Review of GameTap.com

11 10 2009

gametap

GameTap is something of a marvel. For years, several players would watch as their favorite games fade into obscurity, with nothing they could do about it. Try as they like, most of the systems that house these games would eventually break, ending any chance they had of playing their classics. It wasn’t until the arrival of the XBox Live Arcade that players had the chance to purchase and download earlier titles. Since then, Sony and Nintendo have provided services of their own. Taking a nod from them, GameTap, owned by Turner Broadcasting System, decided to provide a service to old-school gamers by offering a service in which to download some of their favorite forgotten games, spanning systems from the Atari 2600 to the Dreamcast. However, is the company at the point where it is worth looking into?

Look ahead to find out.

Now, of course GameTap doesn’t have modern hits like Halo 3 or Bioshock for purchase, but there is more than enough here to play around with. For a fee of $9.95 a month, you have hundreds of classic titles at your disposal, from 1942 and Deus Ex to Toy Commander and Grandia II. Role playing, action, sports, puzzle, FPS, no matter what you are into; GameTap should have what you are looking for. Of course, there are some limitations though. If you do not have a monthly subscription, you will only have a few dozen free games to play around with, which mostly consist of low budget arcade titles. Also, if you are looking for any games from the Sony or Nintendo platform, forget it. There is always the Virtual Console or Sony Store for those though.

Nevertheless, it was quite the nostalgia trip to go back and play through some of my favorite titles from the 80s and 90s. Mega Man X3, Sonic Mega Collection Plus, Tomb Raider III, Crazy Taxi, Deus Ex, EverQuest, and several more of my early non-Nintendo favorites were all there for the taking. It doesn’t just end with games though; GameTap also has several music and television options as well. Examples being Sealab 2021 and Space Ghost: Coast to Coast, with the latter still receiving new episodes exclusive to GameTap. Every Thursday the GameTap crew updates their roster of games and episodes, with well over 1400 total media options available as of today.

I suppose the only negative that the site has going for it is the fact that several of the titles offered on it can be purchased for pocket change at used game shops. Especially titles for the Dreamcast, Genesis, and 8 bit systems. Also, a broadband connection is required in order to play the games you download, so if you happen to still be on dial up – forget about it. Requirements are needed to play games from GameTap, but they are pretty minimal. Pentium 4, Windows 2000 or better, and US/Canadian residence are really the only guidelines you have to worry about, but odds are 9 out of every 10 people meet all three of these requirements.

All in all, GameTap is a service for those who want to acquire classics from primarily the Arcade and Sega platform. The purchase of games or movies from GameTap is 100% legal, so if you always skipped out on the illegal emulator route then good for you. They may not have every single title you are looking for, primarily because they have only been around for a couple of years. However, if you are a fan of arcade classics, role-playing games, or fighting games, GameTap is the company to go with. So grab a broadband connection and ten dollars, and be apart of a service that is reliable and well worth the investment. It’s only too bad that something this convenient didn’t come around until this decade.

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Retro Review: ES IV: Oblivion (PC)

5 10 2009

Oblivion PC

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Original release date: 03/20/06

You are the unfortunate prisoner, sitting in your particular cell, wondering just how you got yourself into this troublesome predicament. Across the hall can be heard the snickers of a fellow inmate, hurling insults your way as the guard and his escorts approach. While waiting you calm your fidgeting by playfully moving some chains back and forth, all the while watching that ever approaching shadow. Yet, with each passing second you feel a sense that something is amiss, a wariness that easily tops your own current troubles. The guards reach your cell but rather than focus on you, they tell you to move aside. Confused, you look as the guards are accompanied by none other than the great Emperor himself. As you sit there in astonishment, you watch as the man, clothed in silk and gold, turns to you and mutters an incomparably powerful sentence.

”It’s you — the one from my dreams.”

With a vague explanation and little comprehension of what he means, a secret door suddenly opens, leading to a misty labyrinth, cleverly hidden behind a stone infrastructure. Suddenly you are fighting side by side with the guards of the Imperial City, warding off hordes of mysteriously clad assassins. In mere moments you find yourself separated from the group, as well as lost in thought. Where do I go from here? Oh, but so much more awaits you within the confines of the dark underground; multiple corridors that lead to lurking enemies; chests with your first set of items; an array of weaponry ranging from a simple bow to techniques delving in the mystic arts. These all leading up to an understanding of just who you really are and what your mission is in this crazy new world.

And this encompasses just the first hour of play.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion truly is one of those titles that only appear once in a blue moon; in a time where dry points are strewn about the gaming scene. Continuing the impressive mark that carries over from its predecessor Morrowind, the game strives to give you a world that doesn’t end until you want it to. Along the way you will take the time to notice the attention to detail apparent in every single corner of the land of Cyrodil. From the breathtakingly high mountains near Lylonadil to the snowy wastelands of Bravil, impressive visuals help provide an incentive to go exploring. Murky caverns, forgotten ruins, and hellish portals to far off dimensions, can all be found within several miles of each other, and show that this is one twisted world you’ll not soon forget.

What can be forgotten are some annoyances that I had some problems with in Morrowind. For one, in the previous version, there were times when I wish I could simply get to my destination immediately. Bethesda realized this and decided to provide an option for those of us who had seen enough of the landscape already. Fast travel is an option now, giving you the chance to instantly warp to any location on the map. This saves players a tremendous amount of time and helps you get those quests done, minus the sluggish walking from town to town. The feature is merely optional though and if you are the type that likes to take in the lush surroundings, far be it from anyone to stop you. Nevertheless, the game is all about choices, and Oblivion provides a wide array of character classes, each with their own unique combat approach and style.

Speaking of combat, Oblivion definitely made the biggest improvement in this department, allotting a wide array of possibilities no matter what you choose to be. Want to be a burly warrior, clad in full heavy armor, wielding every massive weapon in the book? Be sure to specialize strength and endurance then, focusing on the various weapon skills and of the course, the art of blocking. That’s right, warriors can now block using their respective weapon or shield, allowing for more intense duels; especially if it is between two melee based fighters.

Mages now have a tremendous amount of spells to choose from, ranging from the mind numbing powers of illusion to the offensive forces of fire and lightning, known as destruction. And props to the new hot-key system, which lets you assign any type of sword, bow, or spell to a single button push. This saving you from frustratingly pressing the menu button to switch tools during combat sessions. Yet, the most important aspect of the game comes down to picking the best character for the job. And depending on the decision you make, will affect just how well your protagonist will perform.

For instance, I play as the tiger race Khajit, with my skills applicable to the very cool field of thievery. Thanks to the agility and speed bonuses provided by my particular kind, techniques delving in: acrobatics, lock-pick, sneak, and security, help me take advantage of my class to its full potential. Just as in Morrowind you level by the amount of times you use your specific skills, rather than each opponent carrying a set amount of experience points. And while skills like acrobatics may feel broken, since jumping continues to raise its level, the other attributes help to balance it out.

Now perhaps you don’t want to be a fuzzy cat. Then why not take a pick from over ten other possible character models, each having their own unique background and character traits. From the beer swigging, axe wielding Nord to the intelligent and mysterious Dark Elf, each race provides a different experience, not only in combat or appearance, but in the way people will perceive you.

Taking a couple of pointers from the ill-fated Fable, the people in the world of Oblivion are among the most active non-player characters ever seen in a role-playing game. Try walking into the local inn for a drink, there the citizens of the town will welcome you; recognizing you by the origin you chose at the beginning of the game. You will also notice how they seem to go about their own predetermined schedule, sometimes even bumping into each other for a quick conversation. What is sometimes fun is sneaking up on some unsuspecting duo and eavesdropping what they are saying. This can lead to an understanding of the area you are in, any local missions to undertake, or perhaps just a quick laugh at the convoluted exchange of words that can sometimes take place.

Another thing that might have some people talking is the accomplishments that you put under your belt throughout your progression of the main storyline. As you travel from city to forest; riding over bridges and passing by desolate ruins and landmarks, you will begin to find the Oblivion gates. These nightmarish portals have appeared all throughout the world of Cyrodil, unleashing legions of imps, mutant lizards, and powerful beings known as the Daedra. Your primary objective will be to find these gates, enter them, eliminate the opposition inside, and deactivate the terminal which keeps these fiery gateways open. No matter how much you enjoy the dark storyline of Oblivion, there are times when you just need a break. Thankfully, the game provides a plethora of sub-quests and guilds to join, all which let you deepen the role of your hero further.

I mean, I’m not one to brag, but I’ve single-handedly taken down hundreds of ruthless bandits in my travels. I’ve become the champion of the Arena in the Imperial City, where hundreds of spectators cheer my name as I enter and leave each event. Whether it be taking down a team of high elf archers or slaughtering a legion of trolls, the outcome is the same. Oh, and it would be foolish if I didn’t point out that I have among the highest honors in the thieves guild. Nothing like quietly breaking into a poor sap’s house late in the night and making off with the many goods strewn about their shelves and chests all ninja style. I guess I could tribute my success to the fact that I have the eyes of the tiger, allowing me to see into the darkness and help spot those deadly pit and needle traps. Though that’s not to say there aren’t more career choices out there. The fighters guild and mages guild have made their return from the original, along with a series of hidden clubs and cults that make the before mentioned ones feel like a walk through the daisies.

If there is one thing that has gotten on my nerves though, as I’ve slowly taken my time with Oblivion, it would be the sometimes exploitable AI. And there is no other class that experiences this flaw as much as the thief. For example, picture sneaking in through the front door of a item store at three in the morning; your shadow silently blending in with the night. Your confidence is then broken as the owner of the store comes downstairs and notices your actions. Que the following silly resultant of my carelessness:

Disgruntled store clerk: “Hey! What are you doing here? Get out before I call the guards!”

[There is a slight pause, but then I notice he’s not doing anything but glaring at me. So, I go over to talk to him.]

Disgruntled store clerk: “Welcome, I have the finest goods in all of Cyrodil!”

Jin the Khajit: “…”

Quite the punishment for getting caught eh? A small threat and a chance to sell some supplies and I was off gallivanting in the night again. Luckily, the guards of the game aren’t so stupid and will be sure to throw you in jail if you truly piss them off. This of course leads to more difficult encounters later on when you start dealing with craftier people, both human and alien alike.

So, say you are stuck on a difficult boss engagement, where he continues to bind your attacks and slide pass your feeble defenses. Perhaps you should go level up? Unfortunately, that’s pointless because the challenge of the game scales with your level. Ah, there is the solution, go into the options menu and slide the toggle down to easy. It’s alright, it’s only for this fight and then you can slide it back up again afterward. Probably the first role-playing game in years that allows you to alter the difficulty while you play, Oblivion definitely opens up some possibilities for the casual gamer. Personally I don’t care for it because it breaks down any wall that a player would have to improve themselves to go through. It would be like asking someone not to use their book on a take home test. The urge to cross that impassable rift is sometimes a little too overwhelming.

Nevertheless, there is always the option of keeping the difficulty at maximum for you hardcore players. On a somewhat similar note, the best relief for that built up tension, brought about by fluent challenges, can be found in the harmless field of sight-seeing. Weather effects that change as you journey from point to point, a time system that affects the sky and the schedules of the people, and fluid character motions all bring together a treat for the eyes; that is even furthered along if you happen to own a top of the line system. Oblivion is definitely one of the more graphic intense titles to come along in a while and will require a moderate system just to run it on an average setting. Those running it on a lower end computer will also notice the occasional dip in frame-rate and some lock-ups as well. So, keep in mind that you get what you pay for when it comes to the PC version. You get better visuals than the 360 version, but it all depends on how much you are willing to spend. Ah, the old double-edged sword.

Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion takes the best qualities of an MMORPG and action-RPG and fuses them together to form something special. The improved battle system, brilliant story-line, and sheer depth of the visuals help bring everything together, even better than its predecessor had. However, the PC version suffers from some performance problems that can really only be cured by having a nice system. Adding that to some other detriments is what brings me to give this version of the game a point less than I’d want to. When everything is said and done though, there is just too much to like about Oblivion, and those that get into all it has to offer will enjoy well over 60 hours of playtime.

In the end whatever system you decide to buy the game for is entirely up to you. It all depends on whether or not you think it’s the right time. The 360 and PSIII versions are superior, thus I would recommend them over the PC version.

Verdict 8/10 (PC) and 9/10 (Xbox 360 and PS3)





Featured Reviewer at Giant Bomb

8 04 2009

Was pretty surprised to wake up and see that one of my reviews was featured over at GiantBomb.com.  The review is one of my older ones from 2005, so the formatting probably isn’t as good as it should be, but it gets its point across.  Now that I go back and play it, Mischief Makers isn’t quite as bad as I remember it; the controls are still awkward though.  Review is on the front page of the site by the way.





Retro Review: Harvest Moon DS

8 04 2009

The “Retro Reviews” section will feature reviews of games that are 6 months or older than the current date.  This can include games from the NES, the PSP, the Colecovision, or even the 360.  Most of these reviews have already been published on other sites under my name, but I thought it would be beneficial to post it here on my blog.  Enjoy!

hmoonds

Harvest Moon DS (Nintendo DS)

Original release date: 09/12/06

For those who have toiled along the sun-parched fields of Harvest Moon over the years, one thing has been made evidently clear: repetition is fun.  Combining the occupation of farming with the genre of simulation, Natsume has kept their hardworking fan-base busy for over a decade.  Though obscure in the glory days of the SNES, the series has definitely busted onto the scene in recent years.  Whether by word-of-mouth or a lack of first-party Nintendo games (which we should all be used to), Harvest Moon has sort of become the ultimate reality simulator.  Whether you’re tilling that last spot of barren land or milking your cow for the hundredth time, there is an irreplaceable charm underneath all that manual labor, rarely found in games today.

Yet, there is a problem.

It is the one thing that has always been a consistent problem in this series and that is its lack of game-play diversity between releases. Yes, it is safe to say that each individual game in the series is solid. However, for those who have followed the farming simulator since the earlier days, there have been times where we have felt a disappointing sensation of deja-vu. Example being the nearly identical versions of Harvest Moon 64 and Harvest Moon: Back to Nature. Though different in name, each title shared the same characters, animals, and practically the same town. And unfortunately, the same can be said for the Game Boy Advance version of Friends of Mineral Town and Natsume’s latest offering for the dual-screen handheld, Harvest Moon DS.

That’s not to say that the title is poor, it’s just that, well, nothing has really changed. Despite all the system changes the series has gone through over the years, the core game-play hasn’t changed in the slightest. If the last Harvest Moon you played was on the SNES back in the nineties, then you could jump into any of the others with little effort. Tilling land, managing crops, upgrading buildings, and making friends are still your primary objectives and it is safe to say that Natsume caters more to gathering new fans than keeping old ones. Yet, fans keep coming back, hoping for that one change that will rekindle the passion for their delightful, little reality sim. Nevertheless, if you are new to this particular collaboration of farming-oriented games, then you are in for a good time. And where else could those good times be held, but the place where it always starts.

Ah the farm, always the location where your blue-collar adventures begin. You start as a young boy in Forget-Me-Not Valley, living a simple life in the quaint little town. However, things are not always what they seem. Through some magical mischief, brought about by the Witch Princess, the Harvest Goddess is petrified and sent to another dimension, along with most of the helpful little sprites. Realizing her wrong doing, the princess enlists your help to try and bring her back. How you may ask? Well, by farming of course, what else? Despite the unique back-story, not much has changed as far as introductions go. Within minutes you will begin clearing out your crappy, weed-filled backyard as you have done in every other Harvest Moon game, all the while trying to get used to the new control scheme brought about by the DS.

The touch screen acts as your access window in Harvest Moon DS, allowing you to reach in and pull items out of that big, orange rucksack. Within that backpack you will notice three distinct placeholders, them being: tool, item, and accessory. Though the first two should be familiar to any regular, the newly added equip option brings about an RPG approach to the series. As you continue to gain prestige and wealth, or what little you can in such a small setting, you will find it easier to unlock these unique items. Items that will let you recover lost stamina, transport from place to place, and even improve the happiness of your animals. The animal glove, for example, brings about the other use of the touch screen, allowing you to brush, wash, and pet your animals through a compilation of quick mini-games. It is undoubtedly intriguing; however, this feature remains as one of the few new game-play elements. Beyond this point you should instantly recognize practically everything, assuming you’ve been playing these games for some time.

The game is certainly more challenging this time around though. Rather than having the bird and material sheds handed to you at the beginning of the game, you will have to earn them through a little bit of ingenuity and elbow grease. Planting crops is definitely a priority in the early seasons, with the casino being a useful way to make a bit of money on the side. Speaking of crops, there are plenty to pick from, with over twenty vegetables available for harvesting. Trees also give you a break from tending to your large gardens, providing extra income without you even having to lift a finger. In due time, you will have acquired the necessary buildings, allowing you to raise livestock, poultry, and of course, a trusty steed.

Life as a farmer can definitely be lonely at times, so heading down to the village for some social activities is essential. Those who played through A Wonderful Life will have no problem remembering most of its “unique” inhabitants. Who could forget the shy giant Cody, the introverted scientist Daryll, or the lovable hobo Murrey? Well, too be honest, most tried to after the disappointing mess that was A Wonderful Life, but it’s hard not to remember when the game came out just two years ago. Agenda’s run rampant for the townsfolk of Forget-Me-Not Village and learning their schedules is key for accessing secret events, unlocking particular tools, or raising their friendship levels. Nevertheless, as always, there reside the most important individuals in each farming adventure you’ve ever undergone – the women.

Wish getting married in reality was as easy as it is to in this game? You should. In fact, everyone should . . . unless you like being single. As always, there resides five primary bachelorettes, with several unlockable ones along the way. Each has their own unique personality, likes, dislikes, and locations they enjoy visiting. After some trial and error, you will memorize your lady of choice’s favorite things and proceed to raise her friendship and heart levels. This can be done by giving some gifts, unlocking their heart scenes, and attending the festivals regularly. The core element of marriage as a whole hasn’t really changed and those familiar with the system will probably be married by the end of the first year. Just another thing Natsume could’ve expanded upon, but didn’t.

Okay, maybe there is one new addition in Harvest Moon DS that hasn’t been in its’ predecessors . . . but it isn’t very good. In fact, it is just as monotonous as the primary farming game-play can eventually become. What is being talked about here is the implementation of a dungeon-crawling mechanic. Wait, what? Dungeon elements in a farming simulator? Yeah, it befuddles me too.

It all takes place within the mine and at first, it will seem just like the traditional cave from the earlier titles. Hoeing here and there, collecting ore, and watching for sudden pit falls — nothing out of the ordinary right? Well, you will soon discover floors, and below the first you will unearth the most bizarre of items and creatures that you would never think would come out of a Harvest Moon title. Evil chickens, cursed tools, and even a mysterious maiden wait for you within the bowels of the earth, with the floor levels ranging from fifty to over sixty-five thousand! The repetition isn’t too noticeable at first glance, but within an hour you will realize the lack of diversity between floors, with the problem compounded even more due to the HP system. Here you are, on floor “1,243” and you haven’t saved in a while. Then all of a sudden, thump! You just fell over two hundred floors through a random hole and lost all of your health.

Fantastic.

Despite the lack of uniqueness and the negativity brought upon by the few new approaches to the series, there is one positive to Harvest Moon DS, and it has to do with the presentation. The visuals have certainly improved since the farming simulator’s outing on the Game Boy Advance, with vibrant landscapes and better drawn character models enveloping the top and bottom screens. The game features plenty of catchy new songs, which would be even better if the same song didn’t play throughout all thirty days of a season. The addition of purchasable songs from previous Harvest Moon titles makes up for this, with over twenty of them available for purchase as you progress throughout. You always have the option to turn down the volume though.

At the end of the day, what else can be said but – this is Harvest Moon. If you have been a faithful fan since day one and don’t care whether or not anything ever changes in this series, then have fun. If you are a newcomer, there is no better place to start. There is plenty of work to be done and those worrying about time restriction can relax a bit in knowing that the game continues forever. Year three, six, or even forty-four are all possible, just in case you want to continue your progress from home, work, or on the road. However, if you are one of those particular people that crave change, look elsewhere. To be honest, the game is really just a combination of A Wonderful Life and Friends of Mineral Town. So if you own one or both of these games, just save your money.

Verdict – 7/10