Raam’s Shadow (DLC) and the new Xbox 360 dashboard

Despite it being the end of the year it’s been an incredibly busy weeks (isn’t that always the way, though?) and I’ve still got a few games to get through before I head away for my Christmas/New Year holidays at the end of December. Just between you and me, I don’t actually think I’ll find time to play all the games I’ve yet to get through before year’s end.

One thing I have played is some new single player DLC (downloadable content) for Gears of War 3 – Raam’s Shadow. It comes out on December 13 and will set you back 1200 Microsoft Points. I think it’s worth it as it’s actually a piece of DLC that adds backstory to the Gears trilogy and introduces a new character to the video game series – Michael Barrick (he will be well known to fans of the Gears comic book series) and lets you play as the feared locust commander, General Raam.

Designed as a prequel to the Gears trilogy, Raam’s Shadow takes place in the hours following Emergence Day, when the locust first revealed themselves to the Seran population.  Joining Barrick is Lt Minh Young Kim, who had a fatal run in with General Raam in the first Gears game, and Tai Kaliso, who met his fate in Gears 2. Worth noting also is the Raam’s Shadow features one character who gets to play a much larger role in a later Gears game – but I won’t spoil that for you.

The overarching story in this DLC is that Zeta squad have to help evacuate survivors from the city of Ilima before a kryll storm engulfs the city. Gears fans will remember that the kryll are a vicious bat-like creatures that had a great section in the original Gears of War where you had to use light to avoid them. They’re vicious little bastards, to be honest.

Raam’s Shadow plays like a Gears game, so fans will be familiar with the controls and play style but it brings a couple of new elements to the table: one is that you get to use the Hammer of Dawn but from a top-down perspective, blasting locusts forces, and secondly, you get to control General Raam as he forges his way through Ilima city against the COG forces.

Raam is a formidable opponent and he’s surrounded by kryll, which not only protect him from arms fire from COG soldiers but can also be used to unleash an attack on foes, engulfing them in a black cloud and devouring them in with a puff of red mist. Raam also has a fairly devastating knife attack on downed COG. He moves slowly on foot and never takes cover (I guess he’s too big to find cover) but it’s enjoyable playing from the perspective of a locust commander.

Something this DLC has hit home for me, too, is just how visually stunning Gears of War 3’s graphics are: the world is minutely detailed and it’s fascinating seeing buildings and a world that was destroyed and decimated in the Gears trilogy is still almost pristine and intact in Raam’s Shadow.

Raam’s Shadow doesn’t bring anything revolutionary to the Gears series but I found it a satisfying way to spend an afternoon. Multiplayer fans will be pleased to know that the DLC brings six new multiplayer characters and a new weapons skin pack.

The other big bit of news this week was the update to the Xbox 360 dashboard – which has gone all Metro UI on us (just like Windows Phone 7 and the incoming  new version of Windows) – and the activation of Kinect voice commands for us New Zealand Xbox 360 owners. I’ve posted a video on my testing the voice commands (sorry about the shakiness and abrupt ending: I used my Flip camcorder rather than my capture device – and it shows). That  now means I can navigate my way through the 360’s dashboard environment using gesture and voice – and while I haven’t bothered looking at the gesture commands yet (I’m too lazy) I’ve been using the voice navigation and I’m impressed with how well it works.

I’m finding I’m having to speak a little louder than I would normally but it’s done everything I’ve asked of it: find my games collection, go to the social media apps area, sign me into Xbox Live – I can even turn my console off by saying “Xbox, settings, turn off, yes (to confirm)”. That’s cool but thankfully you can’t turn off the console mid-game or else there would be plenty of angry husbands/boyfriends around the world as their wife/partner/girlfriend had just turned off the console!

One thing that didn’t work for me – and I know several other Kiwis that had trouble getting it to work – was voice commands for Bing Search, Microsoft’s search engine. I asked Xbox NZ”s PR about it and they said that voice commands for Bing Search hadn’t been activated yet for New Zealand but would be rolled out as soon as possible over the next year.

All and all it’s been a busy week on the gaming front.

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