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A hiatus

The last month or so has been quite a whirlwind for me.   Between crunching down on the end of the semester (and taking quite a load off during winter break), I stopped checking my email, lost most of my writing inspiration, and dove into what I enjoy most; games, anime and reading.  2011 had some amazing experiences for me, but despite everything, it was still probably the worst year I can remember living through, and I’m glad it’s over.
I don’t know what 2012 holds.  Right now I’m just winging it.  I have one more week of vacation left, and I aim to use it to be a bit more productive.  I want that to mean I’ll finally get back into writing, but I don’t know where to  begin.  I’m itching to write SOMETHING, but there’s nothing in particular I’m inspired to write about at the moment.  We’ll see.

Ramblings: Gundam 00

I was reading a discussion about Gundam 00: Awakening of the Trailblazer that actually quickly derailed and turned into a debate regarding SEED and Gundam 00.  In response to the accusation that Strike Freedom is ridiculously overpowered, someone brought up Setsuna and his Gundams.  That’s an incorrect comparison.

I actually agree that Strike Freedom is likely the most overpowered Gundam in the franchise.  That’s why I love it, it’s so dominant over everything.  But this person made a point saying that Strike Freedom was best at ranged combat, while Infinite Justice had the best close quarters combat arsenal, and Akatsuki had the best defense; they were an equal team.  I’m not sure about including Akatsuki, even though it DID have above average defenses, being built to deflect regular beam shots without batting an eye.  But it did still get vaporized after taking a battleship cannon beam to the face, even if it did still manage to block the attack from its intended target.  Anyway, as opposed to this team, the person argued that Setsuna and his mechs were always leaps and bounds ahead of the other Gundams of Celestial Being.  That’s kind of absurd.

Firstly, the Gundams in Celestial Being weren’t overpowered.  The reason they were able to wipe the floor with everyone else for much of the series was because they were far, far more advanced.  The estimation was that they were a decade ahead of current technology.  That’s not overpowered, that’s just being prepared.  Would you call an F-22 Raptor overpowered for being able to shoot down an F-4 Phantom with ease?  Because that’s why the Exia and company were curbstomping everyone in their path until the other guys finally managed to catch up in technology; and only by copying Celestial Being’s tech.

And Setsuna was no better than the rest of his team.  In fact, they did the whole “role” thing better than any instance in SEED.  Exia was a close quarters unit, bristling with beam sabers and swords and daggers, with only a small beam rifle to call upon for ranged combat.  Kyrios was the fast interceptor, able to transform into a fighter, and armed with light but versatile weaponry like an automatic rifle.  Virtue was the heavy artillery Gundam, fairly slow but with the best defenses and the most powerful weaponry, including a two handed beam bazooka.  And Dynames was long range support, ineffective in close combat, but a lethal presence at range with its sniper rifle.  None of them, Exia included, was any more “powerful” than the other.

This mechanic continued into the second season as the new line of Gundams rolled out.  Yes, 00 Gundam was literally more powerful than its cohorts, exponentially more powerful.  But they talk about that.  It’s because 00 has two GN Drives, as opposed to one.  And the system was imperfect, and unstable.  It was only until 00-Riser came into being that 00 actually delivered on its potential as the ultimate mech, and probably the most powerful in the series.  And even then, though it has its moments of overpowering dominance, 00-Riser is not an invincible mech.

Editorial: The "hardcore" gamer

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of murmurs about what it means to be a “hardcore” gamer, and really just a gamer in general.  I find such discussions annoying.  Why contemplate on something so trivial?

I play a very wide range of games, and I play them very frequently and in earnest.  I have the single highest trophy level of all my PSN friends, and I was at Gamestop at 12 am on October 18th, even though I had important things to do the following day.

I guess other people label me a gamer.  And probably a hardcore one, at that.  But I do all that because playing games is a primary hobby of mine; because it’s fun.  It’s not like I’m actively working to be recognized as a gamer.  I guess I just think it’s silly to devote much thought to how you should label yourself, and even less so how others should label you.  It’s not much different from the good people out there acting on the idea that young girls typically have fragile self-esteem.

That has a lot to do with interpretation of the words, though; another common topic of discussion.  What is a “gamer”, after all?  I would say it’s quite simply a person who plays games.  But then some ask “does FarmVille count?  The Sims?  What about Wii Sports?”

And then things get even more muddled when you add in “hardcore”.  Who the heck knows what that means?  “Hardcore” could just mean you sit in your room playing Call of Duty all day.  Maybe that is hardcore.

At least with “casual”, the meaning is pretty clear.  If you say you’re a casual gamer, technically it means that you just play games for fun and giggles.  But a reasonable interpretation is that you play games often or that you play games of the lighter, less intensive sort.

But…who cares?

Batman: Arkham City

They never saw it coming.  Just moments ago they were chatting idly about Catwoman’s sultry qualities. Then they shouted, “It’s the Bat!” as I descended upon one of them, like a meteor from above; he didn’t get back up, and neither did the fellow standing next to him.  Out came the Batclaw, reeling in my first prey as I proceed to slam him into the pavement.  Three guys down, and only now has the rest of the group regained their senses.  Three of them run up, thinking to gain the upper hand with strength in numbers.  I counter all of them effortlessly in a whirlwind of kicks, before unleashing a flurry of batarangs.  In the midst of the chaos, I single out one man still standing.  In an instant I’m in front in him.  He has body armor, so I stun him and then punch him.  He probably expected that.  What he didn’t expect were the next fifteen punches, followed by a fierce uppercut.  There’s one man left standing, and another getting back up.  I fling a freeze grenade at the one dusting himself off; sit tight for a bit.  Then I focus on the last goon.  First I wrench the bat from his hands, and smack him with it.  Then trip him, and snap one of his arms.  I end the battle by delivering a flying kick of justice to the thug encased in ice.
This game is nuts.

Looking Forward

This has been an exceptional year for gaming.  And it shows in the fact that I really need to scale down my game purchases going into 2012.  This is the first year where the growth of my game library has actually outpaced the amount of time I allocate to playing games.  It’s gotten to the point where I’m buying games, and quite simply not playing them; as is the case with Dark Souls, Tomb Raider Anniversary, Tomb Raider Legend, and Company of Heroes, and Ace Combat Zero.  These are all games that I have not even touched yet–don’t get me started on games that are merely unfinished.  I feel almost irresponsible continuing to buy all these great games even knowing that I won’t have time to play them.

Here’s a list of games I bought or acquired this year.
LittleBigPlanet 2
Dead Space 2
inFamous 2
Tales of the Abyss
Total War: Shogun 2
Ace Combat Zero
Metal Gear Solid 4 (for the second time)
Ace Combat 5
Ace Combat 4
Sengoku Basara: Samurai Heroes
Dark Souls
Persona 4
Batman: Arkham City
Portal 2
Dynasty Warriors: Gundam 3
Dirt 3
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The Witcher 2
Company of Heroes (for the second time)
TES4: Oblivion
Just Cause 2
Tomb Raider: Anniversary
Tomb Raider: Legend

Of those games, 16 (out of the 24) I haven’t finished.  That’s kind of unacceptable.  So I’m really glad that 2012 is looking a lot less exciting, at least to me.  I also bought LA Noire, but promptly returned it.  It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing in probably a decade; never have I been so incredibly disappointed in a game that I truly thought would be great.  Other firsts in 2011: I bought Arkham City from Gamestop.  The last game I remember buying from Gamestop was 007: Agent Under Fire, probably about 10 years ago.

So, here’s a list of games I’m looking forward to.

Playstation 3
Sonic Generations;  I…I took a leap, and decided to go ahead and preorder this.  I grew up with Sonic, and I’ve managed to find some good in almost every game in the series that ever came out (except for Sonic 06).  But even I’ve felt the effects of what is ultimately just poor design.  But Sega looks like for the first time in quite a while, they might have finally gotten it right.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception; I really think this will be a neat game, but I can’t bring myself to buy it brand new for $60.  I’m only in it for the campaign, and that alone does not justify a buy to me.  I’ll wait until it’s cheaper.  Still, it does look amazing.
Skyrim: The Elder Scrolls 5; Chances are it will be a very long time before I get around to even touching this game, but I’m not worried about how good it will be.  I loved Oblivion, and all I see Skyrim as is Oblivion with better graphics and updated mechanics.
Saints Row: The Third; This is one of the last games of 2011 that I’m currently planning to buy at or around its release, but it’s also the one I’m thinking the most about waiting on.  It looks like infinite fun, but lack of offline multiplayer hit me kinda hard.
-Rayman: Origins; All I’m hearing is 4-player platforming co-op.  That’s all I need to hear.  This was going to be a day one buy, but I think I’m going to wait a while on it.
Armored Core 5; It’s true, I’m rather fond of any mech games that manage to make it stateside.  Of course I’ll be keeping a close eye on Armored Core 5, but it wouldn’t have to be revolutionary for me to seriously consider picking it up, because I’m that desperate.
-SSX; One of the few games coming out in 2012 that I’m kind of excited for.  I really love the SSX series.  All EA has to do is announce offline multiplayer, and this will probably be a day one buy.  Too bad they probably won’t.
-Zone of the Enders HD Collection; I never played the original ZoE games, but I heard they were rather dandy.  The announcement of this collection was a very pleasant surprise, and I look forward to picking it up when it releases.
-Final Fantasy Versus XIII; Still waiting, Square-Enix…
-Ghost Recon: Future Soldier; I have to admit, I’m a bit conflicted about this one.  If it turns out to be a hyperrealistic shooter like, say Operation Flashpoint or SOCOM where you take one bullet and die, I’m out.  But it combines a lot things that I really dig.  That is, third person shooting with an emphasis on cover, co-op, and futuristic technology.
-Starhawk; At the moment I’m actually kinda meh about this, but it looks like it could be a quality title, regardless of what I think of it.
-Final Fantasy XIII-2; I’m a bit conflicted about this one.  Unlike so many people, I actually really, really liked Final Fantasy XIII.  But, given how long it took to develop that game, you can understand my skepticism when I found it they were churning out a sequel in just one year.  I know the leftover assets and the fact that a lot of the tech is already developed is a big factor in the reduced development time (which is why FF13-2 doesn’t really look at all better than 13), but a year?  I guess I’m just not used to seeing Square-Enix, of all people, churn out a game so quickly; much less a Final Fantasy game.  Also, I really dislike that they are going to be adding monster recruiting as a gameplay mechanic.  It tends to rub me the wrong way when games have monster recruiting, because it feels like a way to escape the burden of having to add in and flesh out actual characters.  And because the monsters themselves are always so dull and boring to play as.  But by the same token, my interest was piqued when I realized that they would be introducing time travel as a plot element.  I enjoy time travel stories, even though they are rarely done well, without having them turn into confusing messes full of holes.
-Metal Gear Solid Rising; Whatever happened to this game…?  Nobody ever talks about it.  <=/  I thought it looked kind of fun.
-Ni no Kuni; This game looks kind of neat.  A joint venture between Studio Ghibli and Level-5?  Could be great.  But I do worry about the incredible mass of people blinded by the game’s graphics.  Yes, the game looks beautiful, like anything with Ghibli’s hands in it should.  But what about the gameplay?  We’ll see.
-Bioshock Infinite; Though it was kind of a fleeting experience, I really enjoyed Bioshock.  I loved what it brought to the table: a compelling story and incredible setting wrapped around solid FPS and RPG mechanics.  It was just a great game.  And it looks like Infinite looks ready to carry that banner as well.  I’ll tell you what, that nine minute gameplay demo was amazing.
-Final Fantasy X HD; I’ve noticed that every Final Fantasy seems to have a polarizing effect on the fanbase, and 10 was no exception.  I was among those that actually liked 10 quite a bit, but I never finished it.  This ought to be a fine chance to.
Tomb Raider; With the exception of Final Fantasy Versus XIII (which may or may not come out next year), this is the only game I can say even now that I will probably be buying day one.  SSX I’m interested in, but I might not buy it if they don’t include offline multiplayer.  I think Crystal Dynamics would have to really mess things up for me to not end up picking this up when it releases.  I just have a really good feeling about it.
-Assassin’s Creed: Revelations; I actually haven’t been paying much attention to this game, but I feel almost obligated to buy it, because of how much I’ve fallen in love with the series since I discovered AC2 what feels like a million years ago.

Mass Effect 3;  Even though I really loved Mass Effect 2 (it did earn the first 10 on this blog, after all), for some reason I just can’t get hyped for ME3.  I think it has to do with the way EA has essentially turned the game into a juggernaut pawn to further its other ventures, like Origin and online passes.  It’s kind of tragic.
-Guild Wars 2; Still waiting, NCSoft…

Kirby’s Return to Dreamland;  You know, a couple years ago I would have been endlessly excited about this game.  It would have been a day one buy, and I would have loved it to bits.  But now…I’m kind of tired.  Tired of Nintendo.  Tired of the Wii.  And…almost tired of Kirby.  Almost.
-The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword; Everything I just said in the previous entry be damned, I probably would have bought this game, if Nintendo hadn’t decided to use it force motion controls down my throat.  I don’t care how intuitive the gesture is, if I have to do it everytime I want to do something as simple as make a sword strike, I’m out.  I’m fine with making it an option and all, but basing the entire game around motion controls…it’s like they’re giving us an ultimatum, or something.  “Buy Motion Plus and love it, or get out.”
There’s a reason every game with motion controls have an option to play with the traditional way, and a reason why those that are built around motion controls keep it simple and small in scope.  Sorry Nintendo, but what you are doing to this game is unacceptable in my eyes.  Which is tragic, because everything about the game looks amazing.

Total War: Shogun 2

Let me start off by setting a precedent.  This is an epic, epic game.  Pumped?  Alright.
Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in the venerable Total War series of PC games, known for offering some of the most authentic recreations of historical battles on the market.  Previous entries focused on such eras as the French Revolution, the medieval age, and the Roman Empire. 
Like its well-received predecessor, Shogun 2 brings our attention to the Sengoku Jidai, or “Warring Era” of Feudal Japan.  A time of much distress throughout the country due mostly to economic development and weak government, the period lasted from the 1400s to the very beginning of the year 1600.  The Ashikaga Shogunate had come into power then, and while they did a fair job at ruling initially, they didn’t really manage to gain the loyalty of the other daimyo (clan rulers).  Given that the shogun is quite simply a military ruler, it wasn’t long before the daimyo fancied themselves rulers instead, with the goal being to unite Japan under one rule, as the Ashikaga had failed to do.
This is where you come in.  There are many, many clans vying for power dotted throughout the country.  Only a bit more than a handful of them are playable, but you choose one, and attempt to bring your clan glory through diplomacy and conquest.  But mostly conquest.
The playable clans include the Shimazu, Tokugawa, Hattori, Hojo, and the Chosokabe, among others.  Those who know a thing or two about actual history will know that these were actual major players in the Sengoku period; in fact, it was ultimately Tokugawa Ieyasu who became the next shogun.  Every clan has its advantages and disadvantages.  They all start in unique places on the map (again, historically sensible), and they all provide _tangible bonuses to certain units.  For example, the Shimazu starts on the bottom edge of Japan, in the province of Satsuma.  Though the clan to the north, the Sagara are a peaceful lot, you also have the Ito clan moving in on you from the east.  The Shimazu get a bonus to the loyalty of their generals, and make the best Katana Samurai units in the game.  The Date, on the other hand starts on the opposite tip of the country, in northernmost Iwate.  Known for their fierceness in battle, they get a clan-wide bonus to charge attacks, and can recruit superior nodachi samurai (a nodachi is a two handed sword that is longer and heavier than a katana).  Every clan has its own flavor.
In terms of empire management, Shogun 2 is not nearly as complex as, say, Civilization.  But that’s not to say that the management aspects are shallow.  War is expensive, so your primary concerns as leader of a clan will revolve around making money.  There are a lot of things to spend money on in this game, yet only a couple ways to keep it flowing in, so you’ll have to watch your pennies.  For example, in addition to the cost of recruiting a unit, each one also has a turn-by-turn upkeep cost, which can quickly push you into bankruptcy if you have a larger army than your treasury can support.
Revenue will come primarily in two flavors: domestic income and trade income.  Domestic income comes from taxes.  Developing your farms and letting your towns grow in wealth are your primary methods of keeping domestic income up and rising.  Trade income comes from establishing trade agreements with other clans, as well as with the several sea outposts representing distant foreign countries like India.  They both have their pros and cons.  Domestic income is extremely stable, but starts out meager and takes a lot of time and a lot of investment to develop.  Trade income is a great way to pull in some quick pocket change, and it will also very quickly gain you access to the various resources available that you might need to build advanced units and buildings.  Trade agreements also gradually build up friendly relationships between the participating clans, making them all the less likely to stab you in the back later down the line.  But trade income is usually unreliable; clans come and go, and when a trading partner loses a port they’re using to trade with you, that would of course completely shut off the deal.  Sea trade necessitates a capable fleet to defend it, upping your costs.  Unprotected trade routes and trade ships are vulnerable to being blockaded or attacked by pirates (who are basically like the barbarians in Civilization), allowing other ballsy clans to seize some or all the profits.
If you want to, you can dive deeper into the economics of the situation.  Every resource you have within your land or coming from a foreign trade post is automatically exported to other clans that you have trade agreements with at market value, which in turn is calculated by the principles of supply and demand.  If you don’t have access to a particular resource, you can import it from a clan who does by striking up a trade agreement with them.  But I don’t have much trouble becoming the richest clan in the game without poring over the financial tabs.  The important thing to remember is to keep your income higher than your expenses.  How much higher depends on how essential you think it is to have a large force, compared to how much money you want to have flowing in every turn.
Shogun 2 splits Japan into 60 provinces.  To finish a campaign, you have to meet certain requirements by a certain timeline.  These include holding key provinces (most importantly Kyoto, the seat of the current Shogunate) in addition to others, totaling a specific number of provinces you have to control to end the campaign.  For a short campaign, it’s 20 provinces.  For a long one, you need to have 40.  For a domination campaign, you need to take over all 60 provinces, by the year 1600.  Each turn represents one season, so there are four turns to a year.
Sooner rather than later, you’ll want to start expanding your territory.   This is done exclusively through marching a sufficiently strong army into the province you want, and showing the capital town there who’s boss.  Every province comes with a castle town, and certain resources; that is, a farm and a road system.  Some have more buildings, like seaports, gold or iron mines, or libraries, to name a few.  In addition, within the castle town itself you can construct more buildings, to further develop the town to suit your purposes.  Some buildings, like the Samurai Dojo and Foot Archery Range, let you recruit military units in that town.  Others, like the Marketplace, Buddhist Temple, and Sake Den grant important bonuses, such as religion spread, recruitable agents and higher town wealth over time (and as we’ve established, more money in the citizens’ hands means more money for you to tax).  Every building in the game can be upgraded multiple times.  The Sake Den can eventually become the Infamous Mizu Shobai District, giving a huge bonus to town wealth, and also allowing you to recruit geisha agents (more on agents in a bit).  The Samurai Dojo can become the Legendary Kenjutsu School, allowing you to recruit Katana Heroes, who are described to be “one with their blades”.  Roads can be upgraded to improve infrastructure, which not only allows you to move farther in less time, but also increases trade volume, again increasing wealth across the region.  Farms can be upgraded to not only provide more wealth, but also more food.
Speaking of it, food is the other currency you’ll want to keep an eye on.  Farms are your sole source of it.  A couple buildings, most namely the castles in your towns, consume more food the more you upgrade them, so unless you want to run into a food shortage and have riots popping up all over your territory (and trust me when I say you don’t want that), you’ll want to make sure your farms are outputting enough food to keep up with your improvements.  A food surplus also contributes to clan-wide wealth.
Perhaps the most important upgrade however, is the province’s castle.  To capture a province, you need to seize its castle town, which involves assaulting the castle within.  Naturally, if you’re on the defending side, you want to be as prepared as you can.  Well, the more you upgrade your castle, the more benefits you get.  In battle, castles can range from lowly wooden forts to multi-level citadels with automatic arrow towers and fortifications aplenty, depending on how high up the chain they are.  Higher-level castles also get a constant garrison of troops to help stave off enemy attack.  Castles are also the primary way to keep citizens under control and prevent rebellion.
Speaking of rebellion, you always want to pay attention to how happy the citizens in any given province are.  You always, always want to keep your citizens happy.  Two bars track sources of unhappiness and happiness, respectively.  If unhappiness is higher than happiness, you will have a revolt on your hands sooner than you’d like.  There are a lot of factors that can influence your citizens’ disposition, from the honor of your daimyo to simple resistance to the fact that you just invaded them.  But the primary one will be taxes.  Setting your taxes too high will piss your people off in a big way, and soon it won’t be long before a rebellion army is formed.  Other big no-no’s are food shortages and religious differences, both of which start small but grow bigger every turn, until not even waiving taxes altogether in a province will save you from the fury of the peasants.  Army units also each serve as one unit of repression (aka ‘’happiness’’), so sitting a very large army on a town will keep it under control through all but the most critical circumstances.  But of course this is a temporary solution, as you can’t afford to have armies sitting on every one of your towns…and even if you could, it would be a colossal waste of money.
If you can manage to keep your happiness extremely high though, you can tax your citizens more without them minding, which will lead to substantially higher income.  Fortunately, if you don’t want to have to look over your shoulder every turn to make sure you aren’t suddenly stepping on one province’s toes with your tax rates, you can have the game auto-manage your taxes, reducing and/or waiving them automatically where necessary.
What really caught my eye about Shogun 2 however were the battles, not the campaign gameplay; at the end of the day, that’s just Civilization Lite.  The battles are the Total War series’ claim to fame, and believe it or not, despite the incredible amount of time I just spent talking about the campaign, I think it’s easy to see most of the developer’s resources really went into the battle system.
There are three types of battles: naval battles, siege battles, and land battles.  Naval battles of course take place on water, between ships, while siege battles are castle assaults, and land battles are all-out clashes on land. _ There are so many factors–small and large–playing into this system of warfare that it would be impossible to get into them all without this review becoming an encyclopedia.
How every battle works is one unit approaches another on the campaign map with murderous intent.  You are brought to the unit layout screen, where you can see your units as opposed to the opponent’s.  A balance of power meter sitting in the middle gives you a quick take on your odds (fortunately, it takes more than just sheer numbers into account) against the opponent.  You then have two choices, primarily.  You can choose to auto-resolve the battle, giving you instant results based mostly on the balance of power, or you can choose to fight the battle yourself.  They both have their uses.  If you have more than just a clear advantage (read: you are crushing a couple hundred peasants with over 1200 katana samurai), you’ll save a lot of time (and even a couple men) by auto-resolving.  But if the balance of power is less than, say 65% in your favor, you’ve got a better chance of getting a satisfactory win fighting it out yourself.  A great example is siege battles.  The balance of power meter does not seem to really take castles into account, so when faced with an army knocking on my door that was twice the size of my own, the game said I was screwed, and auto-resolving would likely have resulted in a crushing defeat.  Fighting the battle however, I was able to easily resist attack, losing few men while their horde slammed itself against my defenses with less vigor every time.  During most land battles, you can also choose to retreat, whether you’re the aggressor or the defender.  However, you can only do this once per encounter, and if the enemy manages to catch you a second time, you’ll have to make a stand. 
Siege battles also open up another option, if you’re the aggressor and you’ve got time to kill.  If you feel that you’re at too great a disadvantage trying to fight the enemy in their castle, you can start sieging them from outside on a turn-by-turn basis.  This cuts off their unit replenishment, and halts all construction within the province.  After a certain number of turns (better castles can hold out for longer), the army inside will simply run out of food and be forced to surrender.  Usually the AI will come out and attack you before that happens, but it’s often more advantageous to fight them on equal terms, right?  Of course, this gives the defending clan time to move in reinforcements, so this is an option you want to use with care.
Units are divided into several types, with each type having strengths, weaknesses, and suggested roles.  These types are sword infantry, spear infantry, bow infantry, cavalry, riflemen, and siege and support units.  Together, they all form a very loose rock-paper-scissors relationship.  Spears, aside from being your bread and butter units, are good at holding a defensive line, and at being sacrificial pawns.  Bows will get cut apart in melee, but from a distance can easily be the deciding factor in any encounter.  Sword infantry are your shock troopers, designed purely to dish out the offensive to whoever wants it.  Cavalry come in many variations, from spear cavalry that hunt other cavalry, to katana and bow cavalry that are essentially quicker but smaller quantity versions of their infantry counterparts.  Melee cavalry units can also punch holes in enemy lines with their wedge charge.  All cavalry share a critical weakness to spears, however.  Riflemen share the same roles and weaknesses as bowmen, but their rifles are much more devastating at the cost of reduced range and long reload times.  Siege weapons come primarily in the form of immobile artillery with incredible range and power but terrible accuracy, and special units, like ninja, who can stealth in open sight and use bombs to disorient the enemy.
Within these types there are a number of different units.  Spears have the most variation, from peasants who come in huge numbers but crumble against disciplined soldiers, to heavy infantry naginata samurai and warrior monks.  Most unit categories also have some sort of hero unit, who come in small numbers but represent the pinnacle of their class.  Katana Heroes wreck the opposition with their mastery of the blade and keep their fellow warriors fighting with the “Hold Firm” ability, Bow Heroes decimate from afar with excellent accuracy, high range and a couple of potent abilities.  The Cavalry hero unit is the Great Guard, tasked with guarding the Shogun himself.
At the head of it all is your commanding officer or “king piece”, which should usually, hopefully be a general.  The general is easily the most important unit in any battle, and can sway the tide with just his presence.  A giant blue radius encircles the general.  Any units within that radius get a morale boost, allowing them to fight harder and longer.  The general also has some Area of Effect buffs, such as the “Rally” ability that temporarily freezes the morale of nearby units, practically making them unbreakable (meaning they will fight all the way down to the last man if they have to).  All units gain experience and become more potent as they net kills, but each general has his own skill tree.  You can develop a general to be more melee focused, allowing him to get in there with his soldiers, or to have more powerful buffs.
Now, these aren’t your normal RTS battles.  I’m going to tell you from the onset that you should just look up a gameplay video, because no amount of words can really describe what goes on during a battle in Shogun 2.  Units come in sizes ranging from 30 to 150, (with it more commonly being 90-120), and you can have up to twenty units in one army at a time.  This means thousands of men clashing on an open field.  Thousands of men charging down a hill.  Thousands of men marching crossing a bridge.  Thousands of men storming the walls of a castle as arrows rain on them from above.  And every single one of them is rendered by the game’s graphic engine.  If games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War are squad-based games, this is a battalion-based game.
As expected, strategy and tactics play a huge role in the clashes of Shogun 2.  At the basic level, you always have to keep in mind what units to assign to what role.  That begins in the deployment phase, a sort “prep time” before every battle that allows you to get in formation.  Though the game comes with a number of pre-made formations designed to cover a variety of stances, you can make your own using the group button, allowing you to move as an actual organized force, not just a giant mass of people.  Will you have your spears in the front as a defensive line, or in the back to protect your flanks?  Will your bowmen in the front to be able to start shooting as soon as possible, or in the back for their own safety?
Terrain is also important.  As battles load, you’ll be presented with a topographic map of the battlefield, allowing you to do some planning.  One of the most basic rules of war is to always try to have the height advantage.  Units get a sizable bonus when charging down hills, and it’s easier for arrows to find their mark going down a hill instead of up it.  Other things like rivers and forests play a role too.  Cavalry find forests hard to fight in, but infantry units can use them to travel without being seen.
The longer a battle drags on, the bloodier it gets, so to speak.  Some units, like cavalry and ninja fare extremely well in the initial attack, but then quickly start to lose favor as combat persists.  Vigorous activity such as fighting and running will eventually tire your men out to the point of exhaustion, putting a big damper on their effectiveness.
You don’t really have to keep a close eye on the actual fighting to know who’s winning, though.  Shogun 2 does an excellent job of giving of you multiple ways to tell at a glance how a unit is faring.  You can highlight any unit, either their card representation or the actual men on the battlefield, to instantly get a good amount of information on their current condition, as well as major causes of their condition.  It will tell you how energetic they’re feeling, how close they are to breaking, how many men are left in that unit, and what they are doing.  The most important tidbit of information will be how they are faring in combat, though.  This will range from “winning decisively” to “losing decisively”.  As an attentive commander, you’ll be checking this very frequently.  Every unit also has a giant flag floating above it to indicate its position and which side it’s on.  The flag itself is also a representation of a given unit’s condition, becoming more and more tattered as the men below it take losses, and flashing right before they are about to drop everything and flee.  A bar above the flag also gives you a general idea of troop morale; once it is empty, you can expect them to turn tail and run.
You may be surprised to learn that very few battles in Shogun 2 end with one side or the other being completely decimated.  Usually what happens is you end up “routing” unit after unit, which basically means that they decide to get the hell out of there, and try to escape off the map.  Once a unit is routed it is all but safe to ignore it, since under only a few occasions is it possible (or even worth it) to convince a fleeing unit to come back to the fight.  In this way, it’s really a battle of morale.  Yes, number strength and soldier skill are still deciding factors, but I’ve routed plenty of enemy units without me even touching them, due to them figuratively wetting themselves and fleeing.  Spear ashigaru, made up essentially of peasants, will quickly crumble against katana heroes, despite being five times their number.
The balance of power meter is also ever-present, giving you the game’s take on the proceedings.  Once it is completely filled in your favor (meaning every unit has either routed or perished), you win!  Then you have a chance to either end the battle there, or continue to hunt down every foe that hasn’t yet managed to flee the battlefield.  The option is more than a show of brutality, though, as most of the time one victory isn’t enough to simply wipe an army off the face of the map.  They will regroup and flee some distance, possibly renewing its numbers before coming at you again.  Usually they’re too broken to be a threat again for quite a while.
Siege and navy battles play out a tad differently.  During siege battles, as opposed to simply slaughtering everyone inside, an alternative condition for victory is to capture the central building inside the castle, done by having any unit stand near that building’s flag for one minute.  Aside from the central building, there are a number of other minor things to consider.  First, how to get inside.  The most straightforward way is to straight up climb up and over the wall.  But you can also bomb the doors open with explosives, or fire bombs.  Aside from the central building, there are a few other fortifications that can be captured for your own use.  Arrow towers can be captured to turn them against the defenders, and doors can be captured to open for you without having to destroy them.
Navy battles have a different flavor to them.  Though your objective is still the same as if you were fighting an open land battle you also have the option of capturing enemy ships by rowing up beside them, and boarding them, pirate style.  This starts up a struggle between the two ship crews.  With the winner forcing the loser to surrender, and be absorbed into their fleet.  Until you get access to ships with explosive weapons (which may be never), it’s either this or have the ships shoot at each other with arrows.  It’s an all or nothing situation, with the winner of most naval battles typically walking away with more ships than they went into battle with.  Personally, I hate naval battles.  They are extremely slow and unpredictable.  Plus, winning battle after battle on the sea can quickly snowball into a hugely costing venture, as you accumulate ships and are forced to destroy some to keep expenses reasonable.  The only saving grace of naval battles is The Black Ship, an extremely overpowered European ship that is continually circling Japan.  It’s a tough ship to capture, but will make short work of nearly all others in the game with its cannons and huge crew.
Though war is the focus here, if you’re finding yourself militarily crushed by other clans, you still have options.  The first one is agents.  Agents are individuals who carry out your bidding behind closed doors.  In exchange for a fee, they can carry out quite a number of tasks for you.  The most common types of agents are ninja, monks, and metsuke. 
Ninja are your spies and assassins.  At the basic level, you can direct them to lands unknown, lifting the fog of war and allowing you do reconnaissance on other clans.  Ninja can also assassinate important individuals such as generals and other daimyo, and can sabotage buildings and armies, reducing their effectiveness.  Ninja are invisible to other clans, but can be discovered if they linger in one place for too long, or fail their actions.  Ninja can also be embedded into armies to increase the amount of distance they can travel, or in towns to increase line of sight for that town.  Since enemy armies successfully sabotaged by ninjas can’t move for the rest of the turn, a handful of ninjas can keep an army at bay for a surprising length of time.
Metsuke are basically like paralegals.  They are there to crush criminals under the boot of your law, and carry out your shady dealings.  Detected enemy agents can be arrested and executed by metsuke.  Metsuke can bribe enemy units and generals, causing them to defect.  They can even buy out entire provinces (all with your money, of course).  Metsuke embedded within towns and armies lend a watchful eye to proceedings, protecting against assassinations and discouraging disloyal generals from defecting.  Though it’s extremely expensive, the metsuke’s ability to buy other people’s loyalty allows him to cripple incoming threats for players who favor money over military strength.
Monks are your religious emissaries.  They can up the morale of your own armies, and lower that of enemies.  They also bring happiness to towns that they minister in, and can cause revolt in other clans’ towns, serving as a sizable distraction for enemies.
Each action an agent can carry out has a success rate attached to it.  The higher the percentage, the more likely they are to succeed.  Failure can have dire consequences, sometimes resulting in the execution of the agent.  As they work, agents gain XP just like generals, and eventually level up.  They too have their own skill trees. 
The second alternative to combat is diplomacy.  At any time during your turn on the campaign map, you can bring up a list of all other clans you’ve encountered, telling you what provinces they control, their relationship with you, and a rough estimate of how strong they are and how well they’re doing financially.  From here you can set up deals and agreements, ranging from arranged marriages and trade agreements to military alliances.  If you’re feeling generous, you can also arrange to have money sent to a clan either immediately or over the course of any number of turns, as a token of goodwill; of course, you can also demand that the same be done to you (though it hasn’t worked for me yet).  This is also where you would formally declare war, or request peace.  Every deal you propose is given a measure of how likely it is to succeed, with low meaning they will refuse, moderate meaning they will either refuse or give a counter-offer, and high meaning you’re good.  There are a number of factors playing into the likelihood of a clan accepting a proposal, some of which even I don’t really understand.  I’ve had clans that I was allied with and essentially best friends with refuse to trade with me, for instance.  During their turns clans will sometimes also come to you with offers, which you can either accept or deny.  You can also give a counter offer if you want.  For example, it’s not uncommon for a clan you are on the verge of wiping off the face of the earth come to you with a peace proposal.  Usually I deny those.
Diplomacy is a powerful tool early in the game, but the nature of your ultimate goal means that making peace with other clans is really just a measure to postpone war with them.  Nothing hammers this point home further than the “Realm Divide” mechanic.  Here, you would hear a collective groan from people who have played this game.  As you gain territory, you also become increasingly famous throughout the land.  However, the current shogun will not be happy with your rise to power.  After capturing your 15-17th province, the shogun will declare that you have become too powerful, essentially making you public enemy number one.  This gives a massive hit to diplomacy that gets bigger with each turn, causing all but your friends among friends to immediately declare war on you.  If you’re not prepared, it could easily the beginning of the end for you.
Designed as a way rebuff players who are essentially steamrolling province after province, clan after clan (it’s not as hard as you think if you play your cards right), the Realm Divide mechanic is well meaning but very poorly implemented.  Trade agreements collapse; other clans that were at each other’s throats kiss and make up for no reason before setting their sights on you.  Like I said before, this is a Total War game, and diplomacy is really only there as an option.  But it’s nice that it’s there at all.  The Realm Divide completely throws diplomacy out the window, whether you like it or not.  You just can’t use it anymore, period.  Even clans that come into being in the middle of the game, who are probably 1/15th of your size decide it would be extremely smart to declare war on you.  Clans you encounter for the first time who logically shouldn’t know a single thing about you immediately declare war.  If you don’t know about the Realm Divide going into Shogun 2, it could very well destroy you.  If you do know about it, the early part of the game becomes a race to prepare for it.  And no, Realm Divide does not happen to the AI clans.  Only you.  I’ve seen an AI clan take Kyoto and the Shogunate for themselves (the other surefire way to cause it), and nobody cared.  In a few words, it sucks.
But the Realm Divide is one blotch on an otherwise beautiful painting.  Shogun 2 is nothing short of exemplary in the graphics and audio department, but you’ll need a formidable rig to run it smoothly at max settings.  The opening CG scene is exciting, and sets the tone for all battles to come.  All the sounds of combat are present:  the twang of bows and subsequent whistle as arrows fly towards their marks, the wince-worthy crunch and clash as armor is crushed, cannonballs penetrate wood, and blade meets blade, and the shouts and gurgles of death, pain, and eventually victory. 
Where battles have been fought, only bodies remain.  Corpses of horses and the soldiers that rode them, weapons and those that wielded them strewn all over the field.  It’s genuinely disquieting the first time you fight a large-scale battle in Shogun 2, and glimpse the aftermath.  The only standout thing is that there is no blood to speak of in Shogun 2.  None at all.
The environments aren’t without dedication either.  The maps are incredibly varied, from rolling hills to mountainous tundras, quiet forests and archipelagos.  From a high viewpoint, you can see clouds drifting lazily through the air, as well as smoke columns from the destruction of siege engines.  This goes for both the battles and the campaign.  Sometimes it will rain, other times there will be fog.  Often, during spring you can catch sakura petals falling.  Explosions are spectacular as well.
The theme is perfectly consistent across all areas, from the ukiyo-e art and paintings that permeate every aspect of the game (from character portraits to loading screens), to the traditional instrumental BGMs and regaling speech that every general delivers before battle, fully voiced in Japanese with subtitles.  In fact, the only English you’ll hear in this game will be from your tutorial advisors giving you information…in a Japanese accent.

It’s worth mentioning that the campaign mode is only one slice of the game, albeit probably the single largest portion.  A custom battle mode lets you set up battles against the AI completely how you like, controlling nearly every aspect, from the units to the map.  It’s a great tool for practice and experimentation.  The competitive multiplayer is called “Avatar Conquest”.  I haven’t tried much of it; I don’t really know that much about it.  From what I played, it’s a very light variation of regular campaign conquest.  You can also play through a campaign with another player, as a potential ally or your greatest enemy.  A friend and me can tell you that the co-op campaign is a blast.
At the end of the day, when you realize that you spent all morning, afternoon and evening playing it, Total War: Shogun 2 is an excellent, excellent game.  You don’t have to be a master tactician to have fun playing it, and the advisor, present to give you vocal help every step of the way (if you want it) combined with the extensive in-game encyclopedia make the experience much more intuitive than I would ever have expected.  There is no question of replay value.  Over 100 hours in, I still feel like I’m just getting to know what it’s like take over Feudal Japan.  This is the sort of game I would absolutely love to have seen some developer diaries or making-of books for, because it’s clear that a lot of effort, a lot of polish, and a lot love went into its crafting.  A game for beginners and veterans, average Joes and chessmasters alike.  A 9.5/10.

Impressions: Ace Combat Assault Horizon

I’ve been a fan of the Ace Combat series since I first laid eyes on the fourth entry, Shattered Skies.  Though I’ve only played that, The Unsung War and Zero, I feel an intense fondness for this franchise and its many charms.  Due to not owning an Xbox 360, I missed out on Ace Combat 6, unfortunately.  So you can imagine I was ecstatic when Namco first showed a trailer for Assault Horizon, which would be on PS3 too.

Unfortunately, this entry is radically different from its predecessors.  Namco has changed or even outright removed some things, in an attempt to modernize the series and capture a wider audience.  One result of this is immediately apparent.  Ace Combat: Assault Horizon takes place in the real world.  One of the hallmarks of the series (and one that I found extremely appealing) was the fictional yet realistic setting Project Aces drew up for each installment.  Though there were clear parallels drawn from real life—Yuktobonia (AC5) and Emmeria (AC6) being stand-out examples—the stories woven within this fictional dimension felt fresh.  As we glimpse a soldier checking Twitter on his smartphone before boarding a helicopter in opening moments of the debut trailer however, it’s made clear that we’re “back in Kansas”, so to speak.  Now the story apparently follows NATO (read: America) as they fight against insurgents in Africa, only to find that they are receiving aid from a group of Russians.

In a move that I still don’t understand, Namco has also added helicopter and bomber gameplay; a first for the series.  There hasn’t been much word on bombing missions, but helicopter gameplay is intended to have a slower, more deliberate pace, as opposed to the high adrenaline Namco is trying to inject into the jet gameplay.  Naturally, I’ve had misgivings about the game ever since.  The game releases on October 11th, but just this past Tuesday, Namco released a demo for the game, including the tutorial missions for fighter and helicopter gameplay.

Namco wanted to make jet combat a more visceral, exciting affair, so they shook up the gameplay, too.  The most notable addition is Close Range Assault, which you’ll see plenty of in the trailers (or CRA, for short).  Basically, it’s an upgraded version of the simple lock-on.  You get close enough to a targeted enemy, and you can press both triggers (like you would for auto-pilot) to activate CRA, which basically turns the game into a chase scene.  The camera zooms in and dynamically changes angles to highlight the weapon you’re using;  the game mostly flies your plane for you, following your target closely and only really leaving with enough manual flying capability to aim your gun and accelerate/decelerate.  In CRA mode, a circle appears on your UI, getting larger the closer you are to the enemy plane.  If you can if you can keep the enemy plane within that circle (AC veterans, think SAAMs), a meter charges up that, when full allows you to fire a missile with super heightened tracking ability.  We’re talking 90 degree angles on the dime.  You can try to tear the target up with your gun (which by the way has been nerfed quite a bit due to its new lack of accuracy), but really, CRA is about getting that meter full, loosing off a missile, rinsing, and repeating.  The game will even frequently give you a close up of the downed planes as they spin through the air, losing part after part along the way, Burnout-style.

Enemies can also initiate CRA on you, where a circle appears on your UI, that you definitely want to avoid.  If you feel like taking a risk though, you can slow up, which will make it extremely easy for the enemy to target you, but also—if you get close enough—allow you to do a crazy backwards somersault that flips the tables, landing you behind your ex-predator and putting you into CRA.

Though this sounds like a rant somewhat, Close Range Assault is actually a pretty novel feature, and it certainly does a lot to alleviate the concerns some people had that the games were boring because you rarely got to get a look at the targets you splashed.

While I don’t have a problem with Close Range Assault, I do have a problem with the way it’s executed.  It’s not just encouraged, like the vibe you get from the trailers and Namco’s statements about the game; you HAVE to use it.  Now enemies apparently come in squads led by leaders.  Leaders CANNOT be taken down through normal means, believe me I tried.  I pumped 5 missiles into one, and he was still flying perfectly fine.  Go into CRA on him, and it only takes two, like normal.  Normal enemies can be shot of the air however you please, but the game forces you to use Close Range Assault on squad leaders.  Furthermore, outside of CRA your weapons feel nerfed.  Missiles have even worse tracking ability than they normally do, and your gun is almost a waste of time.  Furthermore, the controls are sluggish, such to the point that it almost feels like a chore to keep up with enemies, even in the Raptor you are given in the demo, which has always been one of the best planes in the game, statistically speaking.

The game’s graphics are also sort of a mixed bag, all things considered.  The plane models are great, but Namco doesn’t get points for that because they’ve always looked pretty good.  Some explosions are better than others, but the effects I’ve seen so far (namely flames) are very bland.  The ground looks a lot better than it used to, with actual buildings that you can fly in-between, and the demo’s lower altitude dofighting allows one to realize that this is the first game in the series that really nails that sense of speed.  When you’re hitting the after burners and seeing subtle depth of field and motion blur come into play as you zoom past the ground, you know you’re going fast.

Namco’s really shaking things up this time, and I’m not sure I like it.  They’ve made some things, like the guns and setting more realistic, but they also threw more sorcery into the mix, including regenerating health and missiles that go from barely qualifying as being self-guided to being monsters that hunt targets with ferocity nobody knew they had.  Right now, Close Range Assault makes the game laughably easy, such to the point that I feel really bad using it (like that crazy guidance system in HAWX).  But granted, this is apparently the tutorial mission, and as such the enemy AI was probably too stupid to counter it or even really fire at me at all.  I don’t want to judge the game too harshly, because I don’t think this demo portrays a picture perfect image of it.  Even within this real-world setting, there’s still the possibility that Namco’s got a good story to tell us, and that later missions will more fun.  Even now, just thinking about the demo makes me really enticed to go another round, because it it’s so exciting in concept.  But every time, the gameplay takes some wind out of my sails, all the same.

The Nitty Gritty 
(details that might not be meaningful to newcomers, but those who’ve played AC before might want to know):
-In the demo, the Raptor comes equipped with 4AAM special weapons, effective at about 10,000ft.  It seems to be a new version of the XMAAs, though with shorter range.
-Weapons that can lock onto multiple targets at once can now lock onto the same target multiple times.  So, if you have only three targets on hand and you’re aiming the 4AAM, you’ll just end up firing two missiles at once target.  I think this is incredibly lame.
-Health regenerates.  Very slowly albeit, but it regenerates.  There is no health meter, apparently.  Instead the game will tell you how damaged you are, going from Heavy to Light damage as you regenerate.
-There were no squad commands in the demo.  That’s not to say they won’t be in the full game, however.
-The gun now has a more realistic firing arc, shortening its range noticeably and making it much harder to use.
-Enemies regenerate as well.
-Though you don’t get as high a stock of weapons as in Ace Combat 6, it’s still many more than you get in the PS2 games.
-The expand map and missile/special weapon toggle buttons have been swapped.  Now Select/Back expands the minimap, and Square/X toggles your weapons.
-The two schemes have been renamed, but you can still choose between bank-to-turn flying and full barrel-rolling ability.  There’s also a new option for beginners that provides automated assistance such as automatically leveling your plane to prevent crashes.
-Oddly, there is no sonic boom visual effect.
-The afterburners work a little differently.  Now, they only start up at certain speed thresholds, as opposed to activating them simply by holding down R1/Right Bumper all the way.  A small “AB” indicator also shows up beside the speedometer.
-The 3rd person view is zoomed in further than normal.
-Now, going out of bounds instantly fails you, instead of giving you a momentary chance to get back within the mission area.
-Auto-Pilot is back, and you can still use it to level your plane.
-I didn’t talk about the other view too much because I rarely use them; I like the 3rd person view.  The cockpit view is much improved, though according those who played AC6 that one had a more realistic cockpit.
-Planes accelerate much faster than before.  The F-22, at least.
-Flares are introduced.  Enemies will use them frequently, and you have them too, though I still haven’t figured out how they’re used.
Note: I didn’t write about the heli portion because I didn’t play the heli portion, and I might not ever.

Hand’s On: Nexus S

So recently I switched to an unlocked Nexus S as my cell phone of choice. It’s my first time dabbling in the field of unlocked phones, and things are going pretty well so far. The Nexus S definitely provides a different experience from other phones I’ve had, so I thought I’d write up a post on it.
In simple words, the Nexus S is the closest an Android enthusiast is going to get to having an iPhone 4-like experience. The two are similar in many ways. Aside from hardware bullet points like a gorgeous screen, dual cameras, internal storage and a 1Ghz processor (more on all of this in a bit), they’re both currently the flagship devices for their OS’s.
As both an unlocked phone and Google’s flagship, the Nexus S ships with a completely vanilla version of Android 2.3. That means no skins or overlays—i.e. the Sense UI you see on HTC phones, or TouchWiz on Samsung phones—and no carrier provided apps; like the iPhone. Unlike the iPhone however, it also means shockingly few apps to start with at all. Having come from an HTC Shift 4G (and an HTC Aria before that), I had come to take for granted some of the features Sense provided, with the assumption that it was just “re-arranging” standard Android features. Nope! Gone were my Scenes, gone was my ability to sort contacts into groups, gone was Friend Stream, and gone was extra extra bit of customizability with sound profiles. Even the simplest bits of functionality that HTC provided, like a reliable flashlight app or a simple stopwatch were nowhere to be seen on the newly unboxed and unwrapped Nexus S sitting in my hand. I was a little astonished.
But mind you, I’m not really complaining. What I’m driving at here is that vanilla Android offers a different experience from versions that have overlays and skins plastered over them; one that you are expected to build from the ground up by yourself, for yourself. Once I got over my initial surprise, as a tech enthusiast I was unperturbed—and even a bit impressed—by this. But it’s something to keep in mind. So off to the Android Market I went, for once to do some actual shopping, and not just browse idly.
And Android 2.3 is worth getting to know. It’s a slick and lean-feeling OS. It comes with a built in app manager that you can use to observe running processes and cut ones that get too bloated. Unlike in earlier versions of Android however, very rarely do I ever feel the need to implement a task manager, as I seem to get a respectable amount of battery life without one. Android 2.3 also comes with built-in hotspot and tethering functionality—alongside the regular slew of wireless communications options like VPN, Airplane mode, Bluetooth and Wifi—so you can use that freely if you happen to have a mobile data plan associated with the SIM card you stick in your phone. As an unlocked phone, the Nexus S also has useful options regarding mobile data networks, ensuring you’re able to text and surf the web reliably. Little usability touches like the app library animation and the screen lock mimicking the look of an old TV turning off go a fair way in making both the OS and phone running it a joy to use.
Though as of this writing the Nexus S is getting on in age in the veritable arms race that is the mobile industry, it’s still a very capable phone hardware-wise, and it shows in its performance. The device is pure black, save the chrome-rimmed camera lens, flash LED, and gray engravings on the back for Google and Samsung (the latter of which manufactured the phone). There are no sharp angles to be found on this phone; it has a very rounded shape, from the soft edges and corners to the inwardly curved screen, dubbed the Contour Display. I guess the curve is supposed to make watching movies more awesome. Personally, I don’t think that’s really case, but it’s a cool and unique touch nonetheless. On the right side there’s a small but very easy to use power/screen wake/unlock button, on the left a large and similarly comfy volume rocker. Meanwhile, the bottom edge is occupied by a micro-USB slot, the mic hole, and the 3.5mm headphone jack—incidentally, the phone came with a luxurious-looking set of in-ear earbuds, though I’m having trouble using them to good effect.
Unfortunately there’s no notification LED to be found on the Nexus S. It was surprisingly useful feature on my HTC phones of past, telling me at a glance when I had a new email or text. While I do miss it, I certainly get on fine without it.
Inside, the Nexus S is packing the standard smartphone stuff like WiFi, Bluetooth, but throws in a surprise or two in the form of a 16GB helping of internal flash storage (a la iPhone), and an NFC chip (attached to the inside of the back cover). For those of you who don’t know, NFC—otherwise known as Near Field Communications—is a form of close range, extremely low power wireless communication that is currently all the rage in Japan. Capable of dealing in small amounts of data, NFC works in a couple different ways to make certain actions less mundane. To give some examples of it, you could wave your phone near a cash register to instantly check out and be on with your business, or hold it near a receptacle to receive a coupon on your phone. To my knowledge it hasn’t really caught on at all in the US yet, but it’s a pleasant addition nonetheless.
I know some people really like having expandable storage via microSD cards, but 16GB is way more than I ever had on my other phones, since I never wanted to put down cash for an expensive storage card. I actually like having the internal storage; it simplifies things.
As mentioned before, the Nexus S also comes with a 1GHz processor. Furthermore, it comes packing 1GB of RAM. By today’s standards that’s by no means makes it a blazing stallion, but this is the smoothest Android experience I’ve ever had. The Nexus S is easily the first phone I can safely say equals the iPhone 4 in sheer smoothness of the user experience. Everything just works, and the extra hardware helps make navigating the phone fun and intuitive.
The Nexus S also has one of the best cameras I’ve seen on a phone. I’m no photography aficionado, nor have I tested out dozens of phones or cameras in my time, so I guess my opinion doesn’t count for much; I’m just saying that the pictures that come out of this phone’s 5MP back lens come out surprisingly clear and vibrant. The tracking is smooth too; more so than most phones, but not quite up there with the iPhone 4 or even the iPod Touch. The front facing camera is as good as you’d expect a front-facing camera to be—that is, not very good. But it’s there, and it’s a pleasant addition. The Nexus S’s camera is interesting to me in that it does not autofocus until you press the capture button. All cameras I’ve used before, you would get your picture ready, try to steady the lens, and then the phone would automatically autofocus, something that you would wait a bit for before taking the shot. Here, pressing the capture button begins the focusing process, and then the phone takes the shot automatically when it’s done. The camera software comes with an acceptable number of photo taking options, including exposure level, quality (and resulting file size), and a couple of filters. I would like to give special note to the included image gallery software, which is pretty rad. It reminds me a lot of the photo gallery app on the PS3; flashy, but functional.
Call quality on the Nexus S seems to be pretty good. I didn’t run any tests whatsoever, but I’ve not had a single person ask me to repeat what I said or say they’re having trouble hearing me in the 3 months or so that I’ve had the phone so far. I would like to say that the ambient light sensor on this thing is probably the most effective one I’ve ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with. The screen shuts on and off with perfect timing when I hold it up to my face, and it adjusts its own brightness automatically just as well as any Apple product.
Being mostly plastic, the phone may feel surprisingly light and cheap to some people. I can understand that complaint, especially coming from an Evo Shift, which was a pretty bulky, heavy phone for all its bells and whistles. Personally, I think the Nexus S’s sleek piano black finish and elegant curves make up for the materials it’s composed of.
The Nexus S is probably the best phone I’ve ever had, to be frank. There were a couple trade-offs coming from my Evo Shift 4G—mainly a physical keyboard and HTC Sense—but for a phone as smooth (both in operation and design) as this, I think whatever misgivings I might have are far outweighed.

Dead Space 2

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Dead Space was part of an attempt by EA to branch out into new ground.  It was a survival horror game with a science fiction setting; not the most original idea I suppose, but it was a good game nonetheless.
EA and Visceral have seen fit to continue the Dead Space saga (well really, they’ve pretty much turned it into a franchise), and a result we now have Dead Space 2.  In the first game we were introduced to Isaac Clarke, an engineer.  Him and a small team are summoned to the USG Ishimura—a large planet cracker that was apparently mining the surface of the planet Aegis 7.  Though part of the reason they were being sent out was to investigate why the ship had stopped communicating, it was supposed to be a routine maintenance mission.  Isaac himself had been looking forward to visiting his girlfriend Nicole, who was serving as a medical officer on the Ishimura.
But as they found out within 15 minutes of docking, something had gone horribly wrong on the Ishimura.  Disfigured creatures, dubbed Necromorphs—creatures that apparently used to be the crew, attack Isaac and the team.  As they fight for their lives, they gradually unravel a plot far more ambitious than I certainly expected.  Unfortunately, Issac’s adventures on the Ishimura have knocked a couple screws loose in his head.  Now he’s locked up in a psych ward, straitjacket and all; and here is where Dead Space 2’s story begins.  On Titan Station, otherwise known as the Sprawl; a metropolis located on one of Saturn’s moons.
As I played through the game, it became clear that Visceral had aimed to make a more explosive, more exciting game with Dead Space 2.   You’ll learn that they succeeded in this effort less than a minute in, as you watch a fellow trying to help you escape get transformed into a necromorph right in front of your eyes, then are forced to run for dear life—while still in a straitjacket—as more of them crash in from all sides.  And that’s not the half of it.  By the time you get your engineering suit back some 20 minutes later, you’ll have fought off a necromorph in said straitjacket, seen a man slit his own throat and watched the blood pour from it as he gurgled in pain, and watched a soldier get straight up impaled through the torso before being dragged through the air conditioning system and thrown back out as several chunks of meat.  This game means business.
The core gameplay is very similar to the first, though.  You’ll be minding your own business, finger casually on the trigger, before a necromorph pops out—frequently with friends—and makes every attempt to skewer you.  The unique physiology of most necromorphs makes head and torso shots ineffective; they will keep on trucking even if you blow their brains out.  So, instead you have to go for the limbs.
How’s a simple engineer to cope?  By ignoring all those safety and warning labels that come plastered over the tools of their trade!  The result of this is a surprisingly unique and cool arsenal of weapons, comprised primarily of workman’s tools jerry-rigged for combat.  These include Isaac’s trusty mineral cutter, a rivet gun, a hydrazine torch (read: a flamethrower), and a circular saw blade.  Alongside these (which were also in the old game), Dead Space 2 introduces a couple of toys of its own, while also tweaking the functionality of some of the returning weapons.  Among the newly introduced is the Javelin Gun, a pneumatic spear launcher that fires giant titanium spikes that will impale a target and send it soaring across the room until it is pinned to something.
As you play, you’ll find schematics for new weapons tools, as well as ammo supplies for them, which you can then purchase at store kiosks interspersed throughout the city.  Unfortunately, you won’t find nearly enough money to keep yourself decently equipped just lying around, so like any survival horror game, you’ll need to do a lot of looting and scavenging; usually off of corpses.  Furthermore, as an engineer, Isaac can take a moment to perform upgrades on his stuff at any workbench he comes across, using Power Nodes either bought from the store or found lying around.  Most of this won’t sound new to anyone who’s played the first game, though.
That’s not to say there aren’t some notable refinements, however.  Zero G segments are back, but they’ve been revamped.  Now, instead of jumping from wall to wall, Isaac can make use of small air thrusters installed around his suit to float around at will.  This is actually really fun, due in some small part to the fact that enemies are now almost nonexistent during these.  I recall saying that the first Dead Space was not a scary game, but its Zero G segments did keep me on edge, simply because the reduced volume made it impossible to hear and track enemies who would fly towards you from distant walls, attempting a full on collision (often from behind) that would scare the daylights out of me.
Kinesis is also back, allowing you to pick up most loose objects and move them around, as well as throw them as a form of attack.  Though you could do this in the first game, Dead Space 2 heavily emphasizes the use of Kinesis by giving you less ammo drops, and introducing sharp objects like construction poles lying around, that you can use to your advantage in combat.  Hint, hint.  You can even rip the claw off a dead necromorph and use it to attack another.  Another returning feature is stasis, which lets you slow down objects and attacking enemies alike, giving you some breathing room in combat, and a method to solve certain puzzles during exploration.
Dead Space 2’s pacing has also been tweaked a little bit.  Now there are more highs and lows; one moment you’re walking in silence, listening to audio tapes and text logs a la Bioshock and Metroid, the next you’re being held upside down by some giant abomination, about to be impaled through the head, or otherwise being awesome.  Many of the set-pieces are too epic to be described in words.  The “ebb and flow” pace of the original game is still here, but it’s been injected with a shot of badass here and there.
The visuals of Dead Space 2 look great.  I mean, perhaps from a technical standpoint the graphics aren’t awe inspiring per se, but what it lacks there it makes up in its themes and style.  Unlike the first game, which had you exploring mostly the same sorts of places (you were on a giant space ship, after all), Dead Space 2 has more variety.  Sure, the bleak futuristic locales and elements are still here and dominant, but there are some treats here and there; you’ll explore caverns, a church, and even an elementary school; complete with a showdown in the gym.  Some extra attention has been given to the details, like the various nuances of Isaac’s suit (it’s awesome seeing him put it on), and, perhaps most notably the afore-mentioned necromorph transformation scene.  Like in the first game, your HUD is composed mostly of a vitality bar attached to Isaac’s suit (known as your RIG), and an ammo readout projected above each gun.  Even your inventory is a hologram, and the game doesn’t pause as you sort through it.  This lack of any real overlay adds to the tension-inducing ambience.
As a horror game, I would expect animation, lights and shadows to be up to par, and Dead Space 2 delivers here as well.  Necromorphs exhibit some truly unsettling tendencies, like one that twitches constantly, and another that gyrates as it moves. Should you die in battle, most necromorphs have their own special finishing scenes, like one that beheads Isaac and then settles itself where his head used to be, taking control of his body.
Like the last game though, the real winner here is sound.  This is one game that I found truly benefited from a surround sound setup.  The sound design here is nothing short of masterful, to be frank.  All necromorphs have distinct sounds and screams, and the game plays along when they fake death, killing all the chords as they drop to the ground in mock defeat.  Often you’ll enter vacuums, areas with no oxygen.  Appropriately, the sound becomes heavily reduced and muddled, as if you were underwater.  Suddenly even the slightest audio cues have you glancing over your shoulder.  Even in normal areas, I found myself straining to hear: was that sound a necromorph, or perhaps just something minor thing falling over?  I could never tell, but it had me quaking in my boots sometimes.
This isn’t helped by the addition of a few new enemies such as one that is super fast (such to the point that it is literally a blur), and another that moves only with friends, intelligently hiding from and flanking you, then performing a hit and run body slam and running back to hide.  You’ll even find yourself set upon by packs of rabid schoolchildren.
The voice acting is also not too shabby.  Isaac—previously a mute—now has a voice, though I didn’t think it changed things much.   It is amusing to hear him go nuts with the F-bombs when repeatedly bringing the foot of justice down upon the bodies of downed enemies.
One final new, if easily forgotten addition to Dead Space 2 is multiplayer.  At the time of this writing, I’ve only spent a couple hours playing it, but I was surprised by how good my impression was of it.  Players take on the role of two opposing teams: the Humans the Necromorphs.  If you remember games like Unreal Tournament and Time Splitters, overall most multiplayer rounds play like a game of Assault.  The humans have a sequence of objectives to complete (determined by what map is being played) and a set amount of time to complete them, while the necromorphs are tasked with stopping them. 
The two sides play very differently, but both require teamwork; a lone wolf is little more than a dead one.  As the humans, you’re given a plasma rifle, a stasis module, and a secondary weapon (the starter choice is a plasma cutter), as well as one med pack and one stasis pack.  Sticking together is key, especially because healing yourself will also heal others nearby (and you get extra XP for that).  Friendly fire is very possible however, so you have to check your fire, even when trying to shoot off a necromorph that has jumped one of your friends.
As a necromorph, you’re able to choose from a few different types, from the Lurker (a small babylike character that can fire projectiles and run on walls), to the Spitter, who can vomit acid across a room that will not only do damage, but slow the victim down to a crawl temporarily.  While the humans stand a better chance in a straight up confrontation, the necromorphs are not without advantages.  First of all, aside from the actual players, a steady flow of regular bot-controlled necromorphs also spawns.  Just like in the campaign, necromorphs can spawn from any vent on the map, unlike the humans who have set spawn areas.  Furthermore, you can fast-travel between vents to save time, and see humans through walls (as well as get a sense of their health via a color-coded glow emitted from their bodies).  Secondly, again like in the campaign, necromorphs can latch onto humans, immobilizing them, doing damage, and possibly performing an execution on them.  Finally, you can keep in mind that necromorphs are only playing defense.  Though you get points for kills, in the end you’ll probably walk away with more XP at the end of the round if your team won, than if you got a bunch of executions.
Like in every modern multiplayer game, your XP adds to your level, and leveling up unlocks new stuff.  For humans, you’ll unlock things like higher stasis capacity, other secondary weapons, and new suits, while the necromorphs get stat gains such as higher damage dealt as a certain class.  There also appears to be some viral content floating around.
Overall, Dead Space 2 is a wonderful game.  The multiplayer is competent, but the game stands strong without it.  Most of the tweaks made to the formula established in the first game work to positive effect.  Since multiple playthroughs (as well as a run through the aptly named Hardcore mode) are required to unlock everything, you’ve got a pretty reasonable amount of game here.  Furthermore, if you got the Limited Edition version on PS3, you got the acclaimed Wii game Dead Space Extraction for free!  Score!  A 9.0/10.