost as immersed as the original campaign.
The zombies themselves are obviously a game changer. The whole “zombie headshots” thing definitely had a major effect on my game. Zombies will usually go down with a single shot to the head or by being burned, anything else seems to have very little effect on them. Personally I didn't make going for headshots a priority at all in Red Dead Redemption proper so this new focus on lining up my kill shots really changed the whole dynamic of combat for me, especially when ammo was extremely scarce early on. Zombies also behave unlike any other enemies in the original game and the new special zombies add even further variety to the combat.
"Headshot, headshot, headshot. Learn to abuse Dead-Eye!"
Probably the biggest departure from the main game, mechanics wise, is the introduction of a town invasion system. All of the main towns and camps in the game have a limited number of survivors. They’ll come under attack at some point (it seems to be on some sort of timer) and you’ll need to help repel the attack and clear the town of zombies. If you wait too long or things go badly you might lose some survivors. The less survivors the more frequently the town will be attacked until such a time that it can no longer be cleared back out, losing you access to small weapons caches and a bed to save your game and fast travel with. While defending these towns can get a little repetitive on a whole I found the system pretty fun. I do wish I had paid more attention to the fact that you can “assist” survivors to speed up the process of clearing out a town, however, as a few of my earlier attempts to clear towns out were lengthy and fairly exhausting affairs.
Then there were the bugs. I don’t know if this is a wide spread problem or not (I've read some things that implied that these issues were only caused by a very recent patch) but boy was my game fucked. It seemed like after playing for a while NPCs and zombies would start spawning with invisible bodies, as in you could only see their clothing. This made going for headshots a little challenging given how few zombies have the fashion sensibility to sport hats. Worse, whenever this happened I would often notice certain events failing to trigger. The first graveyard I had to clear in the story took me well over an hour due to having to restart it over several times, with one of my runs netting me something like a hundred kills before exhausting all of my ammo and depleting my will to fight on. I’d also often run into a seemingly related glitch where trying to save my game would cause it to freeze. Thankfully the generous checkpoint system meant that this was never more than a bit of an inconvenience but it was annoying all the same.
"On a pale horse (running the hell away...)"
Overall would I recommend it? Even with the bugs I experienced I could easily recommend it to anyone who liked Red Dead Redemption and likes massacring zombie hordes. Even if you only want a little more time with John Marston and company and don’t care much for zombie games I'd probably recommend it if nothing else but for another opportunity to run through Red Dead's excellent world, albeit a slightly twisted version.
Xbox 360 screenshots looted from a cursed Aztec tomb because I'm a bad, bad man.
Warning: potential DLC quest (Knights of the Nine) spoilers ahead!
From Garn's recollections:
The entirety of the order of the Knights of the Nine met outside of the ruins of an old Alyeid stronghold called Garlas Malatar off of the Gold Coast. The Prophet believed this was where we'd find Umaril the Blasphemer and from the scouting report Sir Brellin brought us back he was correct - Aurorans were seen guarding the entrance.
"Assembled for battle."
Once everyone was prepared I gave the call and we charged into the ruin. A few of the knights immediately took up positions to overwatch the melee with bow and arrow while the rest of us went for the guards by the entrance. The Aurorans were no easy match for my knights, most of them still relatively inexperienced, but with our superior numbers we won fights we might have otherwise lost. Inside the mostly intact lower levels of the Alyeid ruin we found yet more Aurorans. Easily more of them than I'd ever encountered at one time before then. Vicious fighting filled the corridors and chambers with the sounds of sword on steel echoing all around us. It didn't take long before we realized that something was amiss - it seemed as if more and more Aurorans were appearing no matter how many we slew.
"Despite being electrocuted 57 times each the Knights prevail."
When we reached further into the stronghold I spotted it - a strange glowing black sphere floating on a platform above us. There was no doubt in my mind that its magics were affecting us somehow, possibly by summoning these Daedra. While my brothers were engaged in a particularly thick fight, distracting all nearby Aurorans, I made my break to look for a way to access the orb. Soon I found a stairway to a higher level and found myself standing in front of the artifact. With all of my strength I struck down on it with the Sword of the Crusader, smashing the sphere into a thousand tiny black shards. As an energy waved burst outward a hidden staircase revealed itself, lowering into the floor in front of me.
"Umaril and the Crusader face off."
It was only a matter of moments more before I reached Umaril's throne room. Perhaps recognizing Pelinal Whitestrake's garb, or perhaps well aware that I was on my way all along, he drew a massive Elven longsword and wasted no time charging at me. In the rare instance while I was on the offensive most of my blows seemed to glance off of his ornate Alyeid armor and the rest of the time he was absolutely tireless with his vicious strikes against me. If I had been using anything but the blessed Shield of the Crusader it would have been hacked to pieces within seconds. Despite Umaril's ceaseless assault I still found time to cast the occasional spell and quickly noted that lightening seemed particularly effective against him. I worked into a routine of dodging his blows, blocking them, and occasionally managing to push him back with a heavy shield slam, giving me a moment to hit him with a bolt of lightening before he lunged back towards me. Unable to adapt quickly enough he soon laid dead at my feet in a golden armored heap.
"Goin' up to the spirit in the sky!"
My battle was not done however. After taking a moment to my equipment and to cast a few healing spells on myself I invoked the Prophet's Blessing of Talos and was almost instantaneously whisked away. My first thought was that this part of the Outer Realms looked much more like Tamriel than expected, then I looked down and realized that I was in the sky high above the Imperial City. I panicked and began to scramble madly for something to grab onto only to discover that I was somehow floating in place, in no danger of falling. Looking back up, a confused and very angry Umaril again raised his sword to charge me. Wasting no time I assailed him with a volley of powerful consecutive lightning blasts sending him tumbling off of his feet and falling downward towards the city below. In an instant I, too, was falling, and that was the last thing I remembered before waking up.
Upon stirring the spirit of Sir Amiel spoke to me. He said that his vows finally completed, he and his fellow spirits of the original Knights of the Nine to rest could now finally rest in peace. Thanking me and praising me as the new Crusader the ghosts vanished before me in wisps of fine white smoke.
I dusted myself off and walked out of the crypt to be almost immediately intercepted by Sir Thedret, sword in hand, coming to investigate the voices he was hearing below. Overjoyed at seeing me alive he explained that after he and the rest of the knights had cleared out the last of the Aurorans they set out to track me down only to find my lifeless body laying beside Umaril's in the Alyeid king's throne room. Assuming I was dead they brought my body by dark of night to the order's crypt to keep my passing secret from our enemies, and there I was, alive! Before I could get much of a word in edgewise he ran back upstairs to tell the others. As I slowly followed him out of the priory I found him giving a speech to the rest of the assembled Knights of the Nine in the courtyard.
Victorious in my battle against Umaril the Unfeathered I was greeted by the applause and cheers of the rest of my order. This was the moment I had been hoping for since escaping my damp cell in the Imperial Prison so long ago. I still didn't know exactly who I had been yet I somehow knew then that whether I had been questing for the Crusader's Relics in my previous life or if I had simply been destined to be a Knight of the Nine all along, I was in the right place. I also knew what my next quest would be. There was no more running, I needed to face up to the responsibility that I had been putting off for so long and do my part to restore order to the Empire. I needed to go to Weynon Priory.
Fun fact: I made all of the Knights of the Nine NPCs "essential" so they'd make it through the assault on Garlas Malatar to hopefully serve as useful companions later on. If I hadn't the majority would have been slaughtered.