Borderlands Leveling 1-13

I don’t want to make any final judgements on Gearbox’s Borderlands, but I thought I’d post an update with my impressions through the first 13 levels of leveling in the game. It often takes me longer to get through games like this as my personality makes me want to see all classes of a game before I commit to one.

First, you should know, the game’s art direction is superb. The opening sequence with all its cel-shaded, “Ain’t-No-Rest-for-the-Wicked” goodness is truly a beautiful tone setter for the game. Little bits of humor, other than the first skag (a sort of alien hyena) roadkill, accentuate the character introductions. Each of the four characters displays their “actual” name and their “character” name, such as “Roland as ‘The Soldier’.” The last character, however, the large brutish fellow who is a heavy gunner and berserking fist fighter, is simply “Brick as Himself.” Really. With a name like Brick and his design, you don’t need much else.

Gameplay so far is fairly standard first-person shooter fare with four “classes” to add customization. The soldier specializes in assault rifles and shotguns; the hunter is your sniper and so on.

The shooter aspects feel a little loose to me. I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not the greatest FPS player in the world, but I feel even more inaccurate with all the classes.

I really enjoy the fact that each class has a special move (though, truth be told, I wish there were more skills of that sort). So far, I’m partial to the hunter’s bird, which he sends out to fight opponents, and the soldier’s turrent which shoots enemies but can also be specialized to heal party members or regenerate ammo.

I do have a beef with the game. The RPG elements for specializing your characters are just too weak. I feel like I’m looking at World of Warcraft talent trees (a fact made painfully obvious by the fact that they’re set up nearly identical to WoW’s system). These incremental boosts to my character are nice, but they’re not the substantial type of reward that makes me desperate to attain the next level.

Really, the way this game is meant to be played is cooperatively. I’ve been playing with my on-again-off-again roommate both split screen and over XBox Live. It’s quite a bit more fun this way and the loot the gets dropped tends to be much better.

Oh, that’s another high-point to the game. The sheer number of guns that can spawn is really daunting. The only downside to this is yet another WoW comparasin, the loot is color coded to let you know its rarity/power. White is common, green is slightly more rare, purple is rarer still (epic, if you will) and orange is hardcore (I’ve not seen an orange drop yet).

As a UX specialist for Web sites, I understand the necessity of using conventions such as these (links being a different color than regular text, navigation being grouped at the top of a page), but as a gamer, I want new and original, not rehashes of other properties.

As a whole, I’m digging the game, and I definitely can’t wait to dig more into the story, I just wish the RPG elements were deeper than the FPS elements and gun creation.

Very initial impressions of Guitar Hero 5

I’ll continue pounding the pavement on Guitar Hero 5, never fear, but after a night of playing through a decent chunk of songs, I’m ready to lay down some of the basics of the game.

And don’t worry, we’ll talk about more than just rhythm games on here, it just happens to be some of the first of the bigger titles that have come out since we opened up shop here.

I love rhythm games. I have since I played Dance Dance Revolution in the arcade and brought home a crappy pad and the first release for the original Playstation.

We’ve been playing using our Rock Band 2 controllers, and it’s been working rather well. At least, I’ve been pleased that I haven’t had to shell out the cash for a new set of controllers.

It looks like NeverSoft is attempting to make their game harder … by making the interface incredibly hard to use. When playing WITH anyone, the interface becomes so small that from anywhere beyond 5-6 feet away it becomes quite difficult to read where the notes are, especially once you enter star power.

The meter that lets you know if you’re about to fail out is tiny and quite subtle. I didn’t notice it until I was watching my roommate drumming by himself. The Star Power gauge is a bit easier to see, but just as small.

(As I’m writing this, as a matter of fact, the roommate has started playing. The game picked Ex-Girlfriend by No Doubt)

Enough with the negatives! I still have my favorite new feature to talk about!

Party Mode.

Party Mode allows you to start playing almost immediately after starting. That’s great, but here’s the kicker: people can join in halfway through a song. You can change difficulty halfway through the song.

This doesn’t require loading screens. It doesn’t require restarting the song. It’s a beautiful thing. In fact, after my roommate played Ex-Girlfriend, he went into Ring of Fire, which of course forced me to pick up a controller and play some. That’s dedication, folks. I stopped writing when a good GH5 song came on. Sue me.

Speaking of which, more impressions to come later. More research is needed, I think. We’ll talk avatars and career mode next.

Beatles Rock Band and DLC

Let me start by saying, I’m all for downloadable content (DLC). It’s added hours upon hours to my playtime with Rock Band and Rock Band 2. It’s smart for gamers and game companies alike.

But there comes a point when you realize you’re no longer getting a full game when you buy it in your local game retailer. Recently, we reviewed The Beatles: Rock Band (full review). It wasn’t necessarily life altering, as playing the original Rock Band was for some people, but it was a solid addition to the Rock Band family.

My problem stems from the fact that the game released with a meager 45 songs.

“Meager list, Bryan? Really?!” you may well ask me.

When you consider the fact that Rock Band 2 was released with 84 songs, it really doesn’t compare. Then, to top it all off, on the day of release, they already have their first downloadable track on sale. “All You Need is Love” is an iconic song, but it gets relegated to the realm of DLC? Not to mention releasing it on the day of the game’s release is almost a slap in the face to your customers.

“Oh, thanks for purchasing our game today, dear, dear customer,” Harmonix said. “By the way, if you want to play one of your favorite Beatles songs, please pay 160 credits.”

To reiterate, I’m all for DLC. In fact, I’m a big fan.

Just please give me a full game for my $60.

The Beatles: Rock Band, a first impression

Beatles Rock Band screenshotI played Rock Band for the first time in July. Before that, the idea of singing, drumming or even strumming (despite a few brief forays into group Guitar Hero) made me queasy. But I met a non-judgmental group of kids who welcomed me into their fold and handed me a mic.

Since then, I’ve sung “My Own Worst Enemy” on Expert (laugh if you must) and many other songs on Hard. I’ve learned to use the bass pedal at the same time I’m hitting another drum. I’ve bobbed my head over many a plastic guitar. I’ve come to love Rock Band.

Last night, my crack team of fellow RB players acquired a rented copy of The Beatles Rock Band (BRB), and I raced to their house after work to get my first eyeful of George, Paul, John and Ringo in all their Harmonix / MTV / EA glory. The New York Times preview, catchy commercials and well-played 9/9/09 launch had me so pumped, I couldn’t wait a minute longer.

Now, I’ve never played Aerosmith Guitar Hero, so BRB may not be original to this extent, but having recognizable faces, scenery and voices made this a more well-rounded musical gaming experience. And the background really stole the show on a number of levels. The graphics were superbly constructed; the background info on songs and albums kept things interesting; and the scene-setting elements (snippets of voices and studio noise, time-and-place indicators) transported me from a messy living room in 2009 to a 1960s “Ed Sullivan Show” set, a sold-out Shea Stadium and a London rooftop.

Rocking out generally keeps one from being able to focus on the background for long, so I was pleased to see that some of the improvements in this version of RB extended into setup and gameplay. Multiple singers can harmonize on several songs and see individual rankings after performing. Scrolling through menus is accompanied by the appropriate instrument’s sound effects (cymbal, et al.). Instrumental difficulty ratings remain on the screen after a song’s been selected, offering further review opportunities before choosing a level. All small things, but important and helpful nonetheless.

Oh, and I got a healthy ego boost every time the game called my voice FAB!

Now, this is not to say BRB is without its shortcomings. Far from it, in fact. With all the pre-release hype and the help of surviving Beatles McCartney and Starr, one may be expecting miracles from this game. But Apple surely maintained a heavy hand. And reproductions can go only so far. The result is something of a letdown.

Purported to contain 45 tracks, and coming straight from the case with 43, there is little room for unlocking new songs. It’s unclear, but it appears the unlocking goes hand in hand with the new Achievements feature, which challenges players to a variety of feats: maintain “Beatlemania” (star power) for a full minute, score 1,000,000 points in a single song, etc. The vivid colors fall short when it comes to Beatlemania and grooves, making the moving notes difficult to see.

And, of course, there will be some degree of greed associated with a highly acclaimed band such as the Beatles. This comes across as key songs that are missing from the song list, likely to appear as purchasable extras in the coming months. While it’s nice that the game offers nuggets of audio and visual history, I want to see songs unlocked, not photos. (An entry in Yahoo!’s Pepsi Music Blog explains the thinking behind this change in unlockable content.) Without this progression, the game experience feels stationary and stale.

Overall, I loved seeing the all-out craziness of the lyrics to “I Am the Walrus”flow across the screen and belt out a solid “GOO GOO G’JOOB!” my heart sank a little when I didn’t fall in love with The Beatles: Rock Band. I wanted to. I really did. And, as my fellow gaming musician pointed out, “I’d pay 40 bucks for it.” But you should want to pay the full $60 for the Beatles. You should be willing to dole out $100, even. I suppose it was impossible for a video game (even one with as many layers as Rock Band) to really do the Fab Four justice. But I am glad they’ve regained the spotlight for a little while and their songs will touch another generation of technology-centric youth.

And you really should check out the BRB Web site – it’s so beautifully done, I almost prefer it to the game.

-Photo via