Bastion E3 2011 Preview

At E3 2011, several of my friends told me to stop by Warner Bros. Interactive’s booth to check out Bastion, an action-RPG for Xbox Live and Windows PC. I’m super glad that I did. The game is right up my alley — classic action-RPG gameplay, a beautiful art style, and surprising storytelling for a downloadable game. While Batman: Arkham City was getting the lion’s share of attention at WBIE’s booth, people in the know were spending a lot of time with Bastion.

If you enjoyed games like Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, X-Men Legends, and Marvel Ultimate Alliance then you’ll likely dig Bastion. The perspective and gameplay mechanics are similar to the ones in those games. You run around, fight things, nab loot, fight more things, get new weapons, and fight some really big things towards the end of each level.

I was surprised by the diversity in Bastion. Changing weapons and abilities really give the main character a different feel. Whether you like getting up close and personal with melee combat or enjoy firing away from a distance with ranged attacks, Bastion has a fighting style for you.

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The game’s art is really striking. WBIE refers to it as “painterly”. The artists use a cartoon-like art style and a bright palette of colors. Check out the screens above. If Bastion’s art style doesn’t make you feel happy then there’s no hope for your soul. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but the art should be able to elicit some degree of warm fuzzies…or at least a hearty grin.

There are more than 40 levels for you to play in, which is surprisingly high for a downloadable game. WBIE promises up to 10 hours of gameplay, not including a “new game plus” mode that allows additional ways to experience the game.

Bastion will be released this summer. On Xbox 360 it will be part of the Xbox Live Summer of Arcade, which kicks off on July 20, 2011. On Windows PC it will be part of…the Windows Summer of Haywood Jablome (not an actual event). I’m super psyched to play it. It feels familiar and looks cool. Let me know if Bastion is something you’d be into.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 E3 2011 Preview

Final Fantasy XIII was a polarizing videogame. Some players loved the game for its gorgeous graphics, great soundtrack, fantastic battle system, and strong voice acting. Other players hated the game for its strict linearity, confusing story, and uneven pace. Square Enix hopes Final Fantasy XIII-2 will address the complaints of FFXIII while maintaining the features that made it popular. I got to catch a demo of the game at E3 2011 and play an early level. If the brief portion I played and saw is representative of the final product then FFXIII-2 will end up being the game that everyone wanted the original to be.

In terms of story, not much has been revealed. The game takes place a few years after FFXIII ended and Lightning, the protagonist in the first game, has disappeared. The game’s trailer implies that she has been displaced to an alternate dimension and only her sister Serah believes she’s still alive. In my hands-on time, I controlled Serah and newcomer Noel. Serah appears to be the main character — at least in the early going — and it was implied that other FFXIII characters will join the party.

The biggest change to the game is that it’s more open than the original. I’m not talking about Elder Scrolls-like or anything, but there’s definitely some exploring to do. The levels I was shown had hidden paths and alternative branches. You’ll have the opportunity to explore levels instead of just marching down a straight line. I’m very interested to see how far the dev team will take this aspect of the game as the strict linearity was the biggest complaint of the original.

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Adding general cuteness and aiding your exploration is a new moogle companion. Moogles are awesome and I’m happy that one will be accompanying me in FFXIII-2. In addition to making cute sounds, the moogle will reveal some hidden objects and use his powers so that you can nab them. It seems like he rips the fabric of space, perhaps revealing the dimension where Lightning is stranded…but that’s just conjecture.

FFXIII’s excellent battle system is back, with a few changes. As with the original, you’ll have to change your team’s behavior during the course of the fight (damagers, healers, buffers, etc.). After you defeat certain monsters, they’ll join your party. Different monsters will appear by your side, depending on what role you’re using and each monster has their own special ability.

Battles now have short quick time events. Some QTEs I saw were just simple finishing moves. Others had gameplay consequences. For example, some QTEs will buff up your party if successful and cause your party to take damage if failed. I didn’t see enough of these to see if they really add to the gameplay, but it appears to be part of a larger trend of quick time events infiltrating all sorts of games.

During my demo, I saw a brief portion of the game featuring Lightning that was not playable on the show floor. She engaged in a cool fight while riding her Odin eidolon. Horsey fights looked like a nice change of pace from standard melee. They felt faster and seemed to implement quick time events better. Plus, Lightning just feels more bad-ass than her dainty sister and her boy toy companion.

I’m psyched for FFXIII-2. Keep in mind that I really liked the original game. It builds on a strong base and expands the world of FFXIII. Gamers that were disappointed in the original should keep their eyes on this game. It appears that Square Enix will address some of the complaints that turned off longtime RPG fans. If the devs add a mode that lets you torture wussy boy Hope Estheim then everyone will be happy!

Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One Multiplayer and 3D Preview

Yesterday I caught a demo and got some hands-on time with Insomniac Games’ Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One. As a fan of the Ratchet & Clank series and cooperative gaming, I was really looking forward to this title. I definitely enjoyed my time with the game, but there were some elements that surprised me (in a good way). Let’s take a look!

All 4 One is a four-player cooperative affair starring Ratchet, Clank, Captain Qwark, and Dr. Nefarious. You can play alone, accompanied by character AI, but it’s much more fun playing with another player or three. Multiplayer can be done on the same console or online through PlayStation Network. Players are free to drop in and drop out of the game.

As expected, there are traditional platform elements that require players to work together to solve puzzles. I was pleasantly surprised to see driving and shooting portions that played up the cooperative aspect of the game. I wasn’t expecting that kind of diversity.

Another surprise was the amount of storytelling involved. I was expecting the game to focus entirely on multiplayer gameplay, with no storytelling at all. Honestly, I should have expected more from Insomniac — of course there’s story in the game! The events pick up after Ratchet & Clank Future: A Crack in Time. Ratchet and Clank are tired and want to retire. Qwark has become president (though he’s still a lovable idiot). Nefarious is plotting evil schemes. Naturally, they end up involved in a larger plot that requires the four of them to work together in order to survive and — wait for it — save the world! Sony showed off a bunch of cutscenes that revealed a bit of the game’s plot. They were full of the humor and charm you’d expect from Insomniac.

While the game requires cooperation, it also has competitive aspects. For example, there are boxes that can only be opened by two players. I had fun frantically racing to boxes in order to get a higher score than my companions. Some cooperative actions result in players getting a score multiplier. Not only will you be racing to get more collectibles, but you’ll be racing to work together too. The mix of cooperative and competitive gameplay was way fun in the brief time I had with the game.

My companions and I had to tackle environmental puzzles that required us to work together to advance. For example, some ledges or objects are too far to reach by jumping. To reach these areas, one player has to power up a vacuum gun and another has to jump into it. Once the player is shot over the chasm, the rest of us could swing over to him via tether lines. Of course there are the typical (and fun) Ratchet & Clank activities of running, jumping, and beating/shooting the crap out of enemies.

I got to play the game in stereoscopic 3D and “normal” 2D. I definitely preferred playing in 2D. 3D was novel for a minute or two, but after that it added more eyestrain than enjoyment. While the eyestrain was mildly annoying while I was playing, it felt like someone was jamming toothpicks into my eyes when I took the 3D glasses off. For me, 3D didn’t add enough to the experience to make the discomfort worthwhile. The game looked great in 2D…and didn’t leave me with the toothpick-jammed-in-they-eyes sensation. I think I’ll stick with that.

Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One looks like the super-fun game I imagined it to be when it was announced, but with more diversity and storytelling than I expected. I’m definitely going to pick it up when it’s released later this year. I hope some of you grab it as well. It would be awesome to play with you in an Invitational. If you have any questions about the game, please ask away in the comments section.

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HTC Thunderbolt Preview Video

Here’s a preview video of the HTC Thunderbolt — the first phone on Verizon’s blazing LTE network. The Thunderbolt features Google Android 2.2 with HTC Sense, a 4.3-inch screen, a 1GHz Snapdragon processor, an eight-megapixel rear-facing camera, a 1.3-megapixel front-facing camera, and…a kickstand! It’s a lot like the HTC Evo 4G for Sprint, but with updated parts (the processor and screen are better).

My initial results were crazy good. I was getting download speeds over 11Mbps and upload speeds over 37Mbps. From what I understand, is probably doing something funky with the upload test, so I’m not really buying those results. Still, the speeds are fantastic in terms of real-world usage — better than what I’ve been getting on Sprint’s WiMax network and T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network.

Check out the video when you have a moment and let me know if you have any questions about this hot new phone for Verizon. Expect a full review next week.

Diablo III Preview: Hands On with the Demon Hunter

I had an absolute blast playing Diablo III at BlizzCon 2010. This action-RPG offers the excitement I love about the genre and the ridiculous polish I love about Blizzard games. Diablo III is shaping up to be one of the smoothest, deepest, and smartest experiences in the genre. At BlizzCon 2010 I spent several hours (more than I should have, to be honest) playing the single-player game with the new “demon hunter” class. This is easily going to be my favorite class.

Before I give you more details on the demon hunter, let me give you an idea of the kinds of action-RPG characters I enjoy. In Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance I loved playing as the sorceress and exploiting her ridiculously powerful ball lightning attack. In Marvel action-RPGs like X-Men Legends and Marvel Ultimate Alliance, I use characters like Cyclops, Iron Man, Ms. Marvel, and Spider-Woman — characters with awesome projectile attacks. Diablo III’s demon hunter fits into my play style perfectly.

The demon hunter plays like a projectile-hurling rogue with a bit of magic thrown in. She’s armed with dual crossbows that fire all sorts of ranged attacks. The projectiles can be imbued with various magical properties, which allow for exploding shots, slow shots, and more. The demon hunter can set traps and has the ability to jump across large distances with her “vault” ability. Obviously she’s not meant to be a hand-to-hand combatant.

Mixing and matching the demon hunter’s attacks was lots of fun. Hitting enemies with slow shots to decrease their speed, setting traps, and vaulting away as the traps blew the enemies to high heaven was one of my favorite tactics. Other times it was just fun to run-and-gun through levels. Firing off spread shots and exploding shots then jumping away for some mana recovery time was a joy. The demon hunter’s style and abilities give the action a sense of chaos; sure, my goals included killing enemies and snagging loot, but controlling the chaos added a layer of gameplay that’s not necessarily there for the other characters.

I was pretty high on Diablo III before BlizzCon. It’s Blizzard. It’s Diablo. Of course the game is going to be great. That said, playing as the demon hunter took my expectations to another level. I want to play this game (NOW! ) and I want to play as the demon hunter.

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Crackdown 2: This Summer’s Blockbuster Hit?

Last week I caught a demo of Crackdown 2 (Microsoft Xbox 360) and was really impressed with what the boys and girls at Ruffian Games have come up with. The original was one of the most unique and refreshing action games released this generation — I don’t recall an action game that offered such a thrilling sense of vert. The sequel aims to bring all the excitement of its predecessor along with several new tricks. From what I’ve seen, Crackdown 2 is the perfect videogame equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. Here are some assorted thoughts from the demo.

Crackdown 2 takes place 10 years after the original game. Some areas of Pacific City are prosperous, while others have become slums populated by the mutated “freaks”. The city’s network is the same, so it will feel familiar to gamers that played the first game. However, a lot of the buildings are different or have changed, so it will feel different as well.

– As expected, the game has a big vertical feel — the exaggerated high jumping returns, but this time around it’s accompanied by underground levels. Since it would be a little odd to greatly expand the width of Pacific City, the developers expanded downwards. There are several underground areas populated by the freaks. Some of the areas are connected to the ones above them, expanding the vertical feeling.

– There’s an interesting day/night mechanic that changes the feel of the game. During the day, humans walk the streets freely and you have to be careful not to kill too many of them (assuming you’re playing as a good guy). At night, the freaks come out and terrorize the streets. You can attack them with reckless abandon since the humans are inside.

– Jumping out of a helicopter is totally fun. You’re able to glide around the city quickly. In some cases it’s the most convenient way to move from area to area. More importantly, the sensation is cool. It reminded of Goliath from the Gargoyles cartoon.

– Naturally, there’s a huge sandbox element to the game. I spent about five minutes knocking down lamp posts with various weapons and vehicles. I’m pretty sure I was having flashbacks to Animal Crossing; my friend James and I used to visit our friends’ towns and chop down all their trees. Good times.

– There’s a lot more hand holding in the early stages of the game. Apparently some features and mechanics were not obvious to some players of the original. The issue has been addressed with a series of straightforward tutorials. There are also missions that help lead players to new areas. For example, you’ll be tasked to find absorption units that can take out freaks. After finding beacons that lead to the unit, you’ll find it tucked away in a central area.

– The magnetic grenade will be a fan favorite. In addition to blowing things up with them, you can create tethers between two objects. There are all sorts of fun ways to experiment with this weapon. You can create a slingshot to launch cars at your enemies. In a cooperative setting, players can attach them to a helicopter and a car. This allows the player in the chopper to tow his/her friend in the car to other areas.

– Turrets are a pretty fun weapon. While manning one is completely straightforward, they can also be ripped out at higher strength levels, allowing you to run around town with a powerful turret. In cooperative mode, multiple turrets can be attached to trucks, allowing a gang to operate a wheeled death machine.

– Collecting orbs was always fun in the first Crackdown. This time around it won’t be so easy. There are power-ups called “renegade orbs” that flee from the player. While they don’t exactly use an advanced AI, they are smart enough to alter their flight pattern depending on your actions. Early renegade orbs are easy enough to catch, but they get tougher to snag as the game progresses.

– There’s a freak-specific weapon called the UV gun. It’s awesome for blasting away freaks…or getting a tan.

In my mind, Crackdown clearly inspired other action games like Infamous and Prototype. With that in mind, the sequel has to work harder than its forerunner to impress people. From what I saw last week, Crackdown 2 certainly has the potential to dazzle gamers. The single-player aspects looked like great, ridiculous fun. If the cooperative elements are similarly engaging then this should be the summer blockbuster game. Heavy action, ridiculous weaponry, and monstrous explosions — sounds like fun, hey?

Anyway, let me know what you think of the game. Did you dig the original? Are you looking forward to the sequel? Do you think it will be on your summer wish list? Leave a comment and let me know (please)!

Binary Preview of Dragon Age: Origins Awakening

I stopped by BioWare’s suite at GDC 2010 to check out Dragon Age: Origins Awakening. Most of you know that Dragon Age was my favorite game of 2009 and I played through that sucker four times. As much as I love the Final Fantasy and Pokemon series, those games will have to take a backseat to this expansion pack. I already know that I’m going to love it, but in the spirit of my friend Augustine’s binary system, here’s a preview of the expansion using two categories: good and bad.

Good: Accompanying Awakening is a title update that will fix several issues with the original game. One of the biggest glitches it will patch is the dreaded dexterity bug in dagger-damage calculation. This bug made dexterity-based rogues far less effective than they should have been.

Bad: Players that went with cunning rogues will be steamed that their carefully crafted thieves will not be able to exploit the dexterity fix out of the box.

Good: Thankfully, the expansion has tomes that will allow you to redistribute character stats and specs. Keebler, my city elf rogue, will be deadlier than ever by the end of the week.

Bad: I don’t care if intelligent, talking darkspawn are supposed to be menacing. They (pictured in the header image) still look like evil raisins to me.

Good: Several characters will make cameo appearances in Awakening. Those of you keeping up with the expansion’s trailers already know that Alistair takes a break from ruling Ferelden to check up on your party.

Bad: Only Oghren returns as a playable character. I understand that new blood needs to be introduced and I’m looking forward to adventuring with the new characters, but I got super attached to Leliana, Shale, and Dog. I’m sure that those of you that worked hard to avoid the Leliana romance glitch will be disappointed that the sexy Orlesian bard will not playable.

Good: Fans of the original game will want to play the expansion at least twice. If you play as your original Dragon Age character, you’re viewed as the hero of Ferelden. People will treat your favorably and there should be some nice perks you can enjoy during Awakening. You can also start from scratch and play as a grey warden from Orlais. Some people will view you as an outsider, remembering the harsh treatment Ferelden received during the Orlesian occupation.

Good: There are loads of new talents and skills to enjoy. Characters will be able to craft their own enchantments (enchantment!). Bow slingers will get to abuse a new area-of-effect attack. As a rogue fan, I saw some outstanding defensive and offensive skills that left me drooling. Realizing that mages were ridiculously powerful in the original, BioWare wanted to beef up the other classes in the expansion.

Good: Enchantments (enchantment!) can be used in armor now!

Good: The dialogue seems well done. The characters had lots of great banter, with Oghren and Anders providing excellent comedy to Mhairi’s straight woman.

Good: Speaking of Mhairi, she was apparently requested by Dragon Age fans. All the tanks in the original were male. Mhairi will show that women can tank with the best of them.

Good: Each class has two new specializations to learn. It’s the same deal as the original; specializations can either be learned from other characters or through tomes.

Good: You have a new base of operations called Vigil’s Keep. No more crappy campsites for you and your party!

Bad: Vigil’s Keep requires some management. You can fortify its defenses or keep the local peasants happy. Sure, you can let your seneschal take care of things, but you really ought to do this yourself. It’s cool that it adds another activity to an already deep game, but it’s bad because it takes time away from killing evil raisins that are threatening the land.

Good: Since you’re the new commander of the grey wardens, you’ll be able to recruit new members to the cause. This includes busting out the right of conscription.

Bad: As you know, becoming a grey warden requires a ceremony that some of your recruits will not survive. I’m not even attached to the new characters in Awakening and I’m already sad that some of them will not make it to the end.

My binary preview is over, but I’ll be writing about the game a ton (not reviewing it!) as I play through it. I’m sure I’m going to have a blast and I hope some of you play it too so that we can chat it up. Is it Tuesday yet?!?