Overlord takes no chances with its potential to be evil, but still offers a fun and strangely pleasant experience.

overlordbox.jpgMost Zelda-like adventures star a hero embarking on an epic journey to vanquish some all-powerful threat, but your quest in Overlord is to become that very threat and to force your sinister will upon a bright and colorful world in dire need of corruption. Your sole purpose is to absorb every city, home, and willing resident into your dark and vast empire. You have been awakened from ages of sleep and it is time to reclaim your kingdom while at the command of an army of goblin-like minions ready to kill and die for you with cackling glee.

Sounds truly sinister, doesn’t it? Some would certainly hope that Overlord is a taste of the Forbidden Fruit, a deliciously decadent experience. In truth, Overlord has more of a darkly comic tone due to its light-hearted nature, fairy-tale artistry, and general goofiness. It’s probably a good thing that Overlord doesn’t take itself too seriously. Such creative direction makes it rather hilarious to burn hobbits alive.

You, as the nameless Overlord, command minions that babble like children, play dress-up, and chug ale on sight then urinate seconds later. As it turns out, these silly little imps can kill and loot with alarming ruthlessness and speed. They are the standout unique feature of Overlord and, frankly, represent the only reason to play the game at all. Without them, Overlord would have been yet another remedy for insomnia.

The right thumbstick guides a single band of minions within a wide radius wherein they will destroy stockpiles, ransack houses, fetch items, and kill every enemy while the Overlord just stands there staring into space, if he so chooses. Thanks to decent AI, your minions are quite independent once guided to their target. They auto-attack any nearby hostile or container, outfit themselves with dropped gear, and will even run back to you with offerings of treasure and minion-generating lifeforce harvested from defeated enemies (or even friendlies). Running these guys around to wreak havoc and collect riches is terribly fun and just doesn’t get old. Although the minion feature is well-designed and mostly efficient, it is imperfect. Sometimes minions try to attack unreachable targets, get lost or hung up somewhere or misbehave in other ways, but these problems occur sparingly and never hurt the fun. I approve of how Overlord handles the concept of commanding followers to do your bidding. Really, little need be done to change it.

Those with concerns about potential repetition from giving little helpers all the work need not fear. Story progression unlocks minions with different abilities such as ranged attacks and resurrection, thus adding minor puzzle-solving, very basic resource management, and a bit of strategy to battles. Conveniently placed portals act as minion dispensers that shoot out the desired number and type of minion. However, having to mix-and-match minions can be either tiresome or unchallenging. Sometimes slightly tedious backtracking is needed in order to find the proper minion dispenser, and sometimes the exact minions you need are available in the right place all too conveniently. Being able to summon any minions at any time but with more strategic resource management may have been a better idea.

overlord.jpgFans of similar games will be reminded of one particular title the instant Overlord starts: Fable. Overlord’s artistry, level design, and even some of the voice cast are ripped straight from Lionhead’s Xbox hit. Technical graphic quality, however, isn’t much different between the two, which is now a bit of a problem given the 360’s power. Think of Fable in high definition with a smooth framerate and hilariously bad NPC animations, and you have pictured Overlord’s appearance almost exactly. And the NPC animations are terrible. Peasants flee like circus clowns, “sexy” women strut with great exaggeration, and faces in cutscenes morph grotesquely during dialogue as if cycling through several random emotions per second. Thankfully, this is the only laughably bad aspect of Overlord.

At any time during your conquest you may return to your black castle with expectedly pointy architecture and tinker with the most shallow aspects of the game. You have access to very limited castle upgrades such as placing a long red carpet before your throne or flanking it with ominous statues. This feature is just another stripped-down form “upgrading your crib”. There’s also a forge for making improved gear and a dungeon where you can practice battles with previously defeated enemies. These are Overlord’s functional if obligatory attempts at the customization and mini-games we have come to expect in recent years. These side tasks are mostly unremarkable, but those dungeon battles can pose a mean challenge.

Another problem with Overlord is its disappointing writing. You would expect this light-hearted tale of silly evil to have been laced with more irreverence and satire. Although the plot takes jabs at RPG cliches, the dialogue itself is on a par with mediocre cartoons: no groaners, but no whoppers. Gnarl, the Yoda-like minion who acts as your guide, has a few choice phrases here and there but the competent voice actors are given nothing clever to say otherwise.

If nothing else, Overlord is amusing. The minions are the stars of the show and set Overlord apart from all other fantasy-adventure titles. Although the game could benefit from sharpened graphical detail and a rapier wit, it still generates all the appeal necessary for a person to see it through to the end. Overlord is simply fun, and really doesn’t need to be anything more.

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And this week’s Xbox Live Arcade release is…once again, NOT PUZZLE QUEST!

Since the creators of the $30 Tetris Evolution proved that it is entirely possible to botch a terribly simple game that has been reimagined and ripped off endlessly (and often with higher quality), I think we legions of Tetris fans are entitled to a true version: simple, addictive, and very, very cheap.  Lo and behold, Halo-resistant Xboxers can enjoy Tetris Splash on Xbox Live Arcade this Wednesday for a thumbs-up price of 800 MS points.

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So the word “Splash” signifies what kind of gimmick?  Are we going to have to endure yet another misguided attempt to spice up a game in need of no spice?  The answer is a sweet, merciful “no.”  This is old-fashioned Tetris, exactly what XBLA needs.  The only difference is that this version can accomodate up to six people at once, and the “splash” only means that it sports an aquatic theme. 

I was afraid there’d be an option to drop a boulder onto the blocks and “splash” some of them off the board.  I would have then decided to drop a boulder on my 360 and “splash” it across my driveway.

shadowrunbox.jpgThe now-defunct FASA Studios, developers of the well-received Xbox exclusives Crimson Skies and MechAssault, have tested their flair with first-person shooters in Shadowrun, a multiplayer-only title based on a pen-and-paper RPG. Now, you’d think an RPG would spawn an RPG, but misguided experimentation has resulted in something a bit freakish instead. Shadowrun, the video game, is far from terrible but should have been placed in the hands of a studio like BioWare. FASA’s version is an efficient but seriously lacking shooter that probably should have taken its inspiration from another source. And the game definitely needs more meat on its bones.

Shadowrun is an odd amalgamation, for certain. It relocates traditional RPG characters to a futuristic Brazil where corporate security guys (dressed in blue) from a conglomerate called RNA fight it out with rebels in red called The Lineage. Both sides consist of any arrangement of humans, dwarves, elves, and trolls, each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Humans have a technological advantage, dwarves can drain other players’ essence (or mana), elves are dextrous with regenerative capabilities, and trolls are essentially hard-to-kill walking tanks. Weapons, magical abilities, and technology are selected from a menu at the beginning of each match. Each selection has a set price and players earn money based on performance. Although this setup is reminiscent of Counterstrike, the combination of races, magic and tech give Shadowrun a very unique flavor.

Weapons consist of a disappointingly standard assortment of firearms from pistol to rocket launcher, plus a katana that utilizes a third-person view. Each player has a set amount of essence to be used for magic, which includes abilities such as resurrection, teleportation, and summoning a creature to fight by your side, amongst others. These can be used in any combination with tech abilities such as gliding, auto-aiming, enemy detection, magic inhibition, and a speed enhancement that also deflects incoming fire when wielding a katana. It’s an eye-opening assortment of features, for sure, but seasoned shooter fans will find all this only briefly intriguing before jumping straight to the question of balancing.

A great deal of playtesting must have been devoted to Shadowrun, because it shows. No matter what type of force you’re up against, your team can change up their strategy to turn the tide of the match (assuming that your team is truly acting as a team). Any combination of race, magic and tech can defeat any other combination. Every ability has a downside, and none has a distinct advantage over another. One magic spell called Smoke can turn you into an invincible wisp, but you can’t fire weapons and can be damaged and exposed by the wind gust spell. A tech called Enhanced Vision shows waypoints to every player within fifty meters for a few seconds. However, its use exposes you to other players with Enhanced Vision equipped whether they activate it or not. Even the auto-aim tech projects a red beam across the map, revealing your position. These are just a few examples of how Shadowrun’s unique features force players to think beyond communication and marksmanship.

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So how can a person manage all these abilities in the heat of battle? You can hotkey any combination of three purchased magic or tech to your left trigger and both bumpers. These can be switched out if desired by using a radial menu of thankfully efficient design; so slick in fact that, with practice, you can access abilities in this menu almost as quickly as the ones you’ve hotkeyed. The downside is that it’s too easy to get used to keeping certain abilities in certain slots at all times, for these may have to be changed frequently depending on the situation. It’s bad to teleport when you meant to resurrect a fallen ally.

Single-player can be entertaining to those who can live without the little touches, such as plot, dialogue, scripted sequences, and cutscenes. You see, there is absolutely no campaign mode whatsoever. Going in alone consists of the tutorial and all the botmatches you can possibly endure, and that’s it. I can only imagine the story one could squeeze out of a universe that mashes up D&D-type characters with a cyberpunk setting, and it’s a shame that seemingly no effort was made to flesh out the game with any sort of narrative. The developers apparently thought they were crafting such a breakthrough multiplayer experience that the lack of a campaign mode would have been forgiven if not ignored. This may have been the case if a ridiculous number of multiplayer maps had been included, or if 32-player epic battles were an option. Unfortunately, the entire game is the equivalent of only the multiplayer component found in most other shooters.

Furthermore, Shadowrun offers pathetic match customization: choose one of three game modes then select a player cap of 8, 12, or 16. Period. The game forces you to play ranked matches with random strangers or start a leisurely match with only bots and direct friend invites. You can’t just drop into a “player” match with adjusted rules like in most multiplayer shooters. Serious players only, please.

shadowrun-2.jpgShadowrun’s graphics may also disappoint. Although serviceable, the visuals are more akin to Halo 2 than Gears of War. Textures have little detail and the architecture is mostly flat and basic, consisting of floors, walls, ramps, and little else, but this keeps the framerate buttery smooth which is arguably more important than sharp details in multiplayer. A strange graphical gripe is that ladder-climbing animations were omitted entirely; players slide up and down ladders like posed statues. However, this is forgivable if you don’t look at it…

Those who can find the existent value in Shadowrun’s team-based multiplayer exclusivity should at least pay for a rental. Not long ago I would have even recommended a purchase, but times have changed recently. Not only has Halo 3 been released (as you may have heard in passing), thinning Shadowrun’s player base, but FASA has been dissipated and absorbed into other branches of Microsoft. This means that Shadowrun’s content deficiency will likely never be improved through future downloads.

Shadowrun should by no means remain ignored. It’s a mechanically sound thinking-man’s shooter at its core, which should account for something. But it’s only a matter of short time before the game is forgotten entirely. Very few will be playing it online come next year, so even a rental may be a ripoff if you wish to do more than battle the remarkable AI. Shadowrun is a perfect example of a game brimming with potential but will soon perish from poorly nourished development and subsequent neglect.  It deserved to have been raised with more care.

You can exhale now.  Fanboys were confident that Halo 3 would receive magnificent reviews, having no doubt that Bungie would lift them to new heights in the Chief’s last hurrah.  Well, it seems that the rest of us skeptics holding our breath can relax and hang on to that preorder.  According to Gamerankings.com and Metacritic.com, Halo 3 is receiving BioShock-caliber reviews.  Gamespot, Gamespy, IGN, and other majors are bestowing Halo Part Trois with scores of 95% and up, with very few publications holding it in lesser regard.

I was among the skeptics, but am now a believer.  As we all know, Halo 3 needed no advertising.  However, one reason to give the game a marketing campaign of summer-blockbuster proportions is to distract from one possible truth:  that it’s crap.  I feared complaints of bugginess, rushed design, and other examples of laziness.  I’m relieved to hear that my concerns have been invalidated.  Good job, Bungie.  Way to keep the ball in the air despite the most punishing expectations.

madden_08_cover.jpgMost of the achievements in Xbox 360 sports games are only as hard as you want them to be, and Madden 08 seems to continue this trend.  Pit the strongest team against the weakest, use great players, tweak the AI in your favor and you’re ready for some of the cheapest unlocking there is.  Achieve360points.com user “silentdeath0305” has whipped up a simple and comprehensive guide to snag those 1000 points with ease and a little persistence.  Or you could do it the really easy way

Personally, this is the only way I can enjoy sports games.  They’re so repetitive to me in the first place, but cheap and meaningless achievements manage to keep my interest and give me…well, the only reason to even play them at all.  I’ll rent this at some point just for a quick +1000 to my gamerscore and be done with it.  Plus I pay football about the same amount of attention as I give to the Brangelina family outings.  So…how about them Houston Oilers…? 😉

(Yes, I know…)

RELATED ACHIEVEMENT STORIES:
BioShock Achievement Guide Posted
No Multiplayer Achievements for Call of Duty 4

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Looks like your garden-variety list of achievements at first glance:  completing campaign objectives, find X amount of item Y, kill a set number of soldiers at once, and finish every story chapter on the hardest difficulty.  But if you read the whole list, you’ll notice something unusual:  there are absolutely no multiplayer achievements.  Infinity Ward, despite the excitement generated by this game’s MP potential, have decided to restrict multiplayer achievements to camouflage styles, weapon attachments, and other in-game rewards.  I, for one, love the decision.

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I think multiplayer achievements ruin more team-based matches than lag.  Restricting MP achievements to ranked matches is a noble but insufficient effort.  I enjoy achievements, but not at the expense of teamwork.  I’ll use the right weapon for the job, not the one that has yet to increase my gamerscore, and too many people are guilty of this selfishness while a team is trying to capture a flag or plant a bomb.  Kudos to Infinity Ward for making this move.

Also a source: Xbox360Rally

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jackthompson.jpgJack Thompson, the Florida attorney known for his cool and rational demeanor, has voiced concern over a scene in the upcoming Grand Theft Auto IV.  At one point early in the game, the star and antihero Nico is sent to dispose of a lawyer.  A conversation takes place, during which the lawyer says, “Guns don’t kill people.  Video games do.”  Thompson believes that this attorney is meant to be a satirical respresentation of himself, and demands that such a reference be removed from the game entirely.  If this is not done by 5:00 PM this Friday, he will force Charles Xavier to remove GTA IV from existence via Cerebro.

I refuse to let this man work me up.  He’s going to keep on and on with this stupid crusade, and then one day someone sporting an unfortunate mental disorder (and who owns a library of M-rated games by chance) is going to attack him physically, thus validating his noisy rants in the eyes of lawmakers.  Thompson needs to be ignored and forgotten.  Safely, it’s the only–and most difficult–way to shut him up.

Source:  GamePolitics.com