Space Invaders Infinity Gene Review

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” - Charles Darwin

Space Invaders Infinity Gene

Picture 1 of 5

In 1978 Japanese company Taito released the original Space Invaders game, which became immensely popular and is still an extremely well known, if less often played, classic game. Game designer Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Zelda, mentioned Space Invaders as the one game that revolutionized the game industry. Not only did Space Invaders drive the popularity of video games forward, but I would brave the statement that it also spawned the continued popularity of shooters, whether they are top-down, side-scrolling, or even 3D shooters like the Star Fox games, as it was the first popular game to pit the player against an onslaught of approaching enemies. Space Invaders Infinity Gene was released for iOS (iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch) in July of 2009, and then later in September 2010 it was released for the Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network. The version I’ve been playing is the XBLA version, which is supposed to be identical to the PSN version, but has more features than the original iOS version such as HD graphics and extra ship-variations. The “Normal” mode of Infinity Gene begins with Charles Darwin’s quote above, setting the stage for evolution themed gameplay. The first level begins with a tribute to the original Space Invaders, and then quickly transforms into a fast paced modern shooter with classic Space Invaders graphics. At the beginning of the game the ship can only fly left and right, as in the original, however as players earn points and complete levels they fill up an evolution bar which advances gameplay. Over time the abilities to move anywhere on screen, upgrade weapons, or use ships with all new weapons, become available as the game evolves. Evolution also provides the ability to do “Nagoya Attacks”, an interesting ability which allowed my ship to fly through enemy shots in the first few frames of their existence on screen. To keep up with the players increasing abilities and firepower, the game not only presents more enemies and new bigger bosses, but also increases the complexity and quality of the music and graphics. By the end of the game the graphics have become polygon based 3D graphics, and the music various thumping techno tracks.

Later levels introduce an angled perspective.

While unlocking vertical screen movement and new weapons does change gameplay, the game never gets much more complex. I eventually completed the game just by holding down the right trigger and flying carefully; dodging the swarms of enemies and bullets is the primary challenge. For the most part the more “evolved” ships are more powerful when they are unlocked, making the early ships fairly useless for the later levels. While a more balanced array of ships to fit different play styles might have been nice, it is exciting to “evolve”, receive a new ship, and have it be something new and powerful that helped me get past the increasingly hectic levels. While I found evolution theme applied to what is essentially an upgrade bar a cool idea, it got less exciting when I realized that the same bar was used to unlock all the sound test tracks and bonus levels as well. Only a scattered few evolutions actually improve your gameplay abilities, and then when you’ve finally unlocked the last ship, the evolution bar goes away and there are no more unlocks. It seems that the music unlocks were used to increase the time it takes to unlock ships and artificially extend the process, and while the extension is appreciated, more exciting unlockables would have been appreciated. Infinity Gene’s sound and graphics hold up through the whole game as an effectively modernized nostalgia trip. While the backgrounds gain some simple colors, the player’s ship and enemies are always just white, even when the graphics step up to simple 3D polygons, making the visual experience never too far from the recognizable classic Space Invaders. The increasingly complex techno music that backs the game is effective and exciting though certainly nothing revolutionary as far as game scores go. The sound effects of ships firing and exploding are all inspired by the original arcade sound effects. UFOs still make that wonderful oscillating “wa-wa-wa-wa-wa” noise when they get shot down, and enemies explode with a similar note, keeping everything familiar. Progressing into the later levels I was struck by one annoying flaw in the sound of the game; it seems that when too many sound effects occur at once something goes wrong with the games interaction with Dolby surround sound and the sound will pop and go out for an instant. This doesn’t effect gameplay but makes listening to the game with the volume up fairly annoying on hectic levels. In all, Space Invaders Infinity Gene is an excellent modern tribute to one of the games that helped start it all. Sound and graphics effectively create nostalgia, while the bullet-hell gameplay lives up to other modern descendants of the shooter genre. The overall simplicity of the game is a disappointment considering the games long normal mode, extra Bonus and Challenge modes, and even a music mode allowing levels to be created based on music players have on their Xbox. Played in short bursts however, Infinity Gene is a great way to remember gaming days of old while simultaneously experiencing just how games have (and haven’t) changed in the last 30 years.

Giant UFOs provide epic boss fights.

Great Expectations

When i get a new game, my excitement ranges from “cool, this should be fun” to “holy ****, I can’t wait to play, get me home to play and leave me alone for 24 hours or I’ll snap!” The latter has become rarer as I’ve aged and developed that thing called patience, but I still know what its like to be absolutely dying to play a game. And sadly, as I’m sure most gamer’s have, I’ve been burned by my expectations. Sometimes a “holy ****” game, that you’ve counted down the days for, that looks like the coolest new idea you’ve ever seen, or perhaps the best sequel to your favorite series, just doesn’t live up to personal hype. I pop the game in, shaking with excitement as it starts and I begin the game, maybe the story starts with a bang and for a brief moment everything is right with the world, and then suddenly or not, the game lets me down. Other times, I hear briefly of a game from a friend, or read about a game online but don’t get caught in the hype, and then I buy it late, perhaps on sale, and my mind gets blown. It’s become apparent that my personal expectations and excitement for a game can drastically effect my experience and enjoyment when playing. In 1991 the original Sonic the Hedgehog was release for the Sega Genesis. It was loved by many, including myself, and became a commercial success. Over the three years following Sega released Sonic 2, Sonic CD, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles, all of them generally well received. When 3D games became the norm Sega brought Sonic to 3D on the Dreamcast with relative success in Sonic Adventure and it’s sequel. Fans of Sonic games (like me) could trust Sega to bring them great high speed experiences through Sonic games. And this is where gamers got burned. Not to say that every Sonic game since the Dreamcast has been a failure, many of them hit or miss with various gamers and some have been generally accepted. But after the Dreamcast the average quality of sonic games took a downturn, and the series has become a symbol for what happens when a good character is badly taken care of. When I first played Sonic the Hedgehog, the 2006 want-to-be-reboot for the Xbox 360, I had fallen for the advertisements and hoped that the experience would be at least on par with Sonic Adventure. The game started well, and in the end I don’t regret playing it, but I felt like a kid who was told he was going to Disney Land, but instead was taken to a county fair. It is a far more positive experience to be surprised by a game I haven’t heard much about. In November 2001 Halo: Combat Evolved, the first of the Halo series, was released for the original Xbox. I had minimal interest in the Xbox at the time, and had never been a huge fan of first person shooters so I ignored Halo. Aside from hearing some recommendations from friends and playing a very short stint at a party the game stayed out of my reach until my parents purchased an Xbox sometime in late 2002. From word of mouth I had reached the “cool, this should be fun” stage of expectation for Halo, but nothing more. Long story short, I’ve since become not only a Halo fan, but an avid FPS player. Another memory: In 2001 I was in a Target store’s games section and they had a PS2 demo kiosk running some game I’d never heard of. I hopped on and played around for 5 minutes, expecting nothing special as it was just a kiosk game, and I got hooked. When I later bought a Playstation 2 I bought myself a copy as soon as I could. That game was Ico. When I played through it, having only played 5 minutes, I was excited, but still hesitant to expect too much from it since I didn’t know anyone who had played it. Again, my expectations were blown out of the water and I had one of my most memorable gaming experiences. I don’t think anyone can completely forget what they think they know about a game when they play it, but perhaps we, as gamers, should try to temper our preconceived excitement. It would be bad to go into a game with a negative outlook, but perhaps for the sake of the game we shouldn’t allow ourselves to have unattainable expectations. Or, for the sake of improving games as a media, should we always go into games with the highest expectations, and allow ourselves to nit-pick about the smallest flaws? I propose that all gamers should begin a new game with only the expectation of a fun experience and allow the game to provide the rest. If we can simplify our expectations to this point as much as possible, hopefully we can objectively view a game for its strengths and weaknesses regardless of what we thought the game was before we played it. Holding on to objectivity is always a challenge, but if we are self-aware about our expectations, it may allow us to enjoy games for what they are, not what we wish them to be.  

How Achievements Changed My Gaming Habits

Last night I signed into Xbox Live to wait for a friend so we could play some multi-player games. I figured I had a while to wait, so I decided to play a game. What did I play? Bejeweled 2. There is nothing wrong with Bejeweled; I enjoyed playing it again. But I had to ask myself, why, out of all the games I have, some with stories I haven’t finished, lots that I generally prefer to Bejeweled, did I play Bejeweled 2? The short answer: Achievements. I don’t consider myself an “achievement whore.” I don’t drive myself crazy going for achievements when I’m not having fun, nor do I buy games just to get easy achievements as I have heard some people do. However, achievements have definitely changed how I play games. More specifically, they change that time at which I consider a game completed. When I was growing up, playing games on my Sega Genesis, Nintendo 64, or even until the first Xbox and Playstation 2, I considered a game “complete” when I had beaten the story. After that I would play multiplayer, replay the single player, or try to complete optional extras only if I really liked a game more than others I had at the time. Back in the 16 bit era when most games could be completed in one day, I might replay Genesis games that I hadn’t played in a while, but in general, I tended to play a few favorites such as Sonic 3 & Knuckles, Cool Spot, or Aladdin over and over again. Then in late 2006 I received my first Xbox 360 and things started to change. As I got used to having achievements on all my games, I started checking them more often. To this day I follow a personal rule that I can’t look at achievements when I first play a game, because I want the experience to be unspoiled, and achievements to be a surprise. But once I finish a games single-player mode, or get far enough in that I have a a good feel for the game, I’ll look through the achievements. Once I do, if I see achievements that look fun to complete, I’ll replay the game just for them. And now I have a new meaning for a “completed” game. Where I used to consider any game I’ve beaten complete, I now consider complete to mean that I both finished the single-player element of the game and I have 100% of the achievements. (This applies to trophy’s, badges, or whatever else a console or interface calls achievements as well.) So, when I was looking for a game to play last night, instead of thinking “What do a want to play?” and picking a favorite game, I hit my Xbox 360 guide button, and browsed games that I hadn’t gotten all of the achievements for. Bejeweled 2 has some tough achievements that I haven’t been able to get, and I hadn’t played in a while, so I made my decision. When I think about how much influence achievements have on my game playing it seems rather silly, and I’m sure there are a lot of people who couldn’t care less and think I’m ridiculous for trying to obtain digital recognition for completing random video game tasks. But in the end, as long as I remember that games are supposed to be fun and I don’t start hunting achievements that aren’t fun, I like what achievements have added to gaming. Before achievements I could get extra replay value out of a game by convincing myself to race for a certain time, complete certain goals, or finish a level without attacking enemies. I can still do that, but many of those things are also recommended by achievements, and I can more easily share them with my friends. Achievements even give me ideas for gaming goals I never would have thought of myself, like Halo: Reach’s If They Came To Hear Me Beg achievement. Hunting achievements also prompts me to play a wider variety of my games, or return to ones I wouldn’t normally remember I had, like Bejeweled 2. What has the introduction of achievements done to your gaming habits? Oh, one final note...

Can Games Be Art?

Below: Some of my favorite games that I would consider to be artistic visually and otherwise.


Picture 1 of 5

This last Saturday the 21st, I ran into this post on Kotaku. The posted video shows a brief debate on Fox News about whether video game creators deserve to be included in federal funding for the arts. The video itself is disheartening, Brian Ambrozy, the lone man chosen to argue for why video games should be considered for such funding, is given only a brief moment to explain that the expensive commercial games that get the most exposure are not the games that would be getting these grants, but instead it would be the “indie developers who develop educational and artistic games.” On the other side of the debate they place Neal Asbury, credited only as a Radio Talk Show Host in the video, but who, according to his website’s bio, is “an entrepreneur involved in global business” and is “chief executive of The Legacy Companies.” Assuming Asbury has as much knowledge and experience with business and the economy as his bio implies, I would hope he would add to the debate by discussing why Indie game developers should or shouldn’t get art funding from an economic standpoint. Instead, he begins by comparing video game creators to ping pong players, and then moves on to attack the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) saying they “had lofty goals when they began” but “they have become a perversion for what they were once intended to be.” It’s clear that Asbury has a problem with the idea of federal funding for organizations like the NEA, and that is his opinion to have, but it does not address the issue that should have been discussed: Assuming the arts are still going to receive federal funding, should video games be considered? The entire video is laced with clips of Call of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto is referenced by the news anchor, displaying just how much this “news” feature is trying to convince people that game developers should not be funded. If they wanted to take an unbiased stand they should have shown artistic Indie games that could actually be getting funding. Regardless of the frustration Fox News has caused me with their propaganda-like dismissal of video games, the actual question at the heart of the issue is “Are video games art?” It’s clear that many people, such as Neal Asbury, only think of video games purely as a game, like ping pong. (Though some say that ping pong is not only a game, but a sport. Can the same be said of some video games?) In contrast to this opinion, the Smithsonian American Art Museum seems to have recognized that at the very least, video games contain art. From March 16th, 2012 to September 30th 2012 the Smithsonian is holding an exhibition titled The Art of Video Games. According to the official site, “The Art of Video Games is one of the first exhibitions to explore the forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium, with a focus on striking visual effects and the creative use of new technologies.” I’m very happy to see a national museum take on video games as an excepted art medium, and I hope this will broaden people’s acceptance of games as an art. But the wording the Smithsonian has chosen, “The Art of Video Games,” leaves some room for argument that video games are not art, they simply contain art. I’d like to form my own argument on the topic. To start, let’s look at a couple of definitions of art, as it’s a term that is used in too many different ways. My computer’s dictionary provides three definitions: art |ärt| noun • the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power : the art of the Renaissance | great art is concerned with moral imperfections | she studied art in Paris. • works produced by such skill and imagination : his collection of modern art | an exhibition of Tibetan art | [as adj. ] an art critic. • creative activity resulting in the production of paintings, drawings, or sculpture : she's good at art. The last of these definitions clearly can only be used to discuss the art contained in video games, as most games were at least painted or drawn in a digital sense, and you might say that 3D models for environments and textures in 3D games are “sculpted” though the process is very different from classical sculpture. The first two definitions however provide us some meat to work with. Both suggest that art requires creative skill and imagination, and the first goes further to explain that art works “are to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Working with this as a basis, I pose the question again, are video games art?

I think it would be hard to find someone who is an experienced gamer who would say that they have never played a game that was created with skill and imagination. I would say that game creators have always had to work with imagination on their side, as when game design first began the players often just controlled a few pixels. It takes imagination to see the pixels on the screen of Space Invaders as a fleet of alien ships assaulting a planet defended by a lone defense vehicle. And as a programmer myself I can’t take for granted the skill it takes to create games.

Without imagination how could a game developer see this as an alien invasion?

We come, then, to the second half of the definition, the goal of being appreciated for beauty and emotional power. I think that if game developers were going to list the goals they had for their game, number one on their list would often be that the game is fun, but it is also easy to find developers who discuss the beauty and emotion of their games. Even violent commercial games are not afraid to attempt an emotional interaction with the player; Gears of War 2’s story contains a romantic tragedy regarding the wife of one of the heroes. (See a clip here. Warning: Spoilers!) Though reviews I read of Gears of War 2 call that plot point flat and emotionless, and I can't help but agree that the delivery doesn't live up to the sadness of the story, not all art is accepted as being the emotional piece its creators meant it to be. Other games, such as Ico for the Playstation 2, receive positive credit for the bond the player feels to the characters. Just like all other forms of art, some works fall flat, or only hit emotionally with certain people, but based upon the definition, I can’t see any way to argue that video games are not an art form. I hope that in the coming years, as gaming continues to permeate our entertainment culture, video games will be seen on par with movies, as an art form, made of many art forms. In games, visuals, sound, characters, and writing come together much like they do in movies, only instead of being bound by the experience of passively watching, they are bound by the experience of playing and controlling. Finally, looking back at the Fox News clip’s discussion of funding video games as art, I have to say I’m all for it. I don’t have the knowledge to say that funding any art is economically feasible during a recession, but if federal funding is continuing to go to movies, theatre, or any other business that is considered an entertainment art, then I think video games, which as an industry have shown no signs of failing economically, should have an equal chance of receiving monetary support.  

Xbox 360 FPS Triple Review: Part 3 – Gameplay

Triple Multiplayer Review - Part 3 See part 1 here and part 2 here. Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield: Bad Company 2   Gameplay Most gamers have played an FPS before. We expect a viewpoint behind a gun, running around a three dimensional environment shooting at some sort of opposing force. In recent multiplayer shooters specifically we can usually expect a variety of weapons with different uses, the ability to run, jump and climb around a complex level, and usually there is access to vehicles, power ups, and/or abilities to influence the battle. Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 all have these things, but implementation is different across the board creating very different experiences. Instead of talking about the gameplay of each game overall, I’d like to make this more manageable by discussing smaller elements of the gameplay in detail.   Mobility: Sprinting, that extra burst of speed over your normal running speed, only allowed while moving forward. All three games have it, though not equally. In Black Ops you can click down the left stick while running to sprint forward for a short period of time. After a while your character “gets tired” and reverts to normal run speed. You can sprint again after just a few steps, but the sooner you do, the shorter your next sprint will be. Bad Company 2 has unlimited sprint; clicking down the left stick while running will let you sprint across the map as far as you like, or until you get shot. Halo: Reach’s sprint is actually optional most of the time. Unlike Bad Company 2 and Black Ops where sprint is an ability shared by every player in the game, sprint is one of Reach’s “armor abilities” which I will discuss more in the Powers section. Assuming you have selected the sprint ability Reach’s sprint is much like Black Ops’. Unlike Black Ops however, you can see your sprint meter in the corner of the screen so you know just how long you can use it. If you use it all up, you have to wait a bit longer than in Black Ops, but when it recharges it recharges back to full almost instantly. All three games do not let you shoot or otherwise use weaponry while sprinting. Bad Company 2 is the only game of the three that allows you to reload while sprinting, though you have to have started your reload before you start sprinting. This makes sprinting in each game useful for escape, repositioning, or closing the distance to strike a melee attack, but not for run-and-gun tactics. Crouching in all three games can have benefits for accuracy, help you hide behind cover, and help you sneak up on opponents. In both Black Ops and Bad Company 2, where your sprinting or running footsteps will be heard by nearby enemies, crouching and sneaking decreases your footstep volume putting stealth on your side. Halo: Reach does provide a slightly less audible footstep for sneaking, but far more important is that sneaking will prevent you from showing up on nearby enemy motion trackers, which every player has on default gameplay settings. Black Ops is the only game of the three that lets the player not only crouch, but by holding down the crouch button, you can go prone. When prone, character movement is literally a crawl, and I’ve encountered a lot of frustration with the limitations of turning your character. If you try to aim left or right and your player model’s legs hit an obstruction it completely prevents you from rotating. However, going prone presents a very small target to your opponents and increases your accuracy even more than crouching making it worthwhile in many situations. Going prone while sprinting in Black Ops sends you into a jumping action hero dive which can create quite a dramatic entrance or escape from combat, and can even be used to dive through windows. It’s a fun feature but isn’t a game changer. If you prefer a safer way in and out of windows you can always stick with jumping. Black Ops soldiers are the worst jumpers across the three games; the jump provides enough distance to jump over small gaps and up small ledges, but the game compensates for the weak jump by providing the player with a vaulting/climbing animation if your jump can get you halfway up. This little touch adds to the immersive experience of the game, but I find can cause more frustration than not. Not only does the moment of climbing take away your ability to fire your weapon, but sometimes it doesn’t work when expected leaving you open to enemy fire. Jumping in both Bad Company 2 and Halo: Reach is simpler and therefore more reliable. Players have a given jump height, and if you can get your feet on a horizontal-enough surface then you’ve made the jump. Reach’s jump height is by far the highest, soldiers able to leap almost their own height. Bad Company 2’s jump is high, but still feels realistic, and as an added bonus soldiers have a magic parachute that can be used for even the shortest fall distances to prevent fall damage. As unrealistic as that is, it’s quite fun to be able to jump off the shortest building, or out of a helicopter, and know that you can survive the fall. Unless you get shot out of the air that is. Comparatively, Halo: Reach lets you fall a good distance before taking any damage at all (only great heights will kill you), and Black ops only allows you to barely survive a one-story fall, but almost anything higher is deadly. A final note on mobility should be made about ladders. Seemingly a simple thing, vertical movement in FPS games is often poorly implemented. The first Halo game on the original Xbox, Halo: CE, had ladders in many levels and many people had trouble using them quickly and accurately. Thankfully later Halo games removed most of their ladders, and Halo: Reach’s multiplayer completely does without. Ramps and “gravity lifts” are used instead. Black Ops has ladders in quite a few levels, and they suffer from the problems Halo: Combat Evolved had. If you don’t press just the right direction while going up a ladder you may slip off the side and fall back down. In a combat situation that often gets you killed. Bad Company 2 does ladders right, risking a slight break in immersion to quickly align you with any ladder you try to climb, allowing you to go straight up and down or jump off as desired.   Combat: No one would argue that combat isn’t the central element of any multiplayer FPS, but these games present three different and excellent approaches. In the Halo series, from Halo: CE in 2001 to Halo: Reach in 2010, combat revolves around map and weapon control. Because players will generally spawn into the game with similar weaponry finding and using the “power weapons” such as sniper rifles or rocket launchers is often the deciding factor in a match. A team that can consistently grab these power weapons, and bring them to an easy to hold area of the map can easily dominate the scoreboard. However, every weapon is useful and effective if used correctly and if you do lose control of a map you can get it back with careful use of teamwork, stealth, and strategy. In larger maps vehicles play a similar role as weapons, important to control, but still not overpowered as many weapons are quite effective at destroying them, and players can board and hijack slow moving vehicles if they can get close. In the end learning the maps, and learning how and when to use each available weapon and vehicle is the key to winning fights in Halo: Reach. The actual shooting mechanics in Reach are fairly simple; most weapons don’t have any kick, and their potential accuracy is represented by the reticle which increases in size if a weapons accuracy is effected by firing rate. Hitting a target relies on control skills and reflexes more than anything else. Because players have significant health and shields, one on one gunfights last long enough that continual steady aim is important, as is knowing when to turn and run in the middle of a fight. Black Ops takes a different approach, allowing players to start with whatever weapon they want as long as they have unlocked it. Weapons do have different traits in terms of rate of fire, accuracy, and bullet power, but often the differences are minor making weapon choice more about personal taste than weapon power. The ability to fight effectively with any weapon is aided by the low health of all the players. In my experience, one to five shots from any weapon is a kill, bringing many of the fights down to who shoots first. Unlike in Halo where an individual fight between two players can take a little while, Black Ops fights are usually over quickly making individual deaths less consequential and the overall battle the focus. Players who can kill multiple enemies in a row without dying are rewarded with access to kill streak bonuses like explosive RC cars, spy planes, or helicopters. Unlike vehicles in Halo which must be player controlled, some of the kill streak bonuses in Black Ops have limited or no control by the player. While if a player calls in a “Chopper Gunner” they get to control the minigun on the helicopter, calling in a normal “Attack Chopper” lets the game handle the helicopter. While this is less powerful, it does allow the player to continue to fight while the chopper is in the air. Also unlike Halo, weapons tend to have kick and are usually really inaccurate under sustained fire. Pacing your shots, outflanking enemies, and a little bit of luck goes a long way to victory in Call of Duty Black Ops. Somewhere in between the other two games, Bad Company 2 has similar weapon traits as Black Ops, forcing you to pace your shots or your accuracy goes downhill rapidly regardless of if your sights are on an enemy or not. Also like Black Ops players choose the weapons they use before spawn from the weapons they have unlocked. However vehicles, which can change the tide of battle, are spawned on the map. While they are often spawned at opposing bases, some are spawned mid-level, and even those spawning in the bases can be stolen. A team that coordinates strong vehicle control with good infantry team work can be incredibly dangerous. The Battlefield series is known for its huge objective oriented maps, and Bad Company 2 is no exception. The large team sizes combined with the map objectives make Battlefield into the most team oriented game. In both Halo: Reach and Black Ops I have seen many instances where a single skilled and lucky player takes out an entire opposing team. In Bad Company 2 the varied skills and expansive maps seem to make this kind of control much rarer and every time I’m in a game where one team gets truly decimated it takes at least three or four people working together to do it.   Powers: On top of weapons and vehicles, soldiers in all three games have access to some unique abilities to change the way they fight and assist their team. In Halo: Reach before each spawn you can choose your loadout, which includes your weapons and an armor ability. Armor Abilities, a new addition to the Halo franchise, include Sprint, Jet Pack, Armor Lock, Active Camo, Drop Shield, and Evade. Sprint, Jet Pack, and Evade all enhance player mobility. Sprint I discussed in the Mobility section as it is comparable with the universal sprinting in Black Ops and Bad Company 2. Jet Pack is exactly what it sounds like, but unlike jet packs in some games that let a character rocket around a level, the heavily armored soldiers in Halo: Reach are effected more slowly. Though not useful for evasion, the jet pack still lets you gain significant altitude, fly great horizontal distances, or save yourself from a high fall before it runs out and needs to recharge. Evade is the most useful mobility-oriented armor ability for mid combat, letting you dive up to two times in a row in any direction. This makes you a hard to hit mobile target, as well as breaking any homing weapon’s abilities to track you. Armor Lock provides complete invincibility at the price of mobility. You can lock down for a short stint during which nothing will cause you damage, and even vehicles deal with you like they deal with a rock. When you come out of armor lock your shields release a miniature EMP burst stunning nearby vehicles and destroying the shields of nearby enemies. However, this all comes at the price of becoming a glowing stationary target; enemies will often prepare grenades and concentrated fire for the moment you lose your invulnerability. If you prefer stealth to invincibility Active Camo is an effective option. Especially effective when working with a team, camouflaged soldiers are transparent, visible only by light refracting through your silhouette, and they emit an array of fake motion tracker dots. Opponents nearby will know there is a cloaked player because their motion trackers will have a swarm of confused signals, but this will allow teammates to move around the area without being known. Staying stealthy is difficult as when you fire a shot your camouflage breaks down. Also be warned that when camouflaged all sounds are muted making it hard to hear what is going on around you. Regardless of the risks, Active Camo can be invaluable for a sniper, or for sneaking a team into enemy lines. The final ability, Drop Shield, is based on Halo 3’s deployable bubble shield equipment, allowing players to place a spherical shield that blocks all projectiles and thrown grenades. It can be destroyed if it takes enough damage, but can shield an entire team from fire temporarily. The Drop Shield also heals teammates making Drop Shield users the closest to a medic Halo: Reach has. Every Armor ability has great potential, and the variety allows for very different play styles, but every ability can be countered with smart and skilled play, making armor abilities an excellent addition to Halo gameplay. Instead of a single powerful ability, Call of Duty: Black Ops lets players equip their characters with three “perks” at a time. Each perk adds something minor to a players abilities, but the combination can greatly change potential play styles. With five potential perks for each of the three slots, 125 different possible combinations leads to a lot of variety player variety. A complete list of the perks and what they do can be seen here. You could equip yourself with Lightweight to make yourself faster, Steady Aim to improve your hip-fire accuracy, and Marathon to extend the time you can sprint, creating an effective run-and-gun class. Or you could select Ghost so you don’t appear to spy planes, Scout to hold your breath longer while using a sniper scope, and Ninja to silence your footsteps, and you would have an effective stealthy sniper character. The flexibility this choice of power presents is an excellent way for a game to let every player find their favorite style. The only failing I have found with this system is that certain of the perks are only valuable in very specific circumstances causing them to be rarely used. Often most players end up using the same few perks that turn out to be the most often useful. For example, now that the game has been out for months, the combination of using the Ghost perk with a suppressor attached to their weapon making them invisible on the map at all times has become very popular because it is so powerful. This means the other four perks in the first slot are often neglected by entire teams of players. In general however, the perks are well balanced and you can never predict what an opponent may be using. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 does not allow players to pick their own powers, but instead goes the route selectable classes. The powers, weapons, and equipment you can use are all defined by the class you choose. The powers, more teamwork based abilities, allow you to play a special role to help your team in combat. If you choose to play the Assault class, you get the ability to drop ammo for yourself and teammates, ad specialize in assault rifles and under-barrel attachments for them. The Engineer class specializes in aiding and destroying vehicles. Not only are they the only class that can use rocket launchers and anti-tank mines, but as an Engineer you get a drill-like repair tool which is used to restore damaged friendly vehicles, or dismantle enemy vehicles. The Medic class has access to a med pack to restore teammates health at a rapid rate, and defibrillators to resurrect any recently killed teammates from where they fell to prevent them from having to respawn. The fourth and final class, Recon, is the sniper class in the game and provides the least direct aid to teammates as they can’t provide anything directly to them. However, as a Recon player you provide important covering fire, can throw out motion mines to detect enemies for you team, and call down mortar strikes on enemy positions. Together the four classes can work together to great effect, using vehicles, sniping, healing, and ammo resources to put pressure on opponents and control the map. Each game clearly approaches character powers and abilities differently but to great effect, providing with the ability to customize their role and their play style, or react to different situations they are put in by the level or the opponents.   Objectives: I’ll make this brief as likely anyone reading this extensive analysis and review should already have some experience with video games, and therefore know about common multiplayer modes and objectives. In multiplayer, each game has a variety of game modes with different goals. In both Halo: Reach and Black Ops the most popular is the classic “deathmatch” game type where teams race to a certain kill count with no other objectives. Bad Company 2 has a team based mode like that as well but the game is built and balanced around it’s Conquest, and Rush modes, in which players fight over territory to capture flags, or take turns on offense and defense trying to destroy communication equipment. Black Ops also has some popular objective modes similar to Bad Company 2’s. Domination plays like Bad Company 2’s Conquest on a smaller scale, two teams fighting over flag based territories to score time points. Black Ops also has a Counter Strike inspired Search and Destroy Mode, a bomb planting Demolition mode, classic Capture the Flag, and other creative modes like Gun Game, where players race to get a kill with each of a set of weapons and every kill they get moves them on to the next weapon. Halo: Reach has it’s own take on classic and new game types other than “deathmatch” as well. The staples of Capture the Flag and a bomb planting Assault game type are present, as well as Oddball where players fight to carry a skull for longer times, and a Territories map control mode. On the more creative side stand Headhunter, in which players fight to collect skulls that fall from dead enemies and deposit them into goal areas, Race and Rally, two vehicle based racing modes, and Invasion, a human versus aliens mode that combines three different objective modes at once. Without time to review each game type for each game in detail, I will just say that there are enough in each game to let players choose how they want to play and have a great time.   In the end, each game has great variety and can be approached in many different ways, but also has a general feel and style that provides a unique experience the other games can’t. Halo: Reach players will get used to having more health, armor abilities, and the need to control power weapons on the maps while pushing for whatever their present objective is, while Black Ops players get hectic quick-death battles full of automatic weapons, vehicular rewards, all with custom classes, and Bad Company 2 provides large scale battles full of vehicles, explosives, collapsing buildings, and a character class set that lets each player take a role on the battlefield. Any FPS lover should give all three games a try and find the ones they like best. To give you a taste of each game in motion, here are some videos I think represent them well. Keep in mind these videos do not necessarily show the best or worst moments of the games, but rather common gameplay. Thanks to the youtubers who posted them. Call of Duty: Black Ops Gameplay Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Gameplay Halo: Reach Gameplay

Xbox 360 FPS Triple Review: Part 2 – Sound

Triple Multiplayer Review - Part 2 See part 1 here. Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Sound The sound experience of multiplayer games changes a lot depending on what you use. Headphones, stereo or built in TV-speakers, and surround sound setups all provide sound differently, and the quality of the speakers in any setup also has an effect. I used to stick to the built in speakers on my TV but a few years ago my parents got me a set of Pioneer 5.1 surround sound speakers for christmas (thanks guys!) and now it feels strange playing games without surround sound. I find that Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 all benefit greatly from surround sound.  I’m sure a good pair of headphones would do the trick too if you prefer the can’t-hear-the-phone-ring experience. Long story short, readers beware, I write only from the perspective of surround sound. Halo: Reach has a set of sounds that both sound good, and provide a lot of information about what is going on around you in combat. Every weapon, vehicle, and armor ability (abilities chosen by the player like sprint, jet pack, etc.) has a unique sound. With a little practice you can tell what vehicle is coming around the next bend or what weapons your teammates are using even before you can see anything. When an explosion goes off close to the player all sounds are dulled for a short period as if the character is temporarily deafened, which is a nice touch for the sake of player immersion. The soundscape also does a good job of providing information about distance. Gunfire and vehicle engines change volume and pitch as their source changes proximity to the player. To make things sound futuristic human engine and gun noises are similar to what we hear in present day war movies and games, but often sound just a bit off, like it’s not quite the same technology. Not surprisingly, alien vehicles and guns have completely different sets of sounds, but none feel out of place. Like in most FPS games, player footsteps are audible, but considering the heavily armored characters their volume is quite low. It’s nice not having to hear your own character thump around the battlefield like an elephant, but with enemies similarly quiet it is uncommon to pinpoint enemy positions just by listening for their footsteps. The only true failing I find in the Halo: Reach soundscape is quite small. When firing a gun in a large level the player can hear the echo of the shot in the distance, and when the player is in a small area like a cave, this echo can’t be heard. This is quite a nice touch! Sadly, this change in sound doesn’t apply in every situation that it should. Sometimes in small structures the echo is still heard. I assume that the reason for this inconsistency is that many of the structures in the game are removable in the the games level editor, Forge, and therefore only the permanent enclosed areas support the sound modification. Perhaps future games will be able to dynamically detect player location and modify the sound effects on the go. Call of Duty: Black Ops has the least interesting soundscape of the three. It’s well done, but very generic. It does a good job with directional sound, and seems to change the volume of noises depending on if there is an obstruction between the player and the source. The guns sound like guns, plain and simple, and with so many similar guns in the game it would be hard to tell them apart by the sound.  You can tell the difference between a sniper rifle shot ringing out, the blast of a shotgun, and the rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapon, and luckily that’s all you really need to know to decide how to approach a situation. Unlike Halo the player’s characters shout things out on the radio during combat, but call outs are mostly shouts of “grenade out” or “kill confirmed”. There is also always a voice on the radio with updates on the bonuses you earn through killing without dying. These voices fit in with the game, but I can’t say that I would miss them if they were all gone. The sound of footsteps and character movement is more audible and therefore more important than it is in Halo, and the volume levels are very well balanced so that the faster an enemy is moving the more likely you are to know exactly where they are. As you sneak, run, or sprint around the battlefield you can hear your own footsteps to get an idea of how much more noise you are making, and is a good reminder to not sprint around all the time. I have noticed an oddity in the sprinting sound effect however; often when I am sprinting my own footsteps go mute for short periods of time. I don’t know the reason for this but I will say that when you get used to hearing your own footsteps and they go silent when they shouldn’t it is a bit distracting. When I started this “triple review” as I’m calling it, I said I wouldn’t bash on any of the games, I would just compare them. As far as sound is concerned, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 makes following that rule difficult. Bad Company 2’s soundscape is so immersive it makes me hope developers of future Halo and Call of Duty games are taking notes. To be fair however, the teamwork oriented gameplay design in Battlefield is the reason that they can make the soundscape so effective. Battlefield games are class based, allowing players to choose from assault, engineer, medic, and recon. I will discuss these classes in more detail in the gameplay section, but for now I can give the example that when playing the assault class, the player can drop ammo boxes, and as the medic, he can drop med packs. Each of these actions triggers a vocal callout to teammates so they know they can grab ammo or heal up. On top of this, the game uses an enemy spotting mechanic which allows players to highlight enemies for their entire team to see. This triggers specific callouts depending on what type of soldier or vehicle was spotted. Combine these vocalizations with well done firefight sound effects, vehicles roaring around blowing up buildings, explosions causing the player to go temporarily deaf, and echo effects applied to gunfire and footsteps when inside buildings and it is just as good as watching a blockbuster war movie. I should note that Bad Company 2 has various audio settings that may effect the experience of the soundscape. When I started playing, the setting was on “HiFi”, and I noticed right away how good all the sound cues were, so I wouldn’t say that changing the setting is the only reason I find the soundscape so impressive. At my friend's suggestion I changed the “HiFi” setting to “War Tapes” recently and I don’t plan on switching it back. The “War Tapes” setting seems to add more echo, and increases the volume on things such as ambient noises, vehicles, and footsteps. It may make the verbal callouts of characters harder to hear, but it really gives a war documentary feel to the game. It’s also fun when the louder bass makes my floor shake. (You can find comparisons between the audio settings on youtube if you’re interested.)

Xbox 360 FPS Triple Review: Part 1 – Graphics

When I sign into Xbox Live and check what games my friends are playing, more often than not, the answer is one of many first person shooters. The FPS genre has morphed from its popular beginnings as primarily single-player adventures such as Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and Doom (1993) into the genre of choice for an evening of multiplayer online gaming. As the genre has grown in popularity, certain franchises have climbed to the top, and everyone has their favorites. Most of my friends are Xbox 360 owners, and so the biggest rivalry I have witnessed is between the Halo games, and the Call of Duty games. Regardless of personal preference, I want to play games with my friends when I can, so I have spent plenty of time with games from both series. Then, within the last year, a third FPS called Battlefield: Bad Company 2 started popping up on my friends list. As I was already playing Call of Duty and Halo, and I had played a Battlefield game before, I didn’t rush to get Bad Company 2 when it was released in 2010. It wasn’t until early this year that my closest gaming buddy picked up two copies for us. So now I’ve played all three, and I’m surprised to find I continue to do so. Though I have my own game preferences, the purpose of this article is not to bash on one game or another. I’d like to discuss the pros and cons of each series, perhaps creating a triple review of sorts, using the most recent entries, Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. And for the sake of comparison I’m only going to consider the multiplayer components of these games. Triple Multiplayer Review Halo: Reach, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Graphics Graphically, all three games impress. That isn’t to say the graphics couldn’t be better if the games were developed for a high-end gaming PC, and perhaps Call of Duty and Battlefield look better on the Playstation 3, but on the Xbox 360 the games look good enough that they don’t distract to gameplay. However, each game has a very different graphical style. Call of Duty: Black Ops seems to go for the “realistic” video game look the most of the trio. Sadly, this means a lot of brown and grey. There are other colors when the levels include bright signs or plants, but they always look like they are covered in dust. Screenshots of the game show off the detailed textures that look great, especially on the character models. However, once the game is in motion most of the details blur together. As many of the firefights happen at range the graphics go to waste as players are busy shooting at every enemy they can see. The style does come in handy though, as the lack of bright colors makes sitting still the best camouflage for snipers. And regardless of how you play, the well designed gun models look great in your characters hands.

  Battlefield: Bad Company 2 has a lot in common with Black Ops visually simply because they share the modern military setting, but Battlefield developer DICE’s Frostbite engine provides a bit of a different look. When I first jumped into a game of Bad Company 2, I did a double take because for a split second I thought the game was somewhat cell shaded. I quickly realized I was wrong, but the lighting in the game has a brightness, and the shading a sharpness, that isn’t shared by Call of Duty. This makes the game world look perhaps a little less realistic, but I find it brings more life to the action of the game. Like Black Ops a lot of the color palette is brown and grey, but the trees, bushes, and even the blue skies are more vibrantly colored bringing shocks of color to the environment. The texturing seems plenty detailed for the size of the levels, though I did notice that because of the level size there are more graphical repetitions. For example, often a lot of the buildings within a level will be identical, as if the level designers copy and pasted one structure all over the place to save time. This is no surprise in levels that take minutes to run across but the structural uniqueness of Call of Duty is preferable. Halo: Reach is the most different visually of the three, and I have heard of plenty of people who find it too “candy-colored” for their taste. Halo’s visuals represent the most science-fictional game worlds of the trio of games in question, and the colorful environments seem to enhance that. The visuals for the futuristic and alien technology are flashy, colorful, and fun without straying too far from what we are used to in a shooter. Player armor coloration is usually bright making stealth more a matter of staying out of sight completely than using the graphical cover to hide. The background environments in the multiplayer levels are often beautiful works of science fiction art, with space battles, mountains, or interesting weather effects in the distance. Players who don’t feel that their games need to look as realistic and dirty as usual will appreciate the style more than others. The texturing is quite detailed which is nice most of the time, but to compensate the game does suffer from some noticeable “texture pop”. This means that when using the scope on many of the ranged weapons it sometimes takes a split second for the textures to exchange for their higher resolution variants to compensate for the players closer view. This is especially noticeable in split screen play when the game has to work harder to keep up with the amount on screen.