Movies & TV

Casio Prizm Graphing Calculator Review

February 2

casio prizm calculator review

When I attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo in June 2010, I had the pleasure of meeting several folks working the Casio booth. After that meeting, I had the privilege of obtaining and reviewing a Casio Green Slim Projector.

During the review process for the Green Slim, I was also offered the opportunity to review their latest line of graphing calculator known as the Prizm. This calculator won me over instantly with its amazing color LCD display, large button layout (I have relatively large fingers), and state-of-the-art sleek design for the 21st century student.

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Gaming

Xbox 360 ‘slim’ – first impressions review

July 31

It’s a sad state of affairs when a Gaming Editor doesn’t have all of the hardware and tools available to provide the best coverage of an ever-growing industry. Namely, these tools include the three next-gen gaming consoles on the market today: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii. I’ve had the PS3 and Wii since launch, but it took a trip to E3 2010 to realize that I needed an Xbox 360 to complete the trinity of gaming platforms. Now that I finally made the jump into Microsoft’s ship, what do I think? How are the exclusives I’ve played thus far? How good…really…is XboxLive compared to PSN? How does GamerScore compare to Trophies? What do I think about the new design of the 360 and the inclusion of wireless and a 250GB hard drive? Keep reading.

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Gaming

Transformers: War for Cybertron | PS3 review

July 25

“Autobots, roll out!” This famous line from the 1980’s smash hit, Transformers, is still muttered by old school fans and dropped frequently from the latest generation of kids today. Transformers is a name synonymous with everything we love about big machines coming to life. As a precurser to The Matrix, the Transformers embody artificial intelligence like nothing else, and comprises a foreshadowing of life as we know it being snuffed out by what amounts to machines.

It’s a rather well-known fact that movies make terrible video games and vice versa. When a movie is going to be made, the accompanying video game is farmed out to the lowest bidder. What ends up happening more often than not – with RARE exception – is that there isn’t enough time and resources to make a compelling game, so shortcuts are taken. The end result? A crap game that may or may not even follow the movie storyline with any sense of cohesion.

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Gaming | Interviews

Amanda Brockman “Amped” from Sony’s ‘The Tester’ – E3 Video Interview

June 23

On Monday, June 14, 2010, the first evening event I was invited to was the VGChartz party at the Broadway Bar next door to the Orpheum Theater in the historic district of downtown L.A. I went alone, as I did to all of E3 2010, but one of the benefits of hanging out alone is that you get to roam around, meet new people, and just enjoy the time. Nothing prepared me for what happened when I climbed the Broadway Bar’s carpeted staircase to the second floor to check out the balcony view of Broadway Avenue.

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Books & Comics | Interviews

Cory Doctorow | Video Interview, BookExpo America 2010

June 2

cory doctorow

As amazing as my time spent at the BookExpo America (BEA) industry trade show was as a writer, nothing prepared me for the mind-blowing interview with the amazingly talented Cory Doctorow. The subject of this review is his latest YA novel, For The Win, an incredible journey into the dark underworld of virtual sub-economies spanning the globe. This two-part interview is both illuminating and revolutionary for writers of all ages. I haven’t been able to put For The Win down and I am a newly captured fan of Cory Doctorow’s. Check out his website at Craphound.com and his world-famous blog at BoingBoing.net.

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Gaming

God of War 3 Review (PS3)

March 19

Sony Santa Monica Studios has taken gamers on a fantastic and brutal journey across the PlayStation 2 with God of War and God of War 2, culminating in an end to the main trilogy on the PlayStation 3 that can only be described as epic. God of War 3 is a triumph of big budget game design at its absolute finest, and in my opinion deserves action game of the year, at least.

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Gaming

God of War 3, First Impressions

March 17

God of War 3 may be the best action game of 2010 a mere three months in, if not of all time.

My First Impressions reviews aren’t going to be as robust as they used to be because they’re too similar to my full-blown reviews. As such, I’m simply going to wax eloquent about the game, some parts that stand out thus far, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Oh, and then there’s this:

*****SPOILER and MATURE CONTENT ALERT*****

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Gaming

PlayStation Moves and Shakes, Motion Controller Unveiled

March 11

It’s [finally] official: Sony’s new motion controller is dubbed “Move”. Unveiled in full detail at the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), Sony unwrapped the Move and is full-blown marketing mode. Developers are lining up already, with undoubtedly many more on the way. Will this be the next gimmick in the motion-control market, or will it finally bring depth to gameplay and real precise controls to the HD gaming hardcore masses? The Wii has been saturated with shovel-ware and tons of games playing up the gimmick of the imprecise [edit] “Wii-mote”, with only a handful of titles rising above the problems to deliver real interactive experiences.

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Gaming

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 | PS3 Review

March 5

EA may have a lot of ground to cover before they take the FPS action crown away from Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, but their well-known and critically acclaimed Battlefield series has built a fan base that rivals the best Activision has to offer. And with the recent upheaval at Infinity Ward, resulting in a lawsuit, could Call of Duty’s reign be threatened? The answer is a resounding “yes”, especially when one considers the latest entry in the Battlefield franchise: Bad Company 2, the follow-up to the slightly lackluster Bad Company.

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Gaming

What’s Wrong with Video Game Reviews?

March 1

Video game reviews have become an accepted form of communicating the god-like-ness or worm-fodder-ness of any given title, including DLC (downloadable content). Most gamers, especially the older generation – such as Yours Truly – recall the day when the review didn’t mean much, if anything at all. You had to buy a magazine to get anything resembling a second opinion, and our game collections reflect that. How many “crap” games do we all own, seriously? Countless, to be sure. I used to trade Atari games straight up with other kids based solely on the fact that I wanted to play a title. In other words, I couldn’t have cared less about what the critics and cynics said about games. I lived only to play what I wanted and what I may have played at a friend’s house.

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Gaming

Heavy Rain (PS3) | Review

February 26

Quantic Dream, the developer behind Farenheit (Indigo Prophecy) and Omikron: The Nomad Soul, struck a bargain with Sony to bring its emotional title – Heavy Rain– exclusively to the PS3. Founded in 1997 and based in Paris, France, Quantic Dream is not just a video game developer. According to the Wikipedia, QD supplies motion capture services to both the film and video game industries. When you play Heavy Rain, you will see that mo-cap has played a key role in bringing the story and characters to life.

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Gaming

Sony, PlayStation 3 2010 Preview

January 29

If 2009 was the year we witnessed the PlayStation 3 rise above the challenges it’s faced since launch, 2010 is shaping up to be the year it obliterates the competition. Think it can’t happen? Sony’s done it before. The PlayStation 2 had a tough launch because of hardware shortages and lackluster launch games, yet it rose to dominate the generation and is still kicking and screaming today, almost ten years later. Will the PlayStation 3…or more importantly, can the PlayStation 3, repeat history like its younger brother, or will rain fall on its proverbial parade?

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Gaming

Darksiders (PS3) Final Review

January 26

THQ finds itself in an interesting position these days. As one of the top video game publishers today, THQ has positioned itself in the top three, alongside Activision and EA. In 2006, THQ (Toy Headquarters) acquired Vigil Games, which was formed by comic book artist Joe “Mad” Madureira and David Adams, an American video game designer. But the world wouldn’t see any products from Vigil Games until early 2010, when Darksiders: Wrath of War debuted with mixed reviews and fanfare.

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Gaming

Darksiders (PS3) First Impressions

January 14

Darksiders: Wrath of War, the first game released in 2010 for XBox 360 and PS3, made some waves with its familiar and almost rip-off-worthy game-play. But can a game that borrows heavily from games like God of War and The Legend of Zelda set itself apart and secure an identity for itself, or will it go down in history as nothing more than a blatant maneuver by Vigil Games to take the easy development road? We’ll take a closer look at the elements that make up Darksiders and figure out an answer in the end.

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Gaming

Dante’s Inferno (PS3) Preview – First Impressions

December 26

It is said that one should not discuss religion at a place of employment. Fire and brimstone itself rain down upon you if this sacred workplace rule is broken. But at Visceral Games – the heralded developers behind the Dead Space franchise (one of, if not my most, favorite franchises of all time) – this rule is broken on a daily basis. Why? Because they’re the developer behind the highly anticipated Dante’s Inferno multi-platform video game due out on February 9, 2010.

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Gaming

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (PS3) – Final Review

December 10

Infinity Ward has made quite a name for itself since 2003. Beginning with Call of Duty, they’ve shown the world – and publisher giant, EA – that they can thrive on their own and take the action shooter genre by storm at the same time. Subsequent titles developed by IW’s “sister” company, Treyarch, haven’t lived up to those crafted by the geniuses at IW. If you read my First Impressions review, you’d think I had a personal bone to pick with IW’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In truth, it’s not a bone-picking session at all. I have a valid fear: IW has grown into such a writhing beast at creating the best games in the shooter genre that their reputation has – pardon the pun – become bulletproof. In the media’s eyes, IW does no wrong, and even controversies such as the now-infamous “F.A.G.S.” reference in a TV commercial (see that here – discretion advised for youngsters) has done nothing but fuel the media machine in IW’s favor.

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Gaming

Does True A.I. Exist in Video Games?

December 5

Before I delve too far into this op-ed piece, I want to make something perfectly clear: I am not a programmer, nor am I involved in any higher form of computer science, computer languages, or modern A.I. theory. But I dare to speak on these things because I am a gamer, a writer, and have experienced the results of A.I. numerous times in my 32 years at the controller.

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A.I. – Artificial Intelligence…the imitation of life, choice, and behavior. A.I. is programmed into almost every aspect of a video game, from the way non-playable characters (NPCs) act, interact, and react in the world around them to the paths birds fly across the sky. As video games become more and more complex, A.I. systems follow suit. More microprocessors and raw processing power means additional layers of computation, random patterns, and simulations of emotional responses. But does A.I. boil down to basic pre-programming, void of emotion and reasoning? Or can the video game some day give us a real emotional experience just like another human can? The short and sweet point of this article is to spark a discussion. I’m coming at it from one angle, but if there are any computer science gurus out there who have worked on A.I. algorithms and programming, I’m inviting you to speak up and add your knowledge to this discussion.

The goal of this article does not include upsetting or offending programmers, because as I stated above, I am not a programmer and can only imagine the complexities involved with such systems. Not all A.I. systems are created equal, however, and in video games it seems like there are no standards in place.

For example, there is a popular physics engine known as the Havok engine. For Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, developer Naughty Dog admitted they used their own proprietary physics engine, but for Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, they switched to the Havok engine “standard” because it allowed them to do so much more without reinventing the wheel. Apply that to A.I. and I must ask…why isn’t there a standard A.I. toolset or system that developers can implement? Is it possible? Sure, there would still need to be customization and such, but what’s preventing a baseline system of A.I. that has proven itself to work realistically at all levels of difficulty? I will note here that Havok also has an A.I. engine product, which appears to offer the same baseline standard as their physics engine.

Valve’s Half-Life shooter game revolutionized the way A.I. opponents reacted to the player, and the engine continues to impress gamers to this day in subsequent installments. But then there’s Infinity Ward’s A.I. system in Call of Duty that receives constant criticism, even (and especially) in their latest, Modern Warfare 2, where it’s worth noting that enemies will literally turn their backs to the players out in the open, not toss grenades back, and basically pull all sorts of nonsense that comes off as cheap, cheating tricks rather than actual “intelligence.”

And I must complain a bit about the term “A.I.” as it’s used in video games versus academia. In the latter, the field of A.I., to my understanding, is much more complex than in the former. Academic A.I. in its truest definition deals with machine learning, the ability to reason and to learn, application of logic to real-world scenarios and conditions, robotics, etc. In gaming, it seems that A.I. does the lowest possible set of surface illusions to enable the game to be enjoyable and nothing more, dealing with scripted events rather than portraying true “intelligence.”

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This finally brings me to some game examples…more like genre-specific examples. I intended on calling some games out in full detail, but I decided against that for obvious reasons. Instead, I wanted to discuss the differences in A.I. systems between genres like Adventure and First Person Shooter (Action genre). FPS games are almost always more combat focused than adventure games, even though adventure games can include gun play elements. Combat A.I. systems are a different beast. I refer to this article I found as a reference, which is a fantastic read for those interested: http://ai-depot.com/GameAI/Design.html. In this piece, the author notes the following:

Combat AI’s have plenty of room for improvement before they even get closed to replacing human opponents. Even though combat AI’s can dodge incoming fire and shoot like a pro, there are four major things that human combatants offer over AI: knowledge of their environment, efficient use of teamwork, the ability to “hunt,” and survival instincts.

Is this why multiplayer modes in FPS games are wildly more popular than any single player campaign offering? I think the answer to this is most vehemently “Yes,” or even “Hell yes, B.T.!” It stands to reason that human players prefer human opponents. Honestly, with my experience with FPS, this is the biggest factor in why I don’t enjoy them as much. Multiplayer is fun, but it’s rarely a deep and lasting game experience for me. That’s personal opinion and preference, I get it, but playing through the storyline in FPS games is an exercise in frustration because of lackluster combat A.I.

With combat A.I. systems, a tougher difficulty is represented by tougher enemies, less health for the player, and impeccable accuracy for the opponents, not to mention feats of shooting no human could ever hope to achieve (using a close quarter weapon from 400 yards away while running, for example). So does a tougher difficulty setting simply mean that the A.I. system cheats? In a word: yes. Game developers, because of time and money, simply take the baseline A.I. engine that powers the normal difficulty setting, and make small tweaks and then say it’s “higher difficulty.” I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be challenged by smart A.I., not cheap A.I. Flank me, use pack tactics, toss grenades into my hiding spots if I decide to hang back and camp…but don’t shoot me from impossible angles while on the run from a distance that would rival any human potential every single time.

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But do all games exhibit this level of what passes for “intelligence”? No, they don’t. Games like Uncharted and Uncharted 2 are challenging on Crushing Difficulty, but the frustration level was 150% less (for me). Perhaps it’s the nature of the games, sure, but ultimately I think it’s because of developer prowess. Uncharted is a series solely dedicated to the single player experience, while Call of Duty is not, or at least isn’t any longer (I argue that it used to be). Some will say that my skills are in question or that I suck, and that’s fine, I will accept the fallout from this. I don’t mind a good challenge if you’re pitting my wits against yours (the developers’), but if you’re pitting me against try-fail cheat scenarios with less health and insurmountable odds, that’s when I squawk. I’m not a programmer, I’m not an A.I. algorithm creator, but I believe there must be a better way. What do you think?

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Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (PS3) – First Impressions Review

November 24

The Call of Duty series has been breaking new ground ever since the series hit gamers in 2003. Published by Activision and developed by Infinity Ward, Call of Duty blew the lid off the first person shooter (FPS) genre in ways few games in the genre have ever accomplished. The story behind Infinity Ward and how they came to be is an enlightening one, a story you’d all enjoy reading if you care enough about drama in the gaming industry. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but the gist is that Infinity Ward was formed in 2002 by 22 employees of 2015, Inc., the developer behind the Medal of Honor: Allied Assault game. But since the emergence of Infinity Ward, the Call of Duty series fast overtook the top spot among war-based FPS and has set the bar continually ever since…wait, there’s a bit more. Activision decided to farm out the series to another developer, Treyarch, a game developer acquired in 2001 and merged with Gray Matter Interactive. Treyarch developed Call of Duty 3 at the behest of Activision, which caused upheavel at Infinity Ward, who were upset that a numbered sequel was given to another developer.

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God of War Collection (PlayStation 3) | Final Review

November 23

The God of War franchise has won over the hearts and minds of action/adventure gaming junkies the world over. With the looming release of God of War III in April 2010, SCEA Santa Monica – the studio responsible for the development of the franchise – felt it necessary to re-release the two original God of War PlayStation 2 games on a single Blu-Ray disc at an extremely attractive and unmissable price. If you read my preview, you know exactly what this package entails. It’s not merely a collection of both games in their original format. Quite the contrary…sort of.

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Gaming

Dragon Age: Origins (PS3) – Final Review

November 19

 

BioWare hit a critically acclaimed home run with its latest multi-platform dark RPG title, Dragon Age: Origins (see my first impressions). The game is rife with story, characterization, bloody mayhem, sexuality, and moral dilemmas, all of which draw the player into the experience in ways no RPG has done since Neverwinter Nights. But was the switch to a console version a seamless translation, or did something get lost? The answer is a bit more complicated than yes or no, so keep reading and discover the truth behind one of the greatest RPGs of all time.

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PRESENTATION:

Dragon Age: Origins isn’t a game light on presentation, which I believe includes the interface to the gamer as well as the in-game experiences. Cut scenes, voice-acting, epic moments:  each of these items creates a presentation that impacts the gamer in what we hope will be as emotionally charged a way as possible. In short, just how much of an impact does the overall game pack?

To begin with, jumping into a game of this size may seem like a daunting task on the surface, but choosing your first character isn’t that bad if you know a bit going in. There are six races to pick from:  Human Noble, Dalish Elf, City Elf, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner, and Mage, each with a unique origin story. I found it a bit humorous that the distinction between a Dwarf Noble and Commoner is race-related, but that’s how BioWare chose to distinguish “race.” “Noble” and “Commoner” actually distinguish class in a caste system, but I digress. In most RPGs, class denotes a profession, and in Dragon Age: Origins there are only three:  Warrior, Rogue, and Magi. Future expansions will undoubtedly contain more race and class options, but if you think there aren’t enough choices here, you’re mistaken. Within each class are specializations to be unlocked. For instance, a Mage can specialize in shapeshifting, which I experienced first-hand, or become a Spirit Healer; the Warrior can choose the path of the Berserker or the mage-hunting Templar; and a Rogue can be master of stealth and poison as an Assassin or don the harp strings of the Bard. Each of these specializations adds bonuses to one or more attributes.

All of this is done through a slick menu interface that I never once found confusing or difficult to use. The Select button brings up your primary interface, which lists current quests, completed quests, the Codex – the massive collection of all data discovered in the game – party stats, and even a conversation history log in case you forgot how you responded to a sequence of dialogue. The console gamers were treated to a much different in-game menu system, though, due to the difference in control setup. Basically, a quick launch menu is utilized with the L2 trigger. This tactically pauses the game and allows you to browse through spells, talents, potions, poisons, and other party tactics (Hold Position). Again, I never had a problem whatsoever with this method of accessing my stash of stuff while in the heat of combat.

The cut scenes and dramatic cinematography in the game are well done, but it’s not perfect. I can’t comment on the other versions, but on the PS3 there exists an overabundance of glitches that annoyed the heck out of me. During lengthy dialogue scenes, several instances of missing audio occurred. It’s not just an annoying glitch, it was sometimes an entire section of speech cut, which may or may not have affected my character’s choice afterward. Only the very last spoken chunk of dialogue by the last character to speak it is displayed at the top of the screen after your choice block comes up. Some of the characters spoke too low or were drowned out by the background music. B.T.’s TIP: Turn subtitles ON in the Audio portion of the options menu. I didn’t think it would be there, of all places, but I finally found it. Graphic presentation issues included shadow and character pop-in when the camera angle changed. And then there’s the collision detection in many spots, which sort of marred the beauty of the cinematography in more than a few spots. There are reasons why games don’t get perfect scores, so while it may seem I’m being a bit nit-picky, I’m also being fair.

I’m going to bump the Presentation score up a bit from my initial review now that I’ve been able to spend considerably more time using the interface. Neither the sparse spots of missing dialogue nor the graphical hiccups are enough to take away from the overall presentation of the package, not by a long shot. The game is riddled with awe-inspiring RPG elements, and I would be remiss not to give high praise.

SCORE: 9.1/10

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STORY and CHARACTERS:

I should be saving the best for last, but as it stands, I am too excited to review these categories, and it can’t wait. Simply put, Dragon Age: Origins has amazing stories and characters. 

“SPOILER ALERT!!!!!” – You’ve been warned.

I can’t possibly summarize a story that spans no less than 40 hours of gameplay on the first play-through. The side quests may seem like a deviation from the main quest, but in reality I didn’t find myself completely segmented from the world of Ferelden and the feeling of overwhelming despair upon the land caused by the Blight. But there is a main path to the conclusion, so here goes. Once the origin story lands you in the city of Ostagar with the Grey Warden named Duncan, who recruits you regardless of origin story, it’s off to battle with King Cailan and Teyrn Loghain, Cailan’s father-in-law. But during the critical moment of the battle, when you’ve lit the tower beacon to alert Loghain to strike, Loghain turns tail and flees the battlefield, which inevitably leads to the dramatic deaths of Duncan and King Cailan. Grey Wardens are blamed for the deaths, and bounties are put on their heads by Loghain across the land. From then on, it’s a story of survival and hope as you struggle to bring justice about, gather allies, and ultimately face the Archdemon. But the path you choose to get there will vary greatly depending on how you play the game’s monumental choice system.

I am of the opinion, if you’ll permit a quick derivation, that morality systems in games are mostly illusions of choice rather than real choice. It’s most visible in Dragon Age: Origins. I’m here to tell you that no matter how you decide to play the game – evil, good, or neutral – you are inevitably brought to the same exact point of closure that everyone else will be:  the end of the Blight and a confrontation with the Archdemon. Now, that’s all well and good. We all love happy endings, right? Or do we? I’m not you, you’re not me, I’m not him, she’s not me, etc. My point is this:  is there really choice in games if all choices lead to a singular conclusion? When you look at it that way, of course not. You may not care, and that’s fine. I’m simply stating that even though Dragon Age: Origins is chock-full of some startling decision-making, in the end it doesn’t matter, which was a HUGE letdown for me, huge. I can’t overstate this. If I want to play an evil character in an RPG, why can’t I help the Blight rather than fight against it? Why can’t I have that “choice”? Or, what if I wanted to ride the fence to see how both sides played their cards, and then made my decision? Of course, if I did ride the fence and sat in the Mages’ Tower doing nothing, that could lead to some upset neighbors, leading to more and diverse conflicts. The developers could do this; they simply don’t. Why? I have no idea. Expansion packs? Perhaps, but the illusion and predictability of morality systems is starting to wear thin on my patience.

Now, having said all that, I’m telling you that illusion or not, Dragon Age: Origins’ morality system is the best one I’ve ever experienced. I laughed, cried (literally, I did, no lie), gasped, and nervously paced when certain decisions came about, and their subsequent consequences. There are moments in this game that will find you dropping your controller out of sheer amazement at how things unfold because of your decisions. Side quests aren’t immune to choice, so this is something you’ll be experiencing throughout the entire game. Do you side with the Templars and kill all the Mages in the demon-ridden Tower, or rescue them? Would playing a Mage change your decision? Do you kill a possessed child or let his mother make the ultimate sacrifice? Every decision of this magnitude will have you second-guessing yourself over and over again. Did you make the right or wrong decision? Did Morrigan approve, but Leliana disapprove? If you’re building a relationship with one of them (or both, as I tried to do, with no such luck), did that make you sweat when the meter came up?  I know, right? It’s stressful, but that’s the goal of the storyteller! I’m a novel writer, and building emotional impact upon emotional impact is a tactic known as “Doubling” (Tripling…and so on). You build upon an emotion, not simply repeat it, and BioWare was uncanny in their delivery of choices in this game. Again, it would’ve been nice if my choices really affected the outcome in more than subtle ways, but in light of how they pulled it off here, I’ll drop that complaint for now.

SCORE: 9.8/10

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GRAPHICS AND SOUND:

I received a bit of criticism when I posted the “first impressions” review of this game, but I really am going to stick to my guns on this one. I’m a PlayStation 3 guy, I’m not ashamed to admit nor will I engage in any type of console flame war, only to say that both HD consoles (360 and PS3) have their strengths and weaknesses. The important thing to remember is that console gaming has never been better than it is right now because of both companies. That’s the angle I’m approaching this from, and trust me when I say that I know the PS3 has had some catching up to do in the graphical department due to a more complex architecture. But we’re starting to see the fruits of labor with many devs, and nothing short of brilliance can describe what we’re seeing right now with the graphical explosion on the PS3.

However, Dragon Age: Origins is not one of those games. Graphically, I find the game to be a mediocre offering. I can’t comment on the PC version, but the PS3 version suffers from myriad graphical issues, the most troublesome being the framerate. Calm down, relax, don’t flame me because I’m pointing out an obvious issue. The BioWare Dragon Age forum has several threads going right now with hundreds of posts citing this issue. While playing, the framerate always seems to be low because my eye fatigues from the ever-present blur on the screen. That’s framerate; it’s a fact. Motion blur is a sluggish framerate. Panning the camera around is even worse. Outdoor locations are really bad, and there’s a “skip” present at regular intervals as the game loads and tries to keep up. Draw-in and pop-in plague outdoor and large indoor areas. Caverns and close quarter periods are absolutely fine, no issues.

But the issue comes to a head in combat. I’m not kidding, during most of the battles – and when I say “most” I mean 75-85% of them – the framerate drops so low that characters jump from one location on-screen to another without traversing the intermediate space. That’s single-digit framerate guys, I don’t know what else to say. And it’s not just me, far from it. MANY users are complaining and screaming for BioWare to do something about this on the PS3. If you’re going to do multi-platform development, then dammit do your job and do it right for all of them! I’m not a programmer, I must confess. I have no idea how to do what they do, and I give them all kudos for their skills. But when I’m a paying customer, and I pay the same price for a game as someone else, and my experience is less enjoyable than theirs, that’s when I squawk. There’s no reason in this day of PS3 development for poor framerates. I can forgive draw-in and pop-in, as it’s a limitation of the consoles’ memory and such, but I can’t forgive weak framerates when the 360 and PC versions aren’t suffering from it.

But the graphic yuck doesn’t stop there. Bowstrings are missing, a silly omission. Character models are pretty bad up close, but damn I love Morrigan. Ahem. Textures are muddy and low-resolution. It’s just surprising when you’ve got Blu-Ray for storage, hard drives for storage, and an 8-core Cell engine. If the game’s story and characters would’ve been weak, this would’ve been a deal-breaker for me, but as it stands, the game will be a permanent addition to my collection.

Where the graphics fell, the sound rises up. Other than some wonky acting and silly dialogue spots, the sound elements in the game are captivating. The world resonates with sounds of life, and the special effects of spells and battle were fantastically done and pumped through my surround sound system with authority. The bright spots in the sound department were the brilliant performances of the primary characters’ actors. Well done, but it’s not surprising considering it’s BioWare. Their voice-acting performances are almost always epic.

SCORE (GRAPHICS):  6.5/10
 
SCORE (SOUND):  8.5/10

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GAMEPLAY AND CONTROLS:

The control gap between PC and console is closing, albeit slowly. One thing I can’t quite grasp, especially with the PS3 platform, is why in the world developers aren’t at least allowing the option for keyboard and mouse controls. The PS3 is Plug-N-Play, developers, didn’t you know? Hook up any keyboard and mouse to it, and it works. No sweat. Umm, why aren’t you giving me the option for the KB/M control scheme again? Is it laziness or is it because you can’t do it on the 360? Or can you, you just don’t feel like it? Would it be that hard to port KB/M controls to the consoles? Again, I’m not a programmer, I just don’t understand the absence when the PS3 supports the KB/M.

But, good news:  all is not lost!!! The controller poses NO threat to the console gamer in Dragon Age: Origins, none at all. I outlined some of this in the Presentation section, so I won’t repeat it. The button layout is such that three of the four face buttons are reserved for assigned spells/talents. The “X” button is used for making selections, opening doors, etc. Pressing the R2 trigger brings up an alternate face button layer for three more assigned spells/talents, giving you quick access to six without having to tactically pause with L2. The controller is utilized appropriately, and it’s obvious that lots of thought was put into the system.

Gameplay modes in Dragon Age: Origins include the usual offerings in epic RPGs:  main quest and loads of side quests. Side quests fit within the world seamlessly and never are as simple as “go fetch,” as I may have originally thought. On the contrary, they’re quite fun and can earn you lots of goodies, like money (copper, silver, and sovereign from lowest to highest value), items, and XP, which you will need to get up in levels before the final fight. Sadly, I was only able to achieve level 21 before the end, and once you beat the Archdemon, you can only go back to DLC. Why that was done, I have no idea. Why can’t I roam the land post-Blight? It’s not like my ending warranted that type of crap. I won’t spoil the end for you, but there are multiple endings. My first one found me quite alive, so why was I relegated to only roam Soldier’s Peak and Honnleath (if you purchased the DLC, of course) even though I already completed both locations? Duh. So yeah, level 21, but I thought that was good considering I completed a boatload of side quests.

The side quests were particularly cool because some of them had objectives in areas you may not have access to at first. This provided lots of micro-managing of the quests and related notes to keep it all straight. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the quests you can come across in a single city, like Denerim, and some of them force you to traverse the overworld map quite a bit. But it’s not perfect. Some quests yield no noticeable reward other than “quest completed.” No approval, no money, no items, nothing. Now, the strange thing about XP and quests is that no XP flag comes up like it does in battle. Every time you drop a foe, the XP value flag pops over the character’s head who dropped it, so you know what the dealio is. But it’s not like that for quests. Unless you track the XP meter in your character’s profile, I don’t see how you know. I have to assume that there is a reward for side quests beyond the money or item, but I have no idea. Sort of strange, but again, nit-picking here for the most part.

The biggest complaint about the gameplay is the repetitive nature of the combat. It breaks down to this:  beat down a group of foes, heal, move to next room – if you have the Survival Skill, you can see the enemies on your radar ahead of time – enter room, beat down foes, heal, move to next room. Rinse and repeat. Really, that’s it, there’s not much more to the combat than that. It’s fun beating the mobs down, but NOT as the Mage. The melee characters get cool “finishing move”-like animations, where they’ll cut the foe’s head off or do some elaborate stab and slash. But the Mage attacks from a distance, so sadly there’s a lack of satisfaction until you score the Fireball spell…then it’s on ’til the break of dawn. 🙂 Fireball is fun as long as your party can’t take damage (casual and normal difficulty settings), but it wouldn’t be as cool on higher difficulty.

SCORE (GAMEPLAY): 8.9/10

SCORE (CONTROLS): 9.3/10

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SUMMARY and FINAL SCORE:

Overall, this review is lengthy because Dragon Age: Origins is one colossal beast of a game, and that’s putting it lightly. I easily threw 75 hours of gameplay into it and didn’t come close to completing my 2nd play-through as a Female Dalish Elf Rogue yet. As a Male Elf Magi, I completed the game in just under 45 hours, and had a groovy romance with Morrigan and an even better ending with her involvement…I’ll leave it at that. I laughed, cried, cursed, and even swooned during moments of the game, which means it did its job perfectly despite its obvious flaws. Hopefully, BioWare will move to correct the graphical issues on the PS3 version, but I’m not holding my breath. The consoles have to do without the BioWare Toolkit and community-developed mods, unfortunately, but for a game of this magnitude, it’s a miracle at all that it’s on the consoles, and BioWare deserves commendation for doing so. I won’t bite the hand that feeds me, which means I’ll deal with the glitches in light of the beauty and epic nature of this gem.

You owe it to yourself to play this game and play it with conviction. Spend some time with it, make compelling choices, be honest, and it will return the favor tenfold.

FINAL SCORE: 9.4/10 (not an average)

 

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Gaming

Dragon Age: Origins (PlayStation 3) – First Impression Review

November 11

When was the last time you took a nose dive into the Rabbit Hole? Or maybe allowed yourself the slight indulgence of a 150+ hour jaunt through a haunted landscape? If the answer to that question begins with the word “Neverwinter,” you need to finish reading this enlightening first impression, then get to your local video game watering hole and pick this gem up.

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