Reviews by lairdjaren

83

The Saga Continues

lairdjaren | July 7, 2014 | Review of Dragon Age: Origins Awakening (NA)

Dragon Age: Awakenings adds a new campaign that packs some worthy additions to Origins. The story is dark and compelling and fills in missing lore about the darkspawn and the blights. Somehow, the darkspawn get even creepier and more sinister.

Awakening also deepens the skill tree and item customizations. These tweaks range from critical improvements to Origin's underwhelming archers and two-handed warriors to simply adding new ways to enjoy your player character.

While Awakening is not as long as Origins, by no means is it just a one-and-done mission. You'll have several dungeons to fight through and challenging new bosses to overcome. Furthermore, importing a character from Awakening will keep gameplay with all those extra customization options a lot more fresh if you decide to continue your adventures in other dlc like golems and witch hunt.

55

Actually, somewhat useful

lairdjaren | July 5, 2014 | Review of Crusader Kings II: Dynasty Shield II

The dynasty shields packs are probably the least popular crusader kings DLCs. However, they do lend both a bit of culture and functionality. First, if you know a bit of coat of arms iconography, the extra bit of information can sometimes tell you from which region or cultural group a character originates saving you a little bit of trouble. But even if not, there are tons of feudal holdings and since the game recycles shield designs, every little bit helps cut down on redundancies.

96

Of schemes and plots

lairdjaren | July 5, 2014 | Review of Crusader Kings II

Read Machiavelli's The Prince or watch Game of Thrones' Tywin Lannister and think to yourself, 'Yeah, I could do that." Well, you probably wouldn't survive a year in the medieval era, but at least with this superlative game you can hone your medieval statecraft and plot your way to glory all from the comfort of your armchair. No other computer game sinks you into the feudal mindset quite like CK2. Welcome to a time before the rise of nation-states. Your territories will be held together or disintegrate on the basis of vassal relationships. CK2 is a game of thousands individual characters, each with their own inclinations and motivations, and success or failure rides on how you can manipulate this feudal matrix. This basic setup also plays directly into mechanics that keep the game balanced in a way that feels natural. As you expand, conquest by external powers may diminish, but the threat of internal division grows as you are forced to dispense an ever-growing share of territories to restless vassals. Some minor quibbles include paradox's typically poorly crafted tutorials, but ck2 is very approachable and easy enough to learn after a little bit of effort. Oh, and there's a really nice mod that recreates the Game of Throne universe.

91

An empire that lasts 1000 years

lairdjaren | July 3, 2014 | Review of Crusader Kings II: Europa Universalis IV Converter DLC

Yes, this dlc allows you to convert your ck2 save into eu4. That alone makes it worthwhile. But there are also a couple of other assorted goodies too. Did you revive the fortunes of Rome or reform the Old Gods? If so, the converter unlocks some exclusives like letting you rule the roman empire or command the vikings in the early modern age.

87

It's all about location

lairdjaren | July 3, 2014 | Review of Fallout 3

If you're deciding between Fallout 3 and New Vegas, they're both great games and play almost identically. Splitting hairs, New Vegas is an overall better game boasting slightly better gameplay mechanics, supports more open-ended in-game choices, and is more lore-friendly. On the other hand, F3 is the better and more ambitious setting.

The Fallout universe is a cheeky caricature of america. While the cultural wastelands of Southern California and Las Vegas are ripe fruit, the capital wasteland of F3 takes this strident, yet cheerful introspection to new heights, precisely because D.C. is built to be a monument to how we want to perceive ourselves at our best.

In the backdrop of nuclear holocaust, sometimes you'll shake your head at the inanity of museums built to declaring victory in the space race instead of celebrating the achievement of humans setting foot on the moon. On the other hand, while sniping slavers is always fun, it will undoubtedly be even more so from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

90

Epic World & Fun Characters

lairdjaren | July 2, 2014 | Review of Dragon Age 2 & Dragon Age Origins Ultimate Bundle (NA)

I thoroughly enjoyed the Dragon Age series and can't wait for the upcoming DA: Inquisition. But its appeal well depend on the kind of gaming experience you're looking for.

Dragon Age has a fun, rollicking world and fantasy-based mythos, and its AI companion characters are well-developed. Your dialogue choices and "their" perception of your actions is a central part of gameplay. However, while companion commentary will enhance the sense of choice, there isn't a lot of actual game changing choices, instead favoring a general narrative script.

Also, gameplay is tactical. Although you directly control character movement, when your character is firing a bow, you will not be aiming. Rather, you will be selecting a skill and the game resolves the mechanics. However, this can be especially fun when you chain several skills from various party members together.

The games also have a great modding community that have some improved textures and customizations.

86

Keeps it interesting

lairdjaren | June 30, 2014 | Review of Fallout 3: Broken Steel

Broken Steel is a must-have for Fallout 3. Frankly, it really should have been part of the base game. By the time you hit the old level cap, the base game loses nearly all its challenge, even if the majority of the map is still open for exploration. Broken Steel adds new enemies that have bite even when you reach level 30. And these new foes are not just restricted to a select part of the map, but rather "level up" the existing hostiles. Broken Steel's exclusive missions also finish off the main storyline in a way that is more engaging and appropriate to Fallout's open-ended sandbox style of play.

69

Adds Flavor

lairdjaren | Jan. 5, 2014 | Review of Crusader Kings II: African Unit Pack

Adds new unit graphics, not new unique units. That being said, the dlc does make gameplay more immersive in the african continent. The graphics look good and even the marching animations are different. Ultimately, these detail do add up to make a playthrough feel a bit more global.

64

Orange

lairdjaren | Jan. 5, 2014 | Review of Crusader Kings II: Mediterranean Portraits

Surely CK2 portraitures could use a bit more variety, but the Mediterranean Portrait DLC leaves something to be desired. The portraits look like they were molded from clay and, at least in my experience, way too many characters are unnaturally orange.

57

Bit of a letdown

lairdjaren | Dec. 31, 2013 | Review of Fallout 3: Mothership Zeta

Overall, Fallout 3 DLC were good, especially Broken Steel and Point Lookout. Unfortunately, this last add-on, Mothership Zeta (MZ), was the dullest of the bunch.

MZ has a forgettable story and is heavily linear- not only are there no side quests, but the level designs are constrictive. Mostly, the campaign is a straightforwards shooting gallery along similar-looking tunnel-like corridors. While there are some nicely rendered levels, there's generally little to interact with and nothing worth poking around in after a quick run through. The best unique items are available almost automatically anyway. So although much of the ship is closed at the conclusion of the main campaign, it's hardly a loss since there's no point in free exploration anyway.

The best part of MZ are its quirky band of NPC companions. They're an oddball collection even for the wasteland. Sadly, they're largely limited to the add-on, which is a shame, because their color commentary back in the Capital Wasteland alone would have made this dlc worth it.

Is Mothership Zeta a deal breaker? No. Certainly, F3 and the DLC packaged as a set are worth getting. Even MZ has a bit of charm and if you're really into energy weapons, it has some pieces worth adding to the collection. The campaign is just fine; it's just that the developers really could have done a lot more with it, especially as F3's last DLC. If you're going a la carte, the Mothership is the most skippable.

85

Smooth Criminal

lairdjaren | Dec. 28, 2013 | Review of Hitman 2: Silent Assassin

Hitman 2 offers something that a lot of stealth/assassin games really don't: freedom. We're not just talking about some pseudo-moral dichotomy that segregates stealth and going guns blazing. Rather, most missions will present you with a brief, often incomplete dossier, on the target's protection and then challenge you to figure out your own approach. There won't be quest markers... heck, you may not even know who you target is unless you can recall personal habits noted in the brief. Naturally, this can be frustrating. However, pulling off a hit grants a sense ownership over the gameplay that is often lacking in games that hold your hand.

Is Hitman 2 worth getting? Admittedly, the graphics are a bit dated. However, the setting still hold up quite well and while individual NPCs often have similar features they can still be easily distinguished by their classes/roles. The soundtrack is great too. Most of all, the gameplay expertly conveys the feel of being a smooth international assassin in a fun, challenging way.

81

Sunset Invasion + Old Gods

lairdjaren | Dec. 18, 2013 | Review of Crusader Kings II: Sunset Invasion

While Sunset Invasion may add some fanciful history, it also offers some fun challenges and a bit of game balancing. In CK2, Western Europe is fairly well shielded from expansionist Muslim and Mongol hordes. Sunset Invasion can balance out this iniquity by ensuring Christians on both sides of the map live in fear of invasion.

Also, if you get the Old Gods DLC, which makes the pagan factions playable, then guess what? Sunset Invasion + Old Gods unlocks the Aztecs! That's right, you too strike terror in your enemies as you sacrifice prisoners in the name of the gods.

93

Retinues and Factions

lairdjaren | Dec. 18, 2013 | Review of Crusader Kings II: Legacy of Rome

Crusader Kings II has a lot of great DLC. Legacy of Rome is the first one you need to get.

Like the other DLC, Legacy of Rome unlocks/ugrades a non-Catholic power, in this case the Byzantines. However, Legacy of Rome also significantly upgrades the core gameplay by adding "faction" and "retinue" mechanics. Factions allow multiple vassals to band together to demand a specific actions from their liege (e.g. lower crown authority, independence, etc). Hence, the power of larger empires also become more fragile and prone to internal squabbling. On the other hand, retinues represent the centralizing tendency of medieval states over time. Initially, retinues start off as glorified house guards, but over time, larger and more advanced powers will be able to improve and enlarge these units into a standing army. In the late game, a king can squash a rebellious count or two without ever having to call on levies.

Overall, Legacy of Rome makes Crusader Kings 2 more dynamic, regardless of whatever power you want to play as and wherever you currently stand in CK2's feudal power structure. If you want to enjoy even the base game to its potential, get Legacy of Rome

80

Blood and Fire

lairdjaren | Dec. 17, 2013 | Review of Fallout 3: The Pitt

In the Pitt, witness how the industrialized rebirth of Pittsburgh dredges up old world class conflicts in the harsh brutal wasteland. While the main quest line can be completed in short order, getting all the goodies can take some time and the story is one of the game's better written campaigns. Things are going to get ugly. You can only choose which side of the ugly you're going to be on.

The setting is well-done. The massive molten metal spewing foundry confers that sense of the old industrial revolution back before anyone had any idea what safety standards meant. The only thing keeping roiling labor unrest contained is an oppressive police state. The only pressure-release valve: thunderdome arena combat. The art-style is right on the money. Even small decisions like switching the ambient color scheme from green-grey to that harsh orange-black really works well here.

If you're looking for perk items, the Pitt has it's share. For example, the Perferotar is great for sneaking and the mauler is just brutish. Perhaps even more useful is access to the Ammo Press. If you accumulate lots of unused ammo types, the ammo press allows you to convert them to your preferred caliber.

66

Not pretty

lairdjaren | Dec. 7, 2013 | Review of Ace Combat Assault Horizon Enhanced Edition (NA)

I loved ace combat 4: shattered skies. Although in retrospect, it was terribly unbalanced, and yes, you could end up spending 15 minutes barrel rolling, it was beautiful. There was nothing quite lining up the perfect shot after a long chase punctuated by maneuvers based solely on your wits and the contours of the landscape. The 3D tron-like replay of your approach vectors at the conclusion of each mission was the perfect testament to its elegance.

In terms of in-game graphics, Assault Horizon easily trumps any other flight combat game I've played. The renderings are sweet, if you have a chance to notice them. Unfortunately for me, I rarely get to. The skies of assault horizon are filled with two kinds of targets. Regular patsies you can shoot down normally and aces. With rare exception, the aces must be shot down in dogfight mode (DF). Most of the time, entering DF means you must closely tail the enemy until you lock-on. You will then enter a locked on mode where you attempt to keep the target from veering off screen. If you can blast them first, you're rewarded with a cool little cutscene as you fly through the wreckage.

At the start of each play, getting a kill in DF mode feels real cool and admitted it will generally make each engagement quicker and more decisive. But since every wave has at least a few "aces" and there are multiple waves per mission after awhile it will get droll. Eventually, you will want to try new strategies, but the game stubbornly insist that DF mode be used every time. This is a mistake. Instead of making DF a cool new option at your disposal, it'll start to feel like a shackle. It's like as if you were required to use VATS all the time in Fallout. A couple of times here and there when you want to go arcade-style - awesome; against every enemy worth the time - tedium. Also, while DF mode does have a few cool-looking aerieal tricks, they are primarily initiated by quick time-like events and are cinematically controlled.

All in all, Assault Horizon is a quick taut dogfighting sim that looks great and has a variety of new missions and modes. However, it converts its innovations into weaknesses with its stubborn insistence on arcade-style combat. Also, don't play with just keyboard and mouse -- it sucks. Get a controller or stick.

78

Retro Redux

lairdjaren | Dec. 7, 2013 | Review of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 (NA)

The Red Alert 3 is classic RTS fare with a quirky sense of humor.

You will build bases around resource clusters and attempt to dislodge enemies from theirs. The designers didn't tinker much with the age-old formula but they do it expertly. Not only are the three factions well-balanced, but the play style of each is satisfyingly unique and don't feel like simple palette swaps. The addition of the Empire faction in particular was refreshing for the series. The campaign won't win awards for storytelling, but it serves its purpose. Most campaign battles start as set piece challenges where you learn how to effectively use/counteract a particular unit or faction strength. There are a few duds but overall they present a good exercise and are decently paced. Best of all, you can also play co-op, which is actually kind of awesome.

Graphics and soundtrack: Red Alert 1 and 2 were a bit more tasteful and less cartoonish, but Red Alert 3's style lends itself well to the humor and general feel of not taking itself too seriously. The retro art and even play style of each faction liberally mock pop culture tropes from the cold war era with a bit of bladerunner and robotech mixed in.

Final Verdict: Old-school fun abeit nothing revolutionary, but + points for style and coop

80

Diamond in the Rough

lairdjaren | Dec. 7, 2013 | Review of Empire: Total War

The total war series is predicated on (to my mind) a winning format that integrates two kinds of games. The strategy map is a methodical turn-based affair where you build up your infrastructure and armies. But when armies clash, the game switches to real-time where you must direct your troops on a "realistic" battlefield (assuming you are a giant, all-seeing eye that can instantaneously issue orders). Half the fun is just sitting back and watching your cavalry mow into the rear of a numerically larger enemy troop formation causing the lot to flee in terror.

So that being said, if you are new to the total war series, Empire is probably not for you. Empire has all those elements and more; it is is certainly more complex than its predecessors. While certainly not more complex than a Paradox Interactive title, Empire's new elements obscure the core gameplay and probably wouldn't be the best introduction to the series. Try shogun 2, and if you absolutely need firearms, Fall of the Samurai picks up where Empire leaves off in gunpowder based battles.

Still here? For devotees of the Total War, Empire takes the series to its grandest stage yet as befitting the time period. There are three linked campaign maps and a number of oceanic trade sectors. The massive scale and the substructuring of unique trade resources to each sector allows for far more freedom on choosing how you want to play. Most total war games are about expanding as fast as your standing armies can replenish only held in check with "artificial" in-game mechanics (e.g. SPOILER Rome: civil war event; Medieval 2: the pope/excommunication; Shogun 2: after kyoto END SPOILERS). In Empire, you have the flexibility of exploring different strategies, such as staying small and securing trade resources, keeping overhead low and building alliance networks through trade deals. Throw in the government type, class conflicts, and revolution mechanics (no more dull grey rebel cities) and there is a lot more space for campaign strategy.

Empire has its share of rough spots. Focusing on the new ones: Infrastructure improvements are generic (all factions are broadly similar), one-dimensional (few branches mostly just upgrading to max), and worst of all, dispersed. Instead of everything upgradable at the capital as in every other total war game, you will need to check every individual farm, workshop, mine, etc., which becomes a complete chore as you get larger.

Armies too are broadly generic. You will mostly play and fight against similarly equipped armies/navies with only a few unique units with recruitment limits. This blandness is mitigated somewhat in campaign because the tech tree will take a long time develop, so choosing which to branches can lead to some variation at any given point in the game (e.g. one faction developing bayonets, while another goes for rank fire drill). In fact, the tech development is more rewarding because upgrades affect the tactics available to a unit rather than a blanket +attack/+defense.

Also, battles are typically much slower and grueling affairs. Most battles will be about methodically (re)positioning your units to improve your firing position while minimizing your exposure. Cavalry charges will know be about disrupting enemy firing rhythm rather than inflicting heavy casualties. Expect the sea battles to be much the same -- except when your first class heavy lights up an enemy schooner with a full salvo.

A plucky element loss in empire is that your generals and agents will no longer have those wacky awesome abilities or those amusing little cutscenes making things a bit drab.

So there you have it, If your up to trying out a more open and challenging campaign that isn't just about taking over the world as fast as possible, Empire Total War might just be for you.