Monthly Archives: August 2011

Projecting My Inner Starfighter Pilot

Last weekend I popped in another relatively old Xbox 360 game, Project Sylpheed: Arc of Deception. I’ve been itching for a space shooter for a long time and this one more than scratched that itch. I was highly skeptical too, given I’d heard it had complex controls and a whacked-out anime cliche filled storyline, especially believable considering that it was published by Square Enix.

What kind of game is this? Well, despite being the spiritual successor to the PC (and Sega CD) classic Silpheed it is more closely related to space flight simulators such as the classic Wing Commander series than a vertical shooter. It does make some obvious nods at the original like the design of your ship and the whole weapon outfitting thing though. Still, a space flight sim, a genre almost entirely PC centric, and almost extinct nowadays to boot, on the Xbox 360? Yep! Like I said, skeptical. 🙂

Oddly most of the screenshots I found are from an older build with a slightly different interface.
“Oddly most of the screenshots I found are from an older build with a slightly different interface.”

So the controls – a real cause for concern. They could have easily been too simple, a little too “arcadey”, losing too much of the “simulation” aspect of the genre, or way, way too complicated making them totally unsuited to a controller. Beyond all of that your fighter could have controlled like a floating tank too. Personally, I was pretty satisfied with them – after inverting my left analog stick, a quick run through the tutorial and I pretty much knew how to pilot my fighter. You can also customize your control scheme quite a bit too, if you fancy. I did have some problems though, ending with me cranking down the difficulty from normal to easy on my first run through, but once I got over that minor learning curve and started expanding and experimenting with my arsenal and developing tactics for taking down the larger ships the game actually seemed to get easier… and with that, much, much funner. Sure, those points would have probably been more welcome in the tutorial than in some crazy difficulty spike but I’m soooo glad I didn’t give in and put it down.

I really didn’t want to have to put it down either. It’s a beautiful game with a very, very “busy” look – you have a relatively complex UI that partially apes a HUD, again, owing to its sim style, you have a large amount of enemies flying around you, unlike most games in the genre, and you have a dazzling array of ship contrails, missiles, laser beams, explosions, and other effects all adding to the chaos. At first glance it looks amazingly hectic and although it can be at times once I got a grip on the game everything made sense and nothing really distracted me too much. The voice acting is… eh, okay, sounding a bit like your average anime dub. The music, while not bad, also doesn’t do much to impress. Then again it is usually obscured by weapons fire, explosions, and dialog anyway.

I think the warning is due to the approximately 50,000 missiles on the screen.
“I think the warning is due to the approximately 50,000 missiles on the screen.”

Then there’s the cut scenes – very anime inspired, and while not the prettiest CGI ever if you’re fan of anime and/or cut scenes in other Japanese games you may enjoy them. Personally, what got me was the obvious influence of some of my favorite space opera animes such as The Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and particularly Macross Plus which I appreciated to no end. Honestly, when I first saw the very Macross-like snaking missiles in the demo at a friend’s house years ago I knew that this was an immediate purchase. Thankfully much to my surprise the game’s cut scenes, dialog, and plot in general weren’t nearly as annoyingly over the top as I was expecting so unless you have absolutely zero tolerance for such things I think you’ll manage.

One of the coolest parts of the game is the ability to purchase and mount various weapon systems – some pretty epic ones too. From your basic dog fighting machine guns and the aforementioned guided missiles, you also have things like anti-ship missiles, torpedoes, dumb rockets, and even massive battleship splitting energy cannons. There’s a fair amount of room for experimentation and customization there too. Like I said, at first I really wasn’t feeling the chaotic, largely weighted battles the game constantly puts you in but once I mastered some of these weapons my fighter became a god of battlefield and I was laying waste to practically everything single-handedly. Making strafing runs against entire fleets of gigantic warships, weaving and rolling in and out of their formations, leaving huge explosions in your wake is a surprisingly addicting feeling. The game totally capitalizes on this too because all of those weapons you purchased? You can start a “new game+”, keeping them while you work on buying the rest.

Boooom! Destroy what destroys you. In this case, a destroyer.
“Boooom! Destroy what destroys you. In this case, a destroyer.”

The game certainly has some shortcomings. The near constant chattering of your wingmen and even opponents can be a bit over done and even a little random, especially when it’s hard to make out over the effects half the time. Some of the (thankfully optional) side mission objectives are beyond esoteric even in the rare instances when they actually get pointed out to you. This ties directly into my comment about the battles being larger and more chaotic than most in games like this as I definitely feel like the mission/scenario design could have used a little more tweaking. One of the most damning things is the fact practically all missions and sub-stages have a time limit which is damn bizarre for this type of game. Sometimes it relates directly to your objective and therefore makes some sense though at other times it comes totally out of left field. Still, I don’t believe I ever failed a mission due to the time limit even if I did come incredibly close a couple of times. No, the real pisser here is that when you die on a mission you can automatically restart at the last sub-stage you were on (which is usually a pretty good checkpoint) but by doing so you lose all of your previous kill credits which will no doubt cause you to score a much lower ranking and therefore greatly reduced points to spend on weapon upgrades. This kind of makes doing badly a bit more punishing than it feels, creating a potential vicious circle of dying due to having crappy weapons but not being able to upgrade them due to dying. Whoops!

Anyway, I got over all of that shit. I mentioned that “new game+” feature? Yeah, I started a new game back on normal immediately after beating the game and replayed several of the missions and I almost never do that. That’s how much fun I was having with this game! I’m pretty sure that, like the classics of this genre, this is one I’ll dust back off and replay again some day – possibly several more times! It’s just a pity that this game is relatively overlooked both by Xbox 360 owners and fans of the space sim genre… but then again this type of thing certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and I’m admittedly part of what I’d imagine is a very small western demographic who both loves space sims and certain kinds of anime. Still, people apparently buy plenty of Ace Combat! *shrug*

As usual, Xbox 360 screenshots stolen. Thanks to Google Image Search for aiding and abetting!

Back to the Trenches!

I decided to hit up an XBLA game for a change – there are plenty of Arcade games that I want to play but it’s already challenging enough to manage my backlog of physical titles which often leads to me forgetting all about these excellent downloadable games. Still, every now and then I choose to hop into one. This time it is Toy Soldiers by Signal Studios.

Tower defense games are oddly hit and miss for me – when they’re done just right they totally click with me in a very satisfying, addictive way and when they’re not I usually can’t even be bothered to try feigning interest in them enough for a second try. Toy Soldiers is definitely in the former category. It takes the classic, simple tower defense gameplay, gives it an awesome World War I come toys theme, and adds in the ability to control towers and other units (tanks and planes) by hand to up their effectiveness and/or your score. It’s a very simple concept but executed almost perfectly with an awesome presentation and a healthy layer of polish.

Surveying the (toy) carnage.
“Surveying the (toy) carnage.”

The World War I theme doesn’t get visited in video games (or much else) very often and, if you think about it, the static trench warfare that is typically associated with it is right at home with the tower defense genre. You have troops attacking in waves, trying to reach objectives, and you can place certain defenses such as barbed wire, machine gun nests, mortars, and artillery in their way to hopefully wipe them out before they get there. Right on! As usual, the more enemies you kill the more money you make and the more money you have the more you can upgrade your defenses which you’ll need to do as enemy waves get more and more difficult. That’s it in a nutshell.

The fact that you’re actually supposed to be playing with toys takes little away from the game – units are animated and are fairly realistic. In fact I often found myself forgetting that the sun was actually a gigantic desk lamp and that my tank had a huge winding key sticking out of the back of it and finding myself immersed in the gritty battlefield. Still, having the units break into pieces and vanishing instead of turning the toy-box into a horrid gore-fest is actually a pretty smart way to get around any ratings concerns. Using toys also gives the developers license to more or less do whatever they want. How about we fight a massive uber-tank this time? What if flying saucers show up instead of tri-planes? Again, pure genius.

About to fuck up some toy horses... and probably my own guys.
“About to fuck up some toy horses… and probably my own guys.”

The maps are pretty varied and are often quite challenging, sometimes involving a bit of trial and error though if you play conservatively enough with your cash flow you can often adapt to surprises in the enemy waves. In some of the trickier scenarios finding just the right balance between managing your turrets and controlling a turrets or units is key to a successful defense. There aren’t many types of turrets and units available at first glance but each turret can be upgraded and not all upgrades are of the simple “+1 damage” variety. For instance, I sometimes preferred a level 2 anti-infantry gun for tracking and killing off cavalry quickly versus a level 3 which is basically a small canon, and thus fires and tracks a little less quickly despite doing a lot more damage over a wider area.

I ended up playing through the campaign on normal difficulty as well as playing through the campaign+ mode (which thankfully mixed up the maps from the normal campaign a lot more than I was anticipating) and both DLC campaigns including “Invasion!” which added all kinds of flipped out new enemy units and culminated in you fighting a giant robot. AWESOME! Sadly I didn’t get around to try multiplayer but I can easily imagine it being a ton of fun. I can’t wait to get my hands on Toy Soldiers: Cold War now though I’ll likely wait a while before leaping into that one.

Digging waaaay back into the physical backlog I also played through The Darkness by Starbreeze Studios. Being a fan of The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay on the original Xbox and thinking the concept looked cool I’d been wanting to play this one for quite awhile. Unfortunately I came out on the other side mostly disappointed.

Viva la aim assist!
“Viva la aim assist!”

First, the game in case you’ve never heard of it or more likely have forgotten about it by now: It’s a first person shooter where you play a mobster who gets possessed by The Darkness, some kind of wacky demonic presence that wants nothing more than to kill mofos and eat their hearts. Doesn’t everybody? The Darkness grants you some powers and abilities in additional to the normal FPS running and gunning you’re used to which should help aid you in hunting down the mob boss who is trying to rub you out. Additionally, it thrives in the darkness (go figure!) so sneaking around in the shadows and shooting out lights becomes a major factor in the gameplay as well. The other big gameplay twist is that you’re mostly running around in a small but semi-open world city (complete with side missions!) rather than the usual level based structure we see in FPS games. You’ll also make a few trips to a twisted, dark re-imagining of World War 1. Yes, another World War 1 game… err, sort of!

The game looks and sounds great, I particularly love the use of the first person view, though overall it feels very last gen at times – maybe this is because of it being very early in this generation or maybe it’s a Starbreeze thing. I don’t really know. The sound is pretty excellent overall – good voice acting, for instance. I was concerned about Mike Patton being the voice of The Darkness since I’m a big fan and was worried that such a bizarre role would somehow come across poorly but I should have had more faith in him as he hits a home run with his performance here. Really, the only thing I found difficult to live with was its controls: maybe I’ve been spoiled by some of the newer shooters out there but they’re a bit on the clunky side in The Darkness which is definitely not what you want in a console FPS. Still, thanks to a heavy dose of auto-aim they’re serviceable enough.

That leads me to The Darkness powers themselves. I was actually pretty surprised by how little your possession by The Darkness actually gives you. Looking at them all on paper it seems like a nice selection of abilities to augment your character but their execution was a bit rough around the edges, both in terms of using the powers and of how some of the special mechanics they introduced were used in the game. In other words, so close but yet so far…

The Darkness knows how to party!
“The Darkness knows how to party!”

The “Darkness Vision” which was supposed to be kind of a nightvision+ kind of sucked. The “darklings” you can summon to help fight with you were barely useful and died or otherwise vanished way too quickly. The “Creeping Dark” power seemed awesome but was needed perhaps too little and could sometimes be a little disorientating to use. The “Demon Arm” power also seemed to be required a little too infrequently and mostly served me as a way to quickly (err, usually) take out lights without wasting all of my ammo. The guns seemed nice but also seemed to deplete your darkness too quickly to be useful. Finally, the last power you get, the vortex, was almost an “I win” button but even that was perhaps a little too iffy to target and, on top of that, a bit too sensitive to range. I found myself occasionally landing it just a bit too far and having it sitting there seemingly close to my enemies as they stood their attacking me, unaffected.

Keeping track of your darkness power levels was kind of head scratching to me at first. The game frequently referred to having to stay out of the light and in the darkness to fuel your Darkness powers, and referenced how certain abilities drain your Darkness at different rates, but this Darkness power is never represented anywhere in game that I ever noticed. Having a meter on screen or SOMETHING would have gone a long way into making my darkness powers feel more useful as well making the whole “staying out of the light” and “hunting for hearts to eat” thing a bit more urgent and fun. I’m guessing this was done in the name of having a minimal UI (your health also goes unrepresented and guns and ammo display can be a little sketchy as well) but to me, in this case, it largely detracted from the experience.

The open world structure is kind of pointless. It worked well in the Riddick but in this game it didn’t really serve to help immerse me in the environment at all. Instead, it just felt tedious having to travel around everywhere, back and forth to the same bite sized hunks of map, loading screens in between. Perhaps a real, seamless open world and/or better navigational aids could have helped this a bit but ultimately I just didn’t think it fit well with the story.

You'd think with this much firepower a single schlub with a gun wouldn't be owning me.
“You’d think with this much firepower a single schlub with a gun wouldn’t be owning me.”

Finally, the story. I understand that The Darkness was based on a comic book series and perhaps I’d have some better appreciation for it if I had ever read any of it, but as it was, it didn’t do much for me. There seemed like so many missed opportunities to take it into more interesting places. For instance, your character, Jackie, hardly has any sort of reaction to being possessed. Really? You’d think suddenly having an evil demonic entity sprouting out of your body and speaking directly into your brain might elicit SOME kind of reaction. Nah, not so much. I mean, you could tell an entire series of stories based JUST on him dealing with this shit! Instead Jackie hardly has any sort of reaction to anything! There have definitely been times when the silent protagonist thing has worked just fine in video games but The Darkness is pretty ham-fisted with the whole thing. One minute he’s blabbing about meatballs or making some vapid comment about riding on the subway in a loading scene and the next he seems entirely unfazed by having his entire life, and even his entire concept of reality, turned upside down. Come on, guys…

The death cut scenes and the loading scenes were interesting touches and add a little more flavor though the loading scenes in particular often felt bizarrely out of place and were where the worst of the horrible Italian-American cliches came in. Honestly, Jackie didn’t really need any help feeling like a one-dimensional moron, but whatever. Despite my issues with some of these scenes, and I don’t say this a lot, I think the whole presentation, both in terms of the story and of the flawed open world structure I mentioned earlier, would have worked so much better if the game were more linear with more cut-scenes or at least more focused on the narrative. As it is it just doesn’t feel well executed to me.

Technically it is fine, and even conceptually it’s quite solid, I just feel like they designers missed a lot of opportunities to capitalize on what could have been a much more exciting game with more unique and cool mechanics and a much more engrossing story. It came close to being something really special and I’m quite curious to see if the developers of The Darkness 2 will be able to succeed where Starbreeze couldn’t. Not a bad game overall but probably not really worth revisiting if you missed it originally. All of that said, the very last cut-scene was surprisingly touching and having the credits roll on to a Tomahawk song was awesome!

As usual, Xbox 360 screenshots mercilessly looted from teh interwebz. Yarr!

The Tale of Garn Chapter 29

Warning: potential side quest spoilers ahead!

From Garn’s recollections:

Long live the King!

When I returned to Umbanaco to claim my reward I could tell he was quite excited to finally have possession of the carving though, to my curiosity, he spent very little time looking it over. He seemed to start to offer me another job but hesitated before finally making the offer. He told me that my next job may be a little different than the usual because the item he wanted was not in some long forgotten ruin or guarded by horrible apparitions, but instead was in the possession of another collector in the city. He told me it was the crown of the last king of the Aleyids and that its owner, Herminia Cinna, refused to sell it to him. While he told me that the intention was simply to try to purchase it for him as a 3rd party, he seemed to imply that acquiring it by less scrupulous means may be required. He gave me 1000 septims and off I went.

About to descend into Lindai.
“About to descend into Lindai.”

I tracked Herminia Cinna down to running errands near the tower and brought up being interested in her antiquities. Perhaps I should have changed into less conspicuous clothing or at least thought my words over a little more carefully before speaking to her as she immediately suspected me of being an agent of Umbanaco’s. She made it clear that it wasn’t a matter of money and that there was simply something about Umbanaco that she didn’t trust, and that she suspected him of being motivated by more than he claimed. While Herminia couldn’t elaborate much, even as I pressured her to, the Aleyids were known to be powerful magic users and dedicated servants of the Daedra, some rumored to be quite cruel in fact, so it didn’t seem out of the question that Umbanaco might be after something more sinister than a simple collection of dusty artifacts.

Herminia pleaded with me to consider another option – while the crown she had was indeed the crown of “last Aleyid king” there was no overarching Aleyid kingdom and, in fact, there were various other kingdoms, many of them even rivals. She told me that she knew of the possible location of another, similar crown from around the same time period that she hadn’t had the funds to hire help seeking out yet. I got all of the necessary details from her and told her I’d have to consider it. For someone with so little to back up her suspicions, Herminia seemed quite convinced.

Setting things on fire never gets old.
“Setting things on fire never gets old.”

Herminia told me that the royal crown of Lindai would have been kept in the royal tomb of the site, now known simply as Lindai, which she suspected was still sealed. I figured there was little harm in attempting to acquire the crown before making any further decision so I set off for the ruins of Lindai, northwest of the city. The ruins were fairly typical of my findings so far, guarded by undead creatures and traps. Herminia’s suspicions were correct though and much of the tomb’s treasure seemed to still be intact including the cask containing the crown. Now I had one option secured.

Oooh, look what I found!
“Oooh, look what I found!”

Although I’ve mostly stayed clear of a life of crime so far, I decided to visit Herminia Cinna’s home one afternoon after she had left to go to the market – I had developed a new plan. I had more or less decided that Herminia’s fears were unfounded and her outright refusal to part with the artifact for any sum of money was unfair to a someone such as Umbanaco, who had already displayed his merit as a real collector, with a real passion for the history of the Ayleids. To be honest, it was more Herminia’s motives that I was questioning at that point. So, a quick lock pick on her front door when I was sure that I wouldn’t be spotted and in I went. I carefully searched her fairly modest home for the artifact until I eventually found it in a locked cask upstairs. This lock was more troublesome to pick but soon I had the authentic crown in my possession, the royal crown of Lindai in its place and hopefully Herminia would be none the wiser until such a time when she examined it more closely.

Returning to Umbanaco I presented him with the real crown which seemed to please him to no end. He said he had another task for me: to escort him through the ruin of Nenalata to the east for another archeological expedition. Easy enough, I thought. He said he’d arrange to meet me there in three days time.

Is that a stupid haircut or are you just happy to see me?
“Is that a stupid haircut or are you just happy to see me?”

Nenalata was a fairly unimpressive looking ruin from the outside, despite being perched on the side of a hill overlooking the junction between the Silverfish River and Niben Bay. I waited on horseback until I heard the first rustling of someone approaching and road to investigate. Umbanaco had arrived and was excited to get started. I asked him to wait outside at first, as many of these Ayleid ruins were quite dangerous. He seemed a bit put off by the idea, but agreed. This part of Nenalata was pretty typical of Ayleid ruins so far, save for more ornate stonework and a distinct lack of traps. After clearing out virtually the entire structure of guardians I returned to escort Umbanaco, who in-turn seemed to escort me. We went down to one of the lower levels where he spotted the location he was looking for and ran over to it to place the carving I had acquired for him earlier in a recessed spot in the center of the wall. He then dramatically recited some Elvish which I could not understand, causing a secret passageway to open.

Someone light a fucking torch!
“Someone light a fucking torch!”

Excitedly, he proclaimed that we were entering the throne room of the last king of the Ayleids and that it was now up to him to reclaim his people’s lost glory. I took pause, of course, though he was an Altmer I figured he was still speaking as a student of the history of Ayleid peoples. When he donned the crown and sat in the thrown, shouting in Elvish tongue, however, I began to reconsider. Was Umbanaco a mad man or…?

Before I could finish my contemplation of the events at hand the spell that Umbanaco was apparently casting had completed and a massive burst of energy spread out from him in all directions. As the smoke cleared he cast another spell and disappeared from sight. Doors opened from every side of the chamber and several liches and other undead flooded in. I drew my sword and began backing towards the door.


I summoned my own guardian and began casting all manner of offensive spells as skeletons rushed towards me, striking against my shield with huge, clumsy blows. It was quite a perilous situation and I constantly found myself having to retreat away from the seemingly endless hordes of undead. Umbanaco himself, or whatever he had become, also reappeared from time to time to summon more undead and launch the occasional spell at me. At one of these moments he found himself between me, still strategically withdrawing, and a corner. Looking in his rage filled eyes, I was sure that there was no other way and lunged. Umbanaco fell with a desperate cry echoing through the halls amidst the backdrop of still clamoring creatures and blasts of magic.

Cleaning up Umbanaco's mess.
“Cleaning up Umbanaco’s mess.”

I finished clearing the room and took my time, looting the rest of the ruin. I wasn’t quite sure of what to do – Umbanaco was a fairly respected citizen of the Imperial City and he’d now be missing. If he told anyone about where we were going I would be suspected in his disappearance, and who would believe me about his attempts to resurrect the Ayleids? Only one person. As soon as I returned to the city I sought out Herminia Cinna and professed my regrets for not believing her. I gave her back the real crown and even offered her some of the other Ayleid artifacts I had looted. I only asked that, in return, she support my claims should I be implicated later on. While seemingly disturbed by the whole thing, she agreed and seemed quite happy to have her crown back, in addition to the other artifacts I added to her growing collection.