Thursday, 31 January 2008

'Dreamfall: The Longest Journey' Review

I don't normally do reviews of games other than Tomb Raider, but Dreamfall is one out of the box!

Dreamfall is the sequel to the 1999 PC-only Longest Journey, and is a game like none other I've played. It's classified as a 3rd person adventure, and it has an occasional action sequence, but more than anything it's an interactive story with adventure style gameplay, in a 3D world based in both reality and dreaming. If you don't like to sit and listen to the dialogue that tells its strong story (much of which isn't strictly necessary to play the game, but is interesting and relevant none-the-less), then Dreamfall may not be to your taste, but if you do then this can be an engrossing experience. Note that this is an M-rated game as it does have adult themes, strong language, and some adult humour!

The main character you play is Zoë Castillo, a young woman from Casablanca in the 23rd century. You also play as April Ryan (the main character from the original Longest Journey who makes a second appearance here), and Kian (a deeply religious assassin from an occupying power, in opposition to both Zoë's and April's causes) - both these characters exist in an alternative reality, or parallel world, which Zoë visits several times. You switch between these characters, and a variety of locations, in a sometimes arbitrary manner, but go along with it as it becomes clearer as you learn more of the story.

Dreamfall has some things in common with the busy everyday world of Beyond Good & Evil, and the puzzles and fantasy locations from the Myst games (I was reminded of a mix of both Channelwood and the Haven swamps in one location), while not really resembling those, or any other adventure game I've played. The few action sequences are poorly implemented and would have been more appropriate as video cutscenes, the playable character of Kian would have been better left depicted in cutscenes as well, and the character animations are somewhat stilted for a game that is less than 2 years old (it was released in April 2006, roughly the same time as TR Legend, but the animations aren't even in the same class as TR1 from 1996). On the other hand the locations look very good, and in general the graphics are good for a last-generation game, so the minor flaws stand out that much more as a result.

The story, however, makes up for any shortcomings in other areas! The story makes the game, as you become engrossed in delving ever deeper into Zoë's story and dreams. There are influences from Australian Aboriginal spiritual mythology (The Dreaming) mixed with futuristic science and technology, a world of magic set in the Middle Ages, and a dystopian future Earth where Africa is a cultural powerhouse and North America and Europe are decaying and dysfunctional. Add to that a TV vision experienced by the main character that hints strongly at the movie 'Ring' (and the remake 'The Ring'), and you get the idea that this is an experience that is quite out of the ordinary! It has an ending that is an extended string of purely narrative scenes and leaves it wide open for a third part in the series (Dreamfall Chapters, which has only been announced so far for PC, is intended to complete the Longest Journey/Dreamfall story...)

One message that stands out, and which is relevant today, warns against a county imposing their religion and customs on others who, although having different beliefs and practices regarded as 'ungodly', are no less worthy, but who end up being labelled terrorists simply because they defend their land and beliefs. Yes, that isn't an alien concept in today's world either, nor in past ages for that matter, and I also feel strongly about it, so it resonated with me and increased my enjoyment of the game!

Dreamfall isn't for everyone, and action freaks aren't likely to enjoy it, but for those who appreciate a strong story that is told using in-game dialogue, it can be a very rewarding experience and I highly recommend it! I was strongly affected by the story, which as a result of the player having a close connection with the main characters through the game, is that much more powerful than it would be if it was just presented as a movie (the end credits include a fictitious 'filmed on location in...' credit, suggesting that it's as much an interactive movie as a game). I can't recall any other game having this strong an effect on me, and the final long sequence of video scenes that completed the story (so far) and ended the game moved me to tears more than once. Powerful stuff indeed, and I hope I'll one day be able to play the final parts of the game! (Xbox 360 version please :) It doesn't challenge my passion for TR, but that's mainly because they are such different games, not because one is better than the other...

Saturday, 19 January 2008

More comment on Apple, gaming, and the future of MacRaider

GameDaily have posted an article asking whether Apple will ever get serious about gaming. The Mac isn't totally bereft of games, but despite some Apple staff's enthusiasm for gaming over the years, that enthusiasm isn't followed up by much in the way of official Apple support. Check it out, it's an interesting read!

Those who've been following MacRaider for some time will know that I've long hedged my bets when it comes to Mac gaming, as the Mac has long been marginalised with a limited game catalogue. Up to 2003/4 Mac gaming was fine for me as those games I really wanted to play on the Mac were available. Since then though it's been increasingly difficult, and even though TR Anniversary is coming to Mac it's likely that I'd have to upgrade my Mac to play it. For any future TRs I'd certainly have to upgrade, but with the ongoing Mac limitations it would be a poor choice for gaming (Apple's obsession with thinness, with the latest manifestation the MacBook Air, is seriously compromising the Mac as a gaming machine anyway...)

I bought an original PlayStation (now known as the PSX) in 2000, and an original PlayStation 2 in 2001. Last year I upgraded to a slimline PS2, and I still have my original PS2 stored away in case it's needed. Then, last Boxing Day, I bought an HDMI equipped Xbox 360 Pro bundle. Lastly, I've now switched to a 66cm HD LCD TV which rounds out my console gaming rig nicely, giving me access to the high def X360 gaming catalogue, a wide selection of original Xbox games, as well as the gigantic PlayStation/PS2 catalogue! Consoles have given, and will continue to give me, a far wider gaming choice than was ever available on the Mac, although there are those Mac classics I already own to make it even better, such as the classic TRs and Myst IV Revelation among others :)

Considering that my current dual G4 MDD Power Mac is still very capable for all but gaming (and will be for some time to come), and that I could get a lot better value for my very limited gaming money by switching to console gaming, the purchase of the X360 and the LCD TV mean that I've now effectively finished with the Mac for my future gaming. However, all my classic Mac games are still covered with my old MDD Mac, so I get the best of both worlds, and can still provide Mac-specific support for all the TRs up to at least Angel of Darkness! And in the future I intend to continue my TR walks from the X360 game, so MacRaider lives on a while yet :)

Those of you who are disappointed in my switch to console gaming should remember that I've long been on a very limited income but I've never tried to turn MacRaider into a fund-raising exercise. I've never had a single ad on the site, and although I did test out a PayPal donation link for 12 months, it failed to bring a single cent in so I canned it. For me MacRaider was never about money - it was always about sharing my love for Tomb Raider, and to help people as best I could. I'll continue to do that, in my own way, and I look forward to a lot of fun in the future!

I hope you'll all come along for the ride :)

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Xbox 360 - Backwards Compatibility & Dreamfall

With my recent purchase of an Xbox 360 I was eager to get hold of a copy of 'Dreamfall: The Longest Journey' for Xbox (see my earlier post about Dreamfall, among other games).

'Dreamfall TLJ' for Xbox has always been very difficult to get in Australia, and although I've been watching out for it since it was released in April 2006, I've never seen it in the flesh. But today, as I was browsing through the shelves at my local branch of GAME and hoping to come across maybe a used copy, there it was, a NEW copy of 'Dreamfall TLJ' for Xbox! When I took it to the counter I found it was marked down from the $AU19.95 ticketed price to $AU9.95, and in Aussie currency that's one hell of a cheap new game, the equivalent of around $US8.95! ($AU19.95 was cheap anyway...)

The remaining question was whether my late '07 Xbox 360 had built-in backwards compatibility support for that game. I'd already downloaded the November '07 updater but was yet to install it, but in the event it wasn't needed as the game runs fine. So I have to amend my earlier comment about backwards compatibility support as it only needs to be updated for games that have been added to the supported games list, not for those already compatible!

Although I've not gone far yet, I can give my first impressions. I'm running this game through HDMI to a 66cm (26") 16:9 LCD widescreen, and it does show its Xbox background, with some pixellation and slightly less sophisticated, although quite detailed, terrain (in this case a temple, ice-cap, and city - the former two are a short intro section that leads to the main character, Zoë Castillo, in her city home). I've not gone far yet, but although the graphics are naturally limited by the original Xbox capabilities, and the character animations are a little stilted, the world is quite interesting and even at this early stage, the story quite detailed. Zoë can interact with other people and many items, and it's worth taking the time to do this so you can learn about the world Zoë, and the player, inhabit.

This is a 3rd person full 3D action-adventure game with a female lead, but not like 'Tomb Raider' - it has more in common with 'Beyond Good & Evil' (see my earlier post about that one as well), in that there's a lot more non-playable-character interaction in a busier, more everyday world, although in other ways it resembles neither.

'Dreamfall TLJ' has a good reputation with both players and critics, and happens to be a sequel to the original 'The Longest Journey', which was PC-only. Aspyr have recently released a PC-only 'Dreamfall TLJ Game of the Year Ed.' which contains both the original 'TLJ' and the 'Dreamfall TLJ' sequel. That game would be great value, but unless they port the original 'TLJ' to Xbox or both to other platforms, it will remain PC-only...

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Xbox 360 - Updated Impressions

I've now completed the X360 TR Legend, and I was able to play the latter part of the game on an HD LCD TV via an HDMI cable at 720p 16:9 resolution. What can I say, it's superb! To get the same experience on a Mac or PC would require some serious hardware and a lot of readies, and as my current January 2004 vintage MDD dual G4 does everything else admirably, I'm quite happy to be able to get some great gaming at a comparatively low cost.

Apart from the high res texturing, which made searching the terrain such a pleasant job, the most impressive things are the fantastic lighting, and the gorgeous still water texturing. Places like the rocky pool at the start of the final part of the Peru levels looked stunning, and I almost felt wet when I dropped Lara in for a swim! The same with the swimming pool at Lara's manor - reflections on calm water are amazing! Moving water isn't as good, in fact not a lot better than on the PS2, but that's a much more difficult thing to get right and will probably take a jump in processor power to succeed. Another place that looked absolutely fantastic was the final big battle in Bolivia with the 'Unknown Entity', which had some wonderful lighting effects!

My only criticism is that at 720p you'll occasionally see a momentary slowdown in the frame rate that wasn't there at standard PAL res on the PS2 (480i). That could be due to the need to optimise the X360 game code, or it could be a limitation of the X360 GPU. Or a bit of both. It's likely that with more development time on the X360 developers will find ways to get more out of it, in much the same way that developers took a few years to wring the best out of the PS2. But I have to say that the few slowdowns I saw were only momentary and didn't affect the gameplay in any way - they were just something that you notice in passing.

I've also checked out part of the first level of TR Anniversary, and a couple of the Arcade races in Forza 2. Graphically they're both hard to fault, with the HDMI connection and 720p res making the most of what is an impressive console. I checked out Nurburgring Nordschleife in Forza 2, and compared to the same track in Gran Turismo 4 there is a lot more trackside detail, although Forza 2 looked a bit too clean, as if the track had just been scrubbed and polished. Gameplay-wise I prefer Gran Turismo 4, but Forza 2 does seem to have a bit better AI, and does damage, both of which are long term criticisms of Gran Turismo. On the other hand I found the Xbox controller a little harder to use in Forza 2 than the PS2 controller in Gran Turismo, but that could just be my many year's experience with the PS2 controller (I was able to 100% Gran Turismo 3 with just the Dual Shock controller, not an easy job...)

So is the Xbox 360 worth it? Well now that the processor is the smaller die 65nm, and the console runs cooler, it should be more reliable. The addition of the HDMI port on the new Pro consoles is welcome, and with a decent 16:9 HD TV you won't be disappointed with the graphics (unless you're very fussy). If you already have a decent gaming MacIntel then you'd probably be better off buying a copy of Windows XP and playing the PC games, but for the rest of us an HD game console would be a good choice, especially if you already have a good 16:9 HD TV (which generally means 26"/66cm or larger, as smaller than that you're likely to be looking at 16:10 computer monitor conversions, which will slightly distort the image in a console game designed for 16:9. Do your homework when buying an HD LCD TV...)

Personally I'm tickled pink with the Xbox 360, but others may prefer to go PlayStation 3, which has similar capabilities, for the next TR release in late 2008 (but it doesn't run the PS2 Legend or Anniversary unless it's an older PS3 so take that into consideration). As always, my advice is to first decide what you want to do with it, then pick the hardware that best does what you want. For me that's the Xbox 360, and I have absolutely no regrets. So far ;))